Jay Simpson, CJ Sapong score for Union as they embrace competition for job

CHESTER, Pa. — When the Philadelphia Union acquired Jay Simpson in the offseason and named him the starting striker to open the 2017 season, some probably assumed it would be a difficult demotion for C.J. Sapong to handle.

But Sapong — last year’s starter — insists that he embraced the addition of Simpson, hoping to learn a thing or two from the English import while perhaps turning into a valuable contributor off the bench.

Saturday’s home opener showcased what both strikers are capable of as Simpson scored the first goal and Sapong the second in a 2-2 draw with reigning MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC.

“It might be hard for people off the field to see the bond we have as a team but every forward on the team is cheering for each other,” Sapong said. “We’re able to push ourselves and maximize our own limits just by competing for a spot. We all definitely want to be on the field, but at the same time, we want to see the other succeed.”

Sapong never expected to come into the game as early as he did, entering in the 29th minute after Simpson was forced out with a rib injury. That came less than 20 minutes after Simpson opened his MLS account in dream fashion, heading down a Chris Pontius ball into the back of the net and celebrating in front of the Sons of Ben that packed the River End of Talen Energy Stadium for Philly’s home opener.

Afterwards, Union head coach Jim Curtin revealed Simpson was being treated in the hospital but that the reports about the injury were “positive.”

“It’s hard to use a sub that early,” Curtin said. “And Jay was active and busy — not just because he scored the goal but also holding the ball up. I thought he had a good start to the game. ... C.J. came in and did a good job as well. He held the ball up and I’m happy for him to get a goal also. It’s good for us to get our first two goals and have them come from our forwards.”

Curtin added that he was pleased that Simpson was able to continue even after getting hurt and telling the Union coaching staff that he was “having trouble breathing.” That gave Sapong a little more time to warm up in the frigid temperatures and be better prepared to come in — which was still a difficult thing to do at that point in the contest.

“It’s not the easiest but at this level, all of us players, we pride ourselves on being ready at any given moment,” Sapong said. “And opportunities in this league could come few and far between. When you get that opportunity, you just try to take it.”

Sapong — who had seven goals last season but struggled down the stretch — certainly made the most of it, scoring the 73rd-minute equalizer after running onto a Fabian Herbers throughball, dribbling around Clint Irwin and finishing what Simpson started.

“I was very happy for him — and it was good for me also,” Sapong said. “Sometimes it’s nice to take a step back and look at the good things he does. I’m always trying to assimilate different things into my game.”

Stay connected: Receive breaking news, videos, and analysis from North America's best soccer reporters from our FREE mobile app or "The Kick Off" newsletter.