As C.J. Sapong walked slowly off the field Saturday, the Talen Energy Stadium crowd of 18,463 lauded him with an orchestra of cheers. Sapong crossed his fists and greeted his substitute, Fabian Herbers, with a bump of the forearms. He then shook hands with coach Jim Curtin, who didn't say much to him before Sapong sat on the bench.
With 11 minutes left in the game, Sapong had already done his part.
"C.J. manhandled us," D.C. United coach Ben Olsen said.
In his first MLS start since spraining his right ankle on June 1, Sapong helped create offensive chances and had an assist as the Union (8-6-5, 29 points) cruised to a 3-0 win over D.C. United (5-7-6, 21 points). The win ended a two-game MLS losing streak and kept the Union in second place in the Eastern Conference.
Last week, Sapong subbed on against Houston and recorded three shots, one on goal, in the last 27 minutes. Against United, he was a factor from the start.
"Just ask the other center backs in the league," Curtin said. "He's the No. 1 guy they hate playing against for sure, just because he is a handful. . . . That's the ultimate compliment, respect from your peers."
It took just four minutes for Sapong to create a threat. He received a pass near the left sideline and got dragged down just outside the penalty box, earning a free kick.
"Just try to get back to my natural ways," Sapong said, "try to go at the defense and try to impose myself on the game."
In the eighth minute, he drew another foul about 25 yards from the goal. In the 16th, he crossed the ball in to Roland Alberg, who couldn't convert. In the 18th minute, Fabinho sent in a pass that found Sapong in a dangerous area.
He didn't score, but Sapong's mere presence from the start helped power the Union's offense.
Sapong added his name to the scoresheet with a header off a free kick in the 47th minute to set up Ilsinho to ice the game. Running toward the end line inside the penalty box, Sapong elevated and sent the ball back to Ilsinho, who buried the ball.
Sapong now has two assists on the season and his five goals rank second on the team. If Sapong wants to be "remembered and talked about," Curtin said, he must start and finish the season in top form.
With his performance against United, Sapong showed he's moved past his midseason injury.
"Just being an overall pain in the butt to play against," Curtin said, "it's a great thing to have him back."