The Union are (gasp!) trying to spend money ... Major League Soccer says 'not so fast, my friend'

The Union are (gasp!) trying to spend money ... Major League Soccer says 'not so fast, my friend'

U.S. National Team player Maurice Edu could be coming to the Union, unless MLS decides to not allow it.

Tuesday was a wild day for the Philadelphia Union, which, up until this point, had been damn near comatose this offseason.

Tuesday night, things got even wilder.

To explain briefly:

On Tuesday morning, the Union traded defender Jeff Parke to D.C. United for defender Ethan White and the top spot in Major League Soccer's "Allocation Order." A good trade in and of itself, at least in my opinion.

More interesting is the "Allocation Order" piece of the deal. The "Allocation Order" is a waiver wire of sorts. Any player in the United States National Team player pool looking to join MLS must go through the Allocation Order. If a player wants to come to MLS, the team at the top of the list has the first crack at him. If that team passes, the second team can sign him, and Team No. 1 stays atop the list. If you "use" your place to sign said player, then you go to the bottom of the list. Spots can be traded.

Got it?

Now sitting atop the list, it appeared the trade was less about Ethan White and more about acquiring the next "big" American looking to return to MLS, and immediately a name made the rounds: Maurice Edu.

Edu (not related to Freddy Adu, so relax) is a 27-year-old defensive midfielder who has played 45 times for his country, most recently in 2012. He is perhaps best known for scoring the goal that didn't count in the 2010 World Cup, thanks to idiot official Koman Coulibaly.

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Edu has played in Scotland for Rangers and is currently under contract with Stoke City of the English Premier League. He has been on loan to Bursaspor of Turkey.

All afternoon, reports pointed to an offer from the Union, and it seemed like a deal would be done in time for a big announcement at Thursday's MLS SuperDraft at the Pennsylvania Convention Center (where the Union have eight picks, including No. 2 overall).

The Union were about to make a splash (maybe not Michael Bradley level, but a splash nonetheless), fans were about to get a name they recognized, and the team was going to instantly improve. I like Edu. I would love to see him play here, and it would give the Union a solid experienced presence on and off the field. Plus, it would possibly allow them to shop Brian Carroll (also a defensive midfielder) and possibly turn him into another piece they need.

Great. Good. Go Union.

Then the league decided -- according to that Jeff Carlisle report -- that $1.2 million was just too much for Edu.

How can MLS block the deal? Remember that all MLS players are technically owned by the league, not the team they play for. The league is a single corporation and every owner is an investor (some more than others). Profits are shared (to a point) and salaries are paid by the league (also to a point). To fans of other American sports, this whole setup seems strange. But the "single-entity" structure is why MLS has survived and thrived far longer than other American soccer leagues, since one team can't spend wildly while others flounder.

Whew, too much jargon. OK, now, a few quick thoughts on the potential move, which could be either done or dead by the time you read this.

Is $1.2 million too much for Maurice Edu? Almost definitely. By any standard, that's a ton of money. It's way more than Edu makes in England, and it's 400% more than Kyle Beckerman -- probably the league's best defensive midfielder -- makes with Real Salt Lake. So, since the league pays his salary, they should be able to block the Union move, right?

Absolutely. Not.

Five years ago, MLS would have a leg to stand on in this discussion. But just last week, the league not only allowed Toronto to overpay (roughly $50 million!) for two players, the league HELPED Toronto pay the bill. Do I have any problem with Toronto's signings, or the league helping out? Not at all. Bradley and Defoe are exciting players who bring credibility and quality to MLS.

But when you let Toronto overpay for the players it wants, you can't turn around and tell a team like the Union that it can't "overpay" for who it wants.  MLS has always been criticized for making up the rules as it goes, and mocked for "favoring" certain teams over others. This only furthers the conspiracy theories (not to mention why Edu, a likely designated player, has to go through the Allocation Order at all ... but we won't even go there).

The Union, and most other teams in the league not located in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle or (apparently?) Toronto, will always have to overpay for "name" players. Always.

If the Kansas City Royals wanted to sign Mike Trout, he'd only consider it at a premium price. If the Milwaukee Bucks want LeBron, they better offer every penny the cap allows, plus the deed to the state and every luxury box at Lambeau Field.

In simpler terms: If you're the quiet dorky kid in school and you want to take the hottest cheerleader to the prom, then you better have a Corvette convertible to drive there, a beer-stocked lakehouse for the post-prom party, and a fistful of compliments for your date's shoes, hair and dress.

There are a lot of teams in this league that would love to have Maurice Edu, and most of them have much nicer training facilities (or training facilities at all), better talent already in-house or a trophy case full of silverware. The Union are in their fifth season and trying to get a foothold in a sports-mad city with four other major franchises. So if it costs a little more money to get your man, then so be it.

Hypothetically, what if Edu proves to be a dominant force in the midfield and gets on the radar for this summer's World Cup team? What if he gets a spot on the roster and scores a big goal in Brazil before returning to Philadelphia and leading the Union to the playoffs. Aren't those jersey sales alone worth $1.2 million?

If you're commissioner Don Garber, you're either interested in taking the next step as a league and bringing in any player who can help, or you're interested in letting a few teams grow while the others remain "small-market."

Yes, the league pays the players. And no, I don't think the league should dump its single-entity structure. But it's time to let teams sink or swim on their own signings. Trust me, there will be plenty of fans ready to yell at John Hackworth and Nick Sakiewicz if Edu is a $1.2 million flop. It would likely cost one or both of them their jobs.

But if MLS blocks this deal, then there will still be plenty of Union fans ready to yell. Except they'll direct their anger at Garber, who, it just so happens, will stand behind a podium at Thursday's draft right here in Philadelphia.

Good luck with that one, Don.

Coming later today: A preview of Thursday's draft, with a few names to look out for. 

Follow Steve on Twitter @smoore1117.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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