NEW YORK − A few weeks ago, I looked at Major League Soccer's schedule and noticed that the Atlanta United were to visit New York City FC the day after the Union hosted the Red Bulls. And because national television set a 4 p.m. kickoff, it would be pretty easy to make a day trip to the Bronx.
I didn't have to try all that hard to convince myself to go. It probably would have been an easy sell under most circumstances given both teams' star power and success so far this season. But the circumstances of the moment also included the Union's poor start to the year, and a sense that the rest of MLS was pulling away from the team in more ways than just the standings.
So I got on a train (which is a think piece in and of itself), headed north and, after a few hours enjoying the city, took a seat in the Yankee Stadium press box.
The game didn't entirely live up to the hype. In fairness, it never really could have, with top Atlanta striker Josef Martínez injured and key winger Yamil Asad suspended. Their absences combined with New York's strong defensive pressure left United looking out of sorts for vast stretches of the game, with star playmaker Miguel Almíron often forced to drop way deep to get on the ball.
Another absence affecting the hype meter was Andrea Pirlo, who spent the entire day on the bench. But it didn't feel like a coincidence that City played quite well without him, especially when it came to the aforementioned defensive pressure.
Overall, there was more than enough star power left over for the game to feel like the clash of big-time teams that it was supposed to be. New York had David Villa and Maxi Moralez, and Atlanta had Almíron and Hector Villalba. Those four Designated Players have a combined 14 goals, 14 assists and nearly $11 million in salary this season.
After the final whistle, I sought out City goalkeeper Sean Johnson. He has come face-to-face with every big name to play in MLS since his pro career began in 2010, and he can tell that there are more of them around than there used to be.
"Every week, you're coming in against top opponents, top players, teams that are well-organized, well-coached," Johnson said. "It's good for the league, good for the competition every week. It's fun to come to work every day and be able to compete against the best in the world."
Yes, I know, they aren't actually the best in the world. But you might at least begrudge David Villa something when he scores the kind of goal he did Sunday:
If you watched the game in Philadelphia, you might have lamented another moment in which a team other than the Union benefited from having a big-money striker. And you wouldn't be wrong. That was Villa's sixth goal in eight games this season, and 47th in his 73 games in MLS.
Look who's atop this year's MLS goal-scoring chart, though: the Union's C.J. Sapong. Yes, the same C.J. Sapong whose season has been full of buildup-killing misplays, from bad passes to not running to the right place at the right time to meet a cross. He has seven goals through nine games this season, and just as importantly has scored at least once in five of those contests.
Sapong still faces questions over whether this will finally be the year that he scores consistently enough to hit double digits in goals for the first time in his eight seasons in MLS. So does Jim Curtin, who got quite angry when PhillyVoice.com's Kevin Kinkead raised the subject after Saturday's game.
"It's a new year," Curtin said. "You're trying to take a shot at C.J., but C.J. is a very good striker in MLS. He'll be fine. C.J. will be fine. It's a new year, and C.J. will continue to score goals. He's a good goal-scorer, and this is 2017."
Like it or not, though, Sapong still faces a burden of proof - and he knows it.
"When I look at my stats and see that in the regular season, I haven't gotten to double digits, it definitely gives me a little incentive," he said a few minutes before Curtin spoke. "But the way I'm looking at it is, there's no way I can't score 10 this season. ... If I emulate the way I approached the game today, and my teammates do the same thing, it's going to come for all of us."
A fair number of people around MLS aren't as optimistic. Among the reasons: For as well as Sapong has played this year, it's a bit of a problem that he's the Union's top scorer.
This is not a knock on Sapong's accomplishments. It's more a knock on Jay Simpson. He was supposed to overtake Sapong as the Union's No. 1 striker, and hasn't done it.
And really, it's a bigger problem than either of them. Throughout their history, the Union haven't spent big sums at the one position where doing so is most needed. According to the MLS Players Union's regular salary releases, Simpson's $508,333.33 in guaranteed compensation is the most the team has ever earmarked for a striker.
