Union refuse to overlook last-place DC United

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Union refuse to overlook last-place DC United

In one of the more surprising storylines of the early 2013 MLS season, DC United is sitting in the Eastern Conference basement and scrambling for answers.

But regardless of where Ben Olsen’s club may fall in the standings and whatever their struggles may be, the Union are preparing for a high-quality and tense bout on Sunday at RFK Stadium.

“We’re not even looking at their record right now,” Union defender Sheanon Williams said. “It’s early in the season and it looks like they’re a little slow out of the gates. But they’re definitely a good team. We know what they’re all about. We play them three times a year. They’re a team that if we take them for granted then they can come out and do some damage. Us knowing them so well, we know they’re a good team and we expect their best. They’re definitely going to be hungry for points.”

Competition is not the only thing the Union are expecting. With a combined 16 yellow cards and five red cards in four games against United in 2012, Hackworth wants his team to focus on the game and not get caught up in the typical emotion of playing bitter rivals (see story).

“We concentrate on the things we work on in training, we concentrate on our game plan and what we need to focus on to be successful versus DC,” Hackworth said. “We know each other really well. They’re a team that’s having a tough time right now but is much better than their record shows. We know how tough this is going to be. From the outside they might not be getting respect but we’re giving them a lot of respect.

“There’s a lot of emotion around it. You have to remind guys to keep that in check and use it in a positive way. We try to treat this like any other game. We have an opponent and we want to prepare for that opponent, and we’ll wait a little while longer before we let the emotions play into it.”

Yet, masking emotion might not be the Union’s biggest on-field worry. Although United, 1-4-1, has scored just two goals in six games this season, Hackworth has his team prepared for former Union strikers Lionard Pajoy and Carlos Ruiz to try and break the slump.

Pajoy has one goal on the season while Ruiz is still looking for his first.

“We know them really well,” Hackworth said. “When you look at Lio, he’s been really good against us. He’s had some frustrations this year and that’s a little scary because a player of his quality could be due. Carlos is the same way. He came in and is slowly ramping up. I expect him to play a big role on Sunday and he’ll be motivated. You have to prepare for those guys and the fact that we know them is good.”

Williams agreed.

“They’re good guys,” he said. “And on the field, they’re hard to play against. Pajoy does a lot of the hard work and the running and finding different channels to get the ball. And Carlos is a big body. He holds the ball up extremely well and links guys into play when he’s on. So definitely two challenges. If we see them both at the same time, I don’t know. But I’m sure at some point in the game we will see them.

“We know some of their tendencies but that doesn’t mean we can lock them down for the whole game. That’s obviously the objective but things happen during the course of a game. They’re good players, so they’re going to find ways to get behind us and do things to disrupt our defense.”

On the other side, the Union have clutch in their corner. After a frustrating stop-and-go contest against Toronto FC at home last Saturday, leading scorer Jack McInerney, who is tied for third in MLS with four goals, scored in stoppage time to preserve the tie.

The Union are 0-1-2 in their last three games and 2-2-2 overall.

“Any time you have a game like the one against Toronto, the first thing you think of is who’s next,” Hackworth said. “How can we rectify what we didn’t do well today? When’s our next chance to play? When you let points slip away, you have to get some back, you have to do that in this league. You’re going to lose some points when you don’t think you will and you have to find some when it’s not in your advantage to do so.”

While McInerney is the constant, Kleberson could be the wild card on Sunday. Brought in at the end of last Saturday’s match, the newly acquired Brazilian midfielder nearly scored the tying goal before setting up Antoine Hoppenot on a stoppage time breakaway. It was a brilliant start to his MLS career.

However, Hackworth is still not convinced Kleberson is starting material.

“Kleberson has put himself in a position where he’s definitely deserving of being selected,” Hackworth said. “At the same time, we need to make sure we’re putting the best possible team on the field. In the time that he played, Kleberson was good. He came on, lifted us up and created a couple chances. Those are things he does well. We still need to be patient and try to judge whether it makes sense for him to be a starter or come off the bench. I don’t think we’re ready to make that decision yet.”

No matter who Hackworth selects for the starting lineup, the Union players sound ready.

“They don’t like us and we don’t like them,” Williams said.

“Obviously you get a little bit more excited for these games. Also, it’s an Eastern Conference game, so any time you can try to grab points from somebody else and put yourself in a better position in the rankings, it’s definitely important.”

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.

Union's 2017 schedule released, includes early challenges

Union's 2017 schedule released, includes early challenges

The Union’s 2017 MLS regular season schedule has been released. 

Like 2016, the start to the Union’s new campaign will be a test. After opening their season at BC Place against the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 5, the Union head home to Talen Energy Stadium on March 11 to host defending Eastern Conference champion Toronto FC in the home opener.

It’s the Union's only home game in their first four matches.

But that’s not the only concern. Following that difficult start, the Union face a five-game gauntlet between April 8 through May 6. Despite hosting four of those five games, the run begins against the Portland Timbers and ends with the New York Red Bulls. In between, the Union take on 2016 playoff sides New York City FC, Montreal Impact and challenge the LA Galaxy on the road.

That difficult stretch is potentially outdone only by a deep summer three-game road swing from July 6-22, in which the Union will visit Sporting Kansas City, the Impact and Columbus Crew.

When it comes to rivalries, the Union visit DC United twice — on April 1 and May 13 — but host the Red Bulls twice, on May 6 and June 18. The Union take on NYCFC only twice in 2017.

On the expansion front, the Union’s first match against a new MLS side happens on Aug. 26, when Atlanta United comes to town. One week later, the Union travel to TCF Bank Stadium to take on Minnesota United, and eventually make the trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium to visit Atlanta on Sept. 26.

The Union will get to test themselves against the reigning MLS Cup champs, as the Seattle Sounders come to Talen Energy Stadium on Oct. 1. The match will be one of four on ESPN, with one match on FS1.