How Carlos Valdes destroyed his Philadelphia Union legacy

Featured image: Nicolae Stoian

Never forget that Carlos Valdes’ path to the 2014 World Cup began in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

It was January, 2011, and the relatively unknown Colombian center back had signed on loan from Independiente Santa Fe in his home country. Valdes was being introduced alongside countryman Faryd Mondragon in a press conference at Fado Irish Pub.

At the time, Valdes had just four appearances for his national team. He was a fringe player on a squad that included solid, experienced defenders like Mario Yepes, Luis Perea, and Cristian Zapata. No one knew much about the player who was sitting next to Los Cafeteros’ longtime goalkeeper.

Mondragon and Valdes became key pieces in the defense that ultimately propelled the Union to its lone playoff appearance. The back line of Valdes, Danny Califf, Sheanon Williams, and Jordan Harvey/Gabriel Farfan is still the best back line the Union has ever put on the field. Philly conceded only 36 goals that year and lost just once at PPL Park in 17 regular season games.

It didn’t take long for the front office to realize what it had in Valdes. His loan was made permanent in August 2011, though it was later disputed whether the Union owned his full rights or shared that future burden with Santa Fe.

The Union took a step backwards in 2012, but Valdes didn’t. His performances improved, and the rare mistakes that sometimes popped up in 2011 mostly disappeared. Even Peter Nowak’s bizarre descent into lunacy didn’t seem to affect Valdes, who actually anchored a 3-5-2 formation in March and April. (Not surprisingly, the back line of Valdes, Williams, and Chris Albright was short-lived.)

Anyway, you know that the stretch of time from April 2012 to June 2012 deserves its own story. The short version is that Nowak was fired, John Hackworth was promoted, and Diego Gutierrez was told to take a hike. Gutierrez had been instrumental in bringing Valdes and other Colombian and Central American players to Philadelphia.

Hackworth paired Valdes with Amobi Okugo, and the team started to shape up in defense. The 2012 squad ultimately disappointed, but one of the bright spots was Valdes’ selection to the MLS All-Star Game. Union fans made banners for the defender. “Nuestra estrella” (Our Star), and “Nuestra capitan” (our captain) could be seen clearly from the press box at PPL Park. Valdes entered for the injured Aurelien Collin and played well in the 3-2 win against Chelsea.

Ironically, that was probably the beginning of the end. Valdes was in fine form, and the recently hired Colombia manager, Jose Pekerman, took notice.

Photo by Earl Gardner

Carlos Valdes was added to the 2012 MLS All-Star Game by commissioner Don Garber. Photo: Earl Gardner

The departed

Carlos was called up by Pekerman on August 10, 2012, less than one month after the all-star game. That first call up was basically a glorified training session in Europe, but it served as an audition of sorts for future calls. Valdes was again enlisted for international duty in October, when the Union had already been bounced from the playoff picture despite Hackworth’s respectable salvage job.

Hackworth cleaned house that off-season, getting rid of most of Gutierrez’s players. Lionard Pajoy had already been traded, and Porfirio Lopez and Gabriel Gomez were also shown the door. Roger Torres was eventually marginalized, and Valdes was basically the only Latin American guy who was valued enough to keep around.

Problem is, that didn’t really matter. Valdes had other plans, and they didn’t include Philadelphia. At Pekerman’s behest, Carlos sought a South American move to improve his chances of playing in the 2014 World Cup.

That whole episode was maddening, especially after Pekerman said this about Major League Soccer in November, 2012:

“If you watch the games with an analytical eye you can find (Colombians) that have the level to be at the national team. MLS has a good amount of good players mixed with experienced players.”

The MLS calendar presented a problem for Valdes, who would be out of action during a critical moment in his international career. Pekerman added this:

“Carlos (Valdés) is an important player for us. He is trying to work something out with the league and his team to play during the off-season, but if that is not possible, we would help him with a training program.”

Do what you will with those statements. I found them to make sense at the time, though it was quite clear that Pekerman preferred Valdes to play in South America. We were told it would be easier for him to keep an eye on Carlos, and that the schedule would be more in line with international FIFA dates.

