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."