The nostalgia has worn off for C.J. Sapong.
In his first two matches against his former club, Sapong, a striker for the Philadelphia Union, classified his approach as “emotional” as he stepped onto the field. And with good reason — he first faced Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park, his former home venue; and he next faced the club with the U.S. Open Cup championship on the line.
But that time has passed. As the Union get set to play host to Sporting KC on Saturday evening, Sapong says the emotions have subsided.
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“It’s almost like going back to the playground and playing with all your homies again,” Sapong said in a phone interview Friday. “I’m finally just looking forward to it.”
Sporting KC traded Sapong on Dec. 8, 2014, after it left him unprotected in the expansion draft and feared Orlando City or New York City FC would pluck him for free. Sporting KC was compensated with the 10th pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, which it used on Connor Hallisey.
Sapong’s initial meeting with his former teammates came only a month into the 2016 season, when he played 18 minutes as a late-match substitute at Children’s Mercy Park. He was greeted warmly by the sold-out crowd.
Last September, Sapong played 116 minutes of the U.S. Open Cup final, but Sporting KC departed with the championship trophy.
In the third matchup — slated for 6 p.m. Saturday — Sapong says he will finally breathe more easily. But the motivation lingers.
“It’s going to bring out the competitive nature,” Sapong said. “Those are guys I respect, but they’re guys who I feel like there’s areas I can exploit, and I know they feel the same way about me. It’s going to bring out some good battles. I really think it’s going to be fun.”
The move to Philadelphia was accompanied by a return to the center of the park. While Sporting KC played Sapong primarily on the wing, the Union line him up atop their formation as a true striker.
At 6-2 with good leaping ability, he is a tough matchup.. He ranks fourth in MLS with 64 aerial duels won.
“I think it’s my most comfortable position,” Sapong said. “At the same time, (playing on the wing in Kansas City) helped my game. There are moments in the game where maybe a wide player gets out of position, and I’m more confident and comfortable sliding into those roles.”
Sapong scored nine goals in his first season with the Union — matching his career high from 2012 with Sporting KC, which drafted him into the league in 2011. He has seven this year but only two since May 14.
Asked what it would mean to add to the total against Sporting KC, Sapong laughed and replied, “I just like scoring period. But I can’t sit here and say I wouldn’t want even more to score against them.”