CJ Sapong's professional soccer career was filled with success from the very start.
In January of 2011, Sporting Kansas City drafted the young forward out of James Madison with the tenth overall pick. Three months later, Sapong came off the bench in SKC's season opener and scored his first professional goal less than two minutes into his debut. He scored five goals that year and was named MLS Rookie of the Year for his contributions.
Sapong's personal success continued into next season as he set career highs for minutes played and goals scored. But it's what his team accomplished in 2012 that he said set a "benchmark" for him. That August, Sporting KC won their first Open Cup since 2004. Sapong played 31 minutes as a substitute. The trophy served as the catalyst for a revolution in Kansas City, but it also had a lasting effect on CJ Sapong's career.
"It was my first trophy as a pro, so it is one of the most significant moments of my career at this point," Sapong said of what the Open Cup trophy meant to him. "It came at a time when it was my second year in the league and I was catching my stride. It was a benchmark for me; that year was a year when I took my game to the next level."
Three years later, Sapong is back in the final of a tournament that helped define his career. Now an experienced starter for the Philadelphia Union, he knows how to prepare for such a momentous occasion.
"I guess what I've learned from [my first final] is, leading up to the game, there's a lot of visualization going. It's definitely a hot topic in the locker room," said Sapong when asked how he's getting ready for tonight's game. "Visualizing and assessing what you need to bring that day helps add a little bit more spirit and gives you an edge."
For any other athlete preparing for any other game, this process might be vital in achieving the right mindset before heading into action. But for Sapong, spirit and edge shouldn't be a problem heading into tonight's match versus Sporting Kansas City: He's relishing the opportunity to compete for a trophy against the team that drafted him.
"It's only right. You can't write things like that. If there's one thing I learned in my career it's that soccer and life put those moments in front of you.
"I wouldn't have it any other way."