Analysis / For Pete's Sake

An unexpected departure: thoughts on Ray Gaddis’s retirement

Photo: Paul Rudderow

It was pretty much the last thing I expected to see on my phone coming out of a morning meeting.

Philadelphia Union defender Ray Gaddis announces retirement.

There had been no inkling that the Union’s longest-tenured player was considering hanging up his boots — and yet, three days after the start of preseason training camp, here was Ray Gaddis, appearing on Zoom in a red bowtie, saying his farewell to the only MLS team he ever played for.

As the club’s all-time leader in games and minutes played heads off into retirement, it’s worth considering Gaddis’s legacy — and how the 2021 Union will replace him.

A remarkable legacy

Any conversation about Ray Gaddis has to start with the remarkable fact that a second-round pick in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft went on to make 221 appearances for the team that drafted him.

(The Union’s first-round pick that year, Chandler Hoffman, made just seven MLS appearances in his sole season with Philadelphia.)

By all rights, Gaddis should not have stuck in MLS at all. But he fought and scrapped his way into a longevity that no one would have expected nine years ago. Gaddis’s work ethic and commitment to the game were his greatest attributes as a player, which he used to become one of the better defensive fullbacks in the league. He used that work ethic to become competent at left back (not his natural position), and his positional versatility made him an incredibly valuable piece of the Union’s puzzle. Even after his worst MLS campaign — a seven-appearance 2016 season where Keegan Rosenberry took his job — Gaddis persevered, beating out Rosenberry in 2017 and reclaiming the right back spot.

Gaddis made an even bigger mark off the pitch. He became a leader in the dressing room, looked up to by the whole squad and a favorite of the coaching staff. In Thursday’s press conference, Jim Curtin’s appreciation and respect for Ray could not have been more obvious. As an advocate for social justice, Gaddis also played a key role in Black Players for Change in the 2020 season. And many supporters will have fond memories of their interactions with Gaddis in the community, as he always made time for the fans.

Gaddis was not a perfect player, as many (including me) have pointed out over the years. Ray’s offensive game in particular left much to be desired, an issue magnified in a modern game that expects fullbacks to be attacking contributors. My favorite wild Gaddis stat is that Kai Wagner had the same number of assists in his first season with the Union — 8 — than Gaddis had in his first eight seasons combined. I also think his defensive caliber was overstated at times. He was a capable to very good on-ball defender who made his fair share of positioning mistakes and surrendered a good clip of dangerous chances every year.

But that isn’t the focus now, not at the end of this remarkable career. That the Union captured their first-ever trophy as a club in Gaddis’s last regular-season game at Subaru Park is about as storybook an ending as you can write (even if the club meekly exited the playoffs one game later).

Ray Gaddis’s journey — from unknown draft pick to a much-loved leader of the greatest team in club history — is one worth applauding.

I fell in to a burning Ring of Honor…

A popular topic of conversation yesterday was whether Gaddis’s name will eventually end up in the Union’s Ring of Honor, a club that currently has just one member — all-time club goals and assists leader Sebastien Le Toux. Curtin made it clear during his press conference yesterday that he thinks Gaddis is worthy of the honor.

This is a topic that’s probably worth a full column of its own, because to start analyzing a player’s case we have to define what the criteria are for a ring of honor. Is it longevity? Overall contribution to the club, both on and off the pitch? Or should we focus more narrowly on excellence on the field — team and individual success? Of course, there isn’t really a right answer — it’s about as subjective a concept as you can get. And we don’t have much in the way of useful precedent, considering that the only current member (Le Toux) is an obvious entrant no matter how you look at it.

For me, it’s helpful to think about analogues in other sports. The closest comparison I can think of to Gaddis in recent Philadelphia history is former Eagles tight end Brent Celek. Celek didn’t play a glamor position, and he wasn’t a star. But he was reliable, a tremendous teammate and community member, and spent his whole career with the Eagles. And — like Gaddis — his last act as a pro was lifting a first trophy for his longtime club.

Yet I think it would be a stretch for Celek — who never made the Pro Bowl — to end up in the Eagles Hall of Fame.

Ultimately, I come down the same way on Gaddis. I respect what he’s done on and off the pitch for the Union, and he’s someone that should always be a member of the Union family. But at his very best he was a good player, not a great one. In my view, the Ring of Honor requires excellence on the field, and I don’t think that’s a caliber that Gaddis reached. Alejandro Bedoya and Andre Blake should be the next two in.

