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Heading into their fifth season, are the Union doomed to life as a ‘small’ club?

Jan 8, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT

source: AP

American Michael Bradley, here playing for Roma in a Serie A soccer match in Italy, is joining Toronto FC of MLS.

By the time you read this — or at least in the next few days — there’s a good chance that the three best American soccer players (non-goalies) will be on Major League Soccer rosters.

Clint Dempsey is playing in Seattle, Landon Donovan is a mainstay with the Los Angeles Galaxy and, apparently, Michael Bradley (?!?!) may be on the verge of a deal to play for Toronto FC.

[UPDATE: It's looking like Bradley to Toronto is a done deal, per ESPN and others.]

That’s right, a possible captain of this summer’s World Cup team — the American team — will be playing in Canada, for a team that is the laughing stock of MLS.

For the sake of Major League Soccer, this is, of course, a great thing. Having the best, most recognizable faces playing in our league is promising. For the sake of the U.S. National Team, many will tell you that it’s a bad thing. I disagree for the most part, but that’s a whole different discussion.

On a more localized front, these developments have to leave Philadelphia Union fans wondering if their team will ever truly be a player on the MLS stage.

Not only do none of the three players mentioned above play for the Union — their names and “Union” have never even been linked.

[UPDATE: There are some reports Thursday that the Union at least inquired or possibly offered Bradley a deal. No one seems to be sure how serious the offer was, but consensus is it wasn't close to Toronto's absolutely silly offer.]

A few MLS teams have three designated players. The Union have none.

Not once, during all of these rumors and discussions (and if you’ve never seen how long soccer rumors can drag on, it’s a long time), have the Union been mentioned. Not once. Never have we heard that the Union are interested in one of these big names. Never have we received a Google-translated report that such-and-such a player has been contacted by MLS and is interested in playing for the Union.

The entire structure of Major League Soccer is meant to promote parity. It’s the reason the league has survived — and thrived — for so many years. Players are bought, sold and owned by the league as a whole, not be individual teams. Those rules have been relaxed in recent years (rightfully so, in my opinion), to allow teams to spend their own money if they’d like — via the Designated Player rule — while also keeping spending under control.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the Union should spend wildly for a Clint Dempsey. It’s not like he wowed anyone last season in Seattle. And I’m not even saying that they should sign Michael Bradley, although there’s no doubt that he’d not only help the team but sell PLENTY of tickets (which the team would like you to know, went on sale yesterday).

The Union may still bring in a few nice players in the transfer window. And they will likely draft a few solid prospects in next week’s draft. And a great player is a great player, no matter what country he’s from or if you’ve ever heard his name before.

I still expect the Union to be better in 2014 than they were in 2013.

But the feel, even after just four seasons, is that the Union are fine hanging around the middle. They don’t take big risks, they don’t splash cash. They’re happy to give you a beautiful stadium, a fun matchday experience, and free parking for season ticket holders (seriously though, thanks for that).

Heck, many of us are already preparing ourselves to say goodbye to the few great players we already have here. It’s all but given that Amobi Okogu will move on once he becomes too pricy. The same with Sheanon Williams. Or Jack McInerney. Or Zac MacMath.

And in many ways, that’s still what Major League Soccer is. And that’s fine. If any of those players are offered big European contracts in the next few years, they’d be crazy not to go. And the Union would be reckless to try to stop them, even if they were willing to open the checkbook.

In England and around the world, there is a whole class of clubs more than happy to stay in the middle, never really striving for a title, but never really risking relegation. There’s a lot of money in that, and many fans of those clubs don’t seem to mind at all.

In Major League Soccer, where a title is really the only prize, that is unacceptable

My real point is this: What do the Union want to be? Do they want to be a mid-level team in MLS that catches lightning in a bottle every few years for a playoff run? A team that draws nice crowds, plays in a nice stadium, and gives 18,000 people a summer’s worth of fun Saturdays? If so, that’s fine for some people.

It’s fine for many of the families and youth soccer teams you’re trying to draw with discounted group ticket rates, Zac MacMath growth charts and dollar hot dogs. Oh, and possible mascots.

But it’s not fine if you want to be included among Philadelphia’s other professional sports teams, which the Union desperately want (and deserve to be). In recent weeks, I’ve noticed that Comcast SportsNet and others now refer to Philly’s “Five Teams.” That’s a great development for the Union (and likely angers plenty of soccer-hating commenters).

