Union roster issues open opportunities for non-starters

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Union roster issues open opportunities for non-starters

CHESTER, Pa. -- With Jeff Parke likely out and Sheanon Williams suspended for Saturday’s road match against the Chicago Fire, the Union were already looking at a substantial roster shift on the defensive line.

Throw in playing three games in the next seven days and coach John Hackworth’s roster changes might not stop with defenders.

“We have to manage our roster,” Hackworth said. “There will be multiple guys who get an opportunity that haven’t been playing a lot or haven’t played a starting role. We have to manage these three games. We feel like we have good depth and we’re ready to do that.”

Smelling a chance to get playing time, the Union players have kicked up the intensity on the practice field. Hackworth is excited by his team’s hunger to compete for playing time and feels that only good things can come from it.

“[Bakary Soumare] has looked good in training, Gabe Farfan always looks good and has been very consistent for us,” said Hackworth, who will likely play Gabe Farfan and Soumare on the defense. “Kleberson and Sebastien [Le Toux] -- Sebastien has looked particular good in finishing this week. Antoine [Hoppenot] constantly tries to push himself as someone who doesn’t just come off the bench. The competition has been really good there. Guys can sense there’s a little bit of an opportunity and that turns up the intensity and reality that they might have a shot.”

Set to fill in the defensive gaps are Soumare at center back and Farfan at left back. Other than that, the Union’s roster is up for grabs. That includes the bench.

“It certainly changes the selection for the 18 in a big way,” Hackworth said. “If something ever happened to our back line, we would move Sheanon into the middle. We don’t have him this weekend, so we’ll probably add some defensive depth to our bench. We also have guys who are versatile like Michael Lahoud, who started all over for us. He can fill in as a back.”

The Union players are well aware of the changes coming.

“People are going to have to step up, myself included,” said defender Amobi Okugo. “These games coming up are really important for us.

“It’s going to be different but we have a whole week to prepare.”

Though putting together a new lineup for Saturday could be viewed as a chemistry-buster for the 3-3-3 Union, Hackworth is serving it up as an opportunity for players to prove themselves in game action. Players like Kleberson, Le Toux, Soumare and even Chris Albright haven’t seen much or any on-field time in the opening nine games, but could be a factor moving forward.

“Jack McInerney got a chance last year to come in and be a starter,” Hackworth said. “He was ready for that opportunity and he took that opportunity. He hasn’t relinquished that role since then. Anytime a professional player, who works so hard in training, has a chance to represent himself as a starting player, it’s fantastic. In my experience, things can change once players get these chances.”

While things could change for other players on Hackworth’s short list, could it change for Soumare? The 6-foot-4 defender requested a trade after the first game of the season when he was beat out by Okugo for the position.

Now set to play for just the second time since June, 2012, Soumare is finally getting his wish.

“We’re fortunate to have Baky here and in good form,” Hackworth said. “He’s trained hard every single day that he’s been here. We don’t have a question about his fitness. It will be an adjustment because he hasn’t played game minutes, but he’s working awful hard on his own. My expectation is that he makes the most of this. Depth is very important to a team in this league.”

And depth is what the Union will lean on to get them through Saturday and beyond.

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.