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.