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.

Future Phillies Report: Jorge Alfaro ticketed for a September call-up?

Future Phillies Report: Jorge Alfaro ticketed for a September call-up?

Minor-league schedules are wrapping up and both Reading and Lehigh Valley have just a dozen regular-season games remaining. From there, both teams will be in their league's playoffs, giving many of the Phillies' top prospects a chance to win a championship.

Even if the Fightin Phils and IronPigs fall short, 2016 has provided many of the Phillies' top young players with a taste of winning. In that respect, it's been a successful season. Even at the major-league level, guys like Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, Cesar Hernandez and the Phillies' young starting pitchers have seen what winning feels like. The Phils played very well for the first six weeks of the season, and even though they've faded from contention, they're not nearly as irrelevant as they were at this time a year ago.

This week, the Future Phillies Report begins at Double A:

C Jorge Alfaro (AA)
Alfaro, hitting .279/.322/.444 on the year with 13 homers and 60 RBIs, could be playing with the Phillies by mid-September. He's the only catcher on their 40-man roster other than Carlos Ruiz and Cameron Rupp. With the 40-man roster filled and teams routinely bringing up a third catcher when roster expand in September, it seems likely Alfaro could get his first taste of The Show.

Reading is the favorite to win the championship, which ends on Sept. 17 if it goes the full five games. The Phillies will almost certainly keep Alfaro with Reading through the end of its run; it would make little sense to keep him at Double A all year only to move him when the Fightin Phils are within striking distance of a title.

But those Alfaro skills you've been hearing and reading about for a year — power, arm strength, athleticism — could be on display at Citizens Bank Park for a few games in mid-to-late September. That opportunity would be as positional as anything else, because Alfaro is likely to begin 2017 at Triple A.

OF Dylan Cozens (AA)
It's not a huge surprise that Cozens has gone homerless in his last six games, all on the road. He has 37 homers and 114 RBIs on the year, with 28 HR and 77 RBIs coming at FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading.

Cozens is 1 for his last 20 with 10 strikeouts. Those K's just continue to pile up for him — he has 162, second-most in the Eastern League and 43 more than teammate Rhys Hoskins, who ranks fourth with 119.

Cozens has the tools. He has impressive raw power, he can run, he can field his position. But the tendency to swing and miss could hold him back from ascending the minor-league ladder as quickly as Phillies fans want. It certainly has this season. If Cozens had his same numbers — .284/.361/.608 with 36 doubles, 37 HR and 114 RBIs — but with 40 fewer strikeouts, he'd probably be in Triple A by now. But a 30-percent strikeout rate is impossible to overlook. For reference, only six players in the majors have a higher strikeout rate than Cozens: Steven Souza Jr., Chris Davis, Chris Carter, Mike Napoli, Trevor Story and Giancarlo Stanton.

And keep in mind this is Double A pitching Cozens is whiffing against. It's not like he's faced an assortment of experienced former major-leaguers with five-pitch mixes. 

Look for the Phillies to work this offseason and next spring training with Cozens to correct the issue. He has so much power potential that he could be a true difference-maker if he makes more contact and becomes less of a liability vs. lefties (.205 BA, four HR).

1B Rhys Hoskins (AA)
Reading's powerful first baseman has slowed down in August, going 54 plate appearances without an extra-base hit. But Hoskins continues to walk, so he has a .352 on-base percentage over that span despite hitting .190.

As I outlined in last week's Future Phillies Report, Hoskins' walk rate has increased in each of the last four months — he walked in seven percent of his plate appearances in May, nine percent in June, 13 percent in July and 21 percent in August.

That's a valuable skill for an all-offense slugger like Hoskins to develop. 

He's hitting .278/.369/.562 this season with 25 doubles, 35 homers, 107 RBIs, 61 walks and 119 K's.

OF Andrew Pullin (AA)
An underrated member of the Phillies' farm system, Pullin has had an impressive year. In 80 games, the left-handed hitting corner outfielder has hit .321 with 14 homers, 51 RBIs and an .885 OPS. 

In 44 games since his promotion to Reading, Pullin has hit .344 with with nine doubles, 10 homers and 32 RBIs. He's hit at home and on the road, against lefties and against righties. Pullin, who had a two-homer game on Sunday, has hit .348 with a .400 OBP in 100 plate appearances vs. left-handed pitchers this season.

A fifth-round pick in 2012 out of Centralia HS in Washington, Pullin is still just 22 years old after five seasons in the Phillies' farm system. He doesn't have the same prospect label as a Nick Williams or a Cozens, but he's produced.

