Analysis / Union

The Stoke-time continuum … and Danny Califf

Photo: Paul Rudderow

What happens Tuesday night when the Stoke City of North America plays the Stoke City of … well, Stoke City?

Does the friendly between Stoke and Philadelphia Union become a series of contested throw-ins in which Sheanon Williams and Rory Delap blend into one cannonball-slinging right back?

Do all roads to PPL Park simply shut down so that the only available road is Route 1?

Will the game end up a five-a-side match after the issuance of six red cards against each team?

Does the space-time continuum just flat out collapse?

The possibilities are endless.

Or they would have been if this was the Stoke of seasons past instead of the team now led by Mark Hughes. With Tony Pulis out after seven years at the helm, Hughes is attempting to veer the team away from the hard-nosed ugliness that may not have been fun to watch but did make Stoke a mid-table team in the Premier League the last five years. Players like Delap are gone. So ostensibly is the Pulis philosophy. With Stoke still in preseason training, it’s not yet clear what kind of team they will be, but it’s likely they won’t be the Stoke of old.

On the other side, you have Philadelphia Union, a team that has benefited from opponents receiving red cards in eight of their last 14 games. Those red cards have not merely been good fortune either. The Union’s aggressive, pragmatic, physical, sometimes reckless and, as displayed by Keon Daniel on Saturday, occasionally dirty style of play has repeatedly provoked red cards by opponents.

But that style of play has led to wins, regardless of how unattractive the Union’s brand of counterattacking soccer may be at times. Philadelphia is 4-0-4 in games when red cards are handed out this season.

As shocking as it may be, the Union sit three points out of first place in the Supporters Shield race. That’s right, they are one win away from having the league’s best record. Your Philadelphia Union. Best team in the league. Imagine that.

Yes, it’s hard to believe when you consider how bad their midfield has been at times or how proud their 4-2-4 formation might have made British clubs in the 1930s. Michael Farfan has stepped it up of late, but Keon Daniel and Danny Cruz have regularly underwhelmed this season and did so again against Vancouver.

The Union simply have one of the league’s best corps of forwards. It’s not just Jack McInerney and Conor Casey either. It’s Sebastien Le Toux as an auxiliary forward swinging in crosses from the right. It’s Antoine Hoppenot off the bench with a game-winning goal against Vancouver and Aaron Wheeler showing he should have started that match.

Further, the Union have not surrendered a goal in 256 minutes (not counting stoppage time). Yes, that’s easier to do when you’re playing against 10 men, as the Union did for much of that time. But holding Portland scoreless, even at home, is an accomplishment.

Now, the Union will face their mirror image on Tuesday. Then again, you know the deal with reflections. Everything looks the same at first. Then you realize it’s all backwards.

A note on Danny Califf

After my story on the Union’s failed trade for Danny Califf ran on Thursday, many readers responded in similar ways:

  1. They said Nick Sakiewicz is a snake/liar/(insert similar epithet here).
  2. They said Califf got a raw deal.
  3. They asked whether the Union could – and should – still pick up Califf.

I’ve avoided commenting on the Sakiewicz point, because I want people to focus on the facts and decide for themselves rather than be able to dismiss what I wrote because I voiced a strong opinion on Sakiewicz one way or the other.

Regarding Califf, yes, of course he got a raw deal the last year and a half. That is an actual, indisputable fact, and if you think otherwise, you haven’t been paying attention.

As to the question of whether the Union should try to acquire Califf as an active player?

Yes, without question they should.

How often do you get quality players on the field who are also good influences in the locker room, are beloved by fans, fill a clear team need (center back depth), stand for everything you want your team to be, and want to play for you — and only you — whatever the cost?

It’s pretty rare.

If the Union truly wanted Califf as John Hackworth says they did — and I believe him — then they should be able to find a way to make it happen. Money is always an issue for the Union, but creative, capable minds can make a deal happen.

  • Trade a conditional draft pick. Toronto could use draft picks.
  • Renegotiate a contract to prorate payments over a longer period of time.
  • Make him a player/coach, with part of the salary dedicated to the coaching side and therefore potentially off the salary budget.
  • Build in a post-playing career arrangement to coach or scout, which Califf is obviously interested in and Hackworth would probably welcome.