That said, many will feel differently — and if Ray’s name ends up on the Subaru Park wall, it won’t be a travesty.

What now?

More prosaically, Gaddis’s departure leaves a hole in the Union’s defense, as someone will need to take over as the starter at right back.

The presumptive favorite is 23-year-old Olivier Mbaizo, the Cameroonian international who has been Gaddis’s primary cover for the last three seasons. Mbaizo saw the most extensive action of his career last season, filling in at both left and right back with Gaddis and Kai Wagner missing time.

Can Mbaizo be a capable full-time starter for the Union? I think so. He offers more going forward than Gaddis, particularly when played on his natural right side — I liked his passing range and the quality of his long ball. (His shakier performances came when out of position on the left.) Mbaizo’s defense is more of a work in progress, but he has the physical tools to match up with MLS-caliber wingers. It’s just a question of putting in consistent, 90-minute performances. Easier said than done, of course.

The other intriguing option is Nathan Harriel, a 19-year-old Academy graduate with 25 starts for Union II over the past two seasons. It’s not clear whether Harriel is ready for MLS play, but Curtin hasn’t shied away from giving playing time to young defenders who he thinks are ready to play. With a good camp, he could put himself in the mix for minutes early in the season.

There are more off-the-wall possibilities, too. One would be trying natural left back Matt Real on the right, which (if I recall correctly) is an alignment we haven’t seen before. Another would be moving captain Alejandro Bedoya to right back, a position he’s played late in games for the Union. With the Union not adding any midfielders from outside the organization this offseason, however, it might not be time yet for the captain to make a position change.

Whatever Curtin decides, it’ll be a big change at a position where Gaddis’s name has largely been written in ink.

22 Comments

  1. While I agree with the statement that Blake is automatic ring of honor material, Becky’s isn’t. And if he is included then Ray belongs there. He will hold the appearance record for a field player for years to come.

  2. Bedoya lol. Gotta love auto correct.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    I’m going to argue in favor of Ray going into the Union’s Ring of Honor. My argument in part is based on Andrew Wiebe’s article Wednesday on MLS.com in which he lists the most likely candidate for the league MVP from each team, however unlikely that may be. The one team he didn’t come up with a single person (although he mentioned Blake) was the Union based on their emphasis on the team rather than the individual. And I don’t think anyone epitomizes that more than Ray. With the way the Union have started to move their young talent combined with trading away all of their draft picks, I think it is unlikely that Ray’s games and minutes played records will be broken anytime soon. And for that he deserves a spot in the ring.

    • This is 100% accurate. The Ring of Honor needs to be about more then perception & optics of the onfield play…along with perception & optics of onfield play.
      .
      There is irrefutable on field quantifiable data…. which will qualify a player.

      … then there is the narrative and qualitative collection of evidence…the value of the player to the organizaiton, community and fanbase. If people don’t think, Ray Gaddis is one of the single most, if not most important members of The Philadelphia Union organization since its inception, because he didn’t get forward enough and is thereby not prototypical of the modern RB… there isn’t much I can do to help.
      .
      It’s plain ignorance IMO… there would even be a reason to debate it to be honest.

      • As I said in the piece, I think the question of whether Ray should be in the Union Ring of Honor is within the bounds of reasonable disagreement. I don’t think it’s “ignorant” to believe that the Ring should be reserved for excellent players, or to believe — having carefully watched almost every single one of his 200+ appearances — that Ray was not an excellent player. But I do suspect, in the end, that your definition of the Ring of Honor — “important members of the . . . organization” — will be the one that the Union use. And if they do, Ray should be in.

      • Peter. Noted regarding the position within the article.
        .
        Apologies if my comment was a perceived slight towards you. It was not. It was a comment reagarding the social media sphere within the UnionLand fanbase. I should have made that clear in my comment —which was a comment in response -to a comment.
        .
        When I comment directed to a piece of work by an author as an original thread- I tend to be more respectful I feel.
        .
        Either way. Good stuff.

