Union return home to face 'sneaky good' Toronto FC

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Union return home to face 'sneaky good' Toronto FC

After facing a tough pair of road games in New York and Columbus, the Union return home to challenge Danny Califf’s Toronto FC on Saturday at PPL Park.

And though hosting last season's worst team in MLS appears to be fortunate scheduling for the Union, don’t tell that to coach John Hackworth.

“Toronto is sneaky good,” the coach said. “If you think they are not good, they will punish you for it. I want to make sure we’re prepared for very good players -- players who can break you down one-on-one. They are organized and can lull you to sleep at times. I don’t think you can get overconfident against a team like that.”

He may have a point. Although Toronto had little expectations coming into the 2013 season, first-year coach Ryan Nelsen has his club at 1-2-2, with a win over Sporting Kansas City and home draws against the L.A. Galaxy and FC Dallas.

“Toronto clearly is a much different team, credit to coach Nelsen and his staff, they brought in some new guys who have brought a lot to their team and changed the way they play,” said Hackworth, whose primary concern should be Toronto striker Robert Earnshaw, who is tied for second in MLS with four goals. “They are a difficult team to get a result against and they have proven that in the early stages of this season.

"I don’t think I would categorize them as a team that does anything that scares you tremendously but they are deceptively good at a lot of things and they take advantage of teams when they least expect it.”

What makes the contest interesting is that while the Union, 2-2-1, and Toronto were fighting in the Eastern Conference basement last season, both clubs are currently battling for position in the upper echelon of the conference.

“We’re close in the standings right now,” Hackworth said. “It’s a tale of two teams that weren’t considered in the mix last year. Here we both sit with Saturday being an important game for both of us.”

Because of that, Union striker Antoine Hoppenot expects Toronto to come out firing.

“They are a good team,” said Hoppenot. “It’s a completely different side from last year. We expect them to try to get forward and attack us. We’ll be ready for that. It should be a good game.”

The game also marks the first time former Union captain and fan favorite Califf returns to Philadelphia since being traded to Chivas USA by the Peter Nowak regime last season. Califf found his way to Toronto in the offseason and is a solid part of the club’s early-season success and stability.

“He’ll get a lot of respect,” Hackworth said of Califf’s reception. “He’s a class individual and he has earned that, especially from the fans here. The fans here appreciate how he handled himself here as a pro and a person on and off the field. I expect they will pay tribute to him.”

Califf told TorontoFC.ca that he is excited to make his return to PPL Park and is bringing in his family from California for the occasion.

“[Philly sports fans] are absolutely different from other sports fans, but they love their teams and they are knowledgeable," Califf told Steve Bottjer. "It is a pretty cool dynamic. I think they are going to heckle me a bit. I think it will be friendly heckling and I’m excited to see how creative they get with it. I would feel weird if they didn’t do that.”

The Union are coming off a disappointing second-half loss to the Red Bulls and a draw against the stingy Crew. While Hackworth and his club were disappointed they couldn’t come away with three points in either contest, the Union will take what they can get on the road.

“We like a lot of the things we’re doing right now and we know there are areas we have to get better at,” Hackworth said. “One of them is in our transition game. We were good at times in Columbus but in important moments, our execution between the two we have to get better on Saturday.”

Other than their transition game, one aspect that has plagued the Union in the early season has been finishing chances. With energy and confidence, the Union, and particularly leading scorer Jack McInerney, who has three goals on the year, have been in position to put teams like the Crew away. But it just isn’t happening.

“Jack is playing well and he’s not just doing it with his offense,” Hackworth said. “His work rate, his ability to steal some balls, his ability in both New York and Columbus to move him to a wide midfield position when we had to -- there is certainly a lot of trust and faith that he can play those minutes and play different roles. He’s getting the most chances and that’s what he does best. But he has to finish those chances. If we score one of those, we’re in a much different position.”

Looking for that punch, the Union could install newcomer Jose Kleberson into the starting mix on Saturday. The Brazilian was an unused sub in Columbus.

“We’re seriously deep at a lot of positions and we have to make some tough decisions,” Hackworth said. “We thought about playing him last week in Columbus and in a couple different situations he would have been on the field. But as soon as Columbus got their goal, it just wasn’t the right time to put him in the game. He certainly a guy we’re thinking about this week.”

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.