This is why you pay agents and team executives: To figure out the business side. If they can’t figure it out, the league office can help, as league spokesman Will Kuhns said last week.

To have Califf quitting the game instead is a black mark on the Union’s reputation that won’t be erased unless they find a solution. His story will be the cautionary tale players tell each other during the 2014 negotiations over the next collective bargaining agreement as they push harder than ever for full free agency. “This too could happen to you,” they will say, and they’ll be right. With new stadiums packed to capacity all around the league, they will have far more leverage to strike in 2015 after the CBA expires than they did 2010.

Reacquiring Califf undoes the last, most severe damage done in the Nowak era. It’s a way to set things right with fans and players and fill a roster gap. It’s how you rid the last bits of fans’ lingering bitterness and demonstrate to the soccer world that your days as a cancerous, dysfunctional franchise are fully behind you. It’s how you show that Nowak (and Diego Gutierrez?) alone was the problem, and the team has been fully cured.

John Hackworth has already shown he is a key part of the solution.

This could be how Nick Sakiewicz shows he too is part of the solution, rather than being part of the problem as his critics suggest. Or it’s how he confirms his critics’ worst complaints.

The ball is in the Union’s half. It’s up to them what to do with it.


  1. This note on Danny Califf deserves to be its own post and hopefully read by Union FO. Very well said indeed.
    As for Stoke, this is definitely not the team of the past. Hughes bringing back Palacios into the fold is a big sign that they will be playing more attractive football. Last night’s open practice definitely put on display some very nice one-touch, quick movement. Suprisingly, Shea did quite well in these situations. Hopefully, we’ll get to see him feature for Stoke not only tonight, but more in league play this year with Hughes at the helm.

  2. As far as the Union being in the supporters shield race and our ugly play Miked9 from the Philadelphia Union Page on Big Soccer said something that sums up my feeling so much that I think it bears repeating here in its entirety

    So with no further Adu:

    “I get that people have some problem with “negativity,” on these boards and elsewhere, as some kind of real threat to the world (aside there’s a really great book about this and how it’s a problem). But here’s the thing. I am old enough and have been a Red Sox fan for long enough to tell you that while it’s nice to root for a team to win games, it’s way better to root for an enjoyable team with an attractive style of play to win games, and it’s way way way better still to root for an enjoyable team that wins championships.

    So while everyone is free to be as happy or as frustrated as they want to be regarding this Union season, I look at results like tonight’s and think that it’s fool’s gold. The Union were second best today, and they’ve been second best in a lot of games where they’ve still found results. They are way out in crazy statistical anomaly-town with the amount of 11v10 they are playing, and to me riding the wave of red cards is not a good plan to win trophies. When the only response fans give is “yeah but they won so shut up,” that just means that the team doesn’t have to account for all the ways they’re not serious championship contenders, and not all that fun to watch. Yes, they grind results and that’s admirable in a lot of ways. But if you look at the history of this league, not many pure ‘grind-it-out’ teams lift trophies (Casey’s Rapids might have been the last ones). To me the point is to lift trophies. I don’t think they will do it this way, and neither do any of the respectable MLS media guys out there, and my guess is neither do most of the people in this forum.

    More than that, I think I just love great soccer more than anything else. I want the Union to play more of it. I don’t think that makes me a bad fan, and I don’t think it ruins anybody else’s fun.”

    So yea what he said….

    • Sorry, I stopped reading your comment when I got to the part where you said that you agreed with something that you read on Big Soccer. After that, it was all pops and buzzes to me.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      It’s fun to rip Hack for his selections and lack of in-game management. It’s fun to destroy Danny Cruz for his inability to exhibit any real soccer skills despite the fact that he is apparently a “professional”. But mostly it’s just fun to watch. I know comment boards are for opinions… but most of all… just watching is fun. Just enjoy the team. There’s no need to continue to sat how bad they are ALL the time. If they don’t give away 4 points (Dallas and Salt Lake draws) they are 1st overall. After last year, just enjoy the ride.

      Witt that said it is maddening sometimes how they seem to be successful in spite if themselves. Ha! Come on the U!

