When looking at the MLS salary information that was published last week, a bunch of numbers jumped off the page. But for Philadelphia Union fans, the number that had to leave most Union fans left scratching their heads was the base salary for Union striker Jay Simpson.
Simpson was recruited to the Philadelphia Union almost a year and a half ago from English Football League 2 team Leyton Orient. Orient was in a death spiral as a club, with an absentee and unmotivated owner that seemed to find joy in the destruction of the club.
Simpson’s departure during the winter transfer window of 2017 was one of the many things that helped to send a once promising East London team into dire straights. Everything came to a head in April of 2017, when fans stormed the pitch to protest the ownership of the club and the impending relegation from the Football League, ending their 100+ year run in League Football.
20 – Jay Simpson has scored more goals in all competitions than any other player in England’s top four tiers this season (20). Evergreen.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 7, 2016
To be fair, it was a bit surprising to see a player from a League 2 club make the switch to MLS, but Simpson was only one year removed from a remarkable goal-scoring run. During the 2015-16 season, Simpson scored 25 goals and added three assists as Orient just missed out on a play-off place. And while his 2016-17 season wasn’t great, with the chaos surrounding Orient, no one was having a great season.
Now that @MLS salaries have been released, we can confirm that @LAGalaxy's 4th highest paid player is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. @PhilaUnion's 4th highest paid player is Jay Simpson. #DOOP— MK_27 (@mk_27) May 12, 2018
Last year, Simpson was one of the highest-paid Union players, despite the lack of time on the pitch. This season it’s gotten worse. Simpson got a $115,008 raise to $623,341.33. To add insult to the salary cap injury, Simpson has only played 39 minutes.
With the Union having played 10 of the 34 regular season matches so far this season, Simpson has earned a pro-rated salary of $183,335.69 so far. With his 39 minutes played, he has earned $4,700.92 per minute this season. Good work if you can get it.
Additionally, it appears that Simpson has fallen behind Cory Burke in the depth chart. During last week’s press conference, Union head coach Jim Curtin said in regards to Simpson:
It’s just a decision, like every position, where there’s a little bit of a pecking order. Whether that’s right or wrong in the court of public opinion, that can be fine, but we see them every day in training, and right now, Cory is a little bit ahead of Jay. So that’s the decision we’ve made, and that’s the one we’re going to stick with.
Choose you favourite goal from the weekend! RT for Jay Simpson for @leytonorientfc or 'like' for Stephen McLaughlin for @SUFCRootsHall. pic.twitter.com/66EJ5bWM6w— Channel 5 Sport (@Channel5Sport) November 14, 2016
None of this should be surprising to the Union brass, if they had bothered to do their homework on Simpson before recruiting him to play for the Union. Last year, I said that the Union needed to play with a target man if they were to get the best of out their roster, as Simpson is a poacher, not a forward that can play as a lone-striker in a 4-2-3-1 system. His start to the 2015-16 season, when he scored 11 goals in Orient’s first 14 matches, he was paired with another striker, mainly target men.
Simpson is best when he’s allowed to play off of another striker like a target man. He isn’t going to win many balls in the air nor is he going to breeze by very many defenders with his pace, but he is going to score when he’s in the six-yard box with the ball at his feet.
Unfortunately for both the Union and Simpson, he’s not going to get very many of those chances playing as the lone striker in the Union’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system. He is a terrible fit for the Union, and it appears that Curtin has realized this as well.
Simpson’s contract is an anchor on the Union’s salary cap. They need investment and some new players in the summer transfer window if they are to compete for a playoff spot, but with the fourth highest salary being spent on a player that is a poor fit and has fallen down in the pecking order, the Union will not have the flexibility to make the necessary moves.
So what to do with him? It would be best for all involved if Simpson returned to England during the summer transfer window, but his salary of $23,975 (£17,141.25) per week would be more than most League 1 or League 2 teams could afford, and with his lack of success in MLS or in any division above League 2, he would find it difficult for a Championship club to take on his wages. Perhaps the Union could subsidize his wages in order to push a move along, but the possibility of the front office signing off on paying a player to not play for the Union seems slim.
So at least for another year, the Union are stuck with Simpson and his contract. In a salary cap league, it is vital for the Union to avoid costly mistakes like these if they are to compete for a playoff spot. It’s not just the money the Union spend that matters, but how the money is spent, and how those who construct the roster are held accountable for costly mistakes such as Simpson’s contract that will determine the future success of this franchise.