    • I can see how one’s might argue against Ray’s induction into the ring of honor. I’d also point out that would be arguing against the team’s own history. Arguing numbers is futile. Arguing just the numbers is also missing the point. No one man more represents the story of the ups and downs of the Philadelphia Union more, than one Raymond Gaddis. He saw the best and the worst of this club while working his way into being a stalwart on the back line. Ray’s contributions may not get him into other hall of fame’s or rings of honor, but their stories aren’t the Union’s stories. Those teams weren’t started by their fans. They shouldn’t get to decide the story we get to write. The story of the Philadelphia Union can not be written unless you include Ray Gaddis.

      • erudite.

      • +1
        .
        Well said. In this day and age of Fantasy Sports, data analytics and stats overload we (fans and media alike) often overlook all of the attributes and contributions that aren’t measured in a stat line. Ray fills that in overabundance.
        .
        He embodies what the Union and the City of Philadelphia represent: hard work, perseverance, and never quitting. The Ring of Honor shouldn’t be just about stats. It should be about a player’s legacy with the Union. Ray has been there for the very worst of times (2012), being benched, losing three USOC finals, all the way to the very best of times (winning the team’s first trophy). Through it all he never pouted, sulked, or frowned. He always had a smile on his face, and worked work his tail off. He represented his team and the City of Philadelphia with class, & pride. For as hard as he worked on the field, he works even harder off of the field as agent of community and social change.
        .
        Raymon Gaddis is Ring of Honor worthy

  4. Only Amobi getting shit canned and Roger leaving has bummed me out more in Union fandom land.
    .
    Losing Noguiera fourth.
    .
    Amobi.
    Roger.
    Ray.
    Vincent.
    .
    These are the tracks of my lonely tears.

    • I’d have to add the trade of the People’s Elbow onto my bummed out list.

    • Man, I was soooo bummed about #5 (Vincent) when he left.
      .
      Roger still puzzles me to this day. He seemed to have the skills to make a difference, but could not get out of the doghouse.

  5. I believe that once for Bethlehem in a late-game emergency Matt Real may have played right back. He has not done so for the first team.

    • …since this is an environment to posit… to a more specific point, one wonders how long until Matt Real is playing USL USL II or more to the point, seeking a career outside the professional realm altogether.
      .
      The clock is ticking on him…. as it should be.
      .
      look at us…. fun stuff to wax and wane about as the days approach when footy starts up for real on the mainland again.

  6. If Mbaizo gets called up to African Cup of Nations qualifying in the March international window, and quarantines intervene, Nate Harriel is next man up to start in Costa Rica against Saprissa.

  7. To me Ray’s an automatic entry into the Ring of Honor. His head is next to LeToux’s on the Union Mt. Rushmore. I think his value and place on the team for such a long period of time is remarkable. He’s an outsized part of this team’s short story.

  8. John Ling says:

    I have very vague recollections from last off-season that Matej Oravec can play right back.
    .
    And while I like to say my mind is like a steel trap, my wife likes to point out that while that may be true, there’s a lot of rust on the hinges. So, I guess, take my recollection for whatever it’s worth…

  9. T.Coolguy says:

    I have no particular strong feelings on Ray Gaddis entering the Ring of Honor. He spent most of his career for Philadelphia ranging something from an acceptable player, to something a tad better. I remember referring to him at one point as the kind of player who if they were the worst member of your starting XI, meant you had a pretty good team. Overall, I think that’s sums him up pretty well. He was a good enough player not to lose games for you, but he wasn’t the kind of player who would win them regularly for you either.

    His strongest case, IMO stems from the transitory nature of players in soccer. Game changing players in MLS don’t last, like McKenzie or Aaronson, they end up giving the club a few good seasons and then hopefully fetching the club big transfer fees when they leave. Players who stick around and contribute to the club over a number of seasons are the ones who are good enough to stay, but not too good to leave, and no player really epitomizes that more than Ray Gaddis.

    If someone asked me to vote on Ray, I’d probably say no but feel like I could easily be swayed by someone making a good case for him. Either way, I’d love to see him with the club in some kind of capacity when his family situation allows for it.

    • This right here. If Ernst’s vision for the Union is working, the only Union players good enough to be All-stars will never last more than 2-3 seasons in Philly. I love Andre Blake, but the fact that he has stuck around for as long as he has says as a lot about the current perception of MLS goalkeepers in Europe, if one of the league’s best is still here after all these years.

  10. Loved Gaddis. He belongs in the Ring!

    I was always pulling for him to get a callup to the USMNT.

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