John Pascarella burned with anger. His team had just lost a game 2-1, and it was all because of a lanky young forward hed never seen before, one with an uncommon blend of power and speed.
It was the summer of 2008, and the old coach had no way of knowing then that he and the young forward would one day be united on Sporting Kansas City. All Pascarella knew was that by scoring two goals and beating his elite youth soccer team almost single-handedly, C.J. Sapong had suddenly become a thorn in his side.
They were interesting goals, too, not unlike the one he scores for us now, recalls Pascarella, one of Sportings assistant coaches. I was really upset with my team, but at the same time, I realized that we just got beat by a special player.
So special, in fact, that when Pascarella left the USL Premier Development Leagues Northern Virginia Royals a few months later to join the Wizards as an assistant, he never forgot about Sapong even when other teams were scared off by his raw skills and small-school pedigree before the 2011 Major League Soccer SuperDraft in January.
On the surface, its tempting to say this prior encounter is just the first of several fortuitous events that paved the way for Sapong to land in Kansas City, where hes gone from a draft reach to a player who, with his superior attitude, athletic ability and motor not to mention five goals and five assists is now considered a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate.
The 22-year old Virginia native contends it took more than luck.
Its because of the things Ive gone through, Sapong says.
Kofi Sapong never missed an opportunity to issue a warning to his son.
When he and his wife, Gillian, watched C.J.s youth soccer games, they were sometimes shocked by the way other kids acted toward adults. Both Gillian and Kofi are from Ghana, where the rules for children are simple: You respect your elders, obey their orders and dont talk back, or you pay the price.
The temper tantrums other kids threw would not fly with young C.J. And Kofi, a computer programmer, regularly reminded his soccer-loving son of this, even when he did nothing wrong.
One time, when C.J. was 14 or 15, this kid shouted at his mom and told her to shut up, recalls Gillian, a nurse. We got back to the car, and my husband told him, C.J., if you ever do that, I will run down that hill and whip you in front of everybody, and that will be the end of soccer for you.
Gillian remembers C.J. responding by saying he would never do something like that. He understood the consequences.
In a Ghanaian household, when youre talking to your parents, you have to have a certain tone, C.J. says. If you dont, you get disciplined. And theres no lying at all. If you do, you get disciplined.
The parents did it out of love, though, and they instilled in their son the importance of respect and unselfishness. C.J. has always been gifted athletically he also starred in baseball and basketball as a youth but his character is what Billy Lanza, one of Sapongs former club coaches, remembers the most about him.
Sometimes strong players, when theyre little, they do their own thing, Lanza says. But C.J. always played his role and did whatever you asked him to do. A lot of kids arent like that.
There werent many that worked harder, either. When C.J. wasnt at school or soccer practice, he was in shooting in the backyard with Kofi or in the house practicing his dribbling. There was not a single day that went by where C.J. didnt have a ball at his feet, Gillian says. If the weather was too bad outside, hed do it in the basement or the kitchen. But everywhere, he was juggling a ball or practicing his shot.
Yet Sapong needed more than constant practice, the right attitude and supportive parents to develop into the physical specimen he is today.
Standing 6 feet 1 and weighing a ripped 185 pounds, C.J. Sapong certainly looks the part of a prototypical MLS target forward. But there was a time, and not all that long ago, when he questioned whether hed ever play in the league.
Sapong flashed glimpses of superior genes as a teen Lanza cant remember one instance where Sapong suffered even a minor injury during the six years he coached him but he still remained one of the shortest players on his club team.
That changed during his junior year at Forest Park High School in Manassas, Va. Sapong says he grew from 5-6 to 5-11 in just two years.
We never even expected him to be that tall, says Gillian, who stands 5-4 to Kofis 5-10.
Still, Sapong received less collegiate interest than hed hoped. He enjoyed a brilliant high-school career, but his dream school, Virginia Tech, decided to pass. Virginia and Georgetown offered him some scholarship money, but it wasnt enough.
