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May 08, 2017

With support, service and some rest, Union's Sapong can shatter personal records in 2017

Soccer Union
050817_cjsapong_ gajdam Daniel Gajdamowicz/Philly Soccer Page

C.J. Sapong scored a hat trick in Saturday night's win, moving him to the top of the MLS goal-scoring charts with seven goals through nine games.

It took C.J. Sapong nine games to match his goal-scoring output from the entire 2016 season.

The Union's third-year striker bagged his first-career hat trick on Saturday night, pulling him level with Erick Torres atop the MLS goal-scoring charts and propelling Philadelphia to its first win since August 27th of last year.

"Honestly, you get on the field, and given the road that we’ve been on this season, at this point, we’re trying to forget everything and just play," Sapong said after the game. "To score it in that fashion when I’m just trying to get into a zone and work together with my teammates, that’s the best way. You never go out and expect to score a hat trick, but for me to know that I can have an impact for the team, to hit a career milestone as well, I’m happy, at least for this week."

It took Sapong just 11 minutes to complete his hat trick, spurred by a frenetic second-half Union push.

The first goal was the product of a New York turnover, with Sapong jumping on the loose ball and putting a deflected 16-yard effort past Luis Robles for the eventual game-winner.

"Getting the ball, the defender was doing well to block off (Alejandro Bedoya)," Sapong said. "I knew I wouldn’t have too much space to get too far wide so I figured just a quick touch and shoot. That’s something that I wanted to get back to. (It's been) a little inconsistent sometimes, I’ll get four shots one game and no shots the next game, so I just tried to keep it on goal. Finally, a deflection and the ball went in our way. That’s a beautiful thing."

C.J. is on point when he talks about consistency.

Playing as a hard-working, physical striker in a single-forward system, he's often found himself thanklessly battling with center backs while receiving sparse service and finding little room to create his own shot.

It wasn't long ago that this happened:

The positive for the Union is that Sapong is statistically on pace to eclipse career averages in every single attacking category.

Last season, C.J. finished on 60 shots, with 22 on goal, over the course 2,535 minutes.

This year, he's already on 19 shots, with 12 on goal, in just 661 minutes.

That's a doubling of output, with his shot-on-goal ratio improving from one-per-115 minutes to one-per-55 minutes.

"C.J. is obviously very hot right now, Union coach Jim Curtin added. "He’s a guy we believe can score goals. He’s proven that in this league. It is a team effort; I think the service he got tonight was excellent. He did great to finish it. What probably would’ve been our best goal is the one Robles picked out of the top corner, so again people forget that probably already. A lot of good things to build on. Are we completely satisfied now, and have we really achieved anything outside of winning a soccer game? No. We recognize that. I think we’ve had a good mindset from the entire organization and not getting too high or too low. Now we have to build on this. CJ’s form right now is very good. He’s carried us now with some goals, but I will add that a lot of the passes to him tonight were special as well."

Sapong's start mirrors past performances in March, April, May, and June.

He's always been excellent in the spring and early summer, scoring frequently and looking fresh and active as a target man.

Last season, he scored five times in the first ten games but finished with just two goals in the remaining 24 matches.

It was similar in 2015 when he returned from suspension to score five goals in six games. Sapong then finished with three in the final 16 games of that season.

I've bracketed his career highs in this graphic:

The pattern of production does look somewhat comparable during his nine-goal season with Kansas City in 2012. C.J. scored five times in his first 13 games, then went 14 without a goal. He rebounded nicely to finish with four in seven, including a tally in the season finale at PPL Park.

That was also before he fell out of favor in and was exiled to the wing to accommodate Dom Dwyer and a new-look Sporting attack.

Sapong, to his credit, has been looking to create his own shot more frequently than we've seen in the past. He's getting more consistent service from his teammates, specifically from Chris Pontius, who has three assists this season that have all come from headed knockdowns into the box.

That has to continue, because Sapong can't be asked to run as a target man, shed two center backs, and score goals in odd-man situations.

He also could use some rest in the rotation, instead of being run into the ground week-in and week-out through the summer and into the fall. It's totally reasonable to hand $500,000 striker Jay Simpson a couple of starts to spell Sapong when the club starts hitting stretches of three games in seven or eight days.

It's those cold spells that have kept C.J. from reaching the double-digit goal mark, but that's absolutely in reach this season.

"I only think about it when you bring it up, honestly (laughing). When I look at my stats and see that, in the regular season, I haven’t gotten to double digits, it definitely gives me a little incentive. The way I’m looking at it, there’s no way I can’t score 10 this season. I just have to keep going out on the field and trying to help my team. If I emulate the way I approached the game today and my teammates do the same thing, it’s going to come for all of us. I’m excited about it."