Union

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.