CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union forward Jay Simpson admitted after his club’s 2-0 home win Sunday against Sporting Kansas City that not many people fancied the Union to win.
It’s a fair point considering the lineup Jim Curtin trotted out to the field against the top team in the Western Conference.
Only Auston Trusty and Borek Dockal were the first-team regulars to feature in the starting XI that included Simpson, who played 41 minutes before Sunday and debutante Olivier Mbaizo.
“I think we’ve got a good bunch of players,” Simpson said. “We’re on a good run of form at the moment. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t even fancy us to get a result today with a lot of our starters missing out on the game because of the Open Cup. We beat some big sides. We’ve been on the road. We picked up points on the road and we’ve got a lot of good players.”
In addition to the rotation ahead of Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final, goalkeeper Andre Blake was a late scratch due to illness.
Even with a rotated squad, the Union, led by Simpson and backup goalkeeper John McCarthy, earned an improbable victory at home to keep pace with the Columbus Crew for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Below are the three top takeaways from Sunday’s Union win.
1. Simpson comes through with big plays again
Simpson’s introduction late in the second half of Wednesday’s game against the Seattle Sounders sparked a series of events no one saw coming.
Simpson’s pressure on Wednesday night set up Fafa Picault’s stoppage-time game-winning goal, and then the Englishman followed that effort up with an unlikely second-half brace in his first start since July 22, 2017.
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“I’m not surprised (Simpson) scored. He’s a great player,” Curtin said. “He scores all the time in training. He has been increasingly sharp in the past two weeks. I think he’s taken an unfair criticism from our fan base and the Philly booing mentality, which I’ve taken as well”
“And I have a place in my heart for when I hear it directed toward him,” Curtin said. “If people want to be critical of someone, please be critical of me for not playing him. That’s actually more fair, because he has quality. He did a great job today. He’s done a great job in terms of being a true professional.”
Simpson credits assistant coach Dick Schreuder, who was brought over by former sporting director Earnie Stewart, at the start of the 2018 campaign.
“Myself I feel like I’m an honest player,” Simpson said. “I come in every day. I work hard. I work my ass off every day. You put in the hours and obviously hope to be involved. When you’re not, it’s disappointing. I’ve got a lot of supportive teammates around me that help to keep me going.”
“I spend a lot of time talking with Coach Dick (Schreuder),” Simpson said. “He’s helped me a lot throughout the season. He’s helped me stay focused. Days when you’re coming in and feeling down, he’s always been around me to help pick me up.”
C.J. Sapong and Cory Burke will be fresh for Wednesday’s final at BBVA Compass Stadium, but if Simpson’s needed as another forward in the final four league games and the postseason, he’s proven he’s the man for the job.
“I think I’ve possibly given (Curtin) something to think about,” Simpson said. “I don’t pick the team so I don’t know, but hopefully I’ve done enough to be in his thoughts going forward for the rest of the season.:
2. McCarthy steps in with ease
Even with the squad rotation, McCarthy’s name was a surprising one to see in the starting XI.
Curtin revealed after the game that Blake was taken out of the lineup because of an illness, which everyone found out about an hour before kickoff.
“We lose Andre Blake literally as I’m doing a chalk talk in (the press conference room),” Curtin said. “Someone comes running in here, one of my assistants, and says there’s a change that needs to be made. You panic. You’re losing your star goalkeeper with a group that hasn’t played together already, so you lose some cohesion there and that nice warm blanket with Andre Blake. McCarthy steps up like a true professional today and has an incredible game to keep a shutout.”
McCarthy, who has been a star throughout past Open Cup runs, made six saves, including diving denials to keep the clean sheet.
“(I found out at) 12 o’clock,” McCarthy said. “Seriously. I was about to head out for warmups around 11:40-11:50 and I literally hopped on the bike, got off it and then I was like wait a second. I was just stretching and they told me I was going to have to wait another 15 minutes before you go out.”
“I was just ready to go,” McCarthy said. “The backup is always supposed to have a mindset that they’re always going to play. Always be ready to go. Every day you train, you train like you’re going to play on the weekend. It doesn’t matter if you’re actually playing or a sub.”
3. Curtin’s rotation works to perfection
Benching the majority of his starters at home in the middle of the playoff race was a bizarre move for Curtin, even with the Open Cup ahead on Wednesday.
In hindsight, Curtin aced his decision making, as he managed the fitness of Dockal, relied on his starters to close out the game and left Sunday with no additional injuries to his squad.
Dockal exited in the 55th minute for Alejandro Bedoya, who picked out Simpson with a pair of assists, while Fafa Picault and Keegan Rosenberry entered as late second-half substitutes.
Even a red card to Jack Elliott on Wednesday benefited the Union, as Mark McKenzie was able to get his first full 90 minutes under his belt since July 25.
Thanks to the success of the rotation, Curtin enters Houston on Wednesday night with a fully-fit lineup that won’t be exhausted heading into Columbus on Saturday.