A View from Afar

On leadership and Philadelphia Union

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

The American soccer world has an odd way of mystifying “leaders.”

Take any player. Add years and experience in Europe. Maybe show video of him yelling at teammates. Rinse. Repeat. He’s now a “leader.”

Except that’s not how leadership actually works.

Leadership is about intangibles. It’s about what you do and say, about how you carry yourself, and what you inspire in others. It’s about setting good examples for others to follow until they understand enough to make their own way. And it’s about demanding accountability and pushing others to raise their performance levels because of it. It’s also requires intelligence.

Philadelphia Union had a good team leader –and a second, in a way — in their first season. Captain Danny Califf established a culture within the locker room that the young players from that team still talked about years later, and he was the first player to truly create the uniquely close connection that Union players enjoyed with their fans, a closeness that has regrettably faded in recent years with the regular turnover of the roster. Meanwhile, Sebastien Le Toux set a different kind of example by putting in so much effort on the field that it set the standard for teammates.

Their manager, suffice to say, was not as good a leader.

Since then, the Union’s team leaders among the players have been a mixed bag.

A look at Union captains

Faryd Mondragon was a good fit for the role. His unusual ascension to the role — then-manager Peter Nowak replaced Califf with him without informing Califf in advance — and the class with which Califf handled it demonstrated that Mondragon was joining a locker room that already had quality leadership.

Carlos Valdes eventually took on the role and then tried to get out of Philadelphia.

Brian Carroll took the role almost by default and then was replaced by the superstar in their midsts, Maurice Edu, who spent his captainship playing well, playing out of position, playing hurt, getting more hurt, and doing too much promotional work.

Tranquillo Barnetta seemed the most effective of the Union captains after Califf, and that may be in part because of the circumstances under which he took the role. Nobody anointed him a “leader.” He didn’t join the team expecting to be a captain. Rather, there was something about the hard-nosed, fierce but classy way he carried himself on the field that appeared to set the tone for his team around him in almost every way. He eventually took the captain’s armband in the absence of injured teammates, and it seemed to actually reflect the reality rather than define it.

Current captain Alejandro Bedoya assumed the captain’s armband this year after only playing with the team for three months last season. Off the field, his candor has been refreshing, and despite his struggles in the No. 10 role, nobody would accuse him of not playing hard. Still, when his candor crosses into flippancy, you see that his characterization of the captaincy as the guy who gets to call the opening coin toss may not be a mere joke but actually how he treats the role.

In a recent postgame interview, Bedoya talked about how the team isn’t in danger of getting relegated, as if that should calm fans down.

Frankly, maybe what the Union need is the sort of pressure and enforced accountability that relegation brings. Or it might be helpful to have, as one of my colleagues put it, “someone to come in, throw a chair across the locker room, and tell everyone they f—–g suck.”

That doesn’t have to be the coach. It can be a player. Or multiple players. We heard many Union players talk about what a “good locker room” they had early this season. With such a crop of veterans, you’d expect accountability, but then again, but that can’t magically can’t conjure up a top line No. 10 playmaker out of thin air unless Adam Najem has something to say about it. Jay Sugarman’s pocketbook is otherwise required.

Accountability and the locker room’s wall of silence

Maybe it’s already happened, the necessary accountability throwdown by coach or players. We don’t know, because we’re not in the Union locker room. We’re not in training. And we’re not in the corporate offices where sporting director Earnie Stewart makes his moves.

We know what we see, but we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.

There was a time where the Union were more of an open book. That happens when players stick around and get to know and trust people within the local media. Sheanon Williams was as intense as any player you’ve ever seen, and after a Union loss, he looked like he wanted to kill everyone, including himself. Amobi Okugo was open, smart, charismatic and friendly with the media and pretty much everyone. Califf said what was on his mind and pulled no punches. Alejandro Moreno was as articulate an analyst of the game during his career as he became after it. John Hackworth was just as candid as Jim Curtin once he got to trust you. We knew these guys well, so we had a good pulse of the team beyond what we saw on the field.

Now, the connections may be a little more stretched. The Union run a tighter ship when it comes to the media than they did years ago. Further, you have a lot of player turnover and, in some cases, media turnover. (I write this column far from Philadelphia.) Earnie Stewart seals up leaks, and Curtin protects his players in public. There are more things you just don’t know.

