Union look to finally end curse at Red Bull Arena

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Union look to finally end curse at Red Bull Arena

CHESTER, Pa. -- For the fifth time since entering MLS in 2010, the Union will try to conquer the rival New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena.

But it’s going to take something special.

With an all-time record of 0-4-0 at Red Bull Arena, history is certainly not on the Union’s side come Saturday.

“The guys don’t talk about it too much,” Union forward Aaron Wheeler said about the losing streak at Red Bull Arena. “We have a lot of confidence in our group and we’ve outperformed expectations so far [this season]. The expectation is to go in there and get a result. We’re not going in there preparing to lose or playing for a 0-0 draw. We want to score goals.”

Yet, expecting a result isn’t out of the question, as both clubs are currently situated in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Also, with a 3-2-0 record against the Red Bulls at PPL Park, the Union have found the formula to defeating the conference heavyweights.

So why the sudden change at Red Bull Arena? Wheeler suspects the Red Bulls’ top players simply play better in front of their home crowd.

“It starts with the atmosphere they have there,” he said. “Then, of course, it’s the team they put on the field, starting with [Thierry] Henry and [Tim] Cahill. They are always a force in the league and they have played a very high level for a long time.”

On paper, the Union have a legitimate shot of ending the streak. With 10 games left in the season, the Union are in third place with 37 points while the Red Bulls are in second with 38. Both teams have scored 36 goals in 24 games, with the Union allowing 32 goals against to the Red Bulls’ 31.

“It’s an arena and team that hasn’t been that hospitable to us when we’ve gone up there,” Union coach John Hackworth said. “We feel like we’re in a good way right now and can only control what we can. We want to go up there and put on the kind of performance to get us a result in New York.”

All-time series history at Red Bull Arena

Red Bulls 2, Union 1 -- April 24, 2010
The Union’s first-ever trip to Red Bull Arena was defined by defender Michael Orozco Fiscal’s handball in the 67th minute. The error gave Juan Pablo Angel an easy penalty kick as the Red Bulls took the 2-1 victory. The Union’s lone goal came from Sebastien Le Toux in the 59th minute.

"We played well, we just have to fix mistakes," Le Toux said. "We come back and after there is a mistake, there was a handball. It's unfortunate and we're a little bit frustrated."

Red Bulls 1, Union 0 -- October 20, 2011
In the final match of the 2011 season, the playoff-bound Union went out with a whimper, allowing the Red Bulls to clinch a playoff berth with three points. Dane Richards’ goal in the eighth minute proved the difference maker, as the Red Bulls wiped out Faryd Mondragon’s Union, 1-0.

Red Bulls 2, Union 0 -- July 21, 2012
The third meeting between the rivals could be summarized as two teams headed in much different directions. Kenny Cooper scored twice and Connor Lade had two assists for the dominant Red Bulls, as they defeated Josue Martinez and the lifeless Union, 2-0.

Red Bulls 2, Union 1 -- March 30, 2013
The Union’s first adventure to Harrison in 2013 wasn’t a fruitful one. Despite Conor Casey’s equalizer in the 63rd minute, late dominance from Henry saw the Red Bulls once again prevail over the Union at home.

“I don’t think we did what we needed to do, but in the end it’s still tough to swallow,” Hackworth told PhiladelphiaUnion.com. “We are going to be attack-oriented, we are going to go for wins on the road and unfortunately we fell behind before we made a couple changes. It’s a frustrating loss.”

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.