A fan favorite returns: PSP talks to Danny Califf

Photo: Earl Gardner

PSP talks to former Philadelphia Union captain Danny Califf ahead of his return to PPL Park on Saturday.

Philly Soccer Page: I believe you’ve been following Earl Gardner teasing you on Twitter ahead of this weekend’s game, right?

Danny Califf: Yeah, awesome. I look like the bassist from Spinal Tap. It’s classic. I love that guy.

PSP: How much of a new experience has it been in Toronto? Any adjustment problems?

DC: I don’t think it’s been a new adjustment, per se. I think that coming into Philly was about building something, and I think we are at that stage with this team. A new president, a new coach, a new staff, and half the locker room brand new—it’s a building thing again.

PSP: Is it any different in Toronto than it was in Philly? Toronto has traditionally had strong support, but when you have a couple of down years you can lose a little bit of that enthusiasm. Does it feel like the energy is coming back? Is that something you think you’ll have to build? 

DC: I think it’s something where we have to get results and give them something to cheer about. There’s passionate support in this city, for sure. But after a couple of years where we, the team here, didn’t do their jobs, essentially—and I’m not implying that people didn’t come out—but I think we as a group have to win back their respect.

PSP: So they’re willing to come back but they want to see you perform?

DC: It’s similar to the fans in Philly, right? They want to see the guys give it their all, all the time. And if they don’t see that, they’re going to let you know.

PSP: You were involved in a sudden and unexpected upheaval in Philly, and it seemed like the fans were pretty vocal in their support of the players. There was a divide between how they supported the players and owners or management, and it seems like Toronto isn’t the same way. The fans just weren’t sure if the team was giving them everything they could, so the fans are looking at the team to prove it to them again. 

DC: I think you are exactly right. It was a team issue in Toronto, not necessarily a front office issue, if that makes much sense.

PSP: So where do you fit into this Toronto plan? In Philly it was pretty clear when you arrived that you were going to be the cornerstone of a young team, and, especially with the early drafts and picking guys who were 16 or 18 years old, you were going to be the one to show them the way to do things right both on and off the field. And that’s why you have this level of respect in Philly. Is it the same in Toronto, or are you being asked to focus on an on-field leadership role?

DC: It’s the same thing. And I’ve felt that from the beginning. It’s kind of an intangible thing. I see my role as both on and off the field leadership, and that’s certainly how I felt when I was brought into Philly.

PSP: What has changed for you in how you approach the game since you left? Your legacy in Philly is a hard-nosed but cerebral approach to the game. As you’ve gotten older is there anything you’ve had to change? Part of the reason I ask is that, when you left Philly, there were conflicting reports as to why you weren’t playing. One side was that you were injured, the other side was a disagreement with management, and so it left questions in the air about whether you can play the same way you did or whether you’ve had to make adjustments. 

DC: I feel that I can play the same way. Can I play the same why I did when I was 20? 22? 24? No. Let’s be honest. It takes a heckuva lot more maintenance. More hours on the training table. But I feel like I’m still able to play. I’ve never been a guy that is going to be a superstar, right? But I try and give everything of myself and I play within my means—well, I like to think I play within my means—and I try and help the team and do that. Certainly, a physical presence is part of my game and that’s been there since the beginning. But I think I’ve gotten smarter about it as I’ve gotten older. I used to average a red card every year, and I’ve cut that down over the last 3-4 years since I’ve been back in MLS… well, not the first year, but I’d like to think I’ve tried to grow up a bit in that respect. You get older and things hurt longer, but I haven’t changed the way I’ve played. I can’t. I can’t afford to.

PSP: Was there anything they told you coming in to Toronto to sell you on the project? Did they say, “This is the style we want to play,” or was it just something where you saw an opportunity you wanted to be a part of? 

DC: It was more the fact that Kevin Payne came up and said there was going to be a new direction for the team. And there was also a new direction in Chivas and I wasn’t fitting into that direction. When he came up here and he said, “This is what we are trying to build. Would you be interested?” And I said yeah. Absolutely. I want to try and get this team back on its feet and give the fans something that they deserve.

PSP: It has to be hard to say you want to be a part of a rebuilding, or building, project once in your career. You must think that eventually you will see it come to fruition. It must be even tougher to go through that a second time. Are there any ways you’re approaching it differently this time? 

DC: A little bit. I’m trying to take more time to talk to some of the younger guys and talk through things in training. I did that in Philly but it was a little different. We were trying to build the whole program in Philly and then it kept getting torn apart every year. Here I think we’ve got something stable, that there is a plan, and that I’m a part of that plan. At that time, in Philly, just due to personalities and things like that, that kind of went up and down.

PSP: Moving on to some of the young guys who were in Philly while you were there and who are stepping into leadership roles now, have you been watching Philly play? What do you see in some of the younger players, and have things gone the way you expected them to go for those guys?

DC: Guys like Gabe and Michael Farfan have really stepped up. Sheanon Williams is playing so far beyond his years, it’s crazy. You look at Amobi Okugo, who has done simply fantastic. You can’t push him out of that spot now. I think these are the guys that are going to be the rocks for the future. They were always talented, but I think this year, more than any, you can really see them coming into their own.

