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Season review: Danny Califf

Cover photo: Nicolae Stoian

Fred may have generated the most buzz, but no signing defined the Philadelphia Union’s intentions more than Danny Califf. He is a consistent, if unspectacular, player who excels at the fundamentals. The MLS Cup he won with the Galaxy, along with his experience playing top flight football in Europe, made Califf the ideal captain for the Union’s first season.

And the captain did not shy away from challenging his young team. “We wanted to match what Seattle did,” Califf said in an interview with the Philly Soccer Page. “Set the bar high for marketing and participation, then match the bar they set with their playoff run.”

Califf’s responsibilities extended beyond being a veteran presence. Manager Peter Nowak wanted to implement a fast-paced offensive gameplan to maximize the energy and abilities of his young squad. He needed a center back who was prepared to handle the inevitable counterattacks.

“All-out attack is something I experienced in Denmark,” Califf said. “Everybody is going forward and you leave a few guys back and hope it all turns out OK. With this team, we play that attacking style. It puts more pressure on the guys in back who are trying to hold down the fort. Makes it a bit more difficult when you’re trying to build a defensive unit. Teams that attack with two, three, four, and leave seven behind makes the job easier.”

Danny Califf going high after the ball (Photo: Paul Rudderow).

Another thing that makes it easier to deal with opposing attacks? Having eleven players on the field. In two of their first three matches, the Union went down a man in the first half. Against Toronto, it was Califf who was sent off. He watched helplessly as the Union dropped three points on a day when they played extremely well.

By the time Califf returned from suspension, the Union’s defense was in disarray. Jordan Harvey was a stalwart on the left, but Michael Orozco-Fiscal and Cristian Arrieta were switching between center and right back on what seemed like a daily basis. The unit was a whole looked out of sync and out of its depth. From the opening game against Seattle through a June 10 loss to Kansas City, the Union gave up fewer than two goals only once.

Looking back over those initial struggles, Califf can quickly identify the major source of the team’s bad form. “The biggest thing that sticks out in my mind as a center back is continuity,” Califf said. “Get guys to work together and know what the guy next to you is going to do without looking at him. We had guys who had never played together at all. Defense is defined by continuity. Knowing strengths and tendencies. Over course of this offseason, the big challenge is to carry over the continuity we established as the year went on.”

2010 Statistics

28 starts. 1 assist. 29 fouls conceded. 3 cautions. 1 ejection.

Danny Califf and Amobi Okugo go up for a header. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

High Point

As the heart and soul of the defense and the captain of the team, Califf had to be relieved when the Union finally secured a shutout in mid-September. The big day came during a streak of nine matches (both league and friendly) during which the Union surrendered more than one goal just once. It was clear that the defense had turned a corner. Califf looked more comfortable than he had during the first half of the year, and clearly made an extra effort to establish his aerial presence in the defensive third. This took on increased significance as Brad Knighton, a smaller goalie, was slotted in behind Califf in early September.

Low Point

The red card against Toronto. In the third game of the year, Califf mishit a pass back to Chris Seitz and attempted to obstruct Julian de Guzman as the striker raced onto it. De Guzman went down like he was run over by the Canadian mounted police, and Califf was sent off. The Union went on to lose 2-1. Looking back, this match encapsulates many of the issues that hindered the team’s success in their inaugural season. Periods of possession that didn’t result in opportunities were paired with strong defense undone by stunning and inexplicable mistakes.


Califf is not a complicated player on the pitch. He recognizes that a young team needs a calming presence in those moments when the game seems to move at 100 miles an hour. When the Union were under intense pressure, Califf would adhere to the old adage, “When in doubt, kick it out.” What more do you want from your center back on a team that presses so far forward?

Given the speed at which the best teams in MLS attack, a strong defense needs to have a sixth sense about where their compatriots are on the pitch. Califf led a back line that was being constantly remade, and it showed in the Union’s inability to hold a clean sheet or read each other with the kind of understanding required to take the wind out of an attacking squad’s sails. Too often, the best players on the other team found their groove against the Union, and that suggests an inability to execute a defensive game plan. Early in the year, there were questions about Califf’s ability to lead the Union’s defense. Those questions disappeared as the team was able to put out the same four defenders game after game. The mistakes dried up, and it was clear to all who was in charge.


Going into the next season, the Union need Danny Califf to put his stamp on the defensive unit from the start. While much can be blamed on the early season’s revolving door policy, the captain needs to be able to take charge and shorten the learning curve for those plugged in around him.

Danny Califf isn’t fast, but that is only a weakness if the Union allow the opposition to isolate and run at him. He can handle any MLS striker in the air. As the only aerial presence outside of Alejandro Moreno, Califf should be the target on every offensive set piece. Often, Le Toux drove set pieces low and hard, in effect giving up the aerial battle before it began. But that is a fight Califf can win, and he needs the opportunities next season if the Union want to keep other teams honest.


As he was in 2010, Danny Califf will be on the field whenever he’s healthy next year. He will look to establish his late season form from the very start, and his ability to establish a sense of cohesion among the back four will determine whether the Union can turn last season’s ties into wins.

Summing up the Union’s first season, Califf said, “There were times when we felt we were as good as any team. There were also times when we really fell short.”

It’s a sentiment that echoes the thoughts of Philadelphia fans everywhere. While it would be easy to chalk up the city’s incredible support for the Union to inaugural season adrenaline, there was more to it than that. Whether you were part of the Sons of Ben or just a barfly who happened to drop in on matchday, it was clear that the Union flitted endlessly between fulfilling and falling short of their potential. But with a leader like Califf, who can honestly assess the successes and frustrations of 2010, the Union are poised to take the next step in 2011.

One Comment

  1. I was really pumped when I learned that Califf was coming to Philadelphia. I even wrote about it almost a year ago when I blogged for The Offside … http://philly.theoffside.com/union-news/fear-the-mutton-chops.html … seems I got the Myrie/Thomas/Opara part wrong though. He definitely has the work rate and mentality that have been embraced by many Union faithful, although there are a significant number Califf-haters out there, too. People say he made some stupid mistakes (his clothesline early in the first game against TFC comes to mind), and they’re right. He also had a ton of internal and external pressure put on him, trying to captain this newly formed team. Growing pains are behind him … he will step up and lead this team in 2011 and beyond.

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