So Sapong settled on James Madison, a small Division I school in the Colonial Athletic Association that offered him a 60 percent scholarship and the possibility of immediate playing time.
Other schools were talking about me having a chance to start by my sophomore or senior year, Sapong says. But I didnt want anyone to put that label on me.
Sapong grew 2 more inches in college and became an immediate starter, racking up 37 goals, 21 assists and multiple team and conference honors during his four-year career.
But for all this, there were still questions about his ability entering the 2011 SuperDraft. Sapong was a gifted but raw small-school prospect; teams were unsure whether he was dominating because of his skill set or weaker competition.
Gillian says her son spent days wondering whether hed even get an invitation to this years MLS draft combine.
At that point, Gillian says, I know he was kind of worried if hed get to play in the league.
Unbeknownst to Gillians son, at least one team was watching from a distance. And that would lead to the final break Sapong needed on his journey to potential stardom.
By By December 2010, Pascarella who is in charge of college scouting for Sporting was sold on Sapong. The coach kept in touch with his old friend Tom Martin, Sapongs college coach at James Madison, and the reviews were always glowing.
Tom said C.J. was always happy and upbeat, and even when teams tried to manhandle him, hed always dust himself off and get back after it, Pascarella recalls. He said C.J. never (cursed) at refs, and he never got rattled. He had an inner strength.
Pascarellas next step was stoking the interest of coach Peter Vermes, the man in charge of Sportings draft. While others projected him as a late first- or early second-rounder, so impressed was Pascarella with Sapong that he quietly had him rated as the top forward in the draft.
By the time the pre-draft combine ended in January Sapong did earn an invitation Sporting officials had reached a consensus: The kid could play.
Vermes pulled the trigger on draft day, taking Sapong with the 10th overall pick of the first round.
He was a raw player, says Vermes. But if you talked to enough people, youd realize he was extremely coachable and team-oriented.
Sapong was also extremely motivated. He heard the analysts question the wisdom of using a top-10 pick on a small-school forward. And he harbored some resentment toward more highly regarded peers from bigger schools, some of whom earned the distinction as Generation Adidas players an annual honor bestowed upon the drafts top prospects.
Its something that made me hungry, Sapong told The Star the day of the draft. I heard of all those people who get to do Generation Adidas, and Im happy for them. But all its going to do is serve as motivation for me.
No one not even Sapong himself could imagine how far that motivation would carry him.
Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi has turned in his fair share of highlight-reel plays this season, but one of his favorite moments of the past eight months is different.
Instead, he remembers the time he watched Sapong physically confound Colorados Marvell Wynne, one of the best defenders in the league, on July 6. Sapong was running down the sideline, Zusi recalls, and Wynne came in and tried to give him a hard shoulder. Sapong didnt budge.
I mean, theres not many times (Wynne) gets knocked off the ball, Zusi adds with a chuckle. But on this particular play, C.J. just beasted him. I almost laughed right there on the field.
There have been plenty of moments like that for Sapong this season. His play passes not only the eyeball test, but scrutiny against advanced stats. Across the league, only five players have won more aerial duels than Sapong (45).
Kei Kamara is the only Sporting player to have fired more shots on-target (29) than Sapong (25).
Zusi and Chance Myers are the only Sporting players to have made more key passes passes leading to a shot than Sapong.
Perhaps most important, Vermes says, Sapongs attitude has been off the charts.
There hasnt been a practice yet where C.J. has not been into it, Vermes says. For him to keep that up as rookie, when hes never had a 10-month season before, its impressive.
So is the way hes gotten to this point. Sapong has surprised a lot of people with the impact hes made this season, but given the timely and fundamental boosts hes gotten along the way a good family life, sudden growth spurt and all the motivation hell ever need he sees his success as no coincidence.
All in all, Im thankful for the way everything has gone, Sapong says.
Pascarella simply views Sapong the same player he called a thorn in his side three years ago as something of a godsend.
Im just glad hes on our side now, Pascarella says. And Ive told him the same thing.
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-5915 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.