When Philadelphia Union midfielder Marcus Epps returns to Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois tonight he’ll have “family” in the stands in the city that became his second home when he was in high school.
Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the 23-year-old was only 15 when he joined the Chicago Fire Academy and moved in with a host family in Illinois.
“I spent two plus years though so it will be great going back and seeing the city that I worked hard in,” Epps said after training on Tuesday.
Epps was part of a Fire U16 team that made the national finals his first year in lllinois and attended high school at Downers Grove North High School. He played for the U18 team the following year and graduated from Downers Grove before heading to the University of South Florida, returning in the summers to play for the Chicago Fire’s Premier Development team.
Jim Barkei, a goalkeeper who is heading into his final season at Northern Kentucky University, has fond memories of Epps when he lived with his family his first season in the academy.
“It was great honestly,” Barkei said. “He had nothing but respect for those who helped him during his time here and it was fun to attend school with him.”
Barkei has kept tabs on Epps’ career since their high school days and isn’t surprised to see him not only rostered in MLS but getting regular minutes.
“He always had the mindset of going pro back when he was here,” Barkei said.
Of course, in those days Epps’ dream was to take the field with the Fire as some of his former teammates in the academy like Drew Conner and in PDL like Matt Polster.
“Being younger hoping to be on the field for them you get mixed feelings playing against them,” he said. “It’s a great club and it will be good to see some of the guys I played with in that environment again.”
Epps will also have a chance to see both of his former host families, the Barkeis and the Cochrans.
“I made sure to get them tickets,” Epps said.
This is his second trip to face the Eastern Conference rivals and the second time this season playing against the Fire. He came off the bench and played 21 minutes in the Union’s 3-1 win over the Fire in Chester on May 30 after making a 15-minute sub appearance in Bridgeview last October.
Acquired in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft after the Union traded up to select him 25th overall, Epps did well in his rookie season, scoring a pair of goals and adding an assist in 19 appearances and 7 starts.
He started off 2018 buried on the depth chart, however, earning minutes with Bethlehem Steel FC the first month and a half of the season. But since breaking back into the first team rotation, he’s been a weekly fixture in head coach Jim Curtin’s lineups, making six starts and five substitute appearances. His goal and two assists all came in a win at home over Real Salt Lake.
His rise has coincided with a drop in form by former Chicago Fire winger David Accam, who returns to Chicago still seeking his first goal in league play since signing with the Union in the offseason.
“Obviously, we have to get David Accam going,” Curtin said during a press conference on Tuesday morning. “He’s important, he’s going to get minutes in these upcoming games and he’s itching to go.”
Epps’ increase in playing time has also raised his profile with the fans. He recently spent time connecting with fans online in a Facebook Live session.
“Great group of fans, I don't think I’ve seen any group of fans like them,” he said. “I’m hoping I can continue to grow and help the team win.”
Getting three points tonight — something the team has done only once on the road in the past calendar year — will be critical for the Union’s playoff hopes. The Union are two points behind the Fire in the standings in eighth place in the conference and three points out of the sixth and final playoff spot, which is currently held by the Montreal Impact.
The game kicks off at 8:30 p.m. eastern time and will be broadcast locally on PHL17.