Here’s what Hack said when Valdes was loaned back to Santa Fe a short time later:

“We will certainly miss Carlos for this season, but this is a unique situation. We have done everything possible to make sure this move works for both the player and our club. Our hope is that this allows Carlos the best chance of reaching his dream of playing in the 2014 World Cup.”

Photo by Earl Gardner

Captain Carlos Valdes. Photo: Earl Gardner 

The return

Let’s speed up the story here, because it’s incredibly muddled:

Valdes played the 2013 season in Colombia with Santa Fe, moved to Argentina to join San Lorenzo, and made the World Cup squad, and played a fringe role on Pekerman’s quarterfinal team.

What happened after Brazil was a monolithic, convoluted mess. For me, it probably started when I asked Jim Curtin if there was a chance Carlos could return to Philly. He said yes, and everything sort of went downhill from there.

Valdes had a public falling out with San Lorenzo. Here’s a sampling of what I heard from various people behind the scenes:

  • Carlos had multiple agents and others representing him.
  • Diego Gutierrez was somehow still in the picture.
  • FIFA was close to intervening.
  • MLS, Philly, Santa Fe, etc: someone wasn’t getting paid.
  • San Lorenzo is lying.
  • Valdes’ agent is lying.
  • MLS is lying.
  • Philly is lying.

I didn’t pursue a lot of that because I honestly didn’t know what to believe. Other outlets did a good job of chronicling the whole thing.

And I don’t know what prompted it, but Valdes tweeted out the following, which was directed at San Lorenzo vice president Marcelo Tinelli and then later deleted –

“@CuervoTinelli Parece que no estas bien informado… en este momento sigo esperando mi sueldo de hace 5 meses”

-Carlos Valdes (@CarlosValdes5) July 17, 2014

That line basically says that Tinelli is misinformed, and that Valdes hadn’t been paid for five months.

Anyway, the situation became so ridiculous that San Lorenzo basically just said, “f*** it,” and let Valdes go back to Philly.

Things looked good in August. It seemed a bit confusing to hold a press conference for a player that was already on the Union books, but the convoluted mess the team had to deal with probably warranted a re-introductory type of address.

Carlos told the media at the press conference,

When I left from Philly, I always was thinking to come back one day because as I told you before, I think this is my second family. I love the fans, I love the team, I love the people in Philadelphia, I love my teammates. As soon as the World Cup finished, I was starting thinking again about coming back to Philadelphia.”

Valdes looked pretty tired when he hit the field last summer, but appeared the saga was finally over. The defender didn’t play as well as he probably was capable of, but he was back where he belonged, competing in the league that put him back in the national team picture.

I don’t know when Valdes decided that he wanted out again, and I guess it doesn’t really matter. A number of teams submitted transfer offers to the Union this winter, though the Roman Torres/Millonarios swap deal never had any truth to it. I was told that Carlos wanted to play in Europe, but that he preferred Colombia to Uruguay if he ended up back in South America.

All kinds of Valdes-related garbage hit my inbox in December and January. Was Valdes secretly injured? Was he looking for one final payday? Did he not have interest in playing for Jim Curtin?

Respect for Valdes in the Union locker room was quickly debased, and the player became more of a problem than he was really worth. That crested when he skipped out on preseason training and showed up at YSC wearing street clothes.

Carlos was courteous when he offered us a “no comment” on the situation. “We’ll see what happens,” he said.

Two weeks later, he was loaned out to second-choice club Nacional.

Valdes presser 8-4-14

“As soon as the World Cup finished, I was starting thinking again about coming back to Philadelphia.” – Carlos Valdes

 The ultimatum

One thing I find interesting about Philadelphia sports is that you don’t have to be a star to be loved by the fans. Aaron Rowand played about five minutes for the Phillies, but won the hearts and minds of fans forever when he broke his nose catching that fly ball in center field.

Similarly, Veljko Paunovic played 16 freaking games for the Union, but his engaging personality and understanding of the culture here transformed him from the “Old Serb” into a fan favorite.

I don’t think Carlos Valdes ever understood that. He claimed that he did, and he said all the right things, but he didn’t follow through in his actions. We all bought into the idea that he wanted to represent his country at the World Cup, and we all welcomed him back after the tournament was over.

Whatever goodwill stemmed from that return is now an afterthought.

