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.

Elton Brand on national anthem protests: Sixers working with NBA, having 'discussions internally'

Elton Brand on national anthem protests: Sixers working with NBA, having 'discussions internally'

CAMDEN, N.J. — Pockets of NBA players have increasingly started to speak up about what they believe to be racial and social injustices taking place in the United States.

With San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem sparking protests from other players around the NFL and various sports, now the NBA as a whole is preparing for potential protests prior to games.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association union executive director Michele Roberts came together last week to formulate a joint letter to players to express how the two sides plan to take "meaningful action."

Whatever that action is, Sixers veteran Elton Brand is all for it and the overall discussion of issues going on around the country.

"There are e-mails and direct texts from the NBPA. We’re working with the NBA. They’re going to talk to us soon,” Brand said. “My thing is if you want to stand up for something, that’s a good thing. Especially in America, the tensions and the injustices that are going on right now. 

“Even in our locker room we’re discussing who feels like this, who feels like what and ways that we can display how we feel about things. I’m all for it. I stand behind it and stand with other athletes and people that want to stand for a cause. Whatever their cause is, they want to stand for a cause. Our cause may be different.”

The NBA is significantly more diverse than the NFL, and Brand even admitted it’s been an eye-opening experience having talks about issues affecting African Americans inside a locker room with players from around the globe.

“We have a lot of international players,” he said. “I’m looking around the room and there are seven people that aren’t from this country. So you talk about the flag, talk about the constitution and to them it’s like, ‘I represent America because I’m working here, but I’m pro-Spain and I have problems there, too.’ We’re all sorting it out. We’ve had discussions internally also. I’m looking forward to what the NBPA and the NBA have to offer."

What the league and players association come up with will likely serve as something other than protesting during the actual anthem. Unlike the NFL, the NBA has a rule in place that explicitly states players, coaches and trainers must stand on the foul line or sidelines in a dignified posture during the playing of national anthems.

If Sixers players do ultimately decide on some sort of protest before games, they will have the support of the organization to express their rights.

"We haven't been together collectively long enough to have a real robust discussion about it," Sixers president Bryan Colangelo said. "I think we just addressed it briefly this morning with the players in an opportunity to say the following. Basically, we as an organization are going to be supportive of the views of our players. As the league and the players association formulate perhaps an approach, they've already circulated some information to teams. Things are probably still at the discussion phase. I hope to think that's where things are with our players, that they're still at the discussion phase. 

"Once again, I'm assuming that there will be a desire to express an opinion or viewpoint. I've always been supportive of people in society having freedom to express a viewpoint. Again, going back to the league and the players association, in a positive way I think they've always been out in front of some of these social issues and if they can affect social change in a positive way they probably will. You can just anticipate that there's still some unknowns to this, but you can estimate that we will be supportive as an organization as to how our players want to express their views."

Joel Embiid expects to play in Sixers' preseason opener

Joel Embiid expects to play in Sixers' preseason opener

CAMDEN, N.J. — The long wait could be over next week.

Joel Embiid expects to play in the Sixers' first preseason game Oct. 4 at UMass-Amherst against the Celtics, he said Monday at media day.

“The first thing for me is just get back on the court,” Embiid said of his expectations this season. “It looks like in a couple days I’m going to have the chance to do that.”

Embiid has missed the past two seasons since being drafted third overall because of foot injuries. Even though he is taking his rookie year one step at a time, he has a positive long-term outlook given how healthy he feels. 

“I’m confident that I’m going to have a long, successful career,” he said. “From what it looks like right now, I’m going to have a 20-year career.”

Embiid has grown as a player and a person during his recovery. He noted had he been competing in an 82-game season, he would not have had as much time to dedicate on his development. As a result of the specialized workouts and the hours he has spent in an individual practice format, he has improved his shooting and gained strength and speed. 

“What I was two years ago, I’m not even close to what I am right now,” he said. “My game has gotten so much better ... I’m not the same guy. I’m different.”

Embiid has been following a well-mapped out rehab plan during which he has had to adhere to restrictions, and will continue to do so this season. He admits the restrictions have been frustrating, but he now understands they are being implemented for his best interest long term. The lengthy recovery has forced him to change his outlook on maintaining his health. 

“The main thing I learned about myself is, I could be patient,” Embiid said. “When I was first doing my rehab, going through that, the only thing I thought about was getting back on the court. I would try to get back on the court and play more than I was supposed to. After the doctor [said] you had to heal well and I needed the second surgery, that’s when I told myself be patient and do whatever I can and make sure I listen to what people have to say.”

Head coach Brett Brown wants Embiid to become the “crown jewel” of the defense. Embiid, who stands at a towering 7-foot-2, 275 pounds, is ready to embrace those expectations. He has studied tape of Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing, among others. Embiid likes the game of Marc Gasol and appreciates how DeAndre Jordan communicates as a big man. 

“I love playing defense,” he said. “I hate when the other team scores.”

Embiid's debut will be the culmination of years of work. Now that the season is approaching, he is eager to count down the days. 

“I’m really excited,” Embiid said. “I’ve gone through a lot and it’s been two years. The fact that I’m healthy now and ready to get back on the court, I just can’t wait.”