Meet the Red Card Gang

Photo: Earl Gardner

Danny Cruz likely leads the league in a very important stat.

Red cards forced. He has three.

No team in Major League Soccer has benefited more from red cards this year than the Union. With Josue Soto’s ejection in the Union’s 3-1 win Friday over Chivas USA, Philadelphia’s opponents have seen at least one player ejected in seven of the Union’s last 12 matches. The Union are 3-0-4 in those games, at least four of which came against likely playoff teams. Philadelphia’s record in other games is 5-6-2.

The Union have scored 10 goals after the 75th minute of games, second most in the league. Six came against opponents who had gone down a man.

All told, MLS referees have handed out 44 red cards in 172 matches this season. More than 20 percent of them have been handed out in the Union’s 20 games: eight to Union opponents, one to the Union.

Instigating Setting the tone

What’s driving this?

The Union’s style of play.

Ask Wells Thompson, Doneil Henry, and Lloyd Sam, who all drew red cards with ill-advised tackles while under pressure from Danny Cruz’s attacks. Ask Seattle’s Lamar Neagle, who went nose to nose with Sheanon Williams and got tossed along with Williams. Or ask DeAndre Yedlin, who lost it later in that Seattle game after he missed a tackle and then demolished Michael Farfan to make up for it. There’s Josue Soto, who had already received a yellow card before he went ballistic and drew another in response to Jorge Gonzalez’s misguided indirect kick call. And don’t forget Je-Vaughan Watson of Dallas, who was booked for diving two weeks ago and sent off because he had already received one of five cards given to Dallas that game.

This phenomenon is nothing new for Philadelphia. With their aggressive style of play, Route 1 counterattacks and fantastically long throw-ins, they are America’s answer to Stoke City. They take opponents out of their comfort zones, and it often provokes red cards from opponents. Meanwhile, the Union somehow tip-toe the line of what referees find acceptable and draw few red cards of their own.

Antoine Hoppenot drove opponents mad last season, once provoking two New England players into bookings on one play. Michael Farfan led the league in fouls caused last year and was eighth in fouls suffered. Sheanon Williams argues half the fouls he receives and backs down from nobody. Conor Casey has added a new dimension, able to absolutely level opponents with impunity because most are too intimidated to get in his face about it.

This year, no player illustrates the red card phenomenon quite like Cruz, the Union’s famously aggressive winger.

Criticize Cruz’s touch in the final third all you want, but his no-holds-barred attacking play causes fits for defenders who don’t know how to handle him. Cruz knows only one speed on offense: Full speed. No matter what the defender does, Cruz puts his head down and goes full steam ahead. His reckless style may be a physical danger to himself and opponents, but if somebody is going to blink, it won’t be Cruz. Either move or get run over. Injuries clearly don’t bother him. He gets hurt every game but always comes back. Forget the traditional No. 7 winger. Cruz wears a classic running back’s number, No. 44, and plays soccer like the American football running back he once was. As with Chuck Norris, fear of small spaces may be claustrophobia and fear of spiders may be arachnophobia, but fear of Cruz running you over is simply logic.

Cruz cleaned up a bit, but he's still pretty hard core.

Cruz in the off-season.

Brawn and brains

Cruz is just one part of a team culture that respects resilience, toughness and handing out hard fouls when it serves your purpose. It goes back to original Union captain’s Danny Califf’s 2010 PPL’s Elbow against Toronto and the ethos Califf, former manager Peter Nowak and others established inside the locker room and on the field.

The Union have ranked among the league’s top three teams in fouls caused in three of their four years of existence. (The exception was 2011, their only playoff team.) This year, they are third, behind Kansas City and Chivas USA. Seven Union regulars are among the league’s top 60 in fouls caused this year. (Cruz and Hoppenot are not among them.) Imagine if Gabriel Farfan was still with the team. He caused seven fouls in one Chivas match this year.

John Hackworth talks about “Philly tough,” and real Philadelphians snicker cynically as if it’s some nonsense form of cheap marketing. It’s not. It’s how the Union play.

Equally as important, they do it with enough awareness that the Union are one of just three MLS teams yet to go down a man this year. The only Union red card this season came when Williams was sent off in a joint ejection with Seattle’s Lamar Neagle. It shows the Union may play rough, but they’re smart about how far they push it.

None of this earns the Union any style points, but it has gotten them enough standings points to make them a potential playoff team.


  1. I’m glad I waited my whole life for a local team, spent thousands of dollars on season tickets, gear, and beer over the last 4 years and get to watch the same style of play that I could have watched at the local high school for the last 20 years….. I swear Hackworth bathes in a hot tub time machine.

