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

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

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 Philly.com 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.

Sixers draw high praise from Warriors after loss to NBA leader

Sixers draw high praise from Warriors after loss to NBA leader

BOX SCORE

The Warriors are the blueprint of a total team in the NBA. They have a star-studded starting lineup and a top sixth man with the positional versatility that creates hard-to-combat matchups.

Yet, as the Warriors notched their 50th win of the season, 119-108, in a collaborative effort against the Sixers, they gave credit to the potential they see in their opponent, even when Brett Brown didn't have his key pieces on the court Monday (see Instant Replay).

"They play hard," Stephen Curry said. "They have some talent to work around. Hopefully they have some consistency with their roster going forward and getting guys healthy. One thing about them, you've got to compliment their energy and effort and fight every night they play."

Facing the Warriors with a full squad is challenging enough. The Sixers did it shorthanded without Joel Embiid, who is out indefinitely with a left knee contusion (see story). They also are less than a week removed from trading starting power forward Ersan Ilyasova and the defensive-minded Nerlens Noel.

"You've got to give this team a lot of credit," Draymond Green said. "They're going to be really, really, really good. I mean, they're missing Embiid and Ben Simmons and they're really on their way."

With 10 available players, including Justin Anderson, who has had just one shootaround to actually get a run in with the team, the Sixers fought until the final buzzer sounded. Dario Saric led the Sixers with 21 points and seven assists, while also collecting seven rebounds. Gerald Henderson scored 16 and both Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes added 15 (see feature highlight). Covington also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.

"They play the right way," Klay Thompson said. "They made it tough on us tonight. I'm excited to see their team when Embiid and Simmons are healthy. It should be a scary frontcourt, and with Saric. They're heading in the right direction. They'll only get better this June because they have some high picks. It's a bright future in Philly."

The Sixers held the Warriors to 6 for 29 three-point shooting (20.7 percent), including an 0-for-11 outing by Curry. This was the third time this season and only the 37th time in his career Curry missed all of his three-point attempts.

"I think he had an off night," Brown said. "I think at times we got lucky with them as a team. They didn't shoot it the way the team normally would shoot it. Some of it is I give our guys credit."

Curry took his uncharacteristic performance, which included a pair of air-balls, in stride.

"The weatherman said it was a low-pressure system that was coming and I forgot to adjust," Curry said. "One thing, [I] don't ever get down on myself. Obviously that's why I got 11 of them up and not make one. You still have confidence the next one's going in."

Still, the Warriors turned to team basketball to pull away with the win. While they struggled from long range, they found other ways to run up the scoreboard, including shooting 33 for 39 at the free throw line.

Kevin Durant led all players with 27 points to go with eight rebounds. Green recorded a 14-point, 11-assist double-double and six boards. Thompson scored 21 points and Zaza Pachulia added 16. And at the end of the night, Curry still finished with 19 points in spite of his three-point woes.

"We've been doing this for a while together now and just try to find ways to get it done," Green said. "Obviously you've got to do a lot more on the defensive end to get stops, and try to create more offense. I think it was a good effort from everybody tonight to chip in."

Added Curry: "For us to still have the moxie to withstand that and still pretty much have the lead the whole game and allow our defense to get us a win tonight was kind of our M.O."

The Warriors are a perennial title contender thanks to their balanced roster and depth of weapons. The Sixers are in the beginning stages of working toward that goal. After Monday's game, the NBA's strongest example of "team" appreciated the direction in which Sixers are moving.

"Putting this franchise back together," Green said, "it's amazing to see."

Best of NHL: Ryan White scores in winning debut with Wild

Best of NHL: Ryan White scores in winning debut with Wild

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Mikael Granlund beat two defenders to find open ice and wrap the winning shot around goalie Jonathan Quick just 12 seconds into overtime, giving the Minnesota Wild a 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Monday night.

Granlund's 20th goal of the season gave goalie Devan Dubnyk his NHL-leading 33rd win and the Wild their 15th comeback victory. They answered all four goals in regulation by the Kings, from Nick Shore, Tanner Pearson, Jake Muzzin and Marian Gaborik.

Jason Zucker's spinning wrist shot midway through the third period tied the game for the Wild, who also had goals from Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Schroeder and Ryan White in his debut. White and Martin Hanzal were acquired in a trade with Arizona the night before (see full recap).

Kucherov's hat trick carries Lightning past Sens
TAMPA, Fla. -- Nikita Kucherov scored three power-play goals in the second period and the Tampa Bay Lightning kept their fading playoff hopes alive with a 5-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Monday night.

Kucherov had the second hat trick of his career and added an assist in the third period. Jonathan Drouin assisted all three of his goals and Victor Hedman assisted on two.

A day after trading goaltender Ben Bishop to Los Angeles and just hours after trading forward Brian Boyle to Toronto, the Lightning improved to 6-1-2 over their past nine games.

The Senators, who won at Florida on Sunday night, are 6-6 over their past 12 games (see full recap).

Galchenyuk lifts Canadiens over Devils in OT
NEWARK, N.J. -- Alex Galchenyuk scored on a power play at 2:54 of overtime and the Montreal Canadiens rallied from a two-goal third-period deficit to beat the New Jersey Devils 4-3 on Monday night.

Max Pacioretty scored twice in the final 11:23 of regulation to tie the game and Alexander Radulov added a goal for the Canadiens, who won consecutive games for the first time since early January. Al Montoya had 34 saves for Montreal.

Kyle Palmieri, John Moore and Travis Zajac scored for the Devils, who have lost four straight games (0-2-2), the past two in overtime. Cory Schneider made 29 saves.

Galchenyuk beat Schneider with a shot from between the circles less than a minute after Damon Severson was penalized for hooking (see full recap).