Five ways for Union to improve next season

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Five ways for Union to improve next season

CHESTER, Pa. – For the Philadelphia Union, it’s been hard not to look back at all the points they left on the table over the past eight months.

Those missed opportunities, after all, prevented the club from making the playoffs and caused its season to end on Saturday with a disappointing 2-1 loss to Sporting Kansas City at PPL Park.

But while the Union probably could have gotten a couple of better breaks, finished with a few more points and made the postseason, the harsh truth is this was always a middle-of-the-road MLS team that was never really a championship contender.

So instead of looking back at all of the what-ifs, it’s time to look ahead to what the Union can do to become a championship contender and join the ranks of some of the other elite teams in the league.

Here’s a five-point offseason plan:

1. Keep coaching staff, young core in place
When a team wins only twice in its last 10 games to fall from near the top of the standings into seventh place, it’s natural for fans to want changes. And the axe usually falls on the coach. But while Union manager John Hackworth made some mistakes this season and was painfully stubborn with some of his lineup decisions (hardly playing Kleberson at all until October remains a tough pill to swallow for many fans), he deserves another year as he continues to bring the club forward from the mess that former manager Peter Nowak left behind.

Hackworth’s offseason moves last year to bring in veterans Jeff Parke, Conor Casey and Sebastien Le Toux were good ones, and the team’s young core -- eight of the top 12 players are 26 or younger -- have been mostly thriving under his guidance. And that young core, led by rising stars Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, Zac MacMath and Sheanon Williams, should only improve next season. The biggest priority should be to keep those players for the long term.

2. Open up wallet for star playmaker
The good thing about the makeup of this Union team is that wholesale changes aren’t necessary. As mentioned above, they have some of the league’s top young talent, which mixes nicely with a few reliable MLS veterans. But all of those players would be so much better if the Union had a premier attacking midfielder. Too often this season the Union relied on crossing and blind runs to try to create offense, lacking creativity in the final third.

What they need is a big-time playmaker that can take on defenders, take shots from distance and have the vision to make the right passes. Naturally, these kinds of players cost a lot of money. Freddy Adu was supposed to be that guy and Kleberson was supposed to be that guy, but in the end, Hackworth had issues with both of those high-priced midfielders. With some more salary cap flexibility, will he bring in someone he likes for that role? Or will the Union try to steer clear of bringing in another Designated Player?

3. Make the draft count
Here’s something to look forward to: Because of a trade that sent Gabriel Farfan to Chivas USA, the Union will have two of the top-six picks in the upcoming MLS SuperDraft, including the second overall selection. And just like the 2010 draft, when the Union landed McInerney, Okugo and the since-departed Danny Mwanga in the first round, the draft will be held in Philadelphia. The MLS draft can certainly be hit or miss, but if the Union are able to land another one-two punch like McInerney and Okugo, they’ll have a lot to look forward to over the next few years.

4. Be flexible and creative
While Hackworth won’t want to trade some of his top players, there are certainly a couple of positions where the Union have the numbers to make some moves. At right back, they’re stacked with Williams and fellow youngster Ray Gaddis, so Hackworth will have to decide whether he wants to trade one of them or make the right-footed Gaddis the permanent left back.

And then there’s the defensive midfield spot, where captain Brian Carroll played all but the final game of the season. Carroll is a great leader, an even better person and an underrated player, but the Union might be better off with Okugo, a natural midfielder, in that spot. Yes, Okugo played well at center back all season, but if they move him into the midfield they could either pick up another center back in the draft, get 2012 captain Carlos Valdes back from his Colombian loan, or move Williams over to center back. For Hackworth, it should at least be a move worth considering.

5. Shed the underdog label
For most of the season, Hackworth and the players talked about not getting enough respect, not being picked to make the playoffs and playing better in an underdog role. While that’s all well and good for a team in Philly -- we do love “Rocky,” after all -- it might be time for them to stop worrying about what other people think about them. If they want to be an elite team, they have to act like it.

Union draft Chris Nanco, Jack Elliott in third and fourth rounds

Union draft Chris Nanco, Jack Elliott in third and fourth rounds

With an eye on potential, the Union selected two forwards and a defender as they wrapped up the third and fourth rounds of the 2017 MLS draft on Tuesday.

With the 55th overall selection, the Union grabbed Chris Nanco, a Canadian-born forward out of Syracuse. The 5-foot-6 speedster, who led his club with 15 points over his senior season, was listed as a second-round talent on some draft boards.