Philadelphia wants a winner. And if you want to be a part of the Philadelphia sports landscape, you can’t strive to just be relevant.

Die-hard soccer fans want a winner. MLS has taken great pride in the last decade to appeal to the core fans, and the Union have been very successful on that front, thanks largely to the Sons of Ben. Those people don’t care about a mascot, they don’t care about giveaways or concessions. They’d even be willing to pay for parking if it meant a few bucks for a designated player.

I love going to PPL Park. I can’t wait to go back there in March. But at some point, the front office needs to “wow” us. It needs to take a risk. It needs to make a statement that says “we’re here to win.”

It needs to matter.

  1. O'Doyle Rules! - Jan 8, 2014 at 4:43 PM

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  2. will - Jan 8, 2014 at 4:43 PM

    how are the best us players(non-goalies) not playing in the best leagues considered to be not a bad thing?

    • Lambo - Jan 8, 2014 at 4:45 PM

      because the MLS has grown into a strong league? They have been considered top 10 in the world (I forget the number/ report)

      • will - Jan 8, 2014 at 4:58 PM

        strong compared to what? what it started out as? yes. mls teams struggle to compete with liga mx teams.

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    • Steve Moore - Jan 8, 2014 at 5:30 PM

      Like I said, it’s a whole different post that might come at some point. But I am not at all of the opinion that playing in MLS somehow stunts your international career. It’s a fine league, and we’re long past the point of the “mickey mouse” reputation it once had.

      If the decision is between a constant starting place the EPL, La Liga or Italy, or playing in MLS, then maybe I’d err toward Europe. But if you’re riding the bench in Italy or can come play all the time in Toronto, why not play (and get PAID).

      Clint Dempsey or Michael Bradley playing in MLS is not going to undermine their USMNT careers. Period.

      • will - Jan 8, 2014 at 5:43 PM

        who said anything about undermining their usmnt careers? they’ll still be called into international duty. that’s not the issue. the issue is having players on the usmnt who are playing against and training with the best players in the world in the best leagues in the world. that’s not happening when they’re playing in the mls.

  3. Lambo - Jan 8, 2014 at 4:44 PM

    This is it, exactly. And it KILLS me that they aren’t doing anything (AGAIN!). Personally it is time for a new owner/ GM/ something that will shake things up and get us some higher quality players to make deep playoff runs. Especially since they are the Philly Five Sports team now. They NEED a name casual fans know.

  4. 33 - Jan 8, 2014 at 5:11 PM

    Hoping for his sake that the TFC thing is not going to happen. Bradley isn’t getting the minutes that make his Serie A situation ideal, but it’s still a far cry better than a transfer to MLS (particularly TFC) right now. He’s been linked a few places so far, and the Roma midfield is crowded, so he is a hot Silly Season name. Twellman isn’t a BS’er though (not a fan, but he’s not one for rumor mongering), so this is interesting, but I’m waiting to see a done deal before reacting.

    TFC have been working the PR stuff pretty well, linking themselves to some names last season while the team burned to the ground, and a few more this year. Defoe looks like it’s gonna happen, but last month there was a lot of Samuel E’to talk too. I’m not ready to condemn the Union for a move that hasn’t happened yet, and there’s still a lot of time and opportunity for them to improve the team.

  5. Hiphoppopotomas - Jan 8, 2014 at 5:41 PM


    • Greg - Jan 8, 2014 at 8:28 PM

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  6. BenE. - Jan 8, 2014 at 5:46 PM

    I’m not sure about that, but the Union are definitely doomed to life as a soccer team.

    • solidsender - Jan 8, 2014 at 10:17 PM

      I know right, the only thing worse would be if they played hockey!

  7. Eric - Jan 8, 2014 at 6:01 PM

    to be a philly 5 you need to play in philadelphia not some crack head infested place a few pegs above camden i cant even name 1 union player besides Le Toux and im sure they traded him again for allocation money

    • mike - Jan 8, 2014 at 6:19 PM


      Well, if the stupidest person on the site doesn’t follow them, then surely they must not be any good.

  8. Mostel - Jan 8, 2014 at 6:18 PM

    What a bunch of scumbags down there in Chester. Add some talent and stop letting the entire league full of unworthy cities add players.

  9. PineBaron - Jan 8, 2014 at 10:19 PM

    the problem is Hackworth leaving talent on the bench.

  10. Tom - Jan 9, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    Small club in an insignificant league. Orange wedges for everyone!

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