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The power play

Photo: Nicolae Stoian

[Editor’s note: Peter Nowak said at a press conference later on Wednesday that an agreement has been reached with Chivas USA that will see Danny Califf traded in exchange for an as yet unnamed player.]

So Danny Califf is on his way to Chivas USA, if trade talks haven’t tanked.

Let’s evaluate that prospective trade. Sure, there’s no deal announced yet. But let’s play this game for a bit.

Forget Califf’s close ties to the fans for a moment. Forget his role as a team leader on and off the field. Forget that the team has no replacement for him at center back. (No, Sheanon Williams doesn’t count.)

What does one of the least talented teams in MLS have to offer that the Union should want?

Not much.

  • Heath Pearce: The fringe U.S. international can play left and center back and would be ideal as the left-sided defender in a 3-5-2, which may be Union manager Peter Nowak’s favored formation.
  • Ryan Smith: A speedy, talented winger who hasn’t nailed down a full-time starting role for Chivas after missing most of last season.
  • Dan Kennedy: One of the league’s top goalkeepers. He’s untouchable.
  • Miller Bolanos: Talented, young player who would be surplus in midfield and infuriate Union fans with his dives.
  • Allocation money. If you just experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, I apologize. But chances are, Union manager Peter Nowak wants to clear more money for a summer signing.
  • Draft picks. (Yawn.)

Juan Pablo Angel? He’s a smart, classy veteran who can still play, but he’s 36, past his prime and one concussion away from retirement. His salary last year was $1.25 million. While his salary hit might be lower this year, it’s unlikely he’s under $300,000, which is the most he’s worth at this point. In comparison, Sebastien Le Toux made $179,000 and wanted $400,000.

Who else is there? Alejandro Moreno? The former Union striker has been missed, but he would be surplus at this point. Nick LaBrocca? Please.

Pearce makes sense if Nowak wants him for the left side of a 3-5-2, but not if he’s expected to play center back, as he has for Chivas. In MLS, the best central defense tandems need a strongman. For example, recall how Stephen Keel upgraded New York’s defense last year when the big man replaced Rafa Marquez beside the technically proficient Tim Ream. Califf is the Union’s strongman. Pearce wouldn’t compliment Valdes as well. At left back in a four-man back line, he might be a marginal improvement over Gabriel Farfan but has a lower talent ceiling.

Chivas made some bad personnel moves last year, but even they learn. Philadelphia probably won’t get adequate value for Califf from Chivas.

Is this trade for real?

Make no mistake: This trade was happening. It wasn’t just one of those Twitter rumors that someone pulls out of his rear end.

We reported Sunday on the Califf trade talks. Union manager Peter Nowak confirmed the offer from an unnamed team rumored to be Chivas. Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser gave a surprised non-confirmation confirmation. The two sides have jockeyed back and forth on terms. They apparently hadn’t yet agreed to terms.

There’s been silence since then. What probably happened is that the two clubs agreed in principle to send Califf to Chivas but hadn’t finalized the terms of the trade. Nowak was forced to publicly acknowledge the trade talks earlier than desired because he was asked directly about it during the Union’s post-game press conference Sunday. That clearly threw Fraser for a loop. Now they had to figure it out and finalize a deal away from the spotlight.

Few think Califf will stay, though his departure won’t be his choice. People have seen this coming for two months, ever since a flap with Nowak. And that brings us to what’s truly behind this trade.

The power play

Nobody honestly believes this is just about Califf’s play.

One Union fan put it this way on Twitter: “I’ll be honest. It’s not that we’re moving Califf that bothers me. It’s why we might be moving Califf that bothers me.”

Few MLS players have built ties as close to their fans as Danny Califf. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Califf anchored the stingiest defense in the Eastern Conference last season, as the Union’s 36 goals allowed were fewest in the east and second least in the league. Last year, Califf had the highest per-game average player rating of any Union player. Dissect video of the Union’s goals allowed, and you’ll find few to lay on him. He’s spent more time cleaning up others’ defensive lapses than anyone on the Union, which is what good center backs do.  Critics say he’s lost a step, but Califf’s game isn’t about speed to begin with. He earned his national team caps and standing in Europe through strength, smart reading of the game, great positioning, simple passing, good aerial ability, and hustle.

Then, of course, there are the intangibles. Califf is one of the team’s most popular players and has led his teammates in establishing the kind of close ties with fans unseen in most of pro sports. He is team captain for a reason.

As the Delaware County Times’ Chris Vito wrote:

Califf is “the good guy” in the locker room who always “looked out” for the younger guys on the team, according to Sheanon Williams. Fellow centerback Carlos Valdes, the captain of the Union in Califf’s five absences this season, called Califf “the leader inside the field.”

