Union confident their luck will change

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Union confident their luck will change

CHESTER, Pa. -- John Hackworth is feeling the heat.

He’s also feeling a bit unlucky.

Instead of immediately fielding questions at his midweek press conference as he usually does, the Philadelphia Union manager took a few minutes off the bat to address the growing concerns that his team, despite some lofty preseason expectations, has sunk to eighth place in the Eastern Conference and is winless in its last seven contests.

And while taking responsibility for the disappointing start to the 2014 season, he also predicted a turn in the team’s fortunes.

“Our team is not satisfied at all with where we are,” Hackworth said. “The fact that we are not getting the results that we want is unacceptable to all of us. I can’t emphasize enough that as players and coaches, that is first and foremost on our minds.

“At the same time, if we continue to play at a level that we all believe we can, the shots are going to start to fall for us and the ball is going to start to bounce our way. There will be some luck that comes with it and we will see a turn in these results.”

Few would argue the Union have talented players – a group that includes rising young stars like Amobi Okugo and Sheanon Williams coupled with big-name newcomers like Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira.

And, according to Hackworth, they’re handling the disappointing 1-3-5 start as best as they can heading into Saturday’s brutally tough road tilt against the Seattle Sounders (5-2-1) at CenturyLink Field (10:00 p.m., The Comcast Network).

“The players have responded well,” Hackworth said. “They’re all frustrated. They all know that, to each one of them, they are capable of making a play when called upon. The reality is that we haven’t had guys make that play, and they all take responsibility for that. But I think there’s a belief within that locker room that they do have the capability to do it.”

Who will be the one to make a big play to help the Union snap out of an offensive funk in which they haven’t scored from the run of play in their last three outings?

Edu, the team’s marquee offseason acquisition and a potential member of the U.S. national team in this summer’s World Cup, put the onus on himself this week.

“I need to try to get forward more and try to support the attack a little more and not leave that role just to Vincent [Nogueira],” Edu said. “Before I was playing box to box but starting a little deeper and timing my runs from there. Maybe I should start a little bit higher so that way, going forward, we might have a little more numbers in the attack. And hopefully that can lead to some more opportunities.”

Regardless of where Edu is positioned in the field, many fans are pointing fingers at Hackworth for being unable to effectively mesh his big signings like Edu with the team’s returning core.

And Hackworth is well aware of his growing number of critics.

“I would tell you that, first and foremost, I would take responsibility for that,” the Union manager said. “I think I have to be held accountable for that, no matter what. The players that are out there, they’re putting everything forward. And the way that we have tried to play this year and execute in many different facets of the game has been good. Our belief is that it will change, and we will see some results start to fall our way.

“We feel unlucky up to this point. The reality is that this game can be cruel sometimes.”

The thing about soccer, though, is that cruel moments can turn into great ones. Perhaps that’s why Hackworth and many of his players believe the tide will soon turn.

Fullback Ray Gaddis even noted that “it hasn’t been difficult” to remain positive given that there’s still six months left in the season.

“For me, it’s still early on in the season,” Gaddis said. A lot of people are frantic about our team but we have to remain positive among ourselves. I think the results will start turning our way and then everyone will be excited again.”

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.