Sporting Kansas City forward C.J. Sapong recalls the toughest season of his soccer career with a slight hesitation. He says he’s in a better place now than he was a few months ago, and he means mentally just as much as physically.
He’s been tested in both areas. On July 11, Sporting KC loaned Sapong to Orlando City SC, its USL Pro affiliate. Coach Peter Vermes was adamant the move was not a demotion, but it wasn’t exactly a promotion for a former MLS rookie of the year.
Two months later, Sapong admits he once feared his season was lost — and with only one goal in 19 appearances, it was a legitimate concern, even if wasn’t a long-lasting one.
“It’s all about a mentality,” Sapong says. “The physical attributes are always there. I’ve been blessed with those, and they got me a long way in my career. But if I wanted to transcend to the next level in my career, I had to focus on the mental part of my game.
“When you get in a rut, it’s up to you to fight your way out of it.”
He’s starting to win the fight.
Sapong has regained the scoring touch that resulted in 14 goals the last two seasons, bursting his way back into the lineup for Sporting KC, which will play host to Philadelphia at 7 p.m. Friday at Sporting Park.
Sapong, 24, bounced back from the longest scoring slump of his career to net three goals in the last two MLS games. He scored both goals in a crucial 2-1 victory in Toronto on Saturday, leaving Sporting KC in the mix for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
It’s not just the goals, however, that have impressed his coaches.
“Both sides of the ball, he’s locked in,” Vermes said. “His transitional moments in the game are much quicker than they were. He’s becoming physically dominant like he used to be. You can see in his body language how confident he is.”
His resurgence comes at an opportune time.
Earlier this month, forward Kei Kamara transferred to Middlesbrough FC in England’s second tier of soccer. Vermes said it would take a committee to replace Kamara, the club’s leading scorer each of the last three seasons.
Sapong has provided a one-man crew.
He quickly made an impact five days later with a goal in a 3-0 against Columbus and followed with his two-goal outing Saturday in Toronto. The turnaround has seemingly popped up rather abruptly.
“It might seem pretty quick for everybody else, but from my point of view, it’s been a process,” Sapong said. “I feel like it’s finally showing, but I’ve been feeling it for awhile. It just hadn’t manifested into reality yet. It’s obviously a step in the right direction.”
Looking back, perhaps the move to Orlando was the initial step in the right direction.
“I definitely appreciate what this season has made me realize about myself,” Sapong said. “At the end of the day, I don’t regret anything that’s happened. Sometimes you need those moments to appreciate what you have.”