More than four years after winning an MLS Cup title with Sporting Kansas City, forward C.J. Sapong
and defender Ike Opara
are in a U.S. training camp vying for the right to once
again wear the same jersey.
Strong performances for their clubs in 2017 earned them spots in the January camp that will conclude Jan. 28 with a friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina
at StubHub Center. Sapong set a career record for goals with 16, doubling his output from the previous two seasons, and Opara won honors as the league’s Defender of the Year.
are reunited in Carson, Calif., as league rivals. Opara had joined SKC from San Jose prior to the 2013 championship season and has since cemented his place in the back line alongside Matt
; Sapong was traded after the 2014 season to Philadelphia, for which he has scored a team-leading 32 goals during that span.
After a training session this week they expressed
their respect for each other as well as the excitement of embarking on a new era of the national team, even though they are on the older end of the scale and among the least likely possibilities to
play in the 2022 World Cup. The squad is young -- 21 of the original 30-man squad were 24 or younger -- but Sapong, 29, and Opara, 28, are not.
“The young guys are here for a
reason,” said Opara, who started out as a pro with San Jose in 2010 and overcame a severe ankle injury (2014) and ruptured Achilles’ tendon (2015) to establish his defensive credentials.
“They’ve been professional in their mentality for a few years now and guys have won multiple trophies with the domestic league that they’re in.
“I think a lot of
the young guys are experienced in their own right. There’s a lot of talent and the future is bright for this group.”
Opara has played for U.S. youth teams but is without a cap
for the senior team. Sapong earned his third cap in November off the bench and set up Weston McKennie
’s goal with a nice pass in the 1-1 tie with Portugal.
personally have always wanted to have as much of an impact on the game as I could and to come into a game like that and get on the stat sheet – as a forward you always want to score goals
– but I felt like I provided a little bit of a spark and was able to move the defense around and that’s always a good feeling,” said Sapong. “When you feel like you’re
adding to the equation and helping your team being in better positions to win I have no complaints when I’m doing that. It’s a good confidence boost. Every time I put these colors on from
here on out I will continue to realize it is a privilege that I can draw back on and use for a little bit of motivation.”
It’s been more than three years since Opara squared
off with Sapong in training and the defender knows quite well why he and his former teammate are in camp together.
“He deserves to be here,” said Opara. “The guy does
everything that people probably overlook and don’t see. Last year he scored some goals and we saw in the Portugal friendly how effective he can be at the international level as well. I’m
happy for him. He’s done everything he can to be in a good position.”
Sapong and Opara are cast in the role of veteran leaders, though in professional terms some of their
younger teammates have solid backlogs of their own. Yet Sapong says the saga of Opara is as instructional as anything they could say to teammates with fewer years under their belts.
“It’s a great experience to have him here, a guy I’ve played with and been on the same team with as well,” said Sapong. “And also to kind of accompany me here in a
veteran position. He’s played the game, he’s overcome a lot of adversity, and that’s something a lot of these younger players might not know.
“Simply from reading
up on his story and seeing him out here playing to the fullest of his ability, I think that’s a testament to the determination he showed. He came through it and these players can see that
there’s really nothing that can truly restrict you from reaching your maximum potential.”
Since his days at Wake Forest, for which he twice won All-American honors, the
potential of Opara has been apparent. He never quite got it together in San Jose – nagging injuries impaired his progress -- and considered quitting the game altogether in 2015 when he suffered
his second major injury in as many seasons. If he plays against Bosnia & Herzegovina, he will wear a USA jersey for the first time since he was a U-23 at the 2012 Concacaf Olympic qualifying
“Obviously I’m excited,” said Opara. “I would have hoped it wouldn’t have taken this long, I guess, but I’m just honored to be here and
happy to get the opportunity and hopefully moving forward can take more chances. We’ll see.”