Alejandro Moreno spent only one season as a player in Philadelphia, and it was the Union's expansion campaign in 2010. But the Venezuela native still has a fondness for the city and the organization.
That sentiment brought him back here in 2013 to be the color analyst for the Union's local TV broadcasts. It has brought him back again many times since in his current role as an ESPN pundit.
"There is something to be said about the fact that you were part of the first group that showed up," Moreno said. "So you want whatever roots you planted, whatever seeds you put in the ground, you want those seeds to grow into something strong and beautiful to look at."
This season's crop of results has been rather unsightly. The Union have failed to live up to hopes and expectations generated by reaching the playoffs last year.
"If I was a fan, of course I would be frustrated thinking that there was going to be a step forward this year — perhaps not a title, but being a player in the Eastern Conference," Moreno said. "The disappointing part is that instead of using it as a stepping stone, the team has taken a step back."
The Union's struggles — just eight wins in 28 games so far this season — will likely be put under an even bigger magnifying glass in the next few weeks. Two of their next four games are to be nationally televised on ESPN, including Sunday's visit to the New York Red Bulls.
"I see a team that seems to have all the pieces in place off the field in order to have production on the field," Moreno said. "There is a training facility. You have Earnie Stewart running the club. You have infrastructure in a stadium that certainly suggests it deserves a team that is also winning on the field. You have a youth academy system that is well thought of."
But the production hasn't been there on the field. Moreno sees the same root cause as many other observers: The Union don't have good enough players to win as MLS evolves.
"Now you have to spend with that same sort of power on the field," Moreno said. "All the other things are great, and all the other things add value, but the real value is to have a team on the field that is performing, and that figures to be a major player in MLS. … Teams have come in and just passed them by."
Moreno specifically cited big-spending expansion team Atlanta United, which blew out New England, 7-0, Wednesday at the gleaming new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta will set a single-game MLS attendance record of more than 70,000 when Orlando visits Saturday.
The Union don't have the financial heft of teams such as Atlanta, which is owned by Falcons chairman Arthur Blank; or Seattle, which will bring U.S. national team star Clint Dempsey to Chester for a game Oct. 1 that ESPN will televise.
Moreno understands that. He also understands the Union's desire to build by developing players through its strong youth academy, which makes economic and soccer sense for teams with limited resources.
But he'd like to see some of those prospects get more playing time with the first team than they have so far. Union manager Jim Curtin wants to be known as a coach who plays young players, but has gone against that this year by keeping prospects such as Keegan Rosenberry and Adam Najem off the field for long stretches.
Moreno wants the Union to loosen the reins more.
"You have to see that product actually mature and come through the ranks and then make it on to Saturday nights, and it just hasn't happened — not with the consistency that they would have wanted." he said. "In fairness to them, the academy products don't happen overnight. But we live in a business and a world where if you aren't spending money to get players, and you're depending on academy products to come through, and those are not coming through, then you're sort of left in between. That's really what the season has been for the Philadelphia Union: in between."
It is not a pleasant place to be.
Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls
1 p.m. Sunday at Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J.
TV/online streaming: ESPN, WatchESPN.com
Union's record: 8-12-8, 32 points; 10th in the East (1-8-5 on the road)
New York's record: 12-10-5, 41 points; 6th in the East (8-2-3 at home)
Series history: Union 6 wins, Red Bulls 12 wins, 3 ties
At Red Bull Arena: Union 1 win, Red Bulls 7 wins, 1 tie
Forward Bradley Wright-Phillips: When the Union signed Jay Simpson, they hoped he would replicate his fellow Englishman's exceptional goal-scoring rate in MLS. But while Wright-Phillips has 85 goals in 135 MLS games — including 15 in 26 this year — Simpson has just one in 18.
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan: The veteran playmaker is one of the finest American creators in MLS. Though that gets you only so far with the national team (especially when Christian Pulisic is starring in Europe), many observers would like to see Kljestan get another call from Bruce Arena.
Goalkeeper Luis Robles: He has started every league game for the Red Bulls since 2013, and won Goalkeeper of the Year honors in 2015. Though the players in front of him have often changed, his hands remain among the steadiest in the league.