And it’s a shame, really, because Carlos might be the best center back to ever play for the Union. He took a risk when he signed with a fledgling MLS club. He learned to speak English. He wore the armband. He put his body on the line while the franchise fumbled through the Peter Nowak/John Hackworth transition.

Jose Pekerman deserves part of the blame, too. He always preferred that Carlos play elsewhere. But it simply cannot be said enough: It was Valdes’ play in Major League Soccer that caught Pekerman’s attention.

I can’t help but think Delaware County natives Cinderella were speaking to Valdes when they wrote that power ballad back in 1988.

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.


  1. My sense of Valdes’s feelings on ruining his legacy is that he does not care. At all. I’m just glad he’s gone, hopefully permanently. What a mess.

  2. Can someone answer a question for me – when a player is loaned, is it under the terms of his existing contract or are new terms negotiated with the club he is being loaned to? Curtin made comments that Valdes was looking for a better deal to take care of his family, but does a loan accomplish that?

    Great article Kevin. And kudos to all the writers here on PSP for the quality of the content lately. If only our team’s FO was as talented….

    • I don’t know how it all works in general, but I believe it was reported that Valdes now has an out in his contract with Nacional after 6 months that would allow him to leave if Euro teams come calling. Don’t know if he had that in his Union contract, but if he plays well for Nacional he could get the European payday in July now.

    • Everything is up for negotiation. It all depends on what the parties involved agreed to. So either option that you laid out is possible.

  3. Interesting statement about Valdes losing respect in the locker room. Any insight as to who the real leaders are in that locker room? I assume Okugo was one….but now? Edu? Williams?

  4. It is really quite sad. The Onion is either dumb unlucky, dumb or just unlucky. Still trying to figure all this out – but I’m leaning towards The Cream…..
    ….’born under a bad sign, I been down since I began to crawl. if it wasn’t for bad luck, (love the high hat ride here) I wouldn’t have no luck at all….’

    • ….bad luck and trouble’s my only friend….

      • …. (more high hat) bad luck and trouble’s been my only friend…. born under a bad sign. If it wasn’t for real bad luck I wouldn’t have no luck at all……… born under a bad sign born under a bad sign…. (fade out)

  5. The article is nicely done, but fails to address a bigger concern: why would anyone want to stay with the union? Going into our 6th year, we are on our 3rd coach,no clear plan for the future, and a FO that balances the line between mediocrity and incompetence.

    • Delawter's hamstring says:

      because the parking lot is now a practice field. The evonik factory fumes, beside being good for your lungs, enhances tailgating and training performance.

  6. I’m not surprised Valdes was unhappy coming back to the Union after the World Cup; it was a whole new club. How many of the players on the roster were when he left, like five? And how many of them spoke Spanish?

  7. Love the Cinderella reference Kevin! But I would have gone with “Nobody’s Fool”.

  8. James Lockerbie says:

    The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. Since he is Gone this is how, I feel

  9. “I don’t know when Valdes decided that he wanted out again, and I guess it doesn’t really matter…”

    I’ve been wondering what would have happened if this Valdes saga had reared its ugly head earlier in the offseason. Would we have made a play to keep Okugo, or was he pretty much gone no matter what?

  10. Eh.. don’t care really.
    He is a grown adult, he made his choices. We got a replacement, we move on.

  11. Another sad aspect of this, is that there were good offers for him right after the World Cup. He could have been sold or loaned then at a likely better deal than was struck now.

    The Union thought he could help them make the playoffs so they actively pursued bringing him back, but discovered they had a player who was pretty used up.

    Over and done with.

  12. Ruben Vasquez says:

    Mr. Kevin Kinkead,
    I can’t believe you would post such Lies about Carlos Valdes not wanted to come back and/or staying in the Union! You should confirmed your stories first before writing them to the public, but then who are we kidding, that’s what the media is all about, making up stories! If Carlos didn’t wanted to come back to the Union, he would of never came to philly in February and take all his physicas, he came own his own, the union didn’t even renew his visa for him to come back, didn’t enev send him a plane ticket, he could of stayed in Colombia waiting for his transfer if he didn’t wanted to come back to the union! You probably didn’t even know that! There’s more that happen while he was here that no one knows, regarding the union not wanting him back!

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