Union view Saturday's friendly as chance to stay sharp

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Union view Saturday's friendly as chance to stay sharp

CHESTER, Pa. -- Between Freddy Adu being traded, Bakary Soumare’s request to leave and a road test against rival New York Red Bulls the following week, an International Friendly against Club Universidad Nacional A.C. on Saturday at PPL Park has taken a back seat in terms of club importance.

But that doesn’t mean the Union won’t try to make the most of it.

“We’re focused on New York,” Union coach John Hackworth admitted. “Normally, I would have done some scouting on Pumas to this point but I haven’t even done that. I’ve let my assistant handle that because a couple things have come up that require my attention. The reality is that our focus is on New York, but this game allows us a competitive situation to play in and see if what we’re doing in training is working on the game field.”

In the past, the Union’s international friendlies have landed in the dead middle of the season, disrupting whatever flow the team possessed. And though facing Mexico City-based club Pumas comes early in 2013, the 2-1-0 Union aren’t afraid.

“From where I’m sitting, I think it’s good for us. It allows us to push through the week but still keep in the rhythm with a game,” said Hackworth, whose club is on a two-game winning streak. “In the past, when you get out of rhythm and you have a big break, it can throw things off. With us playing well you want to continue along the same process and that’s what we’re doing.”

Hackworth noted that the friendly allows his club to still prepare for a game without the late-week stress. He was also excited about getting non-starters, about 10 to be exact, a chance for playing time.

“It allows us to keep in a rhythm and allows us to take pressure off our preparation,” Hackworth said. “Normally, if we were playing a league game, our Thursday and Friday is dedicated to preparing for that opponent. We don’t necessarily have to do that this week. It’s an international friendly and we want to stay in the same rhythm, get a bunch of guys an opportunity that haven’t been on the field a lot yet. It’s good competition and you will see that on Saturday.”

Trying to dissect what the Pumas are bringing to PPL Park wasn’t an interest for Hackworth, who would rather see what his team brings than strategize around a friendly. Giving playing time and evaluating players like Roger Torres, Leo Fernandes, Antoine Hoppenot, Matt Kassel, Jimmy McLaughlin, Aaron Wheeler and Cristhian Hernandez, is what Hackworth is looking for.

Similarly, Pumas, who currently sit sixth in Liga MX, are expected to field a team of mainly academy players.

“They are a good team, they’ve always been a good team,” Hackworth said of Pumas. “It’s an honor and privilege to play against them at PPL. We’ll treat this the way we’ve treated all of our other international friendlies, we’ll go out and try to win the game. But our focus is providing opportunities and improving on things we need to work on. We’ll focus on that more than preparation for what they will be like.”

Although the young Union players will be seeing a bulk of the time, injured team starters might make an appearance. Players like Gabe Farfan and Conor Casey, who have injured hamstrings, could use Saturday as a step back from rehab.

Yet, whether he plays or not, Farfan sees the friendly as a great chance for everyone in the match to prove something.

“Anytime you get to spend time on the field it’s a quality time,” Farfan said. “You can always impress the coaches, whether it’s in training or in a friendly like this. There’s always an opportunity like this that comes along to help your chances at playing time.”

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.