Union wary of trap vs. winless Toronto FC

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Union wary of trap vs. winless Toronto FC

When they left Texas following a gutsy 1-1 draw with FC Dallas last Saturday, the Union had reason to believe their lackluster season could take a turn for the positive.

Their three-game losing streak had ended, they had scored for the second-straight time and with Toronto FC next on their schedule, the only winless MLS team, the Union were handed a golden opportunity to build on their momentum.

Yet, even though Saturday at BMO Field provides the perfect chance to beat up on a downed opponent, the Union, holding the league second-lowest point total, cant count anything as a guarantee.

They have no pressure on them, said Union defender Sheanon Williams of Toronto FC. The only way they can look is up and thats definitely dangerous for us. But were just looking at ourselves, we need wins as well and you cant really take anyone for granted. Were not sitting on top of the league looking down on everybody, were still looking up as well. So we need to keep inching forward. In this league, anyone can beat anyone on any given day.

Though Toronto FC is winless in its MLS campaign at 0-9-0, the Canadian club took the Canadian Championship with a 1-0 shutout win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday night. That, mixed with a bit of winless desperation, and the 2-6-2 Union are wary of walking into a trap.

Were not looking at the fact that they havent won a game yet, said Williams. Were looking at what they do well and what we need to do to succeed and get points out of the game.

We want to win all our games and we are going to Toronto with the intent that were going to get points. If we play like we've been playing and fight and be aggressive, I think we have a good chance of getting a good result.

Union coach Peter Nowak agreed that his team wont be looking past Saturday and hung his hope on the belief that his offense will continue to contribute. The Union, tied for the second-lowest goal total in the league, received two goals from Lionard Pajoy in a 3-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls two weeks ago and a goal by Gabriel Gomez on Saturday.

They have not been successful for seven, eight games,and we know they are desperate, said the coach of Toronto FC. We will not change our mentality, its important for us to continue the same way weve been playing. The second half against FC Dallas when we discussed things in the locker room, it gave the players confidence to know thats how were supposed to play. We executed very well in the second half. We were more dangerous and I think against Toronto will be another step forward in this direction.

While things are looking up for the Union, injuries could slow them down. Without goalkeeper Zac MacMath against FC Dallas because of concussion symptoms he suffered in practice and losing Carlos Valdes and Gomez to afflictions during the physical contest, Nowak is trying to play the prediction game with regards to who will be ready against Toronto FC.

Carlos is OK, said Nowak. He doesnt have any kind of problems. He received nine stitches, so it was a pretty open cut. But he had no complications after the game so hes going to try tomorrow. Gomez is still pretty banged up and has swelling in his knee. Back-up goalkeeper Chase Harrisons ankle doesnt have any fracture but is still swollen. The swelling is coming down but is still pretty purple and is bothering him.

The good news is that MacMath appears to be ready to make a return. However, because it is a concussion, the team has to follow specific rules set forth by the MLS.

Zac is coming back, said Nowak. Because of the protocol, even though hes clear of the symptoms, you cannot just throw him into practice. He needs to go and follow protocol with rest of the guys. The goalkeepers right now are going to train with helmets, all of them. I dont want to have any kind of problems in the future.

Open Cup vs. the Rhinos
One of the interesting facets of the annual Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is that all levels of organizations compete for a chance at the title. From semi-pro to the MLS, every club invited has a shot.

On Tuesday, three days after the Union take on Toronto FC in MLS play, the United Soccer Leagues Rochester Rhinos visit PPL Park to battle the Union in the third round of the Open Cup tournament.

The Union received a bye for the first two legs and arent taking the Rhinos lightly, as the USL is the primary minor league for MLS talent, which also features the Harrisburg City Islanders -- the Unions affiliate.

I played in Rochester and it wasnt pretty, said Nowak. And then coached twice over there and wasnt successful. Guys, especially in USL-PRO, are always looking to go back to the MLS and always want to show their best. For them its a chance. For us, after the Toronto game, we have to switch gears but were gonna play with the first team, thats for sure.

The Rhinos defeated the Brooklyn Italians to advance. The winner of the Rhinos and Union will face the the winner of the Richmond Kickers and DC United on June 5.

E-mail Ryan Bright at ryanbright13@gmail.com

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.