- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

C.J. Sapong was no more than 10 or 11 years old when he latched on with the Magnum, a club at Prince William Soccer Inc. He wasn’t necessarily bigger or faster than the other kids. In fact, he may have been a tad undersized. But even then, it was obvious he was something special.

“He was very small at the time when I first saw him, but he was very clever and had very good feet,” recalled Ken Krieger, technical director of coaching at PWSI in Woodbridge, Va. “He was a little different than most of the other players, a little more subtle when it comes to his foot skills and so forth. And he had this uncanny ability to put himself in the right position at the right time to put the ball in the back of the net.”

Bill Lanza, who went on to coach Sapong with the Magnum for more than five years, had an even bolder first impression: “I said that by the time he’s a senior, he’s going to be the best forward in the state.”

Lanza, it turns out, may have been setting his expectations too low. Over time, Sapong would grow into an athletically imposing 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame. As his strength and quickness developed, so did his understanding of the game.

A decade later, Sapong is coming off a standout season with Sporting Kansas City that earned him MLS Rookie of the Year honors. To top off a memorable campaign, the Manassas native last month received his first call-up to the U.S. national team.

Come Saturday, Sapong will look to make his international debut in a friendly against Venezuela at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. For the 23-year-old, the opportunity to earn his first cap and fight for a regular place in the national team pool is “something I’ve wanted ever since I was a little kid.”

“It definitely shows my hard work is paying off,” Sapong said. “That dream coming true right now is just a blessing, and it just makes me want to work harder and make the best of the opportunity.”

Sapong appeared in all 34 games (22 starts) for Kansas City, which compiled the best record in the Eastern Conference. Playing as a wing forward in his side’s 4-3-3 formation, he notched five goals and five assists. He also played every minute of Kansas City’s three postseason contests, scoring in the second leg of a conference semifinal win over the Colorado Rapids.

“He’s a very powerful target forward,” said midfielder Graham Zusi, Sapong’s teammate with Kansas City and the U.S. national team. “His ability to hold up the ball with his back to the goal and also turn people — you don’t see many people with that skill set. You see guys with a lot of power and not the best touch, and he’s really got a great combination of the two.”

Although the striker acknowledged he was taken aback when he answered his cellphone shortly before Christmas and heard U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s voice on the other end, he said the national team wasn’t exactly “way out of my mind” either during his fruitful rookie campaign.

“As the season went on, I felt like anything was really possible — it was just a matter of me putting in the work,” Sapong said. “I was just trying to stay grounded and learning. I didn’t think it would happen, but I’m very happy it has.”

For PWSI alumni, 2011 was quite the eventful year. In addition to Sapong’s success, Krieger’s 27-year-old daughter, Ali, played every minute of the United States’ run to the Women’s World Cup final and converted the winning penalty kick in a dramatic quarterfinal win over Brazil.

Sapong is quick to praise Krieger, who also coached him at Forest Park High School in Montclair, and Lanza for building him into the player he is today.

“I owe a lot to [Krieger],” he said. “He just kept a professional environment and set that standard kind of early. It was something I always took pride in.

“And [Lanza] taught me about how to approach the game the right way and take it seriously, whether it’s icing that hamstring or training like you’re playing a game, because that’s the only way it’s really going to stick.”

After winning three state championships with the Magnum and a hoard of individual honors during his time at Forest Park, Sapong played his college soccer at James Madison in Harrisonburg, Va. In four years there, he started 67 of the 71 games he appeared in, recording 37 goals and 21 assists.

Kansas City selected Sapong with the 10th overall pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft. In retrospect, it was the steal of the draft. At the time, however, the move was widely dismissed as a reach by Kansas City, which reportedly tried to move down in the order but couldn’t find a trade partner.

“That’s obviously going to stir you up a little bit and give you extra to prove,” Sapong said. “I just put my head down and did it.”

He didn’t waste time proving his skeptics wrong: Sapong started and scored in the first match of the season, a 3-2 triumph at Chivas USA.

If there’s one attribute those around Sapong are quickest to vouch for, it’s his work ethic. Krieger said the player is always fast to “take any failure and learn from it.” Lanza lauded Sapong’s desire to “work on all parts of his game to be a complete player.” And Zusi noted that on the professional level, “You can see that he wants to get better every single day.”

With that type of commitment, it may only be a matter of time before Sapong achieves his next childhood dream: a move to a major European club.

“That’s where you want to be,” Sapong said. “I think I can still learn a lot by being in MLS for a year or two. But that’s definitely a goal I want to reach in my career.”

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