The Chicago Fire knew what they were getting when they acquired veteran forward C.J. Sapong from the Philadelphia Union.
A player who can score goals, add a physical element to the Fire’s attack and take pressure off players like Nemanja Nikolic and Aleksandar Katai.
What they probably didn’t expect was Sapong to lead the team in goals after their first two matches.
Sapong’s late heroics on Saturday helped the 10-men Fire to a needed point in a 1-1 draw against Orlando City. It gave the home fans something to cheer about and felt like a victory for the Eastern Conference club who played the final 30 minutes down a man and a goal.
“All credit to the players, they fought until the end,” Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic said. “They created opportunities, we played 30 minutes with a man down and we gave up possession but we still fought. Late in the match we had to push numbers forward, but today hard work paid off and we had to risk and be bold to get a point. I’m not worried, it’s the opposite I am very excited for the future with this group.”
“We still lack precision in front of goal, but we cannot blame our guys we had urgency to attack, urgency to deliver. We were a little sloppy in the final third and sometimes in the past we would convert routine chances. We needed something positive and we got that goal in the last second, which should help build confidence in the final third. It’s not easy to create opportunities but it will come in time.”
With Nikolic, Katai, and even Djordje Mihailovic held with zero goals so far, Sapong’s value has risen immediately with his new club. He’s been able to win a spot in Paunovic’s starting XI and give opposing defenses another option to think about when Chicago goes on the attack.
Even though he only scored four goals last season, Sapong has proven he can still come up good in front of goal. His physical presence is also important on the pitch, while his hold-up play allows the Fire to get some rest defensively. Saturday’s equalizer proved that Sapong is also a threat through the air even in the dying stages of the match.
“He brings quality, he’s a goalscorer,” Paunovic said. “He’s capable of scoring goals, giving the team a break by holding balls up in the opponents side of the field. He’s very important and his mentality is good. When C.J. came here he said he would bring spice to our team, and that is exactly how it feels. I really think he has a lot to bring to the team, but we also want him to build the confidence. We want him to keep his feet on the ground as well as everyone else on the team.”
After a mental breakdown defensively to start the second-half, the Fire will be happy to get the first point of what is hopefully a bounce-back 2019. Sapong’s finish now gives the forward goals in back-to-back matches since March 2017. The 30-year-old may be in the latter stages of his career, but the Fire will hope Sapong can continue to put up these performances throughout the season.
“It was a relief, the game in LA, we left a little bit on the field and could’ve found ourselves in front early,” Sapong said. “We’re happy to leave today with a point but we will go home and try to see what we can do better at. I’m very fortunate to be on the score sheet the last two games, but there is a little bit I think I have to work on to get fully there. It’s just always good to score and it’s something I’m going to build off of.”