Start printing posters and passing out buttons. It’s campaign season, and Davy Arnaud is heading up C.J. Sapong’s drive for the Major League Soccer Rookie of the Year award.
While other observers around the league have thrown players like Rich Balchan, Perry Kitchen and A.J. Soares into the public arena as potential ROY candidates, Arnaud – though obviously biased – isn’t engaging in any debate on a topic he sees as open and shut.
“I don’t know if people realize just how good he’s been for us this year,” Arnaud said following Sporting’s 2-0 victory against New York as manager Peter Vermes silently nodded beside him. “C.J. has been outstanding every single game. In my mind, I don’t think there is any question about who the Rookie of the Year is, to be honest with you.”
The key phrase being “every single game.”
Sapong not only leads all rookies in points with five goals and five assists, but he’s also played in all 33 matches for Kansas City this year, the only Sporting player to do so, while making 22 starts and 11 substitute appearances. And that production isn’t even counting the three goals he scored against MLS competition in US Open Cup qualifying.
More importantly, Sapong has started in 10 of Sporting’s 12 victories this season, providing solid hold up play and a knack for causing problems on set pieces even when he isn’t his sharpest in front of goal.
All this from a player who wasn’t entirely certain about his future in professional soccer and who many thought was a draft-day reach when Vermes chose the James Madison product with the 10th pick in January’s SuperDraft.
Needless to say, Sapong’s future looks more and more promising with every game he plays. And the pick? It’s looking much more like a revelation than a reach.
“Coming in, I tried not to focus on what other people were saying and stuff like that,” Sapong said. “But when you hear [praise for your efforts] from your teammates, your coaches and the fans in the city that you’re playing in, it’s a great feeling because it makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. That’s all I really wanted to do.”
In fact, he’s accomplished so much during his rookie season that there are rumblings that the 22-year-old could get a shot with Jurgen Klinsmann and the US national team if his sharp ascent and rapid improvement continues.
Admittedly, that kind of jump is still strictly hypothetical, but it’s hard to see Sapong’s raw potential and not wonder about what he could do with another year or two under his belt following a banner rookie season.
“I’ve already surpassed my individual goals,” he said, “which were just to have an impact and at least score a professional goal. I knew it would be a long road, but I’ve come a long way. It’s just more motivation to do as much as I can.”
Barring some unforeseen circumstance or injury, Sapong will have at least a few more opportunities to continue building on his first year as a professional.
Sporting will finish the regular season by visiting D.C. United just miles away from where the young forward grew up and went to college. They’ll follow that up by making their first postseason appearance since 2008.
And if Sapong can add a few more highlights to his rookie reel, it will be hard to argue against him when it comes time to pass out the awards. After all, in addition to the stats and the consistent contributions, he’s already got quite the campaign manager in his corner.
“He’s not just a great player,” Arnaud said. “He’s a great guy, he works hard and he buys into the team concept. He’s got it all.”