Pullin, citing personal issues, actually retired in April before returning to Clearwater in May. The Phillies are glad to have his bat back. The organization has so much more young outfield talent now than it did a year or two ago, when that position group was as bleak as it got.

OF Nick Williams (AAA)
Williams' bat has picked back up this week. He had multi-hit games Tuesday and Wednesday, and four of his last eight hits were doubles.

But again, he's striking out a lot and not walking. Over his last 150 plate appearances, Williams has one walk and 40 strikeouts. He's hit .236 with a .240 OBP over that span. If you're hitting .236 with, say, a .320 on-base percentage, you can still provide your team value during a slump — especially if you're a middle-of-the-order hitter like Williams. 

But Williams doesn't do that. When he's cold, there's no production at the plate. That's an issue and it's not one you just correct at the major-league level, where pitchers have more control and command than anywhere else in the world.

Williams has power. He has bat speed and foot speed. But if his plate selection doesn't improve in a tangible way, his ceiling will be limited. There are plenty of guys in the majors with power and speed and a sub-.300 on-base percentage. They're mostly role players, not stars.

SS J.P. Crawford (AA)
Crawford has three errors in his last five games to give him 19 on the season. For most of the year, he was well ahead of last year's pace, when he committed 27 errors. Now, he's in line to finish with 22 or 23, which wouldn't represent meaningful progress.

Of course, defensive ability is not perfectly illustrated by an error total. Errors don't take into account all the balls an infielder reaches that others don't. Things like range and arm strength don't show up in that one counting stat.

Crawford has range and impressive arm strength. He has the tools that will enable him to stick at shortstop and potentially be an above-average defender there one day. But talent alone doesn't make you a good defensive shortstop. Look at Freddy Galvis as an example — for years, the Phillies touted Galvis' glove as he showed flashes of brilliance but also made a lot of mental mistakes or miscues on routine plays. There was a difference in the defense of Jimmy Rollins and Galvis — Rollins had the flashiness while also making just about every routine play every season. It took Galvis a few years, but finally in 2016 he's lived up to his defensive potential. It could take Crawford a similar amount of time.

Offensively, Crawford continues to walk — he has 69 walks and 69 strikeouts this season. He's hit .253 with a .342 OBP in 334 plate appearances at Triple A.

RHP Nick Pivetta (AAA)
Pivetta lasted just four innings on Thursday night, giving up two runs in a loss to the Pawtucket Red Sox. He hit 95 mph and struck out six more batters, though, giving him 20 K's in 15 innings since his promotion to Triple A.

The Phillies appear to be monitoring his innings count. Pivetta is at 139, seven above his career-high with probably three more starts to go. He'll finish somewhere between 155 and 160 innings in his age-23 season. 

The rising strikeout rate and decreasing walk rate with Pivetta are true signs of progress. He's struck out 8.5 batters per nine this season and walked 3.0. Prior to this season, his K/9 was 6.9 and his BB/9 was 3.3.

RHP Jimmy Cordero (AA)
Cordero, the hard-throwing reliever the Phillies acquired from Toronto last summer for Ben Revere, has pitched well lately at Double A. After giving up three runs in his first two appearances with Reading, he's allowed just one run over his last 7⅓ innings.

Cordero's presence on the Phils' 40-man roster and his potential as a setup man or closer could get him a look in the majors in September. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin wants more relief options, and Cordero has the stuff to spell Edubray Ramos or Hector Neris. Ramos has made 24 appearances since July 1, and Neris has pitched in a MLB-leading 64 games.

CF Roman Quinn (AA)
Quinn has homered in two of his last three games, both from the left side. That's good news for the switch-hitter because he is naturally right-handed.

All five of Quinn's homers this season have come from the left side. But he's actually hit 35 points better (.319) from the right side. It's important for a switch-hitter to hold his own against both sides. We saw for years with Shane Victorino, for example, that when a hitter is so much weaker from one side (Victorino was from the left) it almost nullifies that switch-hitting ability.

Quinn, who has deceptive power, has hit .320 over the last week with a double, a triple and those two homers. He's hit .278 with a .355 OBP with Reading this season and has 29 steals in 37 attempts.

On 'prove-it' deals, have Rueben Randle or Chris Givens proven anything?

On 'prove-it' deals, have Rueben Randle or Chris Givens proven anything?

This offseason, in an attempt to boost a putrid receiving corps, the Eagles went out and signed two veterans in Rueben Randle and Chris Givens. 

Both were one-year contracts, without much guaranteed money — what are commonly referred to as “prove-it” deals. But a couple weeks away from final cuts, their two roster spots seem to be in jeopardy. 

So, have they actually proven anything yet? 

