Union Notes: MacMath thriving on penalty kicks

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Union Notes: MacMath thriving on penalty kicks

CHESTER, Pa. – Union goalkeeper Zac MacMath doesn’t like penalty kicks and doesn’t think he’s particularly good at stopping them.

Funny, because that’s all he’s done this season.

In what’s been one of the few bright spots of an otherwise dour start to the year for the Union, MacMath has managed to save all three penalty kicks he’s faced -- a rare achievement for any goalie.

The MLS record for penalty kick saves in a single season? Four.

“I’ve known Zac for a long time and I’ve seen him take a lot of PKs, and this has not been his strong suit as a goalkeeper,” Union manager John Hackworth said. “But the good thing is you kind of see Zac evolving. His game has improved in so many little ways that I think it was natural that with his ability to read and his decision-making that he was going to figure it out.”

MacMath’s latest PK save may have been his best one yet. After Amobi Okugo was whistled for a handball in the box in the first half of the Union's 2-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders, MacMath picked his teammate up with a tremendous diving save on Osvaldo Alonso.

“I know there’s talk from the Seattle camp that it was interesting that Alonso took it,” Hackworth said. “But I don’t care who takes that PK. That’s a well-taken PK. For a 'keeper to save that, with that kind of pace and that kind of placement, that’s pretty impressive.”

MacMath’s first two PK saves came in back-to-back games in early April -- against reigning MVP Mike Magee of the Chicago Fire and Real Salt Lake’s Alvoro Saborio. The one against Magee was especially impressive because he also thwarted the star forward’s rebound attempt to preserve a tie on the final play of the game, leading MacMath to call it “one of the best moments of my career.”

He’s had other great moments too, and after an up-and-down start to his professional career, MacMath seems to be really hitting his stride this season -- his third as a starter.

He may even be the Union’s best player right now.

“We just need to build off performances like Zac’s,” Hackworth said. “He kept us in a game, a really high-level game on Saturday night. It was an excellent save, and he’s had a very good year. We need other guys to feed off him and have those kinds of performances so that collectively as a team we are more consistent.”

Edu to the World Cup?
Ever since he signed with the Union in the offseason, Maurice Edu has been hounded with questions about how returning to MLS could help him in his quest to make the U.S. national team’s World Cup roster.

And while the Union (1-4-5) are struggling, it’s hasn’t been the fault of Edu, who’s been an effective box-to-box midfielder and is tied for the team lead in goals with two.

So will the Union midfielder make U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s preliminary 30-man roster when it’s announced Monday and then make the plane to Brazil after the roster is trimmed down to 23 for the World Cup?

Hackworth doesn’t know for sure but seems to like Edu’s chances.

“That’s not really a question for me to answer,” Hackworth said. “I would give you my opinion though: If there are soccer people out there, in particular Jurgen and his staff, I think they’re pleased with the way Mo is playing.”

Having a Union player represent the U.S. national team in Brazil would be a great thing for Philadelphia, but it would naturally leave the club shorthanded for a few games heading into the league’s World Cup break.

It will also give other players a chance to step in and fill the void left behind by Edu. Hackworth was asked specifically if one of them could be teenager Zach Pfeffer, who has yet to play a minute this season and is coming off a one-year loan to the German club Hoffenheim.

“Pfeffer is certainly a guy that is a possibility,” the Union manager said. “But he has to put himself in a position to be consistently brought into the 18 and to be considered to have his name listed in the [starting] 11 or be one of the three substitutions off the bench. … I’ve seen a lot of good things out of Zach. I hope that translates into him playing some valuable minutes for this team this season.”

Looking for offensive upgrades
Considering a Union player hasn’t scored from the run of play in the last four games, it’s no secret that the Union could use an offensive boost.

Could that boost come in the form of acquiring a new striker?

“The short answer is yes,” Hackworth said. “But I think in the bigger picture we have a group of guys that are capable of playing at this level and being very successful at this level. We aren’t thinking that we have to hit the panic button and do something drastic like bring in someone else.”

Wait, so was that a yes or a no?

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.