Mwanga. McInerney. Torres. Okugo. Williams. What do these names have in common?
Besides all being under the age of 23, as of today they are the only remnants of the inaugural 2010 Philadelphia Union season.
The Union continued with their theme of trading away veteran fan favorites today, as they dealt 32-year old defender Danny Califf to Chivas USA for midfielder Michael Lahoud and a wad of allocation money. It would seem that the Union now have quite a treasure trove of allocation dollars, though it’s impossible to know because this currency is quantified only on a “need-to-know” basis. Major League Soccer continues to operate under the premise that the average, everyday MLS supporter does not need to know.
That debate deserves a different day, however. In terms of the Califf trade, there is little need to rehash the details of the odd induction period between the early rumblings, the Califf goodbye at a local pub after Sunday’s loss to the hated Red Bulls, all the way to the official announcement. In fact, it wasn’t far-fetched back in March to think Califf was next on the transfer list, given the controversy surrounding his omission from the first home match of the season. At this point, the bridging weeks are history now; Danny Califf is back in California, and the Sons of Ben have lost another of their favorite players.
This one might be the toughest though. After all, Califf was the Union’s first captain. A veteran of the US Men’s National Team returning from a stint in Denmark, Califf stepped onto a team with very little veteran swagger. By the end of the inaugural 2010 season, the role of “star” had been laid on Sebastien Le Toux’s shoulders, but the tattooed Califf became a leader defined by his action on the pitch. His defense wasn’t quite as flashy as the art that adorned his body, but to the fans he was the captain, and that meant their undying support.
When the Union acquired veteran Colombian netminder Faryd Mondragon from Cologne, Califf handed over the captaincy. That allowed his partnership with newly-signed Carlos Valdes to blossom in 2011. Their pairing led Philadelphia to its first playoff experience in only its second season. Then, after Mondragon headed to his homeland, it was thought Califf would grasp the armband firmly without question. And that leadership would come in handy with the other big trade of the offseason: Le Toux to Vancouver.
But that strand of leadership was frayed early on. Leave it to the early Colorado debacle to firmly put Califf’s status with the Union into question. It may not have come out in Peter Nowak’s postmatch insistence that Califf was injured, but it was clear that something was awry. As the weeks progressed, it appeared only a matter of time before their captain would be gone.
Philadelphia has struggled mightily this season in many aspects of their game. They have scored the third fewest goals in the league, while attempting the fewest shots on goal. The Union could make inroads with fans edging towards restlessness by hanging onto the few players who continue to resonate with the supporters. Even if trading Califf was necessary, finding a logical solution to the offensive woes would also placate any malcontents. Michael Lahoud has scored three goals in three years for Chivas USA in all competitions – not exactly the missing link using a surface glance. But as with every entry into the team, the Sons of Ben surely will welcome Lahoud with open arms.
Of the originals who remain after Califf’s departure, the only one who finds consistent time on the pitch is Sheanon Williams (and while he isn’t an original from the First Kick, he certainly has developed a strong following). Danny Mwanga, the team’s first pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft, has found it hard to gain a long-term starting role up front. He started in 17 matches in 2010, then 15 in 2011, and 3 thus far this year (which extrapolates to about 11 over a 34 match season, a troubling trend). The same can be said for the other 2010 forward drafted by Philadelphia, Jack McInerney (no starts to date in 2012).
It doesn’t help when players like Carlos Ruiz, Lionard Pajoy, and Josue Martinez are brought in. They create an effective barrier to precious minutes with the first team for these younger squad players. The other of those original draft picks, defensive midfielder Amobi Okugo, also looks upwards at consistent starters Brian Carroll and Gabriel Gomez. He waits for the traffic jam to clear so he can prove that his selection for numerous Youth National Teams was merited (the same can be said for McInerney as well). His future with the senior National Team may rest on his ability to play first team soccer. That’s not happening at the moment.
And as the Union continue to preach the development of this youth, the fans are left watching international veterans of varied abilities falter to two wins in nine matches. They are left hoping that their only Designated Player, Freddy Adu, can resurrect an offense that has desperately missed Le Toux. But it also leaves them wondering if these Generation Adidas projects will ever be given the opportