In an age of rebooted movies and remade series, where people can even redeem something as awful as Ben Affleck's Daredevil, it seems fitting that C.J. Sapong has worked his way back into the National Team discussion after a four-year absence. The forward already has four goals for the Philadelphia Union this year, and he has continued to show the type of hold-up play and finishing that got him noticed (again) last year.
Now, I know a 27-year-old that's already had a shot with the USMNT isn't terribly exciting. And, to be honest, he does already have three less goals than one Chris Wondolowski so far this season. I can feel your Twitter fingers streaking towards the comments section just after reading that little nugget of info, but hear me out: I like C.J. Sapong, and he would be a great asset to the USMNT. And the reason why has a lot to do with what goal-scoring forwards are all about: opportunity.
When C.J. Sapong was drafted out of college, he was an athletic dynamo at forward. His big presence in the box and ability to get on the end of crosses, as well as his surprisingly calm presence on the ball, won him Rookie of the year honors in 2011, finishing the season with five goals and five assists. He continued to grow in 2012, scoring 9 goals for Sporting Kansas City and making his debut for the U.S. National Team. All signs pointed up.
But that momentum soon stalled, as he lost his place in Sporting's XI by 2013 and never really found his way back. His appearances for the club dwindled, and soon he was sent to the Union, perpetual stragglers in the Eastern Conference.
But anyone expecting a forward devoid of confidence and momentum, one who was not exactly young anymore at the age of 25, was very, very wrong. Sapong not only met expectations with the Union: he exceeded them, matching his career-best nine goals and adding in four more assists. That means Sapong was directly involved in just over a third of the Union's 42 goals for the 2015 season. The production hasn't stopped, either. Thus far, the Union have scored ten goals in 2016, and Sapong has been a contributor in exactly half of them (four goals and one assist).
Which brings me back to opportunity. Opportunity is a forward's best friend. The best forwards in the game take their opportunities on the field and show a determination to put their team in front. It doesn't matter how many opportunities come their way. They simply show an ability to take a look when it's presented to them. Sapong has done that in a big way with the Union, and the numbers prove it.
The Union have not had the most wonderful team during their brief existence. They've had their moments, but the fact remains that they've missed the playoffs, in an overall weaker conference, for the last five years. They haven't exactly been wizards on the field, but Sapong has still been able to take the opportunities given him when they've risen. In 2015, the Union took 381 shots, sixteenth best in a league of twenty. Now, shots is not an end-all-be-all category that determines a team's fate, but they are a fairly good indicator, with a large enough sample size, of how many chances and goals your team generates. The Union's goal count was accordingly low: just 42 goals for 2015, again good for sixteenth best in the league. The Union just were not a good team at generating or finishing their chances on the whole. Despite those dismal team numbers, Sapong still managed to finish the season with as many goals as Fabian Castillo, Kaka, Ignacio Piatti, and Mike Grella, all members of teams far more competitive than the Union, and only four goals back of the top ten scorers in the league for the 2015 season.
All of that still might not convince you, which is fine. But here's the thing about opportunity and Sapong: it keeps knocking, and he keeps answering.
The opportunity is there for Sapong right now on the USMNT. The forward pool is in transition, with Clint Dempsey on the wrong side of thirty and most forward prospects still raw and relatively untested. The closest thing to C.J. Sapong in the U.S. player pool at the moment is Jozy Altidore, who will still be Klinsmann's number one striker barring injury or major setback. Altidore has proven himself to be a pretty good hold-up player recently, but if there's one thing he lacks, it's the ability to get himself on the end of shots and crosses like that one above. Sapong bridges the gap between the opportunism of Chris Wondolowski (or Bobby Wood as of late) and the athleticism of Altidore, making for a formidable and physical forward presence in the box the U.S. hasn't seen in a while. If Sapong keeps taking these opportunities on the pitch, Klinsmann should take note of his own thin forward pool and give C.J. an opportunity at the big time once more.
Is C.J. Sapong the answer to the U.S.'s forward problems? Most likely not. But he has been consistently putting things together on the field, and with the dearth of options at forward for the United States as it is, a look certainly wouldn't hurt. Who knows what could happen? It's all about being in the right place, at the right time, and taking your shot.