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Jay Simpson leads reserve-heavy Union over West-best SKC

The English striker’s brace lifted a Union B team over the best team in the Western Conference.

MLS: Sporting KC at Philadelphia Union Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

On a wet, cloudy Sunday, with nine of their usual starters on the bench, the Philadelphia Union continued its hot second half and march to securing a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

Seldom-used Jay Simpson tallied two goals in the second half and backup goalkeeper John McCarthy recorded a clean sheet in his 2018 regular season debut as the Union held off Western-Conference leading Sporting Kansas City, 2-0, in front of 15,080 fans at Talen Energy Stadium.

So, who saw that coming?

“We followed up what you can call our biggest win of the season in Seattle (1-0 on Wednesday) with an even bigger one,” Union coach Jim Curtin said. “I am really proud of the players. Before the game, we talked about what it means to be a true team.

“I think that what I meant by that was any 11 guys that are together fighting with belief, and attacking and defending as one can beat any group of talented players.”

The game against SKC was the Union’s third in eight days, and they have the U.S. Open Cup Final and a league game in Columbus on Saturday.

It’s a hectic time of the season for the Union, who are trying to balance locking up a playoff berth in the final weeks of the season with winning the Open Cup final, which takes place in Houston on Wednesday.

The schedule crunch has forced Curtin to stretch his allotment of players for each game to keep them fresh and healthy. As he did in Seattle, Curtin sprinkled in reserves, including Simpson, who has made only three appearances this year, and Olivier Mbaizo, who has spent the year with Bethlehem Steel FC and made his MLS debut on Sunday afternoon.

And, once again, Curtin pushed the right buttons.

“Good ol’ MLS, right? Anything can happen and anyone can beat anyone else,” said Alejandro Bedoya, who assisted on both goals. “We said before the game, no one expects us to get a result here. We are playing our so-called B team but the mentality was really good from the get-go. That was a credit to our whole group.”

After a scoreless first half, the Union got on the board in the 70th minute. Auston Trusty hit a restart across the field just inside the 18’. Bedoya, who relieved Borek Dockal, headed the ball to Simpson, who drilled a volley past goalie Tim Melia. Simpson added his second goal in the 89th minute, when Alejandro Bedoya selflessly nodded a chipped ball from Fafa Picault to the English striker’s feet. Simpson took a touch and blasted the ball off Melia’s hands and in.

“It was great to get those two goals,” Simpson said. “I really wanted to contribute.”

While Simpson carried the offense, McCarthy frustrated SKC with numerous big stops and finished with six saves. The Mayfair native didn’t learn he was going to play until an hour before kickoff.

“I was ready to go,” McCarthy said. “That is what a backup is supposed to do. You have to have the mindset that you are going to play.”

The Union improved to 14-12-4 on Sunday and moved within a point of fourth-place Columbus in the conference. They now hold an 11-point lead over DC United and the New England Revolution for the last playoff spot, though both of those teams have at least one game in hand.

The Union’s focus now shifts from the postseason race to gunning for their first Open Cup title.

“I hope we can roll into Houston with a lot of confidence,” Bedoya said. “We have beaten them there once already this year (3-1 on July 25) so why not again and bring back our first trophy for the club.”