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Entering clash with former team, CJ Sapong feeling confident in Fire

Sapong’s 10 goals lead the Fire, who will need to get hot to make the MLS playoffs.

Fire forward CJ Sapong is facing former team Philadelphia on Saturday night.
Chicago Fire Soccer Club

Before and after Saturday night’s game, forward CJ Sapong might feel something extra emotionally about the Fire’s opponent. From 2015-18, Sapong scored 36 times over 123 regular-season appearances for Philadelphia, and still has relationships with Union players.

All of that will go on hold a little after 7 pm Saturday night in Bridgeview.

“Once the game gets there, they’re an opponent and they’ll be approaching me the same way,” Sapong said. “Once the whistle blows, they’re the team on the other side of the field that we’re trying to get three points (against).”

The Fire could use those three points.

With Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to Portland, the Fire (7-11-9, 30 points) stayed in 10th place in the East, three points behind seventh-place Montreal for the conference’s final playoff spot. The Fire also entered the weekend having played 27 times, more than Montreal (26), eighth-place Orlando City (26), and ninth-place Toronto FC (25).

Though the odds aren’t in their favor (FiveThirtyEight.com gives them a 15 percent chance to make the playoffs), the Fire are taking some solace in their recent performances. Coach Veljko Paunovic chose to rotate his squad Wednesday in Portland, and despite spending the last 60 minutes a man down after Aleksandar Katai’s red card, the Fire pushed the Timbers.

That loss ended a modest two-game winning streak but didn’t discourage Sapong.

“I think the last couple wins have shed some light on our capabilities and maybe reminded guys of what we can bring to the table,” Sapong said. “Although we don’t get any points (from Wednesday), it was a heartfelt effort and I think it’s something that’s good to see and feel and something that could really propel us towards the playoffs as we make this push towards the end of the season.”

The Fire have also struggled away from SeatGeek Stadium, winning on the road once this season when they beat Houston on Aug. 3. Of their seven remaining matches, four are away and Saturday’s game with East frontrunner Philadelphia is their last in Bridgeview until Sept. 14.

That means the Fire must improve on their travels soon.

“At this point in the season, the guys are feeling confident, even though the points haven’t really reflected I think what we’ve put into the season,” Sapong said. “Guys are confident and willing to put in the work. I think that’s the basis that provides us the opportunity to get away with results and maybe turn things around at the end of the season when things are really up against it.”

Individually, Sapong’s first season with the Fire has gone well.

His 10 goals give him double-digits for the second time in three years, and he’s fit in well despite joining the Fire relatively late in the offseason on Feb. 23.

“I love scoring goals, but I also just like to have an impact on the team,” Sapong said. “Whether it’s on or off the field, I want (teammates) and coaches, staff, fans to be able to count on me.”