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C.J. Sapong relishing new role on wing as Philadelphia Union continue playoff push

CHESTER, Pa– At the start of the Philadelphia Union’s vital six-game stretch chock full of playoff implications on August 11, manager Jim Curtin made a tactical adjustment that’s paid off immensely over 180 minutes. 

Curtin slid forward C.J. Sapong over to the right wing of the club’s 4-2-3-1 formation in order to keep the in-form Cory Burke in the lone striker spot. 

A notable difference occurred because of the switch, and now it allows the Union to attack opposing defenses with an approach that, in two matches, has created plenty of scoring opportunities. 

“I think with me and Cory on the field it gives defenders a different look,” Sapong said. “We have the speed with Fafa (Picault) and David (Accam) and the physical, aerial ability with me and Cory. Going forward we have a lot of opportunities to keep the ball and just make things happen.”

“For me, it’s just about being a part of that and doing whatever I can to help my teammates,” Sapong said. “Obviously I want to get goals and assists and be on the stat sheet, but ultimately the most important stat is a W.” 

The Union produced five goals in the last two games in wins over New England and New York City FC. The pair of results pushed the Union up to fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 33 points.

With the next four matches, starting with Saturday’s home clash with the Revolution, vital to the team’s playoff hopes, Sapong hopes he can continue making an impact. 

Sapong’s unique aerial ability, which earned him praise from Curtin when he played in the lone forward spot, gives players like Alejandro Bedoya and Keegan Rosenberry the chance to make runs off Sapong’s aerial wins, and with a defender forced to stay with Sapong, more space has opened up on the right side. 

“At the end of the day, whether I’m just going up and throwing the defender off or the ball is coming our way, we have people that are able to step up and win that second ball and we also have the opportunity of somebody getting played in and scoring goals,” Sapong said. “It’s something that other teams really have to respect and it definitely gives us a wider dynamic of how we can get at teams.” 

Sapong’s won 22 aerial duels since his shift to the wing, with 14 coming against the Revolution and eight in the 2-0 victory over NYCFC a week ago. 

The 29-year-old, who was often battered by two center backs during his time up top, is relishing the opportunity to display his physical traits with less pressure on his back.

“I think when you’re the striker, you’re dealing with two center backs. I feel like I’m always going to attract physical play from other teams, but it’s one person opposed to two now,” Sapong said. 

Possessing a target winger isn’t new for the Union, but Sapong brings a different aspect of the game to the flank than Chris Pontius did in the previous two seasons.

Additionally, Sapong has more support around him with Borek Dockal and Haris Medunjanin ready to take advantage of his aerial play along with Bedoya, Rosenberry and Burke. 

“I think what we have more now, that’s different from when Pontius was here, is we have more attacking options from deeper positions in and around me,” Sapong said. 

The role isn’t new to Sapong either, as he played there during his time with Sporting Kansas City, where he recorded 20 goals in four seasons. 

“It’s very similar,” Sapong said. “(At Sporting Kansas City) we had really good options across the top three, in the middle and outside backs. We had attacking options that allowed every single player on the field to accentuate their skills, but also make the team better.” 

The goal is clear for Sapong and the Union on Saturday. With a win, they’ll continue to separate themselves from the teams beneath the red line in the Eastern Conference, and with Curtin’s tactical tweak injecting new life into attack, the club should continue to create more scoring opportunities. 

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