Union’s youth flashes potential in friendly with Premier League’s Swansea

Union’s youth flashes potential in friendly with Premier League’s Swansea

CHESTER, Pa. — A lot pointed to the Union’s 2-2 friendly draw with Swansea City Saturday not meaning much. 

The team’s injured captain, Maurice Edu, provided color commentary up in a booth. The Sons of Ben had the emptiest section of Talen Energy Stadium. The Union started guys with no MLS experience. Both sides sent out an entirely fresh set of players after the first half. With MLS play halted for the weekend, one of the Premier League’s bottom-dwellers was in town for a glorified scrimmage in the middle of July.

Even with an on-field product that means nothing in the long run — a stop on a Swansea preseason tour that’s just as much promotional as it is productive — the Union found solace in Saturday’s result (see full story). Young players got a chance to test themselves against the more experienced talents of arguably the world’s best league. Promising moments impressed coach Jim Curtin.

“We are a team in the true sense of the word. Everyone contributes,” Curtin said. “Today was about rewarding [the young players]”

The plan going in was to “protect” the youth by pairing them with the vets, Curtin said. Mistakes happened and the Union didn’t win, after all. Second chances and set pieces inflicted the damage. But Curtin was overall pleased with what he saw.

The youthful flashes came on both ends of the pitch. Home-grown 18-year-old Auston Trusty started at left centerback. Eight different players have appeared on the Union’s crowded back line this MLS season and Trusty isn’t one of them. He’s spent all of his time in Bethlehem with the Steel. He said he’s “trusting the process.”

In the 15th minute, Trusty smothered an all-of-a-sudden Swansea attack spawned by a Union turnover. Alone at the top of the box with the smaller, swift Swansea midfielder Luciano Narsingh, Trusty cleanly got the tackle and clear. Narsingh fell to the turf and Trusty shot a mean stare at him. Quite the introduction from the Media, Pennsylvania, native.

“That's kind of just my game,” Trusty said. “I like bringing a lot of fire, just a lot of passion toward the game. That's how I get focused and mentally in it.”

Offensively, rookie midfielder Marcus Epps drew a penalty in the sixth minute to give C.J. Sapong his fourth penalty-kick goal in as many attempts. After growing up watching the Premier League, Epps used his speed to spark the charge against one of its clubs. Curtin mentioned that experienced players have marveled to him about Epps’ abilities at a young age.

“I don’t think they thought we’d come out that strong and that fast,” Epps said. “It was good that I could come on, change direction and catch them off guard a little.”

Nineteen-year-old midfielder Aaron Jones saw his first action in the blue and gold, and 17-year-old midfielder Anthony Fontana riled up the bench after coming on in the 76th with a deep cut back just outside the box that he wasted with a shot over the goal. It didn’t show up as anything but a missed shot on the stat sheet. So what? Fontana isn’t even a legal adult and he made a Premier League defender look silly. Because Fontana is technically not on the roster, he was not available for questions.

“When I came over, you could see he’s got it,” Union forward Jay Simpson, who has struggled to find minutes behind Sapong but scored the equalizer in the 58th on a dribbler across the goal that snuck in the far corner, said of Fontana. “He’s young and he’s hungry to improve so hopefully he has a bright future ahead.”

Trusty said he has that same hunger within himself. Now, with a small taste of the next level, he’s only craving the MLS more. He’ll likely need to wait a little longer than the rest of this season to consistently satisfy that desire.

The Swans’ appetite for this season is just building. While the Union is about halfway through its campaign, Swansea is a month out from its first game. The Welsh club’s current stay in the Premier League is entering its seventh season, and the team has finished as high as eighth in the table, but last year was a mess that saw three managers and four wins in the last five matches as the only buffer between relegation.

The club’s best player, Icelandic international Gylfi Sigurosson, didn’t travel to the U.S. because he’s been linked to transfer rumors. He could command a reported $50 million transfer fee. But like many angles of Saturday’s spectacle-over-substance friendly — the opponent’s caliber, the result or the fact that it was Game of Thrones night — that didn't matter. 

The Union’s kids made it all worthwhile.

Union midfielder Brian Carroll to retire after 15 MLS seasons

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Union midfielder Brian Carroll to retire after 15 MLS seasons

CHESTER, Pa. — Brian Carroll didn’t play a single minute in his first year in Major League Soccer.

That was in 2003.

Fourteen years later, he’s set to retire as one of the longest-tenured and accomplished players in league history.

Carroll, a mainstay of MLS and the Philadelphia Union, announced his well-deserved retirement Thursday ahead of the Union’s 2017 finale vs. Orlando City SC on Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium (4 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia+)

If he plays in Sunday’s game, it will be his first minutes of the season as age and injuries have started to creep up to the 36-year-old defensive midfielder who’s been battling for a time in a crowded position.

But as recently as last season, Carroll was still a key player for the Union, who he spent seven of his 15 MLS seasons with, wearing the captain’s armband at times and being a consummate pro in an ever-changing locker room.

In all for the Union, Carroll has played 13,818 minutes, the most in franchise history, and 165 games, second only to Sebastien Le Toux.

