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 believe they found their missing piece

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Union believe they found their missing piece

David Accam is a dream come true for the Union.

“At the end of the season, we talked about adding players and David was at the top of our list,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said. “I didn’t think that would be a real option. When it comes along, it’s incredible.”

Shocking as it was for Stewart, the Union pulled 27-year-old Accam from the Chicago Fire for allocation money at the 2018 MLS SuperDraft on Jan. 19. With his ability to create one-on-one opportunities and punish teams on the counter-attack, Accam, who had 14 goals and eight assists last season, is a perfect fit in the Union’s 4-2-3-1 system, and the exact type of “difference-maker” the team was looking for.

“David is known in the league for his speed, but when we scouted him we noted just how good he is on the ball,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday at the official introduction of Accam at Talen Energy Stadium. “The space he creates for others because he is so dangerous. When he gets one-on-one, his quality will take over games and it’ll create a lot of space for the rest of our players.”

From Accam’s perspective, he’s joining an established attacking group. Specifically mentioning Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong and winger Fafa Picault, Accam expects to have space to work.

“We have enough quality on this team already,” he said. “I just have to do my part.”

On top of his offensive acumen, Accam knows MLS. What attracted the Union to the speedster is not only his skill but his familiarity with the league. Unlike European players that take time to adjust to the climate, travel and style of play, Accam should make an instant impact on the Union.

“He’s been now, for multiple years, a top attacking player in our league,” Curtin said. “He’s got the statistics to back it up. The fact that he has a familiarity with the league, he knows the defenders will be grabbing and kicking him for 90 minutes, and that matters a great deal. It makes the transition more seamless. 

“He’s a great fit for us.”

But snagging that perfect fit wasn’t free. Acquired in one of the largest trades in Union history, the attacker was moved by the Fire in exchange for $1.2 million in combined allocation money. According to Stewart, the speedster, who was ripe for a new deal, signed an extension with the Fire before the team moved him to Philadelphia.

“Our understanding is that David has an obligation now with the Union through 2020,” Stewart said.

Despite scratching out a significant name off their wishlist, the Union aren’t quite done adding players, with the expectation that they bring in a playmaking midfielder. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be going on a shopping spree.

“I think we are in a better place than we were last year with the acquisition of David,” Stewart said. “There will be a little more happening but not much more because I believe the foundation is solid. With the acquisition of David and one more player in the near future, we’ll be in good shape to compete for the playoffs.”

Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

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Union acquire electrifying winger in major trade

The Philadelphia Union didn’t make a pick in the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft on Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

But the hometown team still made one of the biggest splashes of the day.

Between the first and second rounds, Paul Tenorio of ESPN FC reported that the Union had a trade in place for electrifying winger David Accam, sending a palpable buzz through the ballroom. Not long after, the move was officially announced and the Philly fans in attendance finally had something to cheer about after a quiet-to-this-point offseason.

“I know there was some impatience with the timing of things,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “But this is a special player we added — one that changes the whole dynamic of our team.”

The move wasn’t cheap as the Union dealt $1.2 million in allocation money to the Chicago Fire in exchange for the Ghanaian speedster, who’s bagged 33 goals and 15 assists over the last three MLS seasons.

But if he can stay healthy and keep producing at the rate he has been, the Union think it can be a bargain.

“A David Accam on the open market is significantly higher than what we paid today,” Curtin said. “I can tell you with confidence if we shopped around for someone of David’s quality and production, we’d spend a heck of a lot more money than we did today.”

Accam will likely start on one of the wings opposite fellow burner Fafa Picault with leading scorer C.J. Sapong up top. That still leaves a hole in attacking midfield that the Union need to round out their offense — a position which Curtin and sporting director Earnie Stewart said the club is still searching for.

“With Fafa, with Accam, with C.J. Sapong, those guys will create a lot of space for whoever plays in that No. 10 spot during the course of the season,” Curtin said. “That’s something that makes other teams worry. When we get off the bus, you have to account for David Accam. So that’s a real positive.”

Accam has a unique backstory, playing at the Right to Dream Academy from 2004 to 2008 in his native Ghana, before moving to England on a student visa and playing for Ledbury Town and Evesham United. After taking part in “The Chance” competition, a Nike event to find undiscovered soccer talent, he moved to Swedish club Ostersund in 2012 and then to top-flight side Helsingborg later that year.

After starring for both clubs, he was signed by the Fire as a Designated Player and has been a consistent goal-scoring threat in Chicago. Since he came to MLS in 2015, Accam is one of just six MLS players to total at least 33 goals and 15 assists in league play, along with stars Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Kei Kamara.

“As we said a while back, we’re trying to find some difference-makers for our team to help us over those humps in certain games,” Stewart said. “We believe a couple of difference-makers can help that. And once David Accam came around, it was really clear to us that was a target that we wanted to make sure happened. And we as the Philadelphia Union made sure we stretched ourselves to make sure this player came aboard. We’re just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this.”

The Union also made a couple of other smaller moves leading up to the draft, signing defenders Matt Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown contracts.

Signing both players when they did was a good indication that the Union valued them both as much, if not more, as any guys they may have been able to draft had they not previously dealt away their picks.

And it’s even better that both Real and McKenzie came through the Union Academy and are more familiar with the club than a kid coming out of college would have been.

“Everybody has a different path,” said McKenzie, an 18-year old center back from Bear, Delaware. “All of these guys that got drafted today are great guys. … But myself, coming through the academy and when I was at the pre-academy when I was 11 and 12 and worked my way up to the U-14s to the U-18s to the [Bethlehem] Steel, it’s been an absolute honor and a blessing. I’ve been pushed and challenged at each level, and I’m looking forward to the future and what that holds.”

“It’s a big moment for me,” added Real, an 18-year-old who played for USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel FC last year. “These last couple of weeks for me have been surreal. I’m still kind of soaking all this in.

“Mark is my brother. Me and him have been playing together since the academy started. We graduated together, we’re on the [U-20] national team together. So this couldn’t be any better for me to share a moment like this with him.”