Indeed, the entire Union striker corps — Sapong, Simpson and Charlie Davies — earns a combined $923,018.27. Of the four DPs who played at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, only Villalba earns less than $1 million.
Union fans often charge the team with being cheap. Is that fair? They've spent $20 million on their academy over the last four years. That's equal to the Los Angeles Galaxy and more than FC Dallas, and those academies are recognized as MLS' strongest. But the senior team gets the biggest headlines, and for good reason.
In the most recent salary release, the Union's payroll ranks 12th-highest out of 22 teams. That's ... not terrible. It certainly isn't as bad as many observers expected it to be when the season began.
Of course, plenty of people would like that ranking to be higher. That includes some people who work for the team. A few have even said so publicly over the years, including one who's part of the team's ownership group. (That's a subject I'll return to later in this column.)
Critics will note that of the $7,117,010.10 in guaranteed compensation on the Union's books, Simpson and injured midfielder Maurice Edu account for $1,327,083 of it. Sure, but if Edu was healthy he'd be playing.
You can also interpret the payroll ranking as a measurement of ambition. if you do that, might conclude that the Union have a little more than they usually get credit for.
Teams below them include two renowned as gold standards for smart spending, the New York Red Bulls and Sporting Kansas City. If Chicago hadn't signed Bastian Schweinsteiger, they'd be below the Union, too. And Atlanta is just four spots above the Union.
Have I convinced you yet that things aren't so bad? Well, guess what: it's a trap. The distance between Atlanta and Philadelphia is in fact as big as it seems.
Here's why. As FourFourTwo's Paul Tenorio pointed out in a recent column, the modern MLS spending game is being played as much in transfer fees as salaries.
If you go only by salary data, you won't see that Atlanta has spent a ton on transfer fees: around $2.75 million on Villalba, $4.8 million on Martínez, and a league-record $8 million on Almiron.
Now look at some other marquee names around the league. Nicolás Lodeiro's move to Seattle came with a transfer fee of around $6 million. Portland paid around $4 million to sign Sebastián Blanco. Chicago paid around $3.2 million for Nemanja Nikolić.
The Union have shown a willingness to pay transfer fees, but not all that often. And if there's ever been a fee close to those listed above, we haven't known it. The team has historically been reluctant to disclose fees, whether on the record or through other means.
According to available records (including some here), the biggest one we know about is the $1 million paid to Nantes for Alejandro Bedoya. Tranquillo Barnetta, Ilsinho, Faryd Mondragón and (as far as I know) Haris Medunjanin came on free transfers, Vincent Nogueira cost a few hundred thousand dollars, and Fernando Aristeguieta was loaned.
(The elephant in the room here is Maurice Edu, who definitely came to Philadelphia with a transfer fee, but the number has never been disclosed. Nor do we know how much Roland Alberg or Gabriel Gómez cost, among others.)
Why bring all this up when the Union finally have a win, and on top of that, a three-game unbeaten streak that includes two straight shutouts? Why must I write a long column right now spoiling the good mood around the team?
Because the Union could soon be presented with a chance to take an even bigger step forward.
There's been quite a bit of buzz in MLS circles over the last few weeks that American striker Aron Jóhannsson could leave German club Werder Bremen this summer, and that he could come to MLS. The 26-year-old Alabama native has fallen out of favor at Bremen, and sporting director Frank Baumann told reporters last month that the club might let Jóhannsson seek new pastures.
Jóhannsson would have to go through MLS' notorious allocation order for U.S. national-team players to come here. Right now, the Houston Dynamo get first dibs on any incoming player on that list, and any team that wants to jump them in line will have to trade for the privilege.
According to MLSSoccer.com's Sam Stejskal, four teams have already called the Dynamo to ask what the price might be for a deal. Fortunately, the Dynamo don't really need a striker right now, so that price might not be excessive.
I have no idea if the Union are one of those teams. The team has been silent about making potential additions. That's no surprise, as Earnie Stewart always plays his cards close to the vest. If any deal gets done, we'll likely find out when it's announced.
(There's nothing wrong with this, by the way. In fact, it can be a better strategy than leaking rumors to make a team look good.)
I do know this: This summer would be the right time for Jóhannsson to move. The 2018 World Cup is coming into view, and he's surely keen to prove he still has his scoring touch after suffering multiple injuries over the last two years.
There's smart money on Jóhannsson's still having it. Though he has made just 14 appearances for Bremen, the 6-foot striker scored in three of them. With the national team, he has four goals in 18 appearances from 2013 to 2015, including a stoppage-time game-winner in a 2013 World Cup qualifier at Panama.
(That goal came a few minutes after the famous one by Graham Zusi that dramatically knocked Panama out of the 2014 World Cup field.)
I know this, too, and so does everyone who has followed Jóhannsson's career: Stewart played a big role in his rise to prominence. Stewart brought Jóhannsson to Dutch club AZ Alkmaar from Denmark's AGF Aarhus in 2012 for a transfer fee of around $2.2 million. Jóhannsson went on to score 39 goals in 81 games in all competitions for AZ, including two in 14 games in the 2013-14 UEFA Europa League campaign.
In the summer of 2015, Stewart sold Jóhannsson to Bremen for a transfer fee reported to be around $5.5 million.
If Jóhannsson does come to MLS, he won't come cheap. Indeed, he'll probably command a check that's above his perceived market value, as U.S. national-team players arriving from abroad often do.
The big question becomes whether that check includes a transfer fee. If it does, Dynamo sporting director Matt Jordan might not field too many offers. But if Bremen lets Jóhannsson out of his contract, expect Jordan's phone to start ringing off the hook. Even if the demand for Jóhannsson is built more on marketing than results, few teams in MLS will turn down the chance to sign a striker with U.S. national-team name recognition.
Here's where we come back to the Union, and to my promise above about one of the team's owners. If you haven't read Jay Sugarman's letter to the Philly Soccer Page about the Union's struggles (which came in response to a demand that he spend more or sell the team), do it now.
"We have struggled way more than I expected, not just this year but for too much of our first seven years," Sugarman wrote. "There have been lots of reasons, a great many of which you have ably pointed out over the years. Most I have tried to fix, making plenty of mistakes along the way and perhaps not moving as quickly as some hoped, but with a clear sense that by making improvements we would get progressively better each year. But if we aren't progressing, then ultimately, I am responsible. I accept the criticism and know it comes from a fan base that wants a team it can be proud of. It's fair and it's my job to fix it."
Sugarman noted that the team's ownership group has been "investing" a sum of "$5 to 10 million per year." And he seemed to recognize that said sum isn't good enough anymore.
"While some things are not possible, providing Earnie and our technical staff the money needed to build a cohesive team with sufficient firepower to win an MLS Cup is possible and he would not have come without that commitment from ownership," Sugarman continued. "So where do we go from here? The league is getting better, so we have to get better. Investments already made need to pay off and investments made going forward, including new DPs, have to be productive. Everyone in the organization and on the field needs to play their role well, with passion and a commitment to be better. I promise to do the same."
Sugarman does not and will not lack for opportunities to live up to those promises. Will a Jóhannsson move to MLS present one? If it happens, that's kind of player for whom the Union should open the checkbook.
In addition to his track record on the field, Jóhannsson has name recognition off it. He'd bring some buzz to a Union fan base that badly needs it.
Of course, Bremen might not let him go, and he might decide to stay in Europe instead of coming to MLS. But if he does start talking to MLS, there should be some pressure on Sugarman to make a move.
That's enough catnip for now. Let's get back to the substance of how things are.
The biggest lesson to take from this past weekend is one that Curtin offered with just as much vigor as his defense of Sapong.
"Have we really achieved anything outside of winning a soccer game? No. We recognize that," he said.
There will be more wins. Yes, really, there will be. But too many people around MLS think there might not be as many wins as the team wants with the current set of players.
Those players are more than welcome to prove the skeptics wrong. And they'll have their chance, as the early-season transfer window closed Monday night.
But it's fair for fans to hope that when the summer window opens on July 10, the Union show they want to see who's outside.
The Twitter handle above is for my general news reporting. My soccer handle is @thegoalkeeper. Contact me there for any questions about this post.