Major League Soccer differs from other U.S. professional sports in that many of the participants routinely take off for other events, mainly national team duty.

Regular-season games have been postponed because one of the teams is competing in an outside tournament.

Nobody blinks over this.

There also are plenty of non-MLS matches, such as the friendlies the Union played last week with Everton and Real Madrid, sprinkled in during the regular season.

On one hand, the national team and even these other tournaments are perceived as bigger than MLS. On the other hand, the league is the main employer of most players. For MLS to take the next step, the league games will have to be looked at as having the utmost importance.

Commissioner Don Garber, speaking at halftime of Wednesday's MLS All-Star Game at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., said he has seen an improvement in this area.

"It's good that our fans, players, and team are focusing on the MLS schedule and focusing on winning the championship, which may be a change from 10 years ago," Garber said. "But at the same time the [friendlies are] an important part of trying to get attention for our league in a very crowded market, so it's a matter of balancing priorities."

The Union are one of those teams whose fans have looked at the MLS and the friendlies with equal enthusiasm.

The Union are sixth in attendance, averaging 18,177, and that figure likely would be higher if the stadium was bigger. Chester's PPL Park lists capacity as 18,500, although there have been crowds in excess of 19,000.

Saturday's 2-1 loss to Real Madrid in the World Football Challenge drew 57,305 at Lincoln Financial Field.

In a way, it was a saving-face performance for MLS, which was reeling after Manchester United routed the Seattle Sounders, 7-0.

"They took that game very seriously," Garber said of the Union. "I think Seattle regrets playing its reserves and even trialists against Manchester United, and I don't think we will do anything like that again."

What is interesting is that the Union played several reserves and even nonroster players in both the 1-0 win over Everton and the loss to Real Madrid, and were very competitive.

The goal against Everton was scored by Christian Hernandez, who will be a high school senior and is considered an academy player - one who is part of the system but doesn't have a professional contract.

Team manager Peter Nowak sets the tone for the Union. Regardless of the competition, he wants the players to have the same approach for any opponent. That is easier said than done, but Nowak has clearly gotten his point across.

"Friendlies are good, but this is not a beauty pageant," Nowak said. "This is something you have to treat seriously, regardless of who is in there. Even if they are 17-year-old players, they need to know the system."

So Nowak has the young players train with the team, enabling them to not only understand the system he employs but the intensity that is expected, whether in practice or a game.

"We can inject those guys in the friendlies because of them being around the team and knowing what kind of culture we want to present," Nowak said. "The rest is very easy to accomplish from a technical standpoint."

He believes the young players who received valuable experience in the friendlies could one day be playing for keeps with the varsity.

The Union carried the banner for MLS during these friendlies. The team approaches all games the same, and that may be a reason the Union are tied for first place in the Eastern Conference with the Columbus Crew, while holding two games in hand.

The results aren't always favorable, but the effort and mind-set remain consistent, giving the Union a chance to be competitive just about any time the team steps onto the field.