Philadelphia Union’s youth movement has many faces. There are the “Philly Five” — the five homegrown players that represent the club’s build-from-within ethos. There are Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Elliott, both recent nominees for MLS Rookie of the Year.
Meanwhile, Marcus Epps, still only 23, has quietly gone about building and growing his game, pushing others and waiting for his chance to shine. And over the past six matches, Epps is getting — and taking — that chance.
The Union had two wins in their first nine games of the season and Epps had played 43 minutes total when the team headed north to Montreal in desperate need of a win. He earned 75 that day, and Philly earned a huge three points. A week later, the second year winger tore through Real Salt Lake’s defense, collecting a goal and two assists.
Look closely at the goal, and you can why Epps was catching the coaches’ attention even when he wasn’t getting first team minutes. As Fafa Picault races up the right wing, Epps sits in his defender’s blind spot, making himself difficult to track. Then, as Picault prepares to center the ball, Epps makes a subtle, decisive cut to get inside his man.
That seemingly innocuous movement is just one sign of Epps’ development. The South Florida product was drafted by the Union in 2017 -- the club traded up to get him -- after an injury-filled final year of school, and he has had to work his way up through a crowded field of wingers to reach the big stage of MLS.
“Ever since you're a kid, it's all that you want,” Epps says, smiling. “To be in a great stadium like Talen Energy, in front of great fans like the Union has, and to get a goal or do a move and make a good play.
“To hear the fans,” he pauses and shakes his head. “It's everything and more.”
“I jumped the gun”
Epps is from Jackson, Mississippi, and the closest thing to a local MLS team he had growing up was FC Dallas, known as the Dallas Burn until 2005. But Epps’ family was a soccer family, and both of Marcus’ brothers played the sport. “I kind of grew up on the field,” he says. “My mom and dad were always traveling for trips for my brothers, so when I was two I was on the field kicking around.”
As a result, Epps knew from a young age that he wanted to be a professional soccer player. So when he had to make a difficult choice to leave home and join Chicago Fire’s academy at a young age in order to chase that dream, he didn’t hesitate.
A friend played for a youth club called Mississippi Fire that was affiliated with Chicago Fire. When the friend was invited to play for the Fire in the GA Cup, he told Marcus to come along. “And I was like, I can't just come with you, I'm not affiliated or anything!” Epps explains. “And he made some calls and they let me come up. I just told my parents, ‘Yeah, this sounds good, I want to try it out.’”
Chicago was impressed.
“Two weeks, I packed up everything and went,” Epps says.
The first minutes came in the thirteenth match of the season, seven in total. Afterwards, Union head coach Jim Curtin said, “I told him to go out there and be fearless and he did that; I think it is only going to be more and more minutes the way he is playing.”
This season, Epps has started five of the Union’s past six MLS matches as well as their US Open Cup blowout of Richmond Kickers, in which he was the most dangerous player on the field by some distance. That’s a fast rise for the second round draft pick that went into the MLS SuperDraft combine just hoping to catch an eye.
“Senior year I was dealing with injuries so I didn't play in many games. To be able to go to the combine was a big deal,” he says. “The main thing I wanted to show? That I can see the game and it's not just dribbling and all that.”
Epps talked to the Union at the combine, but he had no idea their interest was high enough to trade up for him in the draft. Now he wants to repay that belief. In 13 games with Bethlehem Steel last year, Epps worked on turning his skillful dribbling into a more potent weapon.
“When I was growing up, all I did was dribble the ball. Just go from the goal kick all the way up,” Epps says, somehow without boasting. “But coming here and having to refine that, it's the first time I really had to think about dribbling. Before, when I see it, it's just go. But now, I have to add on things.
But lest you believe Epps is simply expanding his repertoire of moves, he is prioritizing the mental side as well. “Whenever I'm in practice or games, I really try to highlight my decision-making. And I grade myself on whether I made the right decision for the team and for myself, to push myself to be confident.
“And when that comes, I get comfortable and you'll see more like the Richmond game.”
Building toward something bigger
That Richmond win was a showcase for Epps. His movement and spacing pulled apart the visitors’ back five, and any time he was isolated on a defender his feet became a blur of stepovers and drags, and then he was gone. His goal, coming in on his left after a nifty behind-the-leg cut, was explosiveness and control merged into a single moment.
Back in May 2017, after that first start, Epps said: ““I would like to be playing a lot for the team and hopefully I can one day be a starter.”
Now he is. And ability to do to MLS teams what he did to Richmond could be closely linked to the Union’s playoff hopes.
“As a team, that's the main goal: Playoffs and beyond,” Epps promises. “Personally, my main focus is to do whatever I can to push that. Not every game is the best, not every game goes how you want, but you can always help in some way.”
The list of Union rookies that have endured sophomore slumps is lengthy, but Marcus Epps is not on it. In his second year as a pro, the winger is finding confidence and comfort on the field while embracing his chance to help the Union reach the playoffs.