Fernandes shapes up for Union

Fernandes
Fernandes
Posted: March 28, 2014

HEEDING HIS coaches' advice after the last Major League Soccer season, midfielder Leo Fernandes set out in the offseason to try to become the Union's fittest player. News of the team's acquisitions of Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira rendered only more incentive to grind it out while training.

Thus far in the young MLS season it has paid dividends for Fernandes, playing his best soccer since the Union selected him in the fourth round of last year's Supplemental Draft. More confident and in better physical shape, the soft-spoken 22-year-old has provided a perhaps unexpected spark for the Union (1-1-1) in its first three games.

Fernandes has had a hand in two of the club's three goals entering tomorrow's 4 p.m. match against the winless Montreal Impact at PPL Park. He tallied an assist in the March 15 win against New England and followed it up with his first MLS goal in last Saturday's loss at Columbus.

All that after failing to record a point in 281 minutes during his rookie campaign last season. His three shots on goal in 125 minutes spanning two games this year are triple his total from 2013.

"There's no other way to sugarcoat it; he's been phenomenal for us, an absolute gem," defender Aaron Wheeler said. "You can see it in training, too. His confidence is just at a different level right now. It shows in his play. He's come in and contributed in both of the games where he's gotten the opportunity. Hopefully it's just the beginning."

Fernandes, born in Brazil but raised in New York, played in seven games last season, starting three, but after the club's offseason midfield makeover he was not viewed as a player who would make this much of an impact. However, when team captain Brian Carroll fell ill before the March 15 home opener, Fernandes took advantage of his opportunity to start, setting up Sebastien Le Toux in the 31st minute for the lone goal of a 1-0 win.

In the 62nd minute of this past Saturday's 2-1 road loss to the Columbus Crew, Fernandes, a 55th-minute substitute for Maidana, banged home a pass from Le Toux. Although not able to celebrate during the game - he had to run the ball back to midfield - Fernandes on Monday took home the game ball signed by his teammates. Likely a gift to his parents, he said.

"He obviously has proven that he belongs here this year," Union manager John Hackworth said. "I say this all the time, but players have to be ready for when they get their name called. And Leo, early in this season so far, has had his name called twice and has played very well. It's a great sign for him; a great sign for us, too."

Fernandes said training alongside midfielders like Edu, Maidana and Nogueira has helped his game "tremendously." Edu has 45 caps with the United States national team and was called up to play with the squad in Wednesday's friendly against Mexico. Maidana has played professionally across the globe, from his native Argentina to Mexico to Russia, and Nogueira came to Philly on the heels of 7 years with Sochaux of France's Ligue 1.

"They're so good," said Fernandes, who starred collegiately at Stony Brook. "They're world-class players."

And while their presence as well as Carroll's leaves him without a starting spot at the moment, Fernandes said he will be prepared to step up whenever needed.

"As soon as Hack calls my name I'll be ready," he said. "It could be in the 60th minute, the 90th minute. No matter when he calls me, I'll be ready. I'm always ready."

Caution with Berry

After missing last Saturday's loss with a hamstring injury, defender Austin Berry returned to training with the team and could see game action as early as tomorrow. However, Hackworth made it clear during his weekly press conference Tuesday that his starting center back would not play until fully recovered.

"I want to be careful with Austin," Hackworth said. "When you have a soft tissue injury like that, you want to make sure a player's 100 percent healthy, otherwise they risk continually kind of going through this chronic pattern of tearing it again."

Berry sustained the injury during the Union's home opener and was replaced by Aaron Wheeler in the 54th minute of that game. Wheeler played well starting in Berry's place last Saturday.

The Union is also exercising caution with defender Sheanon Williams (quad) and forward Conor Casey (calf), neither of whom have played this season. Raymond Gaddis has performed well at right back, his natural position, in place of Williams. Casey appears closer to returning, as Hackworth admitted the veteran could have probably played 15 to 20 minutes in the last game. Given the game situation, the staff decided against it.

"If those guys are 100 percent, then it's a tough choice for our staff to make," Hackworth said. "If they're not 100 percent, then we'll probably be conservative because the guys who have been playing have been doing well."

Montreal 'dangerous'

The Union might have preferred to play Montreal (0-3-0) in one of the season's first 3 weeks, as the Impact struggled without star striker Marco Di Vaio, who served a three-game suspension as a result of a red card issued for violent conduct during a 2013 playoff game.

But now Di Vaio is back, making Montreal, which has scored just two goals and surrendered six, a tougher matchup. Midfielder Andres Romero, who also served a three-game suspension for his conduct in that same game, is set to return tomorrow, too.

"It's a dangerous kind of game for us," Hackworth said. "You have two very good players that will make their team much different than what we've seen in the first 3 weeks of the season."

Fred adds depth

The Union have yet another option at midfielder with last week's signing of Fred, the Brazilian MLS veteran who played with Philadelphia during its inaugural 2010 season. His addition provides not only depth but also leadership, Hackworth said.

Fred, who has 15 goals and 18 assists in 114 MLS appearances, last played for the Melbourne Heart from 2011-13.

"He makes training better," Hackworth said. "There's a lot of things that Fred brings to this team that right now nobody probably recognizes."

Notes

Pedro Ribeiro and Richie Marquez are on temporary loan to the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Union's USL PRO affiliate. Ribeiro and Marquez were selected with the 15th and 44th overall picks in this year's MLS SuperDraft . . . The first 5,000 fans at tomorrow's game receive Amobi Okugo mini-bobbleheads presented by PPL EnergyPlus.


On Twitter: @jakemkaplan

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