  2. I like the article and I love the way that we play, being tough and causing trouble. It makes for good viewing and some good results.
    However that doesn’t mean that’s the reason we’re winning. Shaenon is a good player first, that is is tough is an extra benefit. Same deal with Casey, and (sometimes) Marfan. Cruz has not made a significant contribution in some time. I personally don’t think you can have someone play every single game when literally they’re ONLY positive is that they run forward with reckless abandon. Note that I didn’t say and runs back, because he doesn’t. He also is not a good passer, not a good crosser, and his worst trait is finishing.
    That being said, the thing he is good at is hustle, speed, running forward. This is what late game subs are made for in soccer. I don’t think anyone argues that Cruz doesn’t belong on the team, he just doesn’t deserve the guaranteed start he is given. However, I still choose him over Keon 100 times out of 100.

    • That’s true, this all isn’t the only reason the Union have won games. It’s just one facet of the team. Agree completely with your sentiments on Sheanon, Casey and Marfan. Talented players first. The toughness is just part of that.

  3. Nice piece.

    I must say, I find Cruz’ reckless style of play crazy-making, and I’m always pointing out to my soccer-playing sons that he gets hurt so often because he throws his body around with no regard for anything, to a degree that I find foolish.

    However, I never before considered the fact that he may be making his biggest contribution to the team by driving defenders insane and forcing them to fly in with their studs up. Getting to go up a man is a mighty big contribution (even if the Union mainly haven’t figured out how to play it right). Does that justify his inclusion in the starting lineup?

    • Very good question. I guess it depends on what kind of team you want to put out on the field and what kind of faith you have in Cruz long-term.

      If you think that continued minutes will help eventually improve his composure and touch in the final third, then it adds more justification for playing him regularly. And if you’re thinking results first, style points last, then that too adds more justification for playing him regularly.

      Not saying he would (or wouldn’t) be in my lineup, but he’s obviously in Hackworth’s.

      • I know he’s listed as a defender, but Fabio Alves looked really interesting as a late game sub last week. I’d have to think, given the ball skill he showed, Hackworth would think that Alves is the better 60 minute starter with Cruz being that hustle player for the last 30 minutes. Hoppenot and Cruz as tough, end-of-game change of pace players could be an interesting choice.

      • At this point in his career Cruz either had it or he doesn’t. He isn’t 16.

    • Cruz runs around like a chicken with its head cut off. Playing with him is like playing with s man down anyway. So if he gets someone red carded that only evens the odds. Its shown with the team not able yo take advantage of bring a man up. That’s because they are not.

  4. This article took the words right out of my mouth regarding Cruz. As a frequent Cruz detractor, I’ve been quiet about him lately because I’m starting to see what he really brings to the table: speed, unwillingness to give up possession, tenacity, and (most importantly) the ability to draw fouls in dangerous spots. If he could improve his somewhat dismal touch and accuracy of shots and crosses, he’d be an absolute nightmare. Hopefully some of Seba’s service and Jack/Casey’s finishing skills will rub off on him… though I don’t see his natural aptitude for it, unfortunately.

    I’d take a more skilled (and real left-footed) LW any day, but I’m finding I can live with Cruz. Starting to see what Hackworth sees in him.

    To disagree somewhat with this article, however, I think this is the most fun to watch Union side yet. Combine the “Philly Tough” aspect with the best, most clinical finishing we’ve ever had and this team can win hearts and minds.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I didn’t say they’re not fun to watch. 🙂

    • Cruz has improved his positioning when shifted to the left. I think he has recognized that he needs to provide more on the defensive side. I think Eli pointed out in one of his analyses a few weeks ago that Le Toux has found that tracking back to defend pulls the fullback forward, creating space behind him. Cruz is doing the same, I believe, to great effect. That gets us in the corners where we can whip crosses in. Nearly all of those crosses end up with a bowed head and a goal kick, but hey, at least we’re getting the ball in good places now. And the threat of these dangerous balls is what is creating many of these yellow and red cards, when defenders trip Cruz up when he’s bombing towards the ball.

  5. The Chopper says:

    I think it was Donald Rumsfeld who said “you go to war with the Army you’ve got”. General Hackworth looks at his arsenal and Danny Cruz is a weapon he can’t afford to keep out of the battle. Hs lack of accuracy does cause collateral damage, but your opposition has no idea on how to defend against it. And there attempts to dismantle this weapon creates opportunities for victory for your side.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Danny Cruz could be barreling down (cause he definitely “barrels”) on the keeper one-on-one in stoppage time of the MLS Final, at PPL, with the game tied… and I wouldn’t even get excited… cause I know he would just dribble himself into the Earth and possibly get a yellow for hitting the goalie. I am that done with Danny Cruz. Awful. Great hustle tho….

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