Union make tough cuts, but keep Anding & Fernandes

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Union make tough cuts, but keep Anding & Fernandes

With the Union’s preseason drawing to a close, the club’s opening match roster has tightened, leaving touted youngsters Damani Richards, Eric Schoenle, Alex Mendoza and Stephen Okai seeking employment elsewhere.

“We still have a number of decisions to make in terms of players that we think will make us the most competitive team we can be on the field,” Union manager John Hackworth said from the team’s preseason camp in Deltona, Fla. “Those are tough decisions but they are ones you want to have because it means we’re having good competition for spots.”

Knowing that their camp would be a competitive one, the Union’s coaching staff was ready to make tough roster decisions. And even though the Union only have one exhibition game left to play on Saturday before returning back to Philadelphia on Sunday, releasing Okai, the 31st pick in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft, Schoenle and two young recruited talents, left many observers wondering.

“Stephen Okai is simple, we go through an MLS draft and we have his rights. But if that player is not going to make your roster, you release him,” Hackworth explained. “That’s the case with Okai, he’s a good player. All these guys are good players and there is a reason they were here in the first place. Our job is to take a large number of players and narrow it down in compliance with roster spots and salary cap constraints. That process is extremely competitive.”

That noted competition also pushed defender Richards, 18, who signed a contract with the Union on Jan. 19, off the club’s roster and into more of a developmental path.

“He brings some qualities that every coach looks for,” Hackworth said. “But he’s very young, very inexperienced -- in fact no experience as a professional athlete at all. It was very difficult for him to make this roster, which is very competitive and has very few spots. That doesn’t mean we’re totally giving him up. We have an affiliation with Harrisburg [City Islanders] and we hope he will still be under our watchful [eye] and can develop.

“The reality is there are better players here.”

The biggest surprise however may be the release of Schoenle, a 2013 Supplemental Draft selection out of Yardley, Pa. The defender was considered a sleeper prospect. He just missed the cut.

“We have released Eric Schoenle,” Hackworth said. “He’s a guy we really like and he’s a fantastic soccer player, and if we had a way to keep him we would certainly keep him. He’s a guy we want to put on a developmental path. It’s important for him to grow and continue developing.”

The Union also released 34-year-old Greek international, veteran and trialist, Pantelis Kafes.

“He’s a guy we wanted to look at and he’s had a fantastic and illustrious career,” Hackworth said. “He’s a good player but he’s a little older and doesn’t really fit what we were trying to do. So he will not be with us and is not with us any longer.”

Though the Union have released some noticeable talent, the young players looking to make the Union’s final roster for the March 2 opener against Sporting Kansas City are just as intriguing.

Drafted 26th overall, 21-year-old Don Anding has impressed Hackworth and is penciled in on the left-back depth chart behind Gabe Farfan and Ray Gaddis. Leo Fernandes, another Supplemental Draft pick, also is expected to make the team in the midfield.

“I don’t know if you watched the game [1-1 draw versus DC United] last night, but Don Anding started at left back probably made one of the best plays of any game I’ve seen,” Hackworth said. “We have had excellent competition at left back and we start this season, this moment, with three very qualified players. In our humble estimation as coaches, we have elected the three best guys for us to be successful heading into the season.”

One battle still playing out is between former Real Madrid youth, 21-year-old
Jordi Vidal and other depth forwards on the Union roster. Shrugging aside the tough transition from Europe to the MLS, Vidal has the Union very intrigued.

“Jordi is with us and we really like him,” Hackworth said. “He has a really tough job of trying to beat out a guy who is currently under contract at one of our forward spots but he is currently doing very well.

“Jordi is a good player, technically he’s sound. He came through a very famous youth academy at Real Madrid. The one thing I think is tough for a guy coming from abroad, they have to make an extremely quick transition to a very different culture and different environment. But he’s still here with us and he’s giving us an extremely tough decision to make.”

For Hackworth this offseason, it wouldn’t be the first.

Union sign draft picks Aaron Jones and Jack Elliott

Union sign draft picks Aaron Jones and Jack Elliott

The Union have signed draft picks Aaron Jones and Jack Elliott, the second and fourth round picks from last month’s MLS SuperDraft. 

Jones is a 5-foot-9 defender was selected 33rd overall.

“We are pleased to sign Aaron to an official MLS contract,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said in a statement. “Aaron has impressed throughout his time with us in preseason camp, displaying quickness, his ability in passing and on free kicks, and his aggressive one-on-one defending.”

The 22-year-old originally played with Georgia State University from 2013-2014. He made 35 starts while scoring three goals with five assists. He transferred to Clemson before the 2015 season and finished his final two seasons with the Tigers. In those two seasons he made 38 starts, scoring four goals, and gathered seven assists. 

Elliott was chosen 77th overall out of West Virginia, where he played in 68 games and recorded six goals and five assists. He was named to the 2016 NSCAA All-Great Lakes Region First Team in addition to earning CoSIDA Academic All-America First Team honors, becoming WVU’s first three-time Academic All-America honoree.

“When you look at Jack, the first thing you notice is his height, an asset that we believe will serve him well as a professional,” said Stewart in a statement. “He is a good passer who reads the game well.”

CSN, TCN to air 25 of Union's 34 games in 2017

CSN, TCN to air 25 of Union's 34 games in 2017

Twenty-five of the Union’s 34 games in 2017 will be featured on CSN and TCN, as Jim Curtin’s club vies for a second straight playoff berth.

Twenty matches will air on TCN, while five can be seen on CSN. The nine others will be appear across 6ABC, ESPN and FOX Sports 1.

The Union’s season opener on March 5 at the Vancouver Whitecaps will broadcast on TCN and the team’s home opener on March 11 against Toronto FC will air on CSN. The next three games — March 18 at Orlando City SC, April 1 at D.C. United and April 8 vs. the Portland Timbers — will be shown on TCN.

The Union are coming off an 11-14-9 season and their second-ever trip to the MLS playoffs in which they suffered a first-round exit to Toronto FC.

For the Union’s full 2017 schedule, click here.