Union's Kleberson shines in starting debut

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Union's Kleberson shines in starting debut

CHESTER, Pa. -- Though optimism was limited following the Union’s 4-1 loss to the LA Galaxy on Wednesday at PPL Park (see story), Kleberson provided a lone bright spot.

Earning a start and playing a full 90-minutes for the first time since being acquired for Freddy Adu on March 25, the Brazilian was a revelation at midfield for the Union, who desperately needed it.

“Jose did a good job in his first start,” said Union coach John Hackworth. “You see a lot of good qualities there. Good performance by him, especially to start. Probably tough for him to play 90 but you have to get the game minutes in. We weren’t thinking of playing him the full 90, but your thought is to keep a guy of that quality in the game.”

Kleberson’s quality was evident from the start, as he consistently threaded feathered passes to streaking Union forwards. The perfect compliment to speedy players like Sebastien Le Toux, Jack McInerney and Danny Cruz, Kleberson’s creativity opened another dimension to the Union offense not previously seen with Keon Daniel manning the central attacking midfielder position.

“It felt very natural,” Kleberson said through a translator. “I was content to start the game and an important game at that. I tried to give my best to the team and leave it on the field. The Galaxy have quality players which made it difficult.”

But playmaking isn’t all the 33-year old did in his first start. In just the ninth minute, Kleberson connected on a Daniel corner cross that was miraculously saved by the Galaxy’s Carlo Cudicini. He  finished the match with game-high eight shots, while the rest of the Union combined for nine.

“He was great,” said Union forward Sebastien Le Toux. “He did a lot of good things on the field, especially after coming here just months ago. You could see his quality from the beginning and for me to be able to play with him was great.”

While Wednesday could be considered Kleberson’s breakout game in MLS, his talent wasn’t a total secret. Playing 11 minutes in the Union’s 1-1 draw against Toronto FC on April 13, the midfielder nearly pushed the Union to victory, sending Antoine Hoppenot on a late-game breakaway. Despite his eye-opening play, Kleberson totaled just 29 minutes in seven games with the Union before his start against the Galaxy.

And that was just fine with him.

“I was looking forward to getting my first start,” Kleberson said. “Coming here, adjusting to the American game and waiting on the bench, I have been observing it the last few weeks. To get my first start was a big deal to me. I’m glad John Hackworth had the confidence in me and I wanted to reward him for that confidence.”

According to Hackworth, Kleberson’s lack of playing time was a direct result of his fitness as the coach didn’t feel like Kleberson could manage a productive 90 minutes. And though he ran out of gas late in the game, he still left an impression.

“He had a good game though he might have been a bit tired at the end since he hasn’t played,” said Le Toux. “But you can see his creativity and he will continue to do that and get better after every game.”

Asked if his first start means he will be in the starting lineup on Saturday against the Chicago Fire, Kleberson just shrugged.

“That’s up to John, he makes the decisions that are best for the team,” he said. “I will follow whatever that is.”

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.