Union turn focus to Dallas after memorable win

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Union turn focus to Dallas after memorable win

CHESTER -- With a dominating win over the New York Red Bulls last Saturday, the Union moved to the top end of the Eastern Conference, while also delivering one of the most memorable victories in team history.

But with dangerous FC Dallas entering PPL Park on Saturday, head coach John Hackworth has ordered a club-wide refocusing.

“We need to try and stay focused and stop thinking about New York,” Hackworth said. “So far this week, the team has responded positively. We’re focused on Dallas. There’s always a letdown because you build up the rivalry game and that importance, but we knew this stretch would be tough the whole time, so in our planning and the way we presented it, we talked about this four-game stretch being pivotal to our season.”

The players seem to have received the coach’s point.

“We can’t take any breaks or feel too good about ourselves,” Brian Carroll said. “We need to be focused all the time or [not] think too highly of ourselves. We don’t have that luxury. We understand how good Dallas is. Everybody is grounded and focused on what we need to do.

“They are one of the best teams in the league. They are dangerous, experienced and have a lot of young talent. It’s going to take everything we have for us to get a good result here.”

Yet, shedding potential overconfidence and contending with FC Dallas is easier said than done.

Armed with Union-killer Kenny Cooper and leading goal scorer Blas Perez, FC Dallas, 8-3-5 overall, poses difficult matchup problems for the Union with its size up front. In five career games against the Union, Cooper has scored five goals, including a pair of two-goal games.

“[Cooper] has been a player against this club in particular, he’s been tough to contain,” Hackworth said. “We’ll have to do a good job against Kenny. And if they are able to put both Kenny and Blas on the field at the same time, it gives you a two-headed monster. They haven’t gone that way much but we’re preparing for it. We will have to contend with some big-target forwards.”

Though FC Dallas is 1-2-3 in their last six and 1-3-3 on the road -- a record which saw them drop to third in the West, Hackworth hasn’t been able to find their vulnerability.

“FC Dallas has had a great start to the year, they’ve been near the top of the table all year,” the coach said. “They’ve had a very productive first half and are a very good team in all ways. We don’t see many weaknesses in their lineup. They’ve been consistent in the way they’ve played and it will be another big challenge at PPL.”

The confidence that Hackworth is trying to keep measured is also what could help the 7-5-4 Union come away with a result. While the club is coming off a pair of 3-0 wins over the Columbus Crew and Red Bulls, it’s how they’ve done it that’s been impressive.

Over the two-game winning run, the Union received three goals from veteran Conor Casey and single goals from Carroll, Sheanon Williams and Antoine Hoppenot. Union leading scorer Jack McInerney, who will miss much of July as part of the US Men’s National Team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, was kept off the board.

“What we’re doing right now is working pretty well,” Hoppenot said. “We’ve won a few games and offensively, we’re creating a lot of chances. We’re hitting our stride right now and it’s the perfect time to do that.”

Coinciding with red-hot offensive output, the Union also feel that by defeating the Red Bulls, a mental hurdle has been cleared -- a hurdle that can help them on Saturday.

“Our team knew we had to beat someone above us and that we hadn’t done it this year,” Hackworth said. “So beating a team in front of us in the standings, in particular, one of our rivals, was really important. We know we can do it.”

While spirits are high, the Union’s roster is at a low. Losing Keon Daniel to the Trinidad and Tobago Gold Cup team, the Union will also be without Kleberson (hamstring) and potentially Danny Cruz (bone bruise).

“The midfield is a little thin,” Hackworth said. “Kleberson is about the same place he was last week and that’s a negative. You would think he’d be getting better. Danny has been evaluated and got an MRI. While he doesn’t have a fracture, he can’t train right now. He is questionable for this week.”

Michael Farfan is expected to fill in for Daniel and Kleberson at center attack midfielder. As for potential Cruz replacements as an attacking winger, the cupboard is thin.  

“Hoppenot, [Leo] Fernandes, [Don] Anding -- We have guys that are ready,” Hackworth said. “A lot of those guys give you similar things to what Danny does. We’re also hopeful that he can play, we’re not counting him out yet. If I know Danny, he’ll do anything he can to put himself on the field Saturday.”

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.