There is no logical replacement for Califf on the roster. Williams has played well as a stand-in center back, but his lack of size puts the Union at a disadvantage on balls in the air. (And have you seen the physical beating he’s taken playing center back?) Valdes is the only other true center back on the roster. Califf’s $250,000 salary is at the team’s higher end, but it’s in the broad range of what it costs for a good MLS center back. Is Califf the best in the league? No. But he’s good.

Trading Danny Califf to Chivas (or almost anywhere) makes little sense,  until you remember one thing.

He stood up to Nowak.

Yes, folks. Whatever secondary reasons there may be, this is a power play. That’s why it’s happening. Everyone knows it.


  1. James "4-3-3" Forever says:

    Im scared

  2. At some point, Nowak has to be called by the media on what he’s doing this year. The jarring lack of continuity to the line-up and no visibility that this a plan for long-term growth.

    Why hasn’t the chorus for explanations grown louder?

    * I will say that Califf looks hobbled this year, especially in the air. Not maybe a trade justification when you consider he’s the lone veteran in the back with Mondragon departed. Just an observation.

    • James "4-3-3" Forever says:

      Well, I did notice during the broadcast Sunday Twellman DID call out Nowaks lack of lineup consistency and how it upset the fans. I was happy to hear that.

      • I call BS on lineup inconsistencies … or at least that the Union seem to be the only team pundits focus on in this aspect. http://www.mlssoccer.com/news/article/2012/02/15/climbing-ladder-how-busy-schedules-affect-lineups I can think of two consecutive games this season where we had the same starting XI.

      • James "4-3-3" Forever says:

        I was surprised when I found out the Union seemed average in this respect to. But I think a lot of the problem also involves the fact our team is so young, and we seem to change systems and style of play constantly too. I am sure consistent, well coached teams like LA or RSL keep the same formation and style of play week to week. So even if a few new players are slotted in, the change is easier to handle.
        For the Union, however, one week we are playing an attacking 3-5-2 and the next week we are playing a route one 5-4-1. Not to mention the constant lineup changes during games and the tendency for Nowak to play players out of position.
        All that adds up to wreck a young players mindset.

      • Yea for me it’s not so much that there’s a different starting XI every week, it’s the fact until Sunday I didn’t feel as if he was putting the BEST XI onto the field. And why he continues to play players out of position I’ll never understand. Marfan accels as a CAM, and Williams is a RB. It should be noted, as well, that our shutout streak earlier in the year occured while Califf was playing, and when he’s not – we lost to Colorado at home, and lost to NY at home. May not be coincidence, or may be a coincidence. Regardless of all that, however, Nowak’s failure to put the best XI on the field in their natural positions is something that has/will doom this team. And then there’s the substitutions he makes . . .

    • What media? No one talks about soccer, except the web maybe.

  3. DarthLos117 says:

    You cross Nowhack…you get the ax.

  4. Can we trade Nowak for some soccer balls? Just a thought. Thanks, TIM

  5. Kensington Josh says:

    It reminds me of Soviet Russia- but the players at least get sent to other teams, not the Gulag. The thing that bothers me is that I dislike and distrust Nowak- and sure, the coach needs to be in charge, but this kind of attitude? It shows insecurity and makes me think- this is not a man that players play for, but play in fear of.

    • Maybe it’s just me, but being traded to Chivas USA is kind of like being sent to the gulag of MLS. Heck, they even wear stripes.

  6. Why is there no organizational check on this?

    • Why? Because if the front office weighes in then it will completely detract from Nowak’s credibility and ability to run the team. It will make things worse not better. The best thing they can do is keep quite and quitely look for new managment.

      • I agree that it would be problematic for the FO to come out against the trade now that it is public. However, they certainly could have nixed the idea in-house before the deal was agreed to.

  7. philsoc8 says:

    Why is it always about Nowak? Isn’t Nick the GM? I thought GMs had authority over player moves.

    I think it may be in part about Califf and Nowak seeing eye-to-eye, but I think it’s mostly a salary dump. With the emergence of Gaddis, they are seeking to save money.

    While I think most moves are being attributed to Nowak being a psycopath, like they said re Watergate, to understand what’s really been going on, follow the money.

    • novak is coach and gm nick is the managing partner

    • WilkersonMcLaser says:

      Part of Nowak’s deal with the Union when he came on board was more or less complete autonomy.

