(Photo: Nicolae Stoian)
Editor’s note: Last year, we posted a series of “Raves” about some of our favorite Philadelphia players. They need not be the team’s best players, but they’re guys and gals we like. Over the next two weeks, we continue the series again with some of the PSP contributors favorite players of 2011.
America has a different sports tradition than the rest of the world.
In Europe and South America, it’s often an insult for a top team to not be identified as a “big club.” Top players tout their skills with boastful behavior that would make them pariahs here in the States. It’s not uncommon to see players tank it on the field to force moves to different clubs. Every now and again, we get a Randy Moss type here, but those are the exception in the States and closer to the rule in Europe.
Here, we prize the lunch bucket guy, the soft-spoken, straight-talking player who gives his all every day. The U.S. might have risen to become the world’s only superpower, but many Americans still root for the little guy. We go for the overachiever, the quiet warrior, the honest guy doing an honest day’s work.
We like guys like Danny Califf. He looks flashy. He plays simply. When you need him, he’s there. He does the job. He doesn’t demand headlines. Rather, headlines demand him.
And he earned an awesome nickname: Bearfight.
2010: A rough year
Califf was Philadelphia Union’s first big signing, a former U.S. national team player returning from Denmark, where he’d captained his team. He had one of the highest salaries in MLS among defenders. There was talk that the Union defense could be really good in its first year.
Of course, it wasn’t. The 2010 back line played behind a midfield that didn’t believe in defending and a goalkeeper who didn’t believe in himself. It was a mess. Union manager Peter Nowak shuffled the defense so regularly that Califf didn’t get a regular center back partner until September, when Michael Orozco-Fiscal was finally allowed to go back to his best position (with predictably good results).
Califf was maligned, often wrongly. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but he saved more Union goals than he gave up by cleaning up others’ messes. So I raved about him last year. Someone had to.
2011: The truth
This year, we finally got to see just how good Califf really is.
With a stable back line and an experienced goalkeeper, Califf produced the quality expected of him when he signed with Philadelphia. He spent much of 2011 ranked in the MLS Castrol Index’s top 10 before dropping off (along with fellow Union defenders Carlos Valdes and Sheanon Williams) after left back Jordan Harvey was traded to Vancouver. While his stats may have tailed off, Califf’s performance rarely did. Yes, there were occasional errors, but there were also game-saving tackles and so many little things that people rarely notice.
The reality is that Califf typically puts himself in such good defensive position that his play looks effortless and simple. He takes the right angles. He sees the pass before it comes. He goes in the air with authority. He bodies up anyone, regardless of how big they are. People talk about him as this big physical presence, but he’s only six feet tall and 180 pounds. Califf just plays big.
When Valdes’ form slipped and he started taking inexplicable jaunts upfield into the attack, Califf remained consistent. When Gabriel Farfan struggled to learn the left back position after Harvey’s trade, it was Califf who had to clean up the mess Farfan sometimes left behind.
The voice of the Union
But that’s just on the field. It was off the field that Califf’s stature truly rose.
Califf learned just hours before opening day that he’d be replaced as captain by Faryd Mondragon. He responded by scoring a game-winning goal and showing no ego.
As the season went on, he increasingly became known as the guy people could go to for an honest answer to a legitimate question. There was no BS with this guy, even if it criticized himself or contradicted the team manager, whose decisions were becoming increasingly questionable. More and more, it appeared that Califf was the voice of his team, the first guy willing to speak honestly regardless of consequences, and yet he did it in such a way that it didn’t appear that he was picking a fight with Nowak. This is just how he was. You ask a guy what he thinks, and he tells you — and still stays classy and humble about it.
The result is Califf empowered other Union players to do the same. Yes, Sebastien Le Toux DID think he should play forward, and Carlos Valdes DID think the team was confused by the Union’s new playoff tactics. On the flip side, Califf and other players have a tendency to man up and take the blame when they have a bad game, a comparative rarity in top European leagues.
Does character from professional athletes matter?
This rave says it does. Both on the field and off.