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.

Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare added to World Cup rosters

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Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare added to World Cup rosters

Turns out the hip and abdominal surgeries for both Flyers captain Claude Giroux and rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere weren’t a deterrent from making their countries’ respective World Cup of Hockey rosters.
 
Also going will be center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who was added to Team Europe’s roster.
 
All three Flyers were “add-ons” to Team Canada, Team North America and Team Europe as the final rosters were announced on Friday night.
 
The World Cup of Hockey tournament begins in September 17 and ends on Oct. 1.
 
Giroux, 28, has twice represented Canada at the World Championships and once in World Junior competition.
 
Gostisbehere, 23,  has never represented the U.S. internationally. Team North America is all players 23-and-under or “Young Stars” as some refer to them.
 
Despite his poorest offensive output in three years, Giroux still led the Flyers with 67 points this season, playing in his 500th career game and scoring his 500th point. He won the Bobby Clarke Trophy as team MVP.
 
Gostisbehere took the NHL by storm as a November fill-in for the injured Mark Streit and ended up becoming a Calder Trophy finalist. That award will be announced in late June. 
 
He quickly ended up as the team’s first unit power play quarterback, and led all rookie defensemen in points (46), while establishing several club rookie records, including goals by a Flyers defenseman (17).
 
Gostisbehere was voted the Barry Ashbee Trophy as the team’s best defenseman and the Gene Hart Memorial Award, given by the Flyers’ fan club to the players possessing the most “heart.”
 
Bellemare, 32, had 14 points this season as a valuable fourth line checking center and penalty killer. He also celebrated his 100th game as a Flyer. He figures to be a role player for Team Europe.
 
Ghost and Giroux both had off-season surgery on May 17. Their recovery is approximately 10-12 weeks. Both are expected at Flyers’ training camp in September.
 
Incidentally, the Flyers had just 167 man-games lost due to injury this past season. That’s the fewest number of injuries since 1998-99 when they had 120.
 
In all, the Flyers will send eight players – Bellemare, Giroux, Gostisbehere, center Sean Couturier (North America), defenseman Mark Streit (Team Europe), and three players from the Czech Republic – defenseman Radko Gudas, goalie Michal Neuvirth and forward Jakub Voracek.
 
Eight teams will compete in the tournament with every game being played at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
 
Philadelphia was one of the host cities for the inaugural World Cup of Hockey in 1996 when the Wells Fargo Center first opened as the CoreStates Center.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews, injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews, injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher.