THE UNION soccer club is dancing a fine line.

They say their physical style of play is just tough soccer - the way the game is supposed to be played.

Other people in Major League Soccer may not think so.

The growing perception around the league is that the Union is an overly aggressive group that isn't afraid to use some over-the-line tactics every now and then.

Whether perception matches reality doesn't matter because it is clear that Union players are being watched closely and are losing the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of officials.

In Saturday's 3-1 loss at the Los Angeles Galaxy, Union defender Stefani Miglioranzi received a red card for a tackle from behind on LA's Juninho.

It marked the third time in five games that the Union had to play the second half with 10 players because someone had been red-carded.

Philadelphia's three red cards are the most in MLS.

That's a losing proposition.

In hockey, a strong penalty kill helps a team overcome being penalized for an overly aggressive foul.

In football, a 15-yard personal-foul penalty usually isn't going to be the difference in a game.

A technical foul in basketball is only worth a maximum of two points.

In soccer, a red card is an ejection. The offending team doesn't get to substitute. It plays a man down.

In a game where one score usually means the difference between victory and defeat, playing 10 on 11 is not a handicap that is easy to overcome.

"Yeah, it's too many red cards, but some of that stuff we can't control," said Union coach John Hackworth. "Some of it we need to be more disciplined and some of it is just bad luck.

"The problem for me is that the officials in the league are starting thinking of us as a team that is very physical and committing all these fouls, which clearly there is that idea out there, that's a bad thing."

That's where that "perception is reality" thing comes into play.

You can break down any red-card transgression and come up with a reason why it should have been called a lesser offense, but if your team has a reputation for tough play, then the intent of your actions is going to be even more scrutinized.

"We're not trying to say that we are a physical team," Hackworth said. "We're not trying to be the Broad Street Bullies.

"What we're trying to do is play the game the way it is supposed to be played. There is an absolute physical nature to the sport of soccer. It has to be played that way. Right now, we're on the fine line of not being able to play that because of the perception that we are too physical or that we are going to commit these fouls."

The irony is that while the Union leads MLS in red cards, they are actually next to last in fouls committed (52).

Still something is clearly going on because three red cards in five games is ridiculous at best and amateurish at worst.

Philadelphia is the youngest team in the league, but two of the reds have gone to two of its most experienced players.

Miglioranzi has played professionally since 2002 and team captain Danny Califf has been a pro since 2000 and earned 23 caps with the United States National Team.

"It's been a bit of an issue," Califf said of the reds. "There is a fine line and obviously, so far, we haven't done a good job of walking that line.

"Some of it is we are being a little too anxious to establish that presence. Some of it is inexperience.

"It's an issue that we are trying to get a handle on because it can't continue. We can't continue to play down a man."

This is a serious issue because a red card might be the harshest penalty in sports.

Not only is the offending player sent off the pitch, but also he cannot be substituted for and must sit out the next game.

With Miglioranzi banned from Saturday's game at MLS champion Real Salt Lake, the Union will have a player serving a red-card suspension for the fourth time this season. (Fred missed the season-opener because of a carryover red from the final game of 2009.)

As an expansion team, it makes sense that the Union would want an identity that lets the opposition know it will not be an easy walkover, that you've got to bring it hard for 90 minutes if you want to knock the team off.

But there is a subtle line between developing a reputation for playing physical and having a reputation for playing like a bunch of hacks.

"I think it's a case of soccer awareness," Hackworth said. "We need to recognize what's going on in a game and maybe not play with the same kind of intensity because of what's going on with perception being reality.

"But you really don't want to back off too much because then you change who you are, which is a negative."

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