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.

Phillies respond to Mackanin's verbal spanking, beat Reds on Joseph's walk-off

Phillies respond to Mackanin's verbal spanking, beat Reds on Joseph's walk-off

BOX SCORE

It's too early to tell if the worm has turned for the Phillies, but this was certainly a step in the right direction.

The Phils, who entered the day with the worst record in the majors, pulled off a 4-3, walk-off win over the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday (see Instant Replay). The Phils won it on a hit by Tommy Joseph after Aaron Altherr made a heads-up baserunning play to advance to second on a wild pitch that bounced just a few feet away from Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart.

The win was just the Phillies' sixth in the last 27 games — inching them out baseball's basement — but it was their second in the last three and both of them have been walk-off specials with Joseph delivering the winning run with a single up the middle.

"Works for me," Joseph said of his recent penchant for walk-off hits.

Works for manager Pete Mackanin, too.

On Saturday night, the Phils were beaten, 5-2, by the Reds. The Phils were held to one hit and no runs over the first eight innings by a pitcher (Tim Adleman) with an ERA of over 6.00 and after the game, Mackanin called a team meeting. The skipper was tight-lipped about the meeting, but sources say he gave the lads a verbal spanking that belied his mild-mannered personality.

Time will tell if the meeting creates lasting impact and the intensity Mackanin would like to see, but he saw a response Saturday.

"I'd like to think it did (have an impact)," Mackanin said. "I was hoping they would. They played well. They put together a few hits. The home runs were nice to see, but I would like to see us bunch four or five base hits."

For the record, Joseph did not think the meeting had a huge impact on the team. He believes the Phils are better than they have shown and did not need a manager's scolding to play better.

"No, no," he said when asked if the meeting led to more intensity. "We know what we're capable of. We have a great team in here. It's a matter of playing great as a team. We were able to show that today."

There were a lot of contributors in this win.

Cesar Hernandez, Michael Saunders and Joseph all smacked solo homers off 40-year old Cincinnati starter Bronson Arroyo.

Phillies starter Jerad Eickhoff was not at his best, but he did manage to stop the bleeding after allowing a two-run homer in the first. He pitched 5 1/3 innings and gave up only one more run before handing a tie game off to the bullpen.

That bullpen was outstanding, running its scoreless streak to 19 2/3 innings. Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris combined on 3 2/3 scoreless innings to keep the game tied until Joseph could work his walk-off magic in the ninth.

But that magic started when Aaron Altherr led off the bottom of the ninth with a single off Michael Lorenzen and alertly took second on an 0-2 wild pitch that didn't bounce very far away from Barnhart. Altherr's getting into scoring position for Joseph was huge.

"Tommy Joseph has been coming up big in big situations and coming through for us," Mackanin said. "That wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for Altherr coming up and advancing on that ball in the dirt. So it's a good day.

"Maybe I should have a meeting every night."

After batting just .179 with one homer and seven RBIs in April, Joseph has hit .321 (25 for 78) with seven homers and 17 RBIs in 24 games this month. He is the first Phillie with two walk-off hits in a three-game span since Juan Samuel in June 1985 and first in the majors since Starlin Castro, then of the Cubs, did it in June 2015.

"If he continues like this, he’s going to have a heck of a good year and help us win a lot of games," Mackanin said.

Joseph nearly had his career ended by a series of concussions. A month-long slump was nothing he couldn't handle.

"At the beginning of April, I didn't think I'd have an April like I did," he said. "So it was just a matter of making adjustments with (hitting coach) Matt Stairs, making sure that we stay a little more consistent with what's going on, and it's all about really sticking to the adjustments that we make."

The Phillies have not won two games in a row in exactly a month — since April 26-27.

Can they do it Sunday?

Is the worm turning for this team?

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Reds 3

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Reds 3

BOX SCORE

The Phillies rallied for a 4-3 walk-off win over the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday.

Tommy Joseph won it with a single up the middle with no outs in the bottom of the ninth. The hit scored Aaron Altherr, who had singled and moved to second on a wild pitch.

The Phils have won just six of their last 27 games. Joseph has had a walk-off, game-winning hit in the last two wins.

In addition to Joseph, who also homered, the star of the game was the Phillies' bullpen. Four Phils' relievers combined on 3 2/3 scoreless innings after starter Jerad Eickhoff exited. The Phillies' bullpen is riding a 19 2/3-innings scoreless streak.

Starting pitching report
Eickhoff allowed eight hits and three runs over 5 1/3 innings. He gave up a bunt hit and a two-run homer to the first two batters of the game but took a 3-2 lead into the sixth inning. He allowed a leadoff single and a one-out RBI double in that inning as the Reds tied the game at 3-3.

Veteran Bronson Arroyo, back in action at age 40 after recovering from surgery the last two seasons, gave up three runs — all on solo homers — over five innings.

Bullpen report
Good work by Edubray Ramos to get two outs in the sixth to strand a runner in scoring position and preserve a 3-3 tie. Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris each followed with a scoreless inning. Neris struck out dangerous Joey Votto on a splitter with a man on base to end the top of the ninth. He got the win.

Austin Brice pitched two scoreless innings for the Reds. Michael Lorenzen took the loss. He gave up two hits in the ninth. Joseph's game-winning hit came on a 97 mph heater.

At the plate
Cesar Hernandez, Michael Saunders and Joseph all clouted solo homers for the Phillies. Joseph has six homers in his last 21 games.

Zack Cozart smacked a two-run homer against Eickhoff in the first inning. The Reds tied the game on a one-out double by Scooter Gennett in the sixth.

Remembering Bunning
Jim Bunning died Friday night. Larry Bowa recalled the impact that the Hall of Famer had on his career (see story).

Up next
The series concludes Sunday afternoon. Zach Eflin (0-2, 5.36) and Scott Feldman (3-4, 3.99) are the pitchers.