And that brings us to Curtin the manager.

What don’t we know about the coaching situation?

Credit to Curtin: He tried new things against New York City FC. Adam Najem saw playing time. Jack Elliott started. Alejandro Bedoya played the No. 8. Roland Alberg played again — OK, maybe it’s not all good or revolutionary. But Curtin made some reasonable adjustments, and that says something.

Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said in a televised interview last week that Union head coach Jim Curtin is not under internal pressure of being fired and made a good case for keeping him. Add to that a pretty good non-Philly perspective from MLSsoccer.com’s Matt Doyle — listen to Monday’s Extra Time Radio podcast, and within a few minutes you’ll hear it as the first item of the show — and you start to ask this question.

What is there we don’t know?

Maybe the Union have a big-time playmaker lined up to join them this summer, so they’re accepting that the current side is a temporary scenario.

Maybe they’ve acknowledged that some signings — Roland Alberg, Ilsinho — aren’t working out, but they have to work with what they have until they can clear money from the salary budget.

Maybe Stewart has realized that doing things the way he did in Holland — and relying almost exclusively upon those contacts for his MLS signings — isn’t working here. (Trading away the potential No. 1 overall draft pick next year for Charlie Davies doesn’t look good now.)

Maybe Jay Sugarman and the Union investment team aren’t willing to foot the bill for a new coach while paying out the remainder of Curtin’s contract. (After all, they got sued by the first coach they fired.)

Whatever it is, we don’t know, because we don’t see everything, and neither do you.

It’s more important that the Union decision-makers see it all and fix whatever the problems are. In the end, you control their decisions as fans more than media ever can. Speak up. Your voices will get heard.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    This article is necessary.
    I’ve been writing about this behind closed doors aspect for two weeks… actually politely asked Alejandro Bedoya about this after the NYCFC game via Twitter. Who is going to accept the mantle of this is NOT OKAY from a player perspective. Who is going to give The Talk? I was ignored. Which is fine, he did thumbs up my Gorillaz response the week before though…so.
    Bedoya’s comment about relegation, while true, speaks so damn loud it is sonic in its boom— at once for the micro issues of individual player mentality and supernova in its highlighting the soccer culture schism here in America. Welcome to MLS, and all professional sports it seems anymore- where losing is actually becoming a game plan and there is no threat. Valuations of clubs rise and rise and rise… win or lose.
    I feel it is incumbent upon me (us) to speak up and be ruthless in criticism and candid in granting credit where and when due. A buddy thinks I’m crazy for writing here cause who gives a shit, who actually reads it, and maybe ultimately he’s right, but it helps my angst, keeps my saber sharpened and it holds this franchise accountable.

  2. I think your penultimate point is an excellent one, Dan. If indeed it is true that Curtin is not under internal pressure, there must indeed be something — or somethings, plural — that we don’t know.

    Of course, that could be as simple as ‘We know that a bunch of these players are dogs and/or don’t fit our system, and we need some new ones, and a coaching change is not going to do one bit to fix that, so there’s no point in making a coaching change.’

    Yet I think some of what we fans and commenters are frustrated with is not just Alberg/Ilsinho/Simpson not working out so well, or Bedoya not exactly finding his niche on the squad. It’s the REGRESSION of players who had great seasons last year, with no accountability for them. I became a tremendous fan of Chris Pontius last year, and I still believe he is a terrific and talented player, but even I say that the dude needs to see the bench for a game or two until somebody can figure out WTF is going wrong with his game. And where the hell has our Rookie of the Year contender been? And why not give Ray Gaddis a chance to show something , since Rosenberry’s game is AWOL? Do these regressions, and the dogged insistence on playing them every game nonetheless, not reflect poorly on Curtin even if there is a plan in place for player acquisitions?

    • According to today’s reports Gaddis is working with the first team in practice.

      • Yup. Sounds good to me. Things need to be mixed up. I really like Rosenberry but he’s been bad this year. Elliot seems to have taken that RCB spot and it looks like Fafa is getting mixed in too. I think we really need some speed out there.

      • And Gaddis looked really good in the preseason. Much better going forward then past seasons.

