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Union’s C.J. Sapong steps up in move from striker to winger — and after demotion by Jim Curtin

Sapong has played as a winger in five straight games, and the Union have won them all.

Philadelphia Union striker C.J. Sapong struggled early in the season, but has played well since moving from striker to winger.
Philadelphia Union striker C.J. Sapong struggled early in the season, but has played well since moving from striker to winger.Read moreYong Kim/Staff file photo

WASHINGTON — C.J. Sapong's current good form with the Union hasn't come just because of his move from striker to winger. Jim Curtin admitted after Wednesday's win at D.C. United that a few weeks ago, the manager told the player he was being demoted.

"The word I used was, it's time to 'reset,'" Curtin said. "I think it clicked with him."

Sapong hasn't forgotten.

"Getting that confirmation from your coach, that lets you know that he does see all the other little things that you do, [and] definitely gives you an extra confidence boost," he said.

Curtin first moved Sapong out wide as a second-half substitute in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal win on Aug. 8. Sapong has started there in every game since, and the Union have won them all.

>> READ MORE: C.J. Sapong, Fafa Picault goals give Union 2-0 win at D.C. United, and record win streak

"I do kind of relish the fact that … at the wide position, when you're moving forward you can try things, and if they don't come off, you know you're still in a good position to either stop a counter-attack or get back on defense," Sapong said. "Whereas a No. 9 [striker], it's pretty critical to keep the ball and keep possession for the team."

Sapong has played as a winger before. He won a MLS Cup as one in 2013 with Sporting Kansas City. But the Union acquired him three seasons ago to be the striker that he wanted to be. When it goes right, he scores goals, including 16 last year. When it doesn't, the droughts are glaring — and so is the criticism.

"I think it's unjust that people are critical, but again, that's the nature of being a striker, so he takes that like a man," Curtin said. "He certainly hasn't run from it, because the way he's playing right now, he's possessed out there."

That isn't quite true: Sapong has shied away from questions at times, and is often more philosophical than direct. But he's in a good place now.

"I think he deserves all the credit for pushing through in hard moments," Curtin said. "He didn't come to me and complain or ask to move on or go somewhere else. He just rolled up his sleeves, worked harder."

That paid off Wednesday with a goal and assist. After so many glaring misses this year, Sapong said he "felt it click in my own mind" on the goal.

"Following the play and staying hungry," he said, "whereas maybe in the beginning of the season, there were a lot of plays like that where I felt like I might have not been turned on when I could have been."

That was as stark an admission as Sapong has ever made. We'll see if it leads to the consistency that has long eluded him.