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Raves: Danny Califf & Michael Orozco Fiscal

Editor’s note: Over the next few weeks, PSP contributors will be posting what we’re calling “Raves” about our favorite Philadelphia players. They need not be the team’s best players, but they’re guys we like. You hear plenty of rants when the Union losing. Here are the raves, continuing with Dan’s rave about Philadelphia Union’s center back pairing of Danny Califf and Michael Orozco Fiscal.

I like fearless.

Give me the stalwart who does the dirty work and gets too little credit.

That guy you want to blame, but who only drew your eye by making the last ditch effort to save the day? That guy’s a center back. And he — no, they — are damn good ones.

So yes, give me Danny Califf and Michael Orozco Fiscal, the oft-maligned, underappreciated center back pairing for Philadelphia Union that has played brilliantly the last month. Center backs come in pairs, and I’m taking them both. I want them here next year. And the year after. And the year after that. If you don’t, tough luck. Take a hike. This is the foundation of the team, the iron spine that holds it up, the scrappy pairing of two different kinds of players that complement each other and will help determine the course of the franchise. Peter Nowak’s attacking, possession-oriented brand of soccer the Union play can only thrive with a good center back pairing freeing it up. The Union are still missing some pieces, but they have these two foundation parts in the back. Yes, they’ll occasionally give up a goal, like any center backs, but what’s more important is how many they stop.

These guys are worth keeping — and praising.

Chemistry takes time

Yes, it took them time to mesh. With a young goalie stumbling behind them, the absence of a reliable right back, and a midfield utterly lacking in width, they struggled at first. Chris Seitz’s problems made them look pretty bad sometimes, as did the constant need to cover up for an attacking philosophy which left the flanks wide open because the fullbacks too often pushed up field to cover for a foursome of center midfielders bunched in the center of the field.

Chemistry takes time, and the center backs hadn’t yet built it by the time the Cristian Arrieta-at-center-back experiment began in June, nudging Orozco out to right back. Though Orozco’s versatile enough to play fullback —  and played there in Mexico for San Luis before doing so for Philadelphia — anyone watching could see he’s not meant to play there. He belongs in the center, destroying guys who dare approach the goal. But that apparently got forgotten. Juan Diego Gonzalez was signed to shore up the left center back spot once it became clear Arrieta wasn’t the answer.

Then Gonzalez got hurt, and when Orozco returned to center back, we saw that what we were missing was there all along. After nearly a full season playing together, the chemistry had developed. Orozco and Califf knew where each other was regularly. When Orozco gambled, Califf knew it was coming and covered for him. Califf went one way, and Orozco filled the space. Yin and yang. Left and right. The pairing we’d been missing all year. It was there. Two shutouts ensued, and a third would have joined them if not for a Davy Arnaud free kick that finally nailed shut the Seitz casket for this year. Finally, the center back pairing that everyone thought would be one of the league’s best had emerged.

The mad, gambling brilliance of Orozco

Orozco plays center back like a nasty hornet sizing you up for a painful sting. When he pounces, it’s with an explosive intensity and quickness. At just 5-9 and 166 pounds, he’s small for a center back, but he makes up for that with a fearless aggression. He goes into tackles like an American football player. He takes risks on plays that most center backs wouldn’t dare take, because they don’t have his quickness to make the play or recover from their own mistakes. No play epitomized this more than one in the Houston game, where he gambled on a tackle up near the 18 and missed, leaving an attacker to go in on goal. Orozco miraculously recovered to make a sliding stop of a shot on goal. His game-saving slide tackle on Dominic Oduro against Houston was the defensive play of the year.

He also has excellent ball skills for a center back. He’s a good enough ball-handler that he could start for many teams at midfield, where he played until being moved to defense in the Mexican league, and he has a powerful enough shot on goal that the prospect of moving Orozco back there would be tempting if not for Andrew Jacobson’s presence. Those ball skills give him the versatility that allowed Nowak to experiment with him at fullback (and even briefly in the midfield). While his crossing is weak at fullback, his long passes from the center can start counterattacks with bullseye accuracy. He’s so good with each foot that it’s hard to tell if he’s a lefty or a righty.

Yeah, his style of play can lead to mistakes because he gambles so much, but this guy’s so fun to watch that I’ll take the lows with the highs. If Shea Salinas is the Roadrunner, then Orozco is the Tasmanian Devil. And everyone loves the Tasmanian Devil.

Speak softly and carry a big stick: Califf

Califf’s a different story. It starts with his appearance. We saw it on opening day: The mohawk, the mutton chop sideburns, the tattoos, the opening minute yellow card. On the outside, this guy looks tough. And he plays that way too. He’s not the fastest, biggest, strongest or most athletic guy on the field, but he might be the toughest. He never shies away from a tackle, doesn’t budge when pushed, and gets in the air to make all the clearances.

The most underrated part of his game, however, is his smarts. While Orozco makes brilliant plays with his aggressive, risk-taking style, Califf makes the difficult look simple by getting in the right position and communicating well with his teammates. We can’t count as many spectacular plays with Califf because he gets into the right position before he has to make the kind of dramatic plays that Orozco or Salinas make. He’s two steps ahead, in the right spot early enough that he doesn’t need pure physical brilliance to make the good play. He does what he’s supposed to, and his smarts and positioning are what allow Orozco to take the risks that he does.

But there’s something else: This guy really cares. Califf wears his heart on his sleeve. He seems honest to a fault, and that’s not a fault around here. He comes across as real, a blue-collar, lunch bucket guy, as Philadelphian as if he was born here. He’s like Allen Iverson like that, a guy who plays hard, leaves it all out there, and finds it difficult to hide his frustration when losing. If you haven’t heard his interview on KYW’s Philly Soccer Show, recorded at the height of Seitz’s struggles, then definitely check it out. He didn’t throw any of his teammates under the bus, but he talked straight up about his frustration with the Union’s defensive struggles and his getting blamed for them. He was just as frustrated as Union fans were. You could hear one of his kids crying in the background. You could hear a tired guy doing all he could to succeed, picking a job based on having a good place to raise a family, and struggling with it all — just like the rest of us. All the tattoos, the mohawk, the image? A tough guy image he enjoys, yes, but just an exterior. That’s what Philadelphians want. Someone who cares.

You can see why this guy has captained clubs in Europe and the U.S. Listen to his teammates talk about him. Danny Mwanga said he’s the toughest defender he’s faced all year.

Unsung heroes

When the Union start winning lots of games next year — and they will, provided they can sort out their goalie situation — it will be in part because the presence of Califf and Orozco. Le Toux will score the goals. Salinas will dazzle down the sidelines if he can stay healthy. Roger Torres will wow us with his daring passes. But none of it will matter unless these two guys, and a solid goalkeeper behind them, can be the wall stopping opposing attackers. You may not notice them, but they’ll matter.

If this last stretch of games is any indicator, then Califf and Orozco could be the unsung heroes behind a fun 2011 season.

(Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)


  1. Orozco Fiscal has done well all season.

    But I don’t think Califf deserves a “Rave.”
    He made too many bonehead mistakes early in the season that cost this team and didn’t do much for Chris Seitz’s confidence. It’s bad enough if a center back makes those kind of mistakes. Even worse when it’s your captain, leading by example.

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