cj sapong warmups

CJ Sapong strikes balance with return to Philadelphia

A sense of duty will meet a sense of self when Chicago Fire forward CJ Sapong sets foot onto the Talen Energy Stadium field in Philadelphia this weekend.

On Saturday, the Fire are set to make their first and only visit to the Philadelphia Union -- Sapong’s former team -- looking for three vital road points (6:30 p.m. CT | ESPN+).

“I expect a warm welcome, however - as soon as the whistle blows - I am the enemy,” Sapong grinned.

The first-year Fire forward spent four seasons leading the line for the Union prior to his move to Chicago in late February. It’s a time that he reflects on fondly despite the impending business at hand.

“After the fact, hopefully when we have three points, I’ll be able to chill out and allow those old memories to come through and say what’s up to my old teammates and just appreciate what Philly did for me.”

Chief among those things is the personal growth Sapong attributes to his stay in The City of Brotherly Love following a move from Sporting Kansas City in 2015. Then 26, Sapong had experienced a slew of early professional successes, including an MLS Rookie of the Year award, an MLS Cup win, and a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship.

“Moving to Philly from Kansas City was quite a shift,” Sapong said. “I remember it taking a while to get acclimated to the city and the vibe that the city brought. However, looking back on it now, I realized it allowed me to mature more as a person, which in turn allowed me to mature more as a player.”

Upon arrival, Sapong endeared himself to Union fans through his development both on-and-off the pitch. His 36 goals scored ranks second in Union history behind only Sebastian Le Toux (51), and he remains the team's single-season scoring king thanks to a 16-goal breakout year in 2017.

His interest in natural healing materialized in the launch of his foundation, Sacred Seeds, in Philadelphia in early 2017. It continues working to create healthier and more empowered individuals and communities through localized agriculture and food awareness endeavors in underserved areas.

“It’s something that is really cool to see, the positive impact it’s had and how partnering organizations and individuals are really trying to help,” Sapong said. “I was able to have a lasting residual effect on the city and hope to moving forward as well.”

In February of this year, Sapong found himself confronting the next step in his personal evolution as part of a trade with the Fire during preseason. His personal maturation over the four years prior kept him grounded amid the transition.

“Having gone through a trade before, it’s definitely been easier,” Sapong said of his on-going adjustment to his new surroundings. “With Chicago being such an amazing and beautiful city, it’s definitely a blessing anytime I can get out and see some stuff. As I do see more things and get more plugged into the network, I do become more and more comfortable. I feel like I’m developing a home here as well.”

Sapong’s comfort has translated on the field, having scored his team-leading ninth goal of the season in Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw against Columbus Crew SC. The opportunity to bring a spark and an intensity to a new challenge in the Windy City has been a renewed source of personal fulfillment.

“It’s good for me to feel that in terms of where my career is,” Sapong said. “When you have moments and opportunities that bring the life back to the sport for you, that’s what makes a player really evolve in their response to the unconventional situations.

“I like those moments and I appreciate the metaphor they give for life as well. It allows me to take everything in stride and always want to give my best.”

Sapong's journey now returns him to the city that helped strengthen him as a person and a player. While the affection remains, there of course is a job to do.

“If I score, I will celebrate,” he said. “But in a way that I think would help those fans understand the gratitude I have for them and the respect I have for them and all they’ve done for me.”