CHESTER, Pa. — Eighteen months ago, in his first game at Talen Energy Stadium, Jay Simpson scored a goal in front of the River End, promptly going over to celebrate with his new fans in Philadelphia.
It would prove to be a costly goal, however, as the Union striker bruised his lung and began coughing up blood in the process, losing a spot in the starting lineup that he hasn’t gotten back in two seasons.
But while Simpson’s Union legacy will likely always be that of a high-priced and underperforming European import, the Englishman took a step Sunday toward re-endearing himself with Philly fans, scoring a pair of unlikely goals — the first since his home debut — to lead the Union to a huge 2-0 win over Sporting Kansas City on Sunday.
“I’m not surprised he scored,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “He’s a great player. He scores all the time in training and he has been increasingly sharp in the past two weeks. I think he’s taken an unfair criticism from our fanbase and the Philly booing mentality, which I’ve taken as well. … If people want to be critical of someone, please be critical of me for not playing him.”
Simpson, indeed, has been a victim of circumstance in many ways since arriving in Philly ahead of the 2017 campaign. CJ Sapong, after taking over as the starting striker following Simpson’s injury, had his best season in MLS with 16 goals last season. Cory Burke has been a revelation up top this year, scoring eight times in 11 starts.
But all the while, Simpson has been what Curtin calls a “true professional” at training, making him a fine selection to start Sunday’s game while many regulars got a rest ahead of Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final against the Houston Dynamo (8 pm ET; ESPN2).
“I feel like I’m an honest player,” Simpson said. “I come in every day and I work hard. I work my [butt] off every day. You put in the hours and obviously hope to be involved. When you’re not, it’s disappointing. But I’ve got a lot of supportive teammates around me that help to keep me going.”
One of those teammates is captain Alejandro Bedoya, who assisted on both of Simpson’s goals after coming in as a second-half sub.
“The first thing I said to him after he scored that goal was, ‘I’m so happy for you,’” Bedoya said. “It’s so easy to come into training and sulk and clock in, clock out. But he freaking works his [butt] off in training every day. He’s always grinding no matter what. For a guy who hasn’t seen much of the field during his tenure here, mentally he’s stayed in it.”
And perhaps it helped just a little bit that Sunday’s game featured some weather that made him feel like he was back home?
“I love playing in the rain,” the Englishman said with a smile.