[MLS SPOTLIGHT] He didn't amass great scoring totals, yet by bagging five goals and five assists while playing all 34 league games for Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City, C.J. Sapong led all rookies in scoring and won honors as MLS 2011 Rookie of the Year.
Sapong, 22, compiled more than three times the voting points allotted to the runner-up, D.C. United defender Perry Kitchen.
Sapong was named on 34.4 percent of club ballots, 41.99 percent of media votes, and 30.25 percent of player votes for a weighted total of 106.28. Kitchen’s marks were, respectively, 13.83, 12.71, and 8.02 for a weighted total of 34.56. Next in the voting were Michael Farfan of Philadelphia in third, Darlington Nagbe of Portland in fourth, and Will Bruin of Houston in fifth.
Sapong played in all 34 league matches, the only SKC player to accomplish that feat, and started 22 times. Nearly half (25) of his 53 shots hit the target and two of his assists were on game-winning goals. He got a boost of publicity in September when his rap tribute to U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo lit up the Internet, yet his role in SKC’s strong second-half surge that earned the Eastern Conference title left the other rookie candidates far behind.
He, too, was surprised at the crowd that gathered, video devices at the ready, at show time. The women’s team was in Kansas City preparing for a friendly and the smitten Sapong seized the moment to serenade the statuesque star.
“No, man, I thought it was just going to be me and Hope, really,” he laughs. “My teammates kind of blew it up, and she told her teammates to come over, and then everybody came over. It was like the point of no return. I had to do it.”
The native of Manassas, Virginia, came to MLS from James Madison University as the 10th overall pick and fairly quickly established himself on the roster of a team that had shed veterans Josh Wolff, Jimmy Conrad and Jack Jewsbury during the offseason as it prepared to move into its new stadium, Livestrong Sporting Park.
“It was amazing,” he said of the boisterous crowds that more often than not filled the stadium. “I’ve never played in the environment we’ve had in KC this season. It’s amazing what the fan base has become and it’s great for me to come here at the same time they started their new direction with their franchise."
Coach Peter Vermes tinkered with his team throughout the season, blending new players Omar Bravo, Julio Cesar, Jeferson and Aureilin Collin with his returning core of goalie Jimmy Nielsen, defender Matt Besler, and attackers Davy Arnaud and Kei Kamara.
The one constant was Sapong, who played left wing and center forward in the three-man front line preferred by Vermes. The combination of him, Bunbury and Kamara give SKC a frightening mix of power and speed to complement the playmaking of Bravo and Graham Zusi. Inexperience sometimes derailed the attack, but as they played more games together their potency grew: Bravo, Kamara, and Bunbury each scored nine goals.
“To have all us on the field, especially in that front three, knowing we can all wreak havoc on any team that we play, that gives us more energy to do more work each game,” says Sapong, who finished off a 4-0 aggregate victory over Colorado last week with a powerful snap header for his first MLS playoff goal.
“Stepping onto the field for the first game was a big moment for me and being able to score set me off on the right foot. It’s great that Peter has belief in me and kept giving me opportunities, because if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in.”
He scored just 103 seconds into the season opener, a 3-2 defeat of Chivas USA at Home Depot Center that marked the start of an arduous run of 10 straight road games as the final touches were being lavished on Livestrong Sporting Park. He endured nearly three months before his next goal, which just happened to be SKC’s first goal in its new home and also downed San Jose, 1-0.
Including playoffs, SKC posted a 6-0-0 record when Sapong scored a goal. He’d also scored some timely goals -- a total of four, along with three assists -- in 2010 for PDL club Reading United. He scored 37 goals in college. Yet with a modest total of five in his rookie year he knows one facet of his game that needs improvement.
“I’d like to be a little bit sharper in front of goal,” he says. “With a couple more games under my belt I’ll become calmer, I guess, and be able to put more goals in. You’ve got to be mentally aware, you’ve got to be fast mentally as well as technically.”
He credits his coach at Forest Park High School for the guidance and direction that readied him for college ball and the pro level. “I wasn’t a ball hog or anything, but I wasn’t as serious, I guess, as I should have been,” he recalls. “I just focus on the love of everything and now I’ve found a balance of having so much fun and being serious and being professional, too.”
During the holidays he hopes to re-connect with that coach and his rather well-known daughter, U.S. women’s right back Ali Krieger.
“Ken Krieger has coached a lot of championship teams and a lot of players,” says Sapong. “In high school, he helped me become a better team player and also a leader. He helped me develop a lot of leadership qualities. He showed faith in me and instilled a lot of confidence to help keep my team in line and everybody performing at their best.
“Something I think I’ve progressed the most with, is staying in tune and being mentally tough and always aware. That’s something that if I get better with time, the sky’s the limit.”