John Pascarella burned with anger. His team had just lost a game 2-1, and it was all because of a lanky young forward he’d 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 Sporting’s 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 League’s 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, it’s 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 he’s 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.
“It’s because of the things I’ve 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 don’t 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 you’re talking to your parents, you have to have a certain tone,” C.J. says. “If you don’t, you get disciplined. And there’s 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 Sapong’s former club coaches, remembers the most about him.
“Sometimes strong players, when they’re 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 aren’t like that.”
There weren’t many that worked harder, either. When C.J. wasn’t 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. didn’t have a ball at his feet,” Gillian says. “If the weather was too bad outside, he’d 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 he’d ever play in the league.
Sapong flashed glimpses of superior genes as a teen — Lanza can’t 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 Kofi’s 5-10.
Still, Sapong received less collegiate interest than he’d 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 he’d even get an invitation to this year’s MLS draft combine.
“At that point,” Gillian says, “I know he was kind of worried if he’d get to play in the league.”
Unbeknownst to Gillian’s 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, Sapong’s 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, he’d 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.”
Pascarella’s next step was stoking the interest of coach Peter Vermes, the man in charge of Sporting’s 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, you’d 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 draft’s top prospects.
“It’s 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 I’m happy for them. But all it’s 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 Colorado’s 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 didn’t budge.
“I mean, there’s 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, Sapong’s attitude has been off the charts.
“There hasn’t been a practice yet where C.J. has not been into it,” Vermes says. “For him to keep that up as rookie, when he’s never had a 10-month season before, it’s impressive.”
So is the way he’s gotten to this point. Sapong has surprised a lot of people with the impact he’s made this season, but given the timely and fundamental boosts he’s gotten along the way — a good family life, sudden growth spurt and all the motivation he’ll ever need — he sees his success as no coincidence.
“All in all, I’m 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.
“I’m just glad he’s on our side now,” Pascarella says. “And I’ve told him the same thing.”