C.J. Sapong, the man who leads the line for the Philadelphia Union, has posted a career season. The United States Men’s National Team has struggled in 2017 - especially up top, and especially when it has needed a physical attacking presence alongside or in lieu of Jozy Altidore. What gives? Why hasn’t Sapong been called up since 2012?
The Case For a Callup
In 27 games this season, Sapong has netted 13 goals and added five assists. It was a marked improvement over last year’s haul of seven goals, and more in line with the striker’s 2015 season when he bagged nine and four assists in 27 games. He has the same number of goals and assists as Jozy Altidore, although the Toronto man has done so in 331 fewer minutes. Chris Wondolowski is next in MLS with 11 goals and five assists, followed by Clint Dempsey with 11 and three and Lee Nguyen, who with nine goals and 14 assists should absolutely have earned a call up of his own.
Jordan Morris? Three goals. Juan Agudelo? Eight. Sapong is having the most productive year out of American strikers in MLS and should be rewarded with a cap. With Arena’s MLS roots, it makes Sapong’s absence from the team all the more puzzling. Sapong is scoring 0.52 goals per 90 minutes this year. Here is the list of Americans who have scored 10 goals in a season in the MLS since the start of 2014:
Sapong’s 2017 isn’t even done yet, but his scoring clip places him squarely in USMNT territory. Every player on this list outside of Charlie Davies and Lee Nguyen has earned a call-up since 2015, and if you remove the midfielders, Sapong sits squarely in the company of Altidore, Dempsey, Dwyer and Wondolowski, the USA mainstays.
Sapong even made the preliminary 40-man Gold Cup roster before losing out to Agudelo, Dwyer and Morris on the final 23-man with later additions of Altidore and Dempsey. Sapong probably should have earned a spot over Agudelo, Dwyer, or Morris even though Morris bagged the dramatic late winner against Jamaica.
The only other striker in the US pool is Bobby Wood, as long as Aron Johannsson struggles to see regular playing time. While there is no debating Altidore as the number one striker and Wood as a capable number two, Sapong has a real case for the third or fourth striker spot on any US roster, especially with Dempsey’s age.
The number one reason why Sapong should be included is because of his similarity in style to Altidore. He would be seamless fit with his style of play — he uses his physicality to hold up the ball, win contested headers in the box, and create his own shot in a one-on-one.
Think about when the US needed a physical striker to bruise with the backlines of Costa Rica and Honduras. If Altidore is hurt or needed to be subbed, the USA has to completely alter their style with its other options. Sapong solves that issue.
If Sapong keeps up this level of play in MLS he should earn a January call-up. If the USA makes the World Cup, he is a legitimate option other than Morris. If the USA does not make the World Cup, there is no reason not to give Sapong playing time immediately. Sapong is 27 and entering his prime and could be a reliable grinder in an intense match.
The Case Against Sapong
The number one case against Sapong is the timing of his rise and his track record. Sapong has one good year as a reliable striker. Revisit the list above: Altidore, Dempsey, Dwyer and Wondolowski all have cracked it multiple times. Sapong is 27 and in theoretically in his prime, but Altidore is 27, Wood is 24, Agudelo is 24 and Jordan Morris is 22. The allure of young talent and potential will always be more appealing than that of a late bloomer with six unremarkable years.
Sapong also missed his best window to crack the 2018 World Cup roster. If he had the year he’s having in 2016, he would have earned an invite to the 2017 January camp under Bruce, where he could have proved himself. His 40-man inclusion for the Gold Cup was a nod of courtesy for his first half of 2017, but was never going to earn his third cap over Agudelo or Morris who had an established foundation with the team.
Sapong’s real competition for that last striker spot was with Dwyer, and Dwyer had scored 16, 12 and 22 goals in the last three MLS campaigns, respectively. Going forward, Dwyer will be the Union man’s main foil for a fringe roster spot ahead of the 2022 cycle as they both are 27 and powerful MLS strikers. Dwyer has the head start with his international goals at the Gold Cup and his more consistent performances as a go-to No. 9.
If the US makes the World Cup, why would Bruce Arena introduce a wild-card in Sapong when the priorities are building chemistry ahead of the most important matches in world football? Can Arena really give playing time to a striker with two career caps that happened back in 2012?
If the US does not make the World Cup, Arena is out, and a new coach might be introduced who does not prioritize MLS as much. Youth development could become the new keystone of the program and Sapong does not fit that timeline.
The odds are stacked against Sapong ever sniffing a spot in Russia, but an ill-timed injury could change that reality. Unless the USA fully adopts a ‘let the kids play’ mentality, Sapong should see some 2018 action for his impressive 2017. If Sapong strings together one or two more years like this one, he would be presented with multiple opportunities to prove his worth on the national stage.