Trading C.J. Sapong was the right move for the Philadelphia Union.
In the simplest terms, sporting Director Ernst Tanner took a $500k player on an expiring contract and turned him into at least $400,000 of allocation money while tacking on a performance bonus that could push the number up to $450k. Sapong is 30 years old heading into his 9th MLS season, so he’s obviously hitting the back end of his career in 2019.
The other thing to consider is this:
C.J. would have been a bench player this year. He lost his starting gig to Cory Burke last season, the Union signed Sergio Santos in December, and now they’re switching to a two-striker formation that plays without wingers. Therefore, with hybrids David Accam and Fafa Picault tossed into the forward mix, you were looking at a depth chart of something like this:
- Sergio Santos
- Fafa Picault
- Cory Burke
- David Accam/C.J. Sapong
- Kacper Przybylko
Something like that, depending on how you value each player. There was just no way the Union could keep six strikers for two starting spots, which would have left at least one of Santos, Picault, Burke, Accam, or Sapong out of the gameday 18 entirely.
Throw in the fact that Marco Fabian and Ilsinho can also play as second strikers or withdrawn forwards in this formation if the Union want to add a wrinkle, and it looks even more clustered up top.
So kudos to Tanner for getting value out of C.J. and moving the roster forward.
If you followed my Union stuff or read anything I wrote from 2015-2018, you know I was not C.J. Sapong’s biggest fan. This crested in an argument with head coach Jim Curtin that spilled out into the hallway after a press conference back in 2017.
My thing with C.J. is that I always felt like he underperformed relative to his talent level, a guy who I personally felt should have broken the 10-goal barrier long before his wonderful 2017 campaign. And when he did, he regressed the next season, following his 16 goals and 5 assists with just 4 and 3, respectively.
This was incredibly disappointing to see:
As a starting forward in a one-striker system, the Union just needed more than that. You needed more than one goal per 337 minutes in 2018, 2016, and 2015. You needed the one goal per 174 minutes he played in 2017. You needed double-digit tallies from C.J. and you needed to get him service from the wings on a consistent basis.
The latter topic is debatable. C.J. played in front of some good wingers and some not-so-good wingers. Sometimes he got the ball on a platter, two-yards from the goal, and sometimes he didn’t, but one of his issues was that he was unable to create his own shot. He could not turn, dribble, take on a defender, and slide one past the goalkeeper. He was a prototypical target forward, hold-up player, and poacher.
To that point, no matter how Union fans feel about Sapong’s four years in Chester, his spirit and work rate are undeniable. Here’s a guy who literally broke his face on his Union debut, playing just 45 minutes before suffering a concussion and Zygomatic fracture. He missed three games before returning to action, then received a suspension from the MLS league office for a DUI charge of which he was ultimately found not guilty. He returned from a mandated rehab stint in Malibu to score five goals in six games, finishing with a respectable 9 goals and 4 assists during his first Union year.
There were a bunch of ups and downs beyond that. Sapong was not the starter when the 2017 season began, but after Jay Simpson suffered a bruised lung during matchday two, Sapong took back his starting role and never gave it up, scoring 6 goals in 7 games, including a hat trick in a 3-0 rout of Red Bull at Talen Energy Stadium. He went on to score just once in his next seven games, which is consistent with the mid-season famine that had popped up in previous MLS seasons.
Either way, he did a lot of thankless work here. He frequently found himself on an island, battling with two center backs at the same time, taking a beating from knees and elbows and shoulders over the course of 70-90 minutes per game. And because he wasn’t a high-priced Designated Player or European veteran, he never got the respect of MLS referees, constantly taking a battering through whistles that did not blow at half the rate of contact involving David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, or Bradley Wright-Phillips.
That was undeniable. You watched the same games I did, the same sequences where Sapong would get absolutely clobbered by defenders in 2v1 situations. No whistle. There was a game a few years back where Sapong was fouled a franchise-record seven times, which I argued was actually eight. I cut clips and still frames of the ridiculous infractions, like this:
And while the way he was officiated could be infuriating, I always wondered if it was a result of his personality, because C.J. was a really nice guy, a respectful and spiritual type of dude who was non-confrontational and played a clean game. The only time I remember him doing anything remotely argumentative on the field is when Roland Alberg took a penalty kick that Sapong wanted to take back in 2017. Ironically, that game against Columbus highlighted some of the things C.J. failed to get consistent credit for, which were winning fouls, earning penalty kicks, drawing cards, and making other smaller contributions that don’t show up on stat sheets.
C.J. would often talk about life from an otherworldly or maybe recondite perspective, one that I don’t think a “blue collar” Philly fan base could totally relate to. That’s certainly fine, and there’s nothing wrong with karma and kismet and the divines and the roots of the Earth, and all of that stuff, but there were a lot of times where I just wanted him to be an outright asshole. I wanted him to grab a shirt or take a dive or argue his position with the center ref. I wanted to see some Carlos Ruiz type of stuff, the shrewd and savvy veteran striker tactics and techniques that ultimately help you win fouls and put the ball in the back of the net. C.J. too often found himself as a back-to-goal guy putting in tireless physical work in a team-first manner, probably to his own detriment.
That’s Sapong’s Union legacy. He scored some goals here, provided some assists, and took promotions and demotions in stride. There were certainly frustrations with a guy who I felt was lacking a true killer instinct, but if we’re talking about “Philly” type of athletes who work their ass off and put their body on the line for the badge, then C.J. fit that label as well as anybody.