Moving into the fourth and final round, the Union selected West Virginia defender Jack Elliott with the 77th overall pick. Opposite of the diminutive Nanco, Elliott, out of London, stands at a hulking 6-foot-5. Also listed as a defensive midfielder, Elliott showed a twinge of offense and started all 16 games for the Mountaineers in his senior season, playing a part in eight shutouts over that span.

Back in 2015, the Union moved defender Ethan White to New York City FC for the 82nd overall pick in 2017. That trade finalized on Tuesday when the Union selected productive Spanish forward Santi Moar out of Pfeiffer University. Moar scored 14 goals and 19 assists in 20 games with Pfeiffer as a sophomore in 2016.

Although these picks aren’t guaranteed to be with the club by the end of training camp, the Union will heavily utilize USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel to assist in the development of prospects who do make it.

Without a first-round pick, the Union traded up to select Marcus Epps, an attacking midfielder in the early second round. They also added depth at right back Aaron Jones with the 33rd overall pick.

Union trade up in 2nd round to draft Marcus Epps, also add Aaron Jones

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USA Today Images

Union trade up in 2nd round to draft Marcus Epps, also add Aaron Jones

With no first-round picks in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft on Friday in Los Angeles, the Union were still able to add what they were looking for. 

“We got two players today that we want to be with the Philadelphia Union for a long time,” Union manager Jim Curtin said.

The club made a splash early in the second round by trading the 42nd overall pick, originally acquired by the Union, sending Zac MacMath to the Colorado Rapids, and $50,000 in 2018 General Allocation Money to the Minnesota United for the 25th overall pick. 

With that selection, the Union plucked Marcus Epps, an athletic right wing midfielder out of the University of South Florida. 

“We didn’t want to wait any longer,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “We were afraid Marc would go sooner, so we made sure we were ready to do a deal and creep up the board so we could get him.”

Epps admitted he didn’t know much about the Union. He wasn’t in attendance at the draft but was thrilled at hearing his name called over the MLS live stream.

“I’ve been on the phone with family and friends,” he said. “I was huddled around the laptop, streaming in and hoping to hear the good news. 

“I was definitely surprised and excited.”

Epps, listed by MLS at 5-foot-10, is 22 and a native of Jackson, Mississippi. According to both Stewart and Curtin, Epps is an adept one-on-one player and a skillful attacking winger that fits the Union’s style. He’s also right-footed and stated that he has experience on both the left and right wing in the midfield.

“He has speed, he has agility, he’s a big boy,” Stewart said. “The combination of those factors and the philosophy that we have at the Philadelphia Union, we believe we can develop this kid to be something very special. If you have the ability that he has on the ball and the speed that he has, that can create a lot of chaos in the opponent’s half. That’s something we look forward to developing in Marcus.” 

However, while Epps’ numbers at USF aren’t eye-popping, Stewart isn’t worried. The young player spent most of his senior season with an iliotibial band injury but scored eight goals and nine assists in 75 games over four seasons with USF. 

“We bring players in to develop them,” Stewart said. “If they had all the numbers in college or youth teams, they would have gone one or two. He has certain qualities that not every player has. Keegan Rosenberry (current Union right back) didn’t have the numbers other people had at the same time. I think we made a good choice with Keegan.” 

Even with their move up in the second round, the Union still possessed their original second-round pick — the 33rd overall selection. There, they added depth by drafting aggressive 5-foot-9 right back Aaron Jones out of Clemson. 

“I’m delighted to join the Union and excited at the direction that franchise is moving,” Jones said. “I’m extremely proud of what Keegan was able to do last year. It’s [what] I want to emulate in my career. I want to push him and try and play as many games as I can next year. Injuries happen in sports, so if the chance is given to me, I’m going to take it.”

Jones, who hails from Great Yarmouth in the U.K. and claims to be a set-piece specialist, transferred from Georgia State to Clemson for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Like Epps, Curtin, who noted Jones’ soccer IQ and tenacity, sees the right back fitting in nicely with the Union style.

“He really impressed us,” said Curtin, who noted that Jones will compete with Rosenberry and Ray Gaddis for playing time. “He’s a kid who will compete from Day 1. He wins his one-on-one battles defensively, he embraces the defensive part of the game and he’s a guy that wants to get better every day. He has a Union mentality and will be a guy our fans will be high on.

“He has an impressive skillset.”

The Union will take part in the third and fourth rounds of the 2017 draft on Jan. 17, in which the club owns the 55th, 77th and 82nd pick.