Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz
Three teams made trades Thursday. Two teams improved immediately. The other was Philadelphia Union.
Chivas USA effectively traded surplus midfielder Michael Lahoud and allocation money they probably weren’t going to use for Juan Agudelo. Their acquisition of Danny Califf made Heath Pearce expendable, and the replacement of Pearce with Califf is pretty much a wash. Chivas USA’s day of wheeling and dealing is one of the most impressive in MLS history.
New York parted ways with a starlet (Agudelo) who couldn’t crack their starting lineup and whose lack of playing time was an occasional controversy. In return, they significantly improved their back line by adding a good, versatile defender in Pearce.
Philadelphia got a midfielder (Lahoud) for whom they have no room in the lineup and an unknown amount of allocation money by trading Califf.
Califf is the second popular, key veteran Philadelphia sent away this year for allocation money. The other, of course, was Sebastien Le Toux.
The allocation money chase
Allocation money is one of Major League Soccer’s most nebulous aspects. Basically, the league makes available to teams money that doesn’t count toward the clubs’ $2.81 million salary budget. Teams can use it in several ways:
- Sign or resign a player;
- Exercise an option to buy a player’s rights;
- “Buy down” or decrease a player’s salary budget hit below the $350,000 league maximum budget charge.
The league doles out allocation money for one of six reasons. Philadelphia only qualifies for one this year: trading an off-budget roster spot. (Or two, if one counts money received from last year’s Carlos Ruiz transfer.) With 29 players on their roster, the maximum the Union could get from the league is $35,000.
In previous years, the Union qualified for more allocation money by being an expansion club and missing the playoffs in 2010. It’s unclear how much they received for that because MLS keeps that secret “to protect the interests of MLS and its clubs during discussions with prospective players or clubs in other leagues,” as league rules put it.
This year, the Union have gone looking for allocation money in a new way: By dumping their most valuable players.
New signings cost money
Over the last nine months, the Union have acquired their first designated player, Freddy Adu, and the rights to six players who likely required transfer fees. (It’s unknown if all did because the Union seldom make those acquisition details public.) Those six are:
- Lionard Pajoy
- Porfirio Lopez
- Gabriel Gomez
- Josue Martinez
- Carlos Valdes (previously on loan)
- Roger Torres (previously on loan)
Each hails from Costa Rica, Panama, or Colombia, three adjacent countries in Latin America. That’s clearly the work of Union sporting director Diego Gutierrez, a former player agent and Chicago Fire teammate of Union manager Peter Nowak whose solid ties to the region helped build the MLS talent pipeline to Colombia.
Only four current Union players predate Gutierrez joining the Union: the team’s three 2010 first round draft picks (Danny Mwanga, Amobi Okugo, and Jack McInerney) and Torres, whose permanent rights the Union acquired this year. All were teenagers when Gutierrez signed on.
Califf and Le Toux were among the last to go.
Where did the money come from to pay for the Latin American influx and Adu’s $594,884 in compensation? The Union probably used allocation money to a degree, but we just don’t know. The veil of secrecy over MLS salaries, transfer fees, and signings makes it difficult to track these things. The other major American professional sports are more transparent (but often just as complicated). In the NBA, for example, terms like “mid-level exception” are thrown around because the public has more knowledge of the salary cap mechanisms.
Today, nobody outside the league knows how much allocation money the Union have built up from the departures of Califf and Le Toux, so it’s difficult to objectively and fully evaluate the deals on merit alone (i.e. without factoring in Nowak’s clashes with his players), particularly until after the summer transfer window. On paper, both look like salary dumps for a financially troubled Union team whose primary owner leads a real estate firm that lost over $1 billion over the last four years. Each deal made the team immediately worse. One took away the man who created half the team’s goals during his two-year tenure. The other sent off the team captain and anchor of one of the league’s best defenses last season. They were arguably the team’s most popular players.
“It made me want to throw up”
On Wednesday, Nowak sought to justify the deal by getting ahead of the story, which he failed to do in prior deals (Le Toux, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Faryd Mondragon) by acting secretly. This time, he portrayed himself as transparent.
“At some point, [Califf] mentioned to me that it’s going to be time to go home with his family and go back to California,” Nowak said during the news conference. “This was going to happen sooner or later, so we met together and, after the talks, we decided to conclude this trade.”
On four occasions, Nowak repeated the notion that Califf was “going home,” as if to hammer home that Califf wanted to leave Philadelphia for the state in which he was raised, and the trade would make him happy.
In public relations, that’s called a “talking point.” Politicians use talking points all the time. When asked a question on a controversial topic, you fall back to the talking point you want to stress. It’s how you stay disciplined and “on message,” never deviating from the central message you want to convey, which in this case was that Califf was “going home” and everyone wins.
Califf”s reaction when he heard it was, “It made me want to throw up.” His wife responded by posting on the Union’s Facebook page, “My husband DID NOT WANT to be traded. -The truth.” The post was promptly deleted.
Trades happen all the time in American professional sports, and their merits are debated just as often.
But rarely do player departures happen the way they do with Philadelphia Union, a club that exists in part because of an unprecedented grass roots effort by local soccer fans to draw an MLS franchise.
Now, many fans are calling for Nowak to be fired because of how he’s treated his players and dismantled a 2011 playoff team that’s suddenly one of the worst in MLS. It’s not just that Nowak sent off popular, successful veterans. Rather, for many in a region known for embracing brutally honest athletes who give their all and wear their hearts on their sleeves (Allen Iverson, Brian Dawkins, etc.), it’s as one Union fan put it :
“At what point should an organization lying to its fanbase and throwing its own employees and former employees under the bus stop being acceptable behavior? It’s classless. And to do that and then ask us for money… It’s unspeakable to me. At some point, someone over there should step up and say “this isn’t right.” I think the fact that no one in senior management or ownership has said that shows that we’re looking at a very difficult future path and that we’re supporting a group of people with little to no integrity, and those aren’t people I want to support.”