Philly Union's Sapong determined to learn from mistake

IT WAS an epiphany moment for C.J. Sapong.

Last May, the Union forward was arrested in Philadelphia for driving under the influence and reckless driving.

Although it was his first offense, Sapong received a mandatory punishment from Major League Soccer and was required to be assessed by doctors employed by the MLS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Program. He spent nearly three weeks in Malibu, Calif., in the treatment program.

That part of the story had been written. What came after that would be up to Sapong.

"I do not regret (having to go through the program) in any way, shape or form," Sapong said on Tuesday as the Union prepared for Sunday's 2016 MLS opener at F.C. Dallas. "I learned a lot of things about myself that I had never really looked at before. It provided a little bit of insight.

"There are a lot of things that we as professional athletes ignore or take for granted. Having a moment where you're kind of in the dark about your career - you're not even sure if you'll be able to continue - it does shed a light on other aspects of your being.

"Whether you inspect them or not, they are there. For me, accessing them led to a wider understanding of myself. When your stuff is put all out there, there's nothing to lose now. I just have to put it behind and move forward."

The Union has a lot of belief in Sapong. They surrendered a first-round pick in the 2015 SuperDraft to acquire him from Sporting Kansas City, where he played the first four seasons of his career. At the beginning of February, the Union signed the 2011 MLS Rookie of the Year to a three-year contract extension.

The Union, which has historically been among the lowest-scoring teams in MLS, did so with the confidence that Sapong could be the solution to the franchise-long bugaboo of not having a consistent goal scorer.

The franchise record for goals in a season is 14, set by Sebastien Le Toux in the 2010 inaugural campaign. Sapong led the 2015 squad with nine.

The technical staff believes the 27-year-old, who has 29 goals in 137 career MLS games, can deliver more.

"Absolutely, he can be a double-digit goal scorer," Union manager Jim Curtin said of Sapong. "Our job is to get him service because I'm confident that if we get crosses into (Sapong), he has the competitive nature, the athleticism, the size and strength to get goals.

"Would it be nice if (Paris Saint-Germain high-scoring forward and Swedish international Zlatan Ibrahimovi) was here? Of course, I'm not naive or stupid.

"But C.J. is a guy that I believe in wholeheartedly. Let's just say that he is confident right now, and that's a good thing."

Sapong, who played at James Madison University, is one of those athletes who performs better when he knows his team has confidence in him.

For him, the pitch is his playground. His time away from the game last summer reinforced the notion that the field is a place for "enjoyment," a place where stress and worry should not be a part of the equation.

After his return last season, Sapong put together a career-high four-game goal-scoring streak. He matched his career-high in goals, but the rehabilitation plus missing other games because of injury left the impression that there is more to his game if he can stay on the field consistently enough to settle into some kind of rhythm and groove.

A misinterpretation between Sapong and a writer led to the bold prediction on MLSsoccer.com that he would tally 20 goals this season.

Sapong said what he meant by saying he wanted "to create 20 goals" was by either banging the back of the net himself or setting up one of his teammates to score.

"But hey, if they're going to speak that into existence, that's fine with me," Sapong said. "I've gotten double-digit goals in all competitions but not in just an MLS schedule.

"Honestly, to look good on the stat sheet, I'd like to accomplish that, but if I got eight goals and 10 assists, helped this team get 20-plus (wins), I know that I will have accomplished what I need to do. I want to maximize my impact for this team.

"If I can have that impact, scoring, taking pressure off my teammates so they can get goals, create things, then I'll be happy."

Sapong has two caps with the United States Senior Team, both earned in 2012.

Anything can happen, but at this stage of his career it is unlikely that he will find himself back in the national team player pool.

Still, the native of Northern Virginia is content with where he is.

"This is a good place for me," he said. "Coming from Kansas City back to the East Coast was definitely a transitional phase.

"But in my journey, I've expanded my perspective on life, and soccer-wise, I've been able to experience a lot of different colors of the spectrum.

"Being in Philadelphia is a situation where I think it will get the most out of me. Giving the direction this team is going now, we're starting to emulate the Philadelphia motto and mindset.

"I'm settled. I'm comfortable out here, and I know (the Union) is looking at me for the long term. All the little things have dissipated and I can focus on the things that really matter. ''

smallwj@phillynews.com

@SmallTerp