PSP: When you were a younger player, did you need there to be a leadership void for you to step into, or did you just sort of ‘know’ that people were looking to you now?

DC: I think there is a definite sense. I got to play with some of the best players in not just US soccer history, but MLS history. And I was schooled by those guys. Stepping into a locker room that was well defined, as far as the pecking order—You put your head down and do your job and eventually your time will come. I think it’s the same with them in Philly. The first couple years were hard on them. But it’s good because they come out the other side and, frankly, they’re doing it at a young age.

PSP: As you look to Philly now, they’re playing a different style under John Hackworth. How do you approach this team? What do you see that you’re going to look out for in a guy like Jack McInerney, who is going to look to run in behind you?

DC: We can’t let them establish a rhythm. We’re not going to let them establish a possession game on us. We’re going to try and break that rhythm. We are going to get up and establish our pressure higher up in the field. A guy like Jack, he is very smart. He probably makes some of the best runs in the league. So there’s got to be some balance. We have to get pressure, but we also have to make sure we don’t get stretched out. Because if we get stretched out we will get played through.

PSP: One thing that has been a hallmark of Union games this year is the periods of strong play and periods where they get dominated a bit. I’m curious how you, as a player, deal with that. What do you feel that you can do to change the flow of the game and change how the other team is pushing you back, pushing you back? Anything specific? 

DC: I think momentum can swing on a big tackle. Momentum can swing on a forward making a really big move and beating somebody. Those are the types of things that can change momentum. But for the most part, I feel like you just need to do whatever you can to weather the storm until one of those moments happens. Until a guy makes an 80-yard recovery run, slide tackle, wins it, plays it, wins it… all of a sudden everyone is feeling the energy and you can get a hold of the game again. So it’s about not losing the game when there are periods that you are being dominated. Because it happens all the time to every team. There are periods when the other team is dominating the game and if you can not lose the game during those moments, you can put yourself in a position to win.

PSP: You’ve been on three teams in three years. You have seen a lot of change. You see Philly with two new central backs. I’m curious to know what you do coming into a new situation with a new partner in the back. What do you do to establish a good central back partnership? How do you feel that out, how do you develop that feel with someone you haven’t played with before?

DC: I think it starts off the field, to be quite honest. You need to bond a bit, you need to go out, so you can have a relationship. And it’s just time together on the training pitch, in preseason, and things like that so you can get to know what the guy’s going to do. I think it’s one of the hardest partnerships to establish if guys don’t hang out off the field at all, if they don’t have a similar mindset in how they approach the game. But I think it’s one of the most vital to a team.

PSP: Thanks for your time, and everyone will be happy to have you back in town. 

DC: I’m super stoked. I’m gonna have 60 strong, and it’s going to be cool.


  1. Jeremy Lane says:

    Nothing against the guys we have now, but Danny never should have left. The FO really still has a lot to answer for.

    • And he is the man

      • Ed Farnsworth says:

        This is worth mentioning: Adam told me that Califf was a total pro when doing the interview – gracious and candid – just as you’d expect. But when speaking about how well the Farfans, Okugo, and McInerney are playing, Califf totally lit up and was so happy and excited for them and how well they’re doing with the Union. From what Adam was saying it sounded to me that, when talking about the Union’s emerging young leaders, Califf was a proud fan, just like the rest of us. He’s a top man.

      • Ed is dead on. I wish the transcript could convey just how excited Califf got when we got to the younger Union players. It was that special level of unabashed enthusiasm that you don’t usually get in interviews. Incredible guy.

  2. It’s really awesome that you guys have developed relationships with the players to the extent that guys like Danny Califf will come back and give a thoroughly candid and honest interview like this. It also speaks to the level of class that Danny conducts himself with, not that that’s anything lacking on our team at the moment (though I wish he were still with us).

  3. I have so much respect for Danny. He was so gracious in Orlando at spring training, spending time after the game to talk to my son who is still his biggest fan. I can’t wait to hear the crowd (and see what Earl has planned) on Saturday. It will be bittersweet when he comes over to our corner like he used to do after every game.

  4. Two things stick out at my about Califf, one directly related and one indirectly.
    Eli and I used to work together, and when the team started to come together, he told me how he’d love to have Califf (or a guy like him) play for the team. Well done, Carnac.
    Second … I was lucky enough to be chosen as a “starting XI fan” (or whatever the hell they called us) – Earl was one of them too – and honored at halftime of the Union-Galaxy game was back when. After the game, we were to meet Union reps at the corner between sections 133 & 134 to claim or game-worn jersey. By the time I got all the way over from section 109, there was one shirt left … Califf’s. At one of the open practices, I brought it with me in the hopes that he’d sign it, which he did. I explained to him how I got it practically right off his back, and he looks at me, deadpan, and says “no sh*t”. Big smile came across his face, and he gave me one of the most genuine, friendly, emphatic handshakes I’ve ever received. Two words come to mind when I remember that moment … “top” and “class”.

  5. I think part of the grief that Brian Carrol gets comes from how he wears the armband as compared to Califf or even Mondragon. There are certainly different captain-ing styles but the class and the respect that Califf and Mondragon demanded are nearly impossible to replace.

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