Philadelphia Union rookie Marcus Epps dribbles through the Harrisburg City Islanders defense in a Fourth Round match in the 2017 US Open Cup. Photo: Matt Ralph
Rookie Marcus Epps’ first professional goal restored a two-goal lead two minutes after halftime to help the Philadelphia Union (MLS) knock off the Harrisburg City Islanders (USL) for the fourth time in US Open Cup play at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pa. on Wednesday night.
Epps, drafted out of the University of South Florida in January, made his first start in a Union uniform and was a handful for the City Islanders early in the game as Harrisburg was looking to avenge a 3-2 loss in the same building a year ago. In the early going, Epps set up a dangerous free kick when he was taken down just outside the 18 and nearly got onto the end of a long pass in the box that would have spelled trouble.
In the 18th minute, it was the Mississippi native’s strong run and layoff in the box that eventually set up a pass from Jay Simpson to Derrick Jones for a goal off a low liner from 25 yards out. The goal was the first for Jones in an official first team match.
After Simpson was denied by a fine save from Sean Lewis in the 28th minute, his hold-up play and a switch of the flanks between Epps and CJ Sapong led to a second goal off the left foot of Sapong that beat Lewis to the far post for Simpson’s second assist of the night.
Firmly in control of possession and momentum, it appeared as though the Union might run away with a rare easy victory over their former USL affiliate before Paul Wilson connected with Jonathan Mendoza to cut the lead in half in the 37th minute.
The goal sparked the City Islanders’ offense and the visitors had a chance to go into the break on level terms when Rasheed Olabiyi’s free header off a corner kick flashed just wide of the post.
The momentum carried into halftime didn’t last long in the second half thanks to a beautiful ball Haris Mendunjanin sent down the right flank that Epps caught up before beating his defender and the keeper for the first non-preseason goal of his young career.
“Haris played a great ball,” Epps said of the goal. “It was tough, the keeper did well, but I saw the little gap and so you know a slow roller I thought would work best.”
Back in command, the Union were content to keep the ball and run down the clock but Harrisburg had another surge left in them as Pedro Ribeiro made things interesting for his former team in the 69th minute when he forced Union goalkeeper John McCarthy into a save that fell to Shawn McLaws for a rebound opportunity that hit the cross bar and bounced out. Ribeiro, Mendoza, Jake Bond and Lee Nishanian all had additional shot attempts stopped by McCarthy in the final half hour.
“Unfortunately, we gave up a goal early in the second half but I thought from that point on we were pretty good,” City Islanders head coach Bill Becher said. “The game was back and forth. We had all of the chances in the second half; I don’t remember them having any outside of the goal.”
McCarthy finished the night with six saves, his counterpart with two on vital interventions that easily could have made the final score a lopsided one. With the win, the Union extended their unbeaten streak in the tournament against non-MLS teams to seven dating back to a 2012 win over Rochester Rhinos, their first in the club’s Open Cup history after going one-and-done against MLS opponents in the first two years. Harrisburg’s record against MLS teams in the competition fell to 5-7 with the loss.
“It’s harder than people think because these games are tricky,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “We’re expected to win, we’re expected to be the team that just takes care of business. The only time it gets really talked about is if we lose a game like tonight.”