  3. Great article. I even wrote my ticket guy this week demanding Ernie address the media/fans this week. We deserve to hear another voice on the state of the club whether Curtain is here or not. I don’t know if Ernie has forgotten the usa east coast mentality working overseas for so long. If they go down a goal or two Saturday, Talen will clear out faster than we’ve ever seen before.

  4. to your point about what we don’t know: i don’t know if anyone else caught this in curtin’s press conference but he let it slip that they are looking for more pieces. he said it kind of quick and there wasn’t a follow up about it but he said it

  5. pragmatist says:

    I had made a comment similarly along these lines – just because you wear the armband doesn’t make you a captain. And this team may be lacking a persona with the gravitas necessary to fill that role on the field. There are no obvious choices:
    Bedoya’s flippancy (as noted) reduces his effectiveness.
    Gooch was a late addition/last gasp/emergency filler who isn’t expected to play much.
    Pontius is obviously just a quiet, workmanlike guy.
    The rest are either too young or not important enough to the team.
    This is where we miss Mo. I know people slam him, but he had the qualities necessary to have players follow him. For this reason mostly, we miss him.
    The FO is a different animal. As pointed out, they may be sitting on info we don’t know. But at least everyone seems to follow a single voice, and that is important in any organization.

  6. What I infer from Mr. Stewart’s comments and Jim Curtin’s action are these:
    1) The Team/Franchise is committed to the 4-3-2-1 and playing this formation is more important than wining.
    2) They recognize they have faults.
    3) They are committed to not making drastic changes. Most would assume this is just about the formation, but I also think it’s a big indicator of lineup continuity (or lack of experimentation).
    4) As far as Mr. Stewart is concerned Curtin’s job is not based in wins.
    5) As far as Mr. Stewart is concerned the Union, Curtin, staff, all rebooted the day he took over.

    They all talked about building an identity when Stewart came in. Curtin actually talked about it since they day he took over. So when Stewart took serious what Curtin envisioned, Stewart created a plan. Now that they have the plan and they appear to be sticking to it. Is it not true in order to gain an identity, earn a reputation, be known for something, you must repeat what you do over an over until it is what you become? Not that they are doing well with their chosen direction at the moment but Stewart seems to care more about the journey than the destination.
    What I don’t think Stewart takes into account enough, are the fans.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      —- this is a strong level headed read. I like it, a lot— Well done.

    • What’s a fan gotta do to get noticed around here?
      Go missing Saturday.

    • Pragmatist says:

      Here’s the thing about fans (that fans hate to hear)…
      Fans come back. With the exception of the NFL, every American League sees attendance on a team-by-team basis rise and fall based on success.
      Win, and they come back. Considering how fast franchise values are rising in the league, owners who view this as a business have time to wait for the wins to come back. Even if it takes years. Why? Because the values of their franchises have still tripled, even with the on-field losses.
      Do fans matter? Sure…but not enough to direct every aspect.
      The Sak situation was a rare occurrence. It happens, but it’s a sporting unicorn. There are more Donald Sterling-like situations than there are Nicky Sak situations.
      So, in the meantime, we’ll have these discussions, but it won’t have a major effect if the head of the organization (ES now, realistically ) is steadfast in their direction.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Do not lose sight of he two latest public soccer comments reported from Mr. sugarman, that Earnie need d to put a winner on the field, and that he needed to build a scouting system.

      • I’m not saying fans don’t come back. But when the seats get more and more empty the real test of faith will come. Can Stewart find a ten and maybe a few other toys before the fan base reaches the tipping point?
        Also in no way am I saying I agree with how they are doing things. I’d like part of their identity to be adaptability quite frankly. Not stern stumble ahead no matter what thinking, but that’s just me. I just got tired of bitching and moaning that the sky is falling every week and took a dispassionate honest look at the clues the mystery men have given.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Only thing I would suggest be amended is greater acknowledgement of the reference Stewart made to the Portland game.
      I inferred the message that if the team starts to quit on Jim Curtin consistently, Stewart might act. He did not like that they quit against Portland. As long as they keep fighting, ES will be satisfied, which reinforces most of your points above.

  7. Yes, We must fit that round 4-2-3-1 peg into that square 4-4-2 hole no matter what. Its the process that counts. We will regress to the mean, but at what level is that mean going to be.

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