    • In all seriousness, I understand what you’re saying. The team is clearly set up to get the ball to our forwards as quick and as far up the pitch as possible. Either by design or dictated due to financial restrictions, building a strong midfield which controls matches is not a high priority for the Union. Is that how I would choose to build my team? No way, but I just can’t see complaining about it when we’ve been getting results.

      Going into this year, my hope was that the Union would be good enough to fight for that 5th play-off spot in the East. To expect to be higher than that just isn’t realistic in my view as the team is far from a finished product and has lots of holes. I’m not sure that we;ll ultimately make the play-offs, but I’ve been pleased by the amount of points that we’ve piled up so far and we’ve given ourselves a great chance to achieve this. After that, everything else is gravy.

    • This team is simply not good enough to get results any other way. The Union as currently constructed cannot become a championship-caliber team. We might get lucky and win one anyway, but I think we all know that is not likely.
      I would love the Union to play possession-based soccer, but first they’re going to need 4 new midfielders. That won’t happen this year, so there’s not much point in complaining about it. We have rebounded in a big way this season, and we have maybe the most potent forward line in MLS. That is something to build around for next season, but right now, I’m just happy to see them score goals and win games. We didn’t do much of either last year.

  3. WilkersonMcLaser says:

    Dan — EXCELLENT post on Bearfight O’Califf. I also vote that you make it a separate post and syndicate it to and And the top Warsaw broadsheet as well for good measure, maybe Tsar Piotr is watching.
    Also, the Supporters Shield thing is morbidly fascinating. I love this team and I generally think we are too hard on Hack, but 3 pts from best record in the league?! That depresses me more than anything else.
    In fairness, our route 1 ball may be particularly tough to swallow as it seems the rest of MLS is getting increasingly creative and the USMNT is playing the best damn ball I’ve ever seen from the Eagleros.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Thanks, guys. I wondered if people wanted to read about Califf again, so I wrapped it into this post rather than make it separate. Based on responses, that was probably a mistake.

      I also wanted to write about the Stoke-Union comparison. Can’t have everything be doom and gloom when the team is 3 points out of first, and that was light-hearted and worth writing.

  4. kingkowboys says:

    Been trying to write a decent post for this article for a while. IMO we have athletes not soccer players. It’s reflected in our defend and counter attack style. We lack the vision and technical soccer ability to maintain midfield possession. That translates into what you see on the field. Athletic strikers wear down a less athletic back line to get results, or they catch them napping from the opponents midfield controlling so much of the game. Our defense has been able to keep teams in check during the run of play. You see their lack of soccer skills (mainly organization) during set pieces like the game tying goal against FC Dallas or any of the other goals from set pieces this year. I think our style can actually be effective in this league. No teams are really capable of dominating a match like top tier BPL teams. So every game means we have a chance that our athletes will hold off the skill and get the result. I think we’ll at least make the playoffs. Then all bets are off. We have no idea if this will hold up in the playoffs.

  5. So if Stoke City has stopped playing like Stoke City, who are the Union the MLS version of?

  6. “Reacquiring Califf undoes the last, most severe damage done in the Nowak era. It’s a way to set things right with fans and players and fill a roster gap. It’s how you rid the last bits of fans’ lingering bitterness and demonstrate to the soccer world that your days as a cancerous, dysfunctional franchise are fully behind you. It’s how you show that Nowak (and Diego Gutierrez?) alone was the problem, and the team has been fully cured.” …..

    – Dan, I think you will be quoted many times for this statement. It’s awesome.

  7. Danny Califf was playing in the “B” league at YSC last night. He did not look fit. I was blown away to see the former captain in what’s basically a glorified pick-up game.

  8. People can criticize the Union however they will about style of play, but no one can deny that the team is getting it done. So they don’t play “attractive soccer” (whatever that means). That’s not their job. Their job is find a way to win within the MLS East and its particular composition and challenges. They have found a way to succeed in this (arguably with less than some of the other teams). I say “well done” to them.

  9. Two things:
    1) Rory Delap is no longer w/ Stoke City. But don’t let fact-checking get in the way of a good storyline, Dan. 😉
    2) I guess Califf has had more than his fair share of Friday night beers if he’s looking poor in adult leagues.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      From the post: “Players like Delap are gone. So ostensibly is the Pulis philosophy. ”

      Don’t be a jerk. And if you do, make sure you’re right first.

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