Parke reflects on Seattle but considers Union his home

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Parke reflects on Seattle but considers Union his home

CHESTER, Pa. -- In June of 2010, Seattle Sounders defender Jeff Parke sat in the PPL Park visitors locker room following the Union’s inaugural home match at the new Chester arena.

With a smile, the Downingtown native discussed the joy in seeing his hometown become the newest MLS city and the thrill of opening PPL Park in front of family and friends. He also mentioned a dream he had of eventually coming home and playing in Philadelphia.

Three years later that dream came true.

“It was a trade we had in the works since the end of [last] season,” said Parke, who faces his former club for the first time since the trade. “I expressed my intent, how my family was first and how I wanted to be back in Philly. I wanted to be home with family. I have another four years left in my career and I always wanted to play in Philly and end my career here. Seattle was a great place, but family came first.”

Eight games into his career with the Union, Parke has been a veteran pillar on coach John Hackworth’s back line, which features youngsters Sheanon Williams, Ray Gaddis and Amobi Okugo. When Parke came back to Philadelphia, he didn’t just bring his wife and newborn daughter, but a pool of leadership and experience for the young Union to tap into.

“I only have good things to say because of the kind of person and professional he’s been since the first day he arrived here,” Hackworth said. “Not only that but he’s played very well and brought leadership and continuity to our back line, which up to now has been very good. Jeff’s been a great acquisition for this club.”

Requesting a trade to the Union so he could be closer to his family, Parke has never been happier. And with a 3-3-2 record -- and improved play from last season -- the Union are, too.

“Every week I can scoot over to my parents' house or my wife’s parents' house and they can come help,” Parke said. “They can see our little daughter, which is so important. Those are the times I look at as a father and say this is why we live and why I do what I do. When I see her and my family, it puts a smile on my face. It’s a really good feeling.”

Yet, experience and leadership isn’t all Parke brings. With a first-hand understanding of the Philadelphia sports mentality and how fans react to area teams and players, Parke was the perfect acquisition for the Union, who were coming off a year featuring one public relations disaster after another.

“Being a hometown guy is really important to us because he gets the culture here in Philadelphia,” Hackworth said. “He was a fan growing up here and that’s unique for people to understand. He’s very valuable to us and we hope he’s like that for a long time to come.”

Though Parke is thrilled with his new situation in Philadelphia, the gritty central defender and Drexel University grad spent three of the best years with the Sounders, making Saturday’s contest at PPL Park a unique one.

“It’s definitely special because I’m home -- this is where I’m from,” Parke said. “And Seattle, where I played the last couple years and have a lot of good memories from, it has a different feel. But at the end of the day, I want three points. I’ll have more butterflies because it’s guys that I’ve played with and we have friendships, so it’ll be different for sure.

“I’m thankful for the opportunities they gave me, but I’m now onto the next chapter. This is home.”

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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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.