      Money may be part of it, but we’re not talking about a team with a bunch of high-priced signings, a palatial stadium, or a paucity of sponsorship arrangements. In the grand scheme of things, Califf is a moderately priced player, as was Le Toux and Harvey. Given their production, Philadelphia has gotten Macy’s merchandise for Target prices.

      There is the possibility that Nowak is thinking that he’s well-stocked on defense and can afford to lose a stalwart like Califf to spend more on strikers. Maybe he’ll find some cheap meathead to play centerback muscle and use the difference on a well-regarded striker (like Seba, ahahahahah). I could see why he’d think this is a good idea, but I don’t think it’s true. It diminishes Califf’s many and multifaceted contributions and isn’t likely to work.

      Ultimately, the observation that the guys being shipped off are those who have clashed with Nowak (and, tellingly, are those so admired by the fans to be able to get away with it) is valuable. Even if player acquisitions are a major part of it, the personal issues seem to be an obvious consideration as well.

  8. This is near blasphemy – and believe me I will support the team, the players on the field, regardless of whatever else is happening – but I think it might be time to start thinking of some sort of boycott. Obviously it’s not fair to the players to not show up at games, they need our support. But with the way things are going we’re going to lose the “causal” fan and the families who may not be able to afford multiple games, or the fans who are just disgusted by how poor the team is. But even just thinking about a protest or boycott makes me realize that the F.O. and Nowak especially may not even give a crap. If there’s no one there to argue he can get away with even more.

    • WilkersonMcLaser says:

      I know what you mean. I’ve been following the Union since they started out (while I was living overseas, I used to find crappy streams at 4 in the morning to watch them live), but this season has been really hard for me. I’m not consciously boycotting them, but I’ve found its harder to keep interest when I feel like the team is being sabotaged every step of the way.

      I watch games when I can, but instead of feeling passionate, I feel angry and frustrated. It’s not that they’re losing, but that we’re losing while playing mostly negative football when, in reality, we shouldn’t have to be doing either.

    • I’m with you!

  9. James "4-3-3" Forever says:

    And is it true Nowak has a 10 year contract?!


  10. http://www.philadelphiaunion.com/news/2012/04/union-defense-shuts-down-crew-minus-califf
    “It’s not me,” Nowak added to laughs. “I love Danny Califf. Don’t get me wrong.”

  11. Yeah, after reading your article it does not appear that Chivas can offer the Union much. As such, the whole trade stinks. I say we trade Nowak.

  12. It is clear that he has the best interest of the front office in mind. He is most likely taking direction from the bums that are running the team.

    It had to be a directive from above for him to cut costs. Multiple stories have been coming out recently about tax woes, financial problems for the owner, bad deals on the stadium….that all adds up to us being the equivilent to a small market baseball team, one that is struggling just to survive.

    Adu will be the next to go, you saw it here first. He wants to play overseas again and he is our highest paid player (right?) so that puts him next on the chopping block.

    • I think if we got the right offer from a overseas team maybe. I do think that MLS foots some of adus salary. That being said adu is totally nowaks boy and I think he’ll do anything he can to keep the golden child. If adu can continue to play like he did sunday I wont mind having him stay (despite the high price tag)

    • Part of this salary problem is affected BECAUSE Adu couldn’t earn a chance for a loan during his off-season training with Rayo Vallecano. And before his production in limited time during the NY Red Bulls game I could absolutely understand that.

  13. So even if it is about money (which I dont believe) then why not see if they’ll take Albright instead? He and Califf are similar except we dont really care about Albright and califf is a little better and already use to our style of play.

  14. Andy Muenz says:

    We are already starting to lose casual fans. I haven’t seen a whole lot made of it but Sunday’s game against our biggest rivals was about 400 people short of a sell out, even with a lot more Pink Cow fans at the game than we would normally see of other team’s fan clubs.

  15. snugsmac says:

    More Losses + Zany Ownership = Less Fans

  16. MikeRSoccer says:

    What happens if Valdes has an injury before the summer transfer window? This is simply crazy. I really think that the SOBs need to use this as an opportunity to flex some fan muscle. While fans should obviously not be involved in the management of a team the organization is simply getting out of control. If Danny Califf is traded the SOB should consider leaving the River End empty for a game. This is not just about the Califf move, but about showing Nowak, Sakiewicz and Co. that the fans are the backbone of the team and trading away all of the fan favorites with the result being an unsuccessful team is only going to lead to an empty stadium.

  17. Gonna root for Califf at Chivas. He was an awesome guy, he even signed my jersey after a loss and was all smiles. And while I understand that Nowak wants to sell while Califf still has value, we don’t have another CB. Williams can’t play CB every game as stated in the article. He’s too small, and now each starting defender seems to like attacking more than defending…

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