Chester PA – The Philadelphia Union defeated the Harrisburg Islanders by a score of 3-1 tonight in 4th round play of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Philadelphia saw the more than welcome return of Josh Yaro to the starting lineup, who went the full 90 minutes tonight at center back. Union coach Jim Curtin started C.J. Sapong on the wing, opting for Englishman Jay Simpson in the central striking position. While Sapong has been excellent in the lone striker role this season, the wing position for the Union is still one of production, where Chris Pontius has produced in both goals last year, and assists this year.
With the exception of a 3rd minute Harrisburg opportunity by former Union player Pedro Ribeiro, the Union dictated the offensive play through most of the first half. Jay Simpson immediately justified Curtin’s tactical decision by being the catalyst for both goals, picking up two assists and almost getting a goal himself in the 28th minute. Derrick Jones and C.J. Sapong tallied for the Union, while Yaro and fellow center back Jack Elliot kept keeper John McCarthy relatively inactive. That would change as Harrisburg broke behind the Union line in the 37th, with right back Keegan Rosenberry overrunning a cross, and Colombian Jonathan Mendoza depositing the ball off the bottom of the crossbar and into the net to make it 2-1 at half.
22-year-old Union winger Marcus Epps, relatively quiet in the first half, would make an instant impact in the second. On arguably the best play of the match, he drove down the right wing, beat his defender, and coolly placed the ball under keeper Sean Lewis’ right hand to give the Union their 3-1 lead. McCarthy would be much more active in the second, having to stave off a flurry of Islanders opportunities and making three saves in the span of only a few minutes.
Epps struggled to get involved for the first 30 minutes of the match, but grew more comfortable in his wing role opposite C.J. Sapong as the game went on. In his post-game press conference, coach Curtin pointed out how hard the team has worked in the nearly two weeks off leading up to the game. Speaking about Epps, Curtin said that seeing a player’s hard work on the practice field translate to match day success is the proverbial “high” that he and Earnie Stewart chase. “We get excited with what we see in training,” Curtin said. “He’s a player we’re very high on. Young still. Has a ton of potential.”
The Union now look towards a rivalry match against the New York Red Bulls on Sunday at 5pm. Curtin said that they “Got guys minutes. Got guys some sharpness. A lot of tough decisions for the weekend now.” That main decision will be who to start up front. Curtin will have to decide if he wants to add Simpson to the lineup, having two dangerous options of Pontius and Sapong on the wings. Based on his play tonight, that would seem an easy decision. But Fafa Picault has been too effective to leave off the starting 11, and tonight Simpson excelled against lesser competition. I’d expect Sapong to return to his central striking role with Pontius and Picault on the wings. Jay Simpson will certainly be a luxury off the bench for Curtin.
Player of the Match: Jay Simpson – Jay looked at home in his role, and worked well with C.J. Sapong. He played well with his back to the net, setting up multiple opportunities, and gave the Islanders’ center backs plenty to worry about for the full 90 minutes. “That’s why he’s here. To set up goals and score goals,” Curtin said after the game. “He didn’t get a goal on the night. But he’s always in and around the goal, causing problems, dangerous.”