Throughout his MLS career, the savvy midfielder known for his tremendous work rate played a total of 370 games (tied for fourth in league history) and 30,776 minutes (sixth all-time), winning championships with his two previous teams — D.C. United in 2004 and the Columbus Crew in 2008. He also won the Supporters’ Shield four straight years, with D.C. in 2006 and 2007 and with Columbus in 2008 and 2009.

His teams made the playoffs in his first nine years in the league, a streak that culminated with the Union’s first-ever postseason appearance in 2011 — his first season in Philly.

Carroll, a former star player at Wake Forest, also had success at the international level, earning eight caps with the U.S. national team and also playing for a couple of U.S. youth teams.

The father of three now plans to move to Indianapolis with his family and embark on a new career in financial planning.

Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

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Inside Doop: Lack of star power continues to doom Union

At long last, the Union’s season is coming to an end. Even better, they no longer have to play any games on the road this year.

In their final away match of a disappointing 2017 campaign, the Union let a lead slip away in a 3-2 loss to the Fire, finishing the year with a dismal 1-10-6 road record.

What went wrong? And what can we expect from next week’s regular-season finale at Talen Energy Stadium? Here’s a look in the final Inside Doop of 2017:

Three thoughts about Sunday’s game
1. The Union were once again reminded what star power can do for a team. On Sunday, the Fire’s Nemanja Nikolic put on a show with three goals — his 22nd, 23rd and 24th of the season — to all but wrap up a Golden Boot crown and put on his back a Fire team that was without fellow star Bastian Schweinsteiger. In Philly’s last road game, Atlanta also overcame the loss of star Miguel Almiron to ride Josef Martinez to a big win. That’s what happens when you spend a lot of money: you have a stable of difference-makers and their presence trickles down to the rest of the club. The Union, simply, don’t have anything close to that — one of the big reasons why they can’t play well for 90 minutes on the road and why they’ll be missing the playoffs for the sixth time in the franchise’s eight-year history.

2. The closest thing the Union do have to a true star, apart from goalie Andre Blake, is the midfield combo of Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. And both overcame their recent heartbreak of missing out on the World Cup (Bedoya with the U.S., Medunjnanin with Bosnia and Herzegovina) to put in strong shifts. Medunjanin’s pass to set up Bedoya’s second goal of the season was a thing of beauty — and marked his 11th assist of the season. Say what you want about the Union, but those two are consummate pros and locker room leaders who will do everything in their power to get this thing turned around in 2018.

3. Sadly for the Union, one of their best stories of the season — Jack Elliott — had a night to forget. The rookie center back, who went from fourth-round draft pick to Rookie of the Year contender, lost track of a long ball on the Fire’s first goal and then committed a penalty to set up Nikolic’s second goal. Elliott will still be an important piece heading into 2018, but it’s important to remember that he’s no sure thing, especially after seeing what happened to Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro in their second seasons. Meanwhile, Richie Marquez continued his late-season revival with one of his better games of the year. Raise your hand if you have any kind of handle on the team’s center back situation right now.

Three questions for the week ahead
1. Home finales are usually special no matter how a season turns out but it’s hard to figure what kind of crowd and reception there will be when the Union take on Orlando next Sunday (4 p.m., 6ABC). This has been a trying season for Union fans who watched their team fail to build on any kind of momentum from last year’s playoff berth while lowly teams like Chicago or expansion teams like Atlanta (for the reasons listed above them) skyrocketed past them. At the same time, the Union have been mostly fun to watch at home, where they’ve set a franchise record with nine wins. The chance to go for a 10th victory and have C.J. Sapong break the single-season scoring record could be a couple reasons that people will flock to the stadium — that, and the realization that there will be no more soccer there until March.

2. Another big reason to come to Talen Energy Stadium is to see Kaka, the Brazilian legend who will play his last game in MLS. Who will play their last game for the Union? It’s hard to say for sure but Roland Alberg, Ilsinho, Chris Pontius and Brian Carroll are decent bets as an offseason potentially filled with turnover looms.

3. How will head coach Jim Curtin construct the lineup? He doesn’t like to switch things too much, but fans may be clamoring for young guys like Derrick Jones and Adam Najem while Curtin may want to give something of a send-off to Carroll or Charlie Davies, well-known veterans who have hardly played this year. And what about Maurice Edu? He hasn’t played in more than two years — but will a player who led the Union to back-to-back U.S. Open Cup finals in 2014 and 2015 get to say goodbye to fans in some way?

Stat of the week
Even after Bedoya’s goal Sunday, the Union’s four highest-paid players — Bedoya, Edu, Ilsinho and Jay Simpson — have combined for only seven goals this season.

Quote of the week
"It was definitely nostalgic to come back and play at Toyota Park. When I was younger in the U-16s and the U-18s, I played a lot here when I was with the academy. It was good to come back on the professional side and be able to play on the same field I play it on when I was younger." — Union rookie Marcus Epps

Player of the week
Bedoya scored a very nice goal, made a couple of perfectly timed tackles and generally looked sharp in his first game back from the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying failure. Maybe he should’ve played in Trinidad, huh?