Players to watch

Player to watch: Jay Simpson

Photo by Paul Rudderow

Finding undervalued talent is something Earnie Stewart has made a career in doing. From the Dutch Eredivisie to Major League Soccer, everywhere Stewart has gone he’s had immediate success. His most valuable signing so far as the Sporting Director of the Philadelphia Union is obvious. Stewart found an English player with Caribbean heritage who was lighting up the lower tier across the pond. He brought him to the States, and, in his first full season, his signing won the Golden Boot and took his team to the brink of MLS Cup.

Union fans know full well that the first sentence is true. The second sentence is part true and false. Every sentence thereafter is true, unfortunately that truth belongs to New York Red Bulls striker, Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Jay Simpson is not Bradley Wright-Phillips.

False equivalencies

The world is full of false equivalencies. For example, 2 is a number and 1 is a number. However, that does not mean that 2 is equal to 1. A hot dog is food and sushi is food, however a hot dog is not the same as sushi.

Union commentators and fans rushed to embrace this fallacious strategy when Jay Simpson was signed. It’s a natural human instinct to categorize things we don’t understand so that we may feel comfortable with them more quickly. Because no one had heard of Jay Simpson, commentators and fans put him in a group. The most notable player in that group was Wright-Phillips.

Enter the false equivalency.

2017 and what could have been

Jay Simpson did not contend for the Golden Boot in 2017, nor did the Union challenge for MLS Cup. He did score just minutes into his home debut, and ended up in the hospital as a result of his efforts.

As he recovered, C.J. Sapong took the mantle from him and never looked back. Simpson, meanwhile, spent most of his season on the bench or as the last sub on a team desperate for a goal. Both spots are difficult places for a striker to find the net, and Simpson’s numbers reflect that.

Four starts and 22 appearances totaling 472 minutes. 13 shots, 6 on goal, and only 1 “bulging onion bag” to show for it.

The history

Jay Simpson played on six clubs in ten years before coming to Philadelphia. That’s 171 matches in total, only 13 of which were in a first division (Thailand’s Premier League does not count). His last English club, Leyton Orient, was just relegated out of League Two. That ignominy came after failing to pay debts, players, and taxes before being sold.

Simpson left as it was all going down and signed a two year deal here worth $500,000 per year. His was a savvy move.

To know how Simpson has toiled, always a few breaks away from the Premier League but never promoted, is to write a cliched narrative of work ethic. The Union gave him a lifeline and made him a starter. He showed up fit, helped the team earn a draw in Vancouver and take an early lead against Toronto before leaving the field injured.

(Had he never returned, that brief cameo might go down in all-time Union lore. A goal and a hospital visit, all before fans had finished their cheesesteaks… Philly Tough, short and sweet.)

The point is this: don’t doubt Simpson’s commitment to the team or his work ethic. His body of work before arriving and his start in 2017 should make that argument moot.

The doubt should creep when a different question is asked.

How will the Union adjust to make Jay Simpson successful?

2018 and why he’s someone to watch

In an eerily prescient interview of Orient supporters from The Brotherly Game in January, Simpson’s potential impact was summarized.

If he has another striker to play off of, he’ll be great. If he has to carry the load alone, he’ll be marked out of the game.

Every conversation about the Union seems to come back to the team’s one rigid truth: the Union play a 4-2-3-1. In spite of everything, the Union play a 4-2-3-1. With orcs and uruk-hai battering down the walls of Helms Deep, the Union play a 4-2-3-1. While the band plays on the deck of a sinking Titanic, the Union play a 4-2-3-1. While Bruce Willis rides an exploding asteroid and Aerosmith reminds listeners that they “don’t wanna miss a thing,” the Union play a 4-2-3-1.

The Union play a 4-2-3-1.

The “1” in that formation represents the striker. Jay Simpson is a striker, as is C.J. Sapong. The truth about false equivalencies is that, although 1 and 2 are both numbers, 1 does not equal 2. Therefore, no iteration of this formation allows both players to be on the field at the same time so long as they both call themselves, “striker.”

Simpson has played on the wing before, as has Sapong. It is neither’s preferred nor best position. Each time either player has ended up there, they’ve shortly ended up on another team.

Jay Simpson is someone to watch because, in an off-season where a third of the team has already been let go, he is staying. His place in the striker depth chart is clear thanks to Sapong’s record season. His role in the team is not.

Can he fit on the wing now that Chris Pontius is gone? Can he fit as a number ten with the departure of Roland Alberg? Will he be traded? Can he play striker while Sapong does one of those options? Will he be satisfied as a back up for another season? Satisfied platooning?

Is he simply satisfied to not be in the Vanarama National League?

Only Jay Simpson knows the answer. Only the creativity of the Union can give him a forum to show it.


  1. I Am Citizen Insane says:

    Jay Simpson. Scores a lovely gol in his first game, a game the everyday striker is unable to score then gets put on in 88th min to run around.

    • El P,
      You remind me of a history prof I had years ago whose sole existence in life was to rip famous people, digging deep to find every “fault” from mistresses to depression to alcohol.
      Ad nauseum.
      Forgotten were every accomplishment as they paled in comparison to the minor flaws.
      The way you tell story El p, Sapong never scored a goal and belongs on a Sunday league while Blake is a hack who should retire and never go between the pipes again.
      Do I have that right?
      Hope you are only like this on the web hiding behind your multiple personalities else I pity your friends and family who are subjected to such a protean standard of perfection.

  2. He is what he is at this point. A backup who needs to earn his minutes. He needs service to be successful, which sounds like the opposite of a number 10, creative maestro skill set. Hopefully, he can spell sapong on occasion and provide 20 good minutes off the bench with some consistency. Otherwise, he’s a contender for biggest bust ever, save for M’Bolhi.

    • The Gorgon Mirror says:

      Or with a Barnetta type CAM scores 22 gols next season. Course the team would need to stop having the goalkeeper punting the ball to the striker because this striker is not a Hold Up kinda Guy.

      • Building out of the back also needs both centerbacks able to do so.
        That is part of the attractiveness of Josh Yaro’s potential.

      • The Gorgon Mirror says:

        I agree and it is your contention this is the greatest issue between: Coaching tactics, Goalkeeper distribution, Central defensive technical ability?

  3. It seems to me that he’s being kept around more to try and prove that buying him in the first place was justified. I don’t think it was or will be.

  4. Chris….really creative and fun article. Thank you for sharing.
    I agree formation change should at least be attempted to give Sapong and Simpson a shot and that is crux of issue.
    Silver Rey probably correct as to reason Simpson kept…but your argument is totally correct that only way to justify is to get both strikers on field at same time.

  5. If there was a creative CAM with a diamond 4-4-2 would allow Jay an CJ to play off each other.
    The roster issue then becomes Ale shifted to RM and an aging Haris at the bottom of the diamond.
    The whole roster is an Isle of Misfit Toys.

    • lol Isle of Misfit Toys! That would make Stewart the benevolent winged lion? I have to say that all the formation talk is so unique to soccer. No other sport would claim that just changing your shape would change your success. I feel similar about the coaching, though I’ll admit Curtin’s substitutions are very frustrating in their lateness and predictability. A LB, a #10, a winger who scores(poor Pontius last year!), that’s what this team needs. All the formation talk you can put in a paperbag and light it on fire.

      • I am a Chelsea fan as well as a Union fan. I’ve watched how a team changing from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3 with the same players made a difference. Granted Conte’s energy has something to do with it, but we don’t have a Conte and save changing 85% of the team we don’t have the skills to support a 4-2-3-1

  6. Nice commentary.
    Sugarman is cheap.
    Before your say Simpson cost a half million dollars… it was league money.

  7. I have been hammering this point for two years now. CJ can change the tenor of a game, period. He is tough, fast and works harder than anyone. He scores most of his goals once he has successfully held the ball until our tied slow help arrives. The team needs to scrap the 4-2-3-1 unless they intend to bring 6 or 7 players over from the premiere league and play a 3-5-2. Oddly enough, this alignment, even though there’s only 3 in the back can be a big help defensively. the 5 midfielders clog up the middle and will help stop all those free runs we give away every game.

    Its hard to defend a good attack player when he comes at you full speed. also the way we play requires our outside backs to join the attack which puts them out of position when the opponent floats those balls over the top. Perhaps if we played with Rosenberry, Elliott and Yaro and Meduniun and bedoya playing a bit deeper we can slow down the counters that leave us so vulnerable. Not sure what to do about the set piece goals that beat us inthe 85th minute…

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