The wins are piling up for C.J. Sapong.
Seven games into the MLS regular season, the Philadelphia Union forward has been on the field for all four of the team's victories, and had a big hand in the team's early success, scoring four goals as well as recording an assist.
On April 6, Sapong secured a different kind of victory in a very different venue. Instead of Talen Energy Stadium, Sapong found himself at Philadelphia County municipal court. Rather than have thousands of fans present, Sapong was supported by his mother Gillian, brother Edward and Union technical director Chris Albright. In front of judge Craig M. Washington, Sapong was found not guilty of the DUI charge that had been hanging over him since May of 2015. While Sapong still faces a charge of reckless driving, the stigma that accompanies a DUI charge had begun to wash away.
"It's very refreshing for it to be official, for the justice system to deem me not guilty," said Sapong via telephone. "That does matter. It's a great feeling, and I'm very thankful. It was a good moment, and I got to kind of reflect on everything that transpired, and to still smile and be happy and have no regrets."
One might expect that the joy at being acquitted would be accompanied by some residual anger. Per MLS' Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Policy, Sapong was forced to enter a league-mandated stint at a treatment facility in Malibu, California, and was there for the better part of three weeks while his teammates back in Philadelphia were struggling.
But Sapong insists that he harbors no bitterness. Rather, the time away altered his perspective, and he realized it was an opportunity that most professional athletes aren't allowed to take in the context of a season.
"It's something that changed my life," he said of his time at the treatment center. "I didn't foresee that when I was on the way there. I definitely had a different mindset. But from the first day, I knew right away that this was something I could get something out of. It blew away my expectations, and it definitely gave me another perspective, too. I was in there with people from all different backgrounds, experiences in all different types of things. No matter what I felt about my situation, it made me realize, 'Hey, there's always somebody who is dealing with just as much or even more than you."
Sapong, 27, declined to go into detail about what happened the night of his arrest, though he vaguely admitted to some culpability, stating that he had forgiven himself "for all the things that I knew that I did wrong...not necessarily that defined by the justice system."
It helped that he had the support of Union manager Jim Curtin. Such moments test the judgment of coaches in an extreme way. Misplaced faith in a player can pave the way for a manager's exit. In this instance, Curtin would have been well within his rights to drop the hammer on a forward for whom the team had traded away a first-round draft pick prior to the 2015 season. Instead he took a different approach.
"I believed in my player that he was telling me the truth of exactly what went down that evening. I believed his side," said Curtin via telephone. "I could've not even listened to his side of the story. But he's a guy that I trust, on the field, off the field, I believe in him as a person."
That trust has been more than validated. Sapong returned a changed man and led the Union with nine goals in 2015, tying a career high. That led to the Union signing him to a new three-year contract, and his aforementioned strike rate this season has seen him increase his efficiency in front of goal. That has long been the missing piece in a skill set replete with physical gifts. Curtin ticks off the attributes of a prototypical No. 9 -- holdup play, getting on the end of crosses, defensive work rate -- and marvels at how Sapong grades high in every area. Curtin has seen Sapong expand his game in other ways as well.
"Sapong has taken a bigger leadership role," he said. "Guys have listened to him a lot in the preseason and that carried over into the regular season. I think as a teammate you can't not respect the hard work that he does. He's not one of these forwards who stands up there and yells for the ball and causes a scene if you don't make a good pass to him. That's so valuable because they're like, 'This guy is working his ass off up there. We've got to the same and we've got to the same to get him the ball.' He's a team guy, team first, and whatever accolades he gets, he's more concerned with how the team does, and that's the best compliment I can give him."
Sapong has always been something of a free spirit, and there are moments when he sounds like some kind of New Age mystic, like in this recent tweet.
Quote of the Year: "The vibrational frequency that's going on with our organization right now is being heavily amplified everyday." -C.J.
- Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) April 26, 2016
He talks of different types of breathing and tweaking his mentality to "change the whole overall expression of the machine." Now the soul of this machine has evolved to where he is benefitting from a greater focus and understanding of the kind of player he is and where he needs to improve.
"My game is being close to goal and wreaking havoc," he said. "With my foot, my head, whatever it is, I'm going to go for goal. That's what my definition of a striker is, and that's what I try to emulate."
It's one from which the U.S. national team could benefit. At first glance, there appear to be any number of forwards ahead of Sapong on the depth chart, from Jozy Altidore to Clint Dempsey to Bobby Wood to Jordan Morris and so on. But the U.S. team's overreliance on Altidore is well documented, and Sapong is the rare U.S. forward who provides many of the same physical attributes as the Toronto FC striker. Granted it seems too late for Sapong to shoehorn his way onto this summer's Copa America roster, but he is one to keep an eye on as the World Cup cycle progresses.
For his part, Sapong is ignoring such talk, insisting that he doesn't want to get sidetracked. For now, he's content to ride the wave with the Union.
"I definitely feel like there's no [negative] feelings," said Sapong. "I feel ecstatic, very ready for any type of obstacles, challenges. And definitely when it comes to the organization I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time. It kind of has that feeling like everyone has an inner-child type of excitement going on, and still trying to actively better the components to make the whole machine work better. There's a bit of a resurgence going on, it's felt everywhere."
Especially in the win column.