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Fans get up close and personal with the Union at Open Practice

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The Philadelphia Union ended their first week of training with a practice open to fans Friday afternoon at YSC Sports near King of Prussia.

By Matt Ralph

About 100 fans lined the outside of the field inside YSC Sports to watch the boys in blue train and get autographs at the indoor practice facility near King of Prussia Friday afternoon.

The annual event was the first chance fans of the club, some on extended lunch breaks and others playing hooky from school had to see newcomers like CJ Sapong and draft picks Dzenan Catic, Eric Bird, Raymond Lee and Aaron Simmons.

It was also an opportunity to check out trialists like Venezuelan forward Hermes Palomino, Harrisburg City Islanders defender Coady Andrews and goalkeepers Brian Sylvestre, a teammate of Andrews in Harrisburg, and former La Salle goalkeeper John McCarthy.

Notable absences from the practice included goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi, who is away on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations, Carlos Valdes, Brian Carroll and Vincent Nogueira.

Union Academy players Sebastian Elney and Sean Wilson were on the preseason camp roster but are in Mexico with the United States Under-18 squad for the Copa Chivas Tournament. Fellow Academy players Yosef Samuel, Morgan Hackworth, Will Campbell, Zachary Zandi, Cameron Keys and Andrew Verdi (who was on the preseason camp roster) have also had a chance to train with the senior team this week.

For the fans, the open practice was a great opportunity to see the team up close and in a much more relaxed environment than on game days at PPL Park. After practice ended dozens of fans hung around and greeted the players as they left, capturing autographs and photos and chatting in a casual environment.

Several of the players mentioned looking forward to traveling to Florida to continue their preseason training and playing on natural grass and kept an optimistic tone when asked about the CBA negotiations.

As for observations of the performance on the field, I'll share a few and then hand it off to my colleague Andrew Stoltzfus.

-Catic had an impressive day scoring several times in the short-sided games with his head and his left foot and was the first and only player to hit the crossbar on the first attempt in a crossbar drill, but when using his right foot he looked pretty average. Catic scored a ton of goals in college at the NAIA level so him scoring in a practice isn't really news; how he develops the rest of his game will have a lot to say about what kind of playing time he gets in his rookie season.

-Raymond Lee somehow looks like an older version of Amobi Okugo out there in appearance, but I didn't really get much of a sense from him of where he'd fit in if he made the squad. He played midfield all through college at St. Louis, but is listed as a defender on the roster so he would likely be a reserve left back if he made the team.

-Brian Sylvestre is a beast. He could very well play his way into an enviable third string goalkeeper position on a team with two international-level keepers.

-I forgot all about Richie Marquez being on the team since he didn't see the field last year and I nearly forgot about Austin Berry. Neither stood out in practice but it's comforting to know that they are battling for a position in the center back depth chart instead of Aaron Wheeler.

-It's nice seeing Academy players training with the senior team if for nothing else the opportunity they have to learn from and get to know guys on the senior team better.

-Andrew Wenger appears to be ready to step up and help lead this team this year. He has a swagger I don't recall seeing last year and a confidence that was lacking at times during his stint with the Montreal Impact.