“Well both of them really have come on,” head coach Doug Pederson said on Wednesday. “I think with Chris' skill set, a speed guy, he's done a nice job catching the ball this week – as all of them have done. Rueben is kind of the veteran, the savvy guy, the smooth, more of the silky runner. And [they are] really two veteran guys that lead that young receiver group.”

It will be hard to lead the receiver group if they’re not on the team — and that certainly seems to be a possibility. The Eagles went out and traded for Dorial Green-Beckham, while undrafted rookie Paul Turner has come on strong, fighting for a roster spot. 

Of course Randle and Givens both said they expect to make the roster. They’re confident and they should be. If not, then what’s the point? 

They each came to Philly on such cheap and short deals because they had something different they needed to prove and the Eagles gave them a shot to do it. 

Randle, 25, finished out his rookie deal with the Giants last year with a good season: 57 catches, 797 yards and eight touchdowns. Yet as a free agent, Randle’s deal with the Eagles was worth just $1.025 million with just $500,000 guaranteed. The problem for Randle in the NFL hasn’t been talent, it’s been his personality and his perceived effort. 

Talking in the spring, Randle said the Giants judged him incorrectly because of his laid-back personality. When asked if Eagles view him differently, Randle said, “I hope so.” 

Then there’s the issue of his on-field effort, which came into question while he was with the Giants and has already come into question since he’s been with the Eagles. 

“I understand that,” Randle said. “I feel like I get read wrong because I do a lot of things naturally and it doesn’t seem like I’m giving much effort. I get a lot of [flak] from that. If I go out there and make a one-handed catch and make it look effortless, I get praised for it. If I do all these other things effortlessly, it’s like I’m not giving much effort. It’s just kind of one of those things, you just have to go out there and make some plays and see how it goes from there. I don’t read into it too much. I put my best foot forward each and every game.”

In the first two preseason games, Randle played 54 snaps, was targeted five times and had three receptions for 13 yards.

Then, there’s Givens, 26, who had his best NFL season as a rookie with Sam Bradford in 2012. The Eagles signed him to a one-year deal worth $840,000, with $180,000 guaranteed, hoping he could rekindle the on-field chemistry he once had with the quarterback. 

What did he want to prove coming to Philly? 

“That I’m a guy that they can depend on and I’m a guy that can do more than one thing,” Givens said. “I’m a guy that really takes working on my craft and becoming the best player that I can be to heart. And that I’ve really put in the work and the time to do all the things that I need to do and be in the right place all the time.”

Givens hasn’t played much in the first two preseason games. In 17 snaps, he’s been targeted just once and doesn’t have a catch. Givens said he’s not worried about his lack of preseason snaps because if the Eagles needed to see him play more, he’d be in. 

The veteran also said he doesn’t feel pressured by the younger receivers who are pushing hard for a roster spot; Givens said he’s never been one to worry about what other guys are doing. He just wants to focus on himself. 

So has he proven what he wanted to so far? 

“I think I have,” Givens said. “I feel like I definitely surprised a lot of people as far as being able to run routes and catch the ball and things like that. It’s just one of these things where I continue to work on it every day and being able to show that I can do all the things that are asked of me in this offense.”

Eagles respond to Josh Norman comments: Sam Bradford is probably ticked off

Eagles respond to Josh Norman comments: Sam Bradford is probably ticked off

New Redskins CB Josh Norman ripped a ton of players from a number of teams in a wild interview earlier in the week. For whatever reason, Eagles QB Sam Bradford took a bunch of that criticism.

"Have you ever once been one of the top 20 quarterbacks in the league? Not that I remember -- and you want more money? I can't wait to play him twice a year,” Norman told ESPN The Magazine.

Sam’s teammates had a chance to come to his defense on Wednesday.

“Everyone knows Sam’s our leader,” Zach Ertz said. “I’m not going to pull a [Terrell Owens] right now and get all upset. At the same time, Sam’s my guy. Everybody loves him. Everybody knows he’s our quarterback right now and I think he’s going to be very successful this season.”

Not everyone on the Eagles had something to say about it.

“I’m not going to get into that. I’m not going to comment on it,” Head Coach Doug Pederson said.

Offensive lineman Lane Johnson points out the obvious, that Norman and the Redskins are going to have to put some action behind their words.

“That’s just what rival teams do. They like to talk their trash. They’re going to have to go out on the field and back it up. There’s going to be a time and place to show what you’re talking about.”

“It’s probably gonna piss [Bradford] off. He takes stuff to heart and he wants to prove everybody wrong,” Johnson said.

And then there was Jason Kelce with perhaps our favorite perspective.