BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, December 28, 2011
As the United States national team is set to open their January camp in Los Angeles, CJ Sapong is hopeful that a strong performance will put him in Jurgen Klinsmann's plans moving forward.

Sapong, who turned 23 this week, is coming off a very strong first year in MLS where he won the league's Rookie of the Year for Sporting Kansas City.

Sapong played in all 34 of the team's regular season games and was in the starting lineup 22 times. The forward scored five goals and notched five assists in league play in 2011. He also scored a goal during the MLS playoffs and had three additional goals in US Open Cup games.

Earlier in December, Sapong received a phone call from US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and it was a career highlight for him when he found out he was invited to be part of the US team.

"I found out about three weeks ago," Sapong told YA. "It was very exciting news. I talked to Jurgen and my coach about what was going to be expected of me. I wouldn't say I was super surprised but I was happy to get that call. I just want to get out there and show what I can do."

When Sapong talked to Klinsmann, the German legend informed him about what he expects from players in January camp.

Klinsmann has earned a reputation for being a coach that demand his players to be in full fitness and Sapong knows that the January camp will be rigorous.

"First and foremost he wanted to make sure everyone comes into camp fit and can withstand the demands that the camp is going to take," Sapong said. "Besides that, he just spoke to me about certain things about my game. He told me some things that I should work on and maybe sharpen up on before I get there."

In the beginning of 2011, Sapong was drafted with the tenth overall pick in the Superdraft after a standout NCAA career with James Madison University. His stellar play in his rookie year helped him earn the callup to the national team.

Part of the reasons for his successful development in MLS as a young player is that he was able to concentrate on his game without the added pressure of high expectations.

"Coming in, there weren't many expectations and there were other players above me on the [club's] depth chart," Sapong explained. "Automatically, I didn't have any pressure coming in. But I felt that, no matter what, I was going to get better from where I was on the team. I'm not where I want to be but it is a good motivating feeling to know I definitely got better during the year. That's all I really wanted to do."

Sapong knows that there are still many areas of his game that must improve if he is to develop into a top American player. The biggest challenge for him now is to find ways to finish most of his opportunities in the box.

"I'm going to work on every part of my game," Sapong stated emphatically. "The most important one I'm working on and want to get better at is just sheer finishing - just being a presence anywhere around the goal. I want to take advantage of opportunities that may seem scrappy to someone else but as a forward they are just really opportunistic goals."

As he is working on making these improvements in 2012, Sapong knows that next year more will be expected of him. Also, he will not be able to take anyone by surprise the way he did in his first professional season.

Sapong is still very optimistic that he will be able to continue to progress and willl not suffer a second season slump that typically affects young players.

"I don't really feel any pressure for next season," Sapong discussed. "With all the experience I got last year, I'm just confident now. I know what I'm capable of and I know with hard work, I can be even better. It's just a matter of using the mindset I had last year and not letting things go to my head, staying grounded, and keep working hard."

As for where Sapong wants to be at the end of next season, his goals are ambitious. He is happy to play in MLS but he also wants to join the growing list of players that train in Europe during the offseason. Eventually he wants to make the move overseas to a club in an elite European league and he even hopes that such a moves comes sooner than later.

"I want to be somewhere overseas with a team or trying to find a team over there," Sapong said of where he wants to be in 12 months. "I'm not going to rush anything. There is still a lot I can learn here in MLS. A lot of players think that the only way they can get any better is to go straight to Europe. After playing a year in MLS, I can see that there is definitely a lot of veteran experience and ways to get better here."

2011 has been a very transformative year for Sapong as he has gone from being a NCAA player and into a member of the US national team. Unfortuately for him, he was born four days shy of the cutoff date to being eligible for the US U-23 team.

It was also during 2011 when questions about his national team affiliation were asked. Sapong was born in Virginia and is the son of Ghanaian parents. As a dual national, he could represent either country on the international stage.

For Sapong, the decision was not difficult - especially after he received the call from Klinsmann.

"It wasn't that difficult of a decision," Sapong concluded. "I was born here and I grew up here. I really am proud of my Ghanaian heritage. I guess before being called up to the US national team, the idea of playing for [Ghana's national team] was a lingering thing in my head. But now that the United States as called me, this is the country I was born in, I grew up in, I live in - It's the country I want to represent."
Friday December 30, 2011 5:19 pm
@Dave-o I get what you are saying, but yet again if you actually thought Cooper and Findley were the answers for the striker position, then you shouldn't really be evaluating talent. Altidore is 22 and is having his best season to date, yet again he is 22. Mario Gomes for Bayern Munich didn't really start to show hsi promise until like 24-25. Usually if you are a highly rated u-23 that means you will go onto better things. Here is the significant difference. We have over 21 strikers/FWDS that have promising potential. We had who in the past? Cooper, Findley, Altidore, Connor Casey, Charlie Davies and Eddie Johnson. Cooper, Findley, Casey, and Johnson are rubbish. Altidore and Davies worked out, and then Davies got into a car crash. The point is that if some turn out to be misfires well we have a quite a few more options then we did in the past. If Altidore goes down injured then we have 4 -10 guys stepping into replace him. We have way more quality depth today at the striker/fwd positions then we did 1 on up to 10 years ago.
Friday December 30, 2011 10:29 am
Not to be argumentative, but we've been down this road before with Eddie Johnson, Jozy Altidore, Kenny Cooper, Robbie Findley, etc. Hope sometimes clouds reality. There is a reason why this 23 year old is playing for Kansas City instead of Manchester City. Maybe he fell through the cracks but in all likelihood he's another one of those guys I mentioned above. All these young, highly touted Under-23s, or whichever age group, have a lot in common with other highly touted Under-23s from other nations...more than half will never play for the full national side. A great example: Check out the game reports for the U-17 World Cup from 2003. Look at the major countries, including the U.S., and only a few names from each team are major contributors to their national side today.
Friday December 30, 2011 1:47 am
@ award

This is probably the best comment Ive ever read on a soccer article

thumbs up
Thursday December 29, 2011 12:33 pm
I am really happy that we are starting to see depth being built for a postition that has been lacking the past 5 years. With adding Sapong to the mix of an ever expanding list of FWDS will push other players that much harder. Now there is Agudelo, Bunbury, Sapong, Altidore, Boyd, Wooten, George, Bruin, Adu, Gomez, Gatt, and Buddle all pushing in the coming years to be regular starters for the USMNT in the FWD/striker spots. With some younger FWDS/Strikers pushing as well i.e. Wood, Bijev, Salgado, Gyau, Keisewetter, Villarreal, McInerney, Ruelas, Doyle. I think it is safe to say that we have not had this kind of talent ever at these positions. It will be very interesting to see just exactly who are the USMNT strikers/FWDS come WC 2014

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