C.J. Sapong’s last two seasons mirror the Chicago Fire’s, and now Sapong joins the Fire in hopes of a resurgent season.
In 2017, Sapong had the best season of his career. He scored 16 goals and had five assists for the Philadelphia Union. That goal total was tied for eighth most in the league that year.
The Union didn’t make the playoffs, but Sapong reached double figures in goals for the first time in his career and had career-highs across the board. For most of his career, Sapong looked like a complementary piece. That year, Sapong thrived as the focus of the Union’s attack.
Meanwhile, the Fire made the playoffs for the first time since 2012. After back-to-back last place finishes, the Fire had a solid core and put a winning product on the field.
Both Sapong and the Fire had significant drop-offs in 2018. The Fire were out of the playoff race well before the end of the season. Sapong had four goals and three assists in 29 starts for the Union.
The Union snuck in the playoffs last season, but their willingness to deal Sapong this late in the preseason shows they didn’t believe the 30-year-old was essential to the team’s success. But what can he do for the Fire?
Nemanja Nikolic had a drop-off of his own in 2018 after scoring 24 goals and winning the Golden Boot in 2017, but he still finished with 15 goals last season. The 31-year-old is still expected to lead the line for the Fire in 2019.
Even as Sapong struggled to rack up the goals last season, he still played 2,321 minutes. He has logged at least that many minutes in each of the past three seasons. Unless coach Veljko Paunović plans to move to two strikers, something he has rarely utilized since he took over in 2016, Sapong will have to accept a bench role.
In the preseason, the Fire stuck with Paunović’s standard 4-2-3-1 formation. That means Sapong may be stuck in a reserve role. Last season, Alan Gordon and late-season acquisition Yurz Movsisyan combined for 885 minutes behind Nikolic.
The Fire just paid at least $400,000 in allocation money for Sapong. It’s hard to believe he would be limited to 900 or so minutes in 2019, given how much the Fire paid to get him and how high his salary is ($525,000 in 2018).
The 2019 MLS schedule is a bit more compressed with the regular season ending three weeks earlier and a Gold Cup break in June. General manager Nelson Rodriguez mentioned that when talking about the importance of squad depth in 2019. Paunović could be forced into more squad rotation, giving Sapong more opportunities.
It also could mean a 3-5-2 formation could be utilized. Paunović has used the formation at times throughout his tenure, but never consistently. The Fire lost starting full backs Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster this offseason and haven’t replaced them. A 3-5-2 would allow Raheem Edwards, Diego Campos or whoever plays at those spots to have less defensive responsibility. The problem with that is the Fire only have three centerbacks on the roster so that may not be a viable consistent option.
In Sapong, the Fire gained a proven MLS scorer who is a physical presence and gives them another option in the attack. The press release quote from Rodriguez on the trade speaks to this.
“CJ brings a different skill set to our attacking options,” Rodriguez said. “We can now be more varied in how we attack.”
Sapong’s role with remain a question until the season gets underway. However, given the investment in him (both in allocation money and salary) it would be mildly surprising to see him not given more of a chance than the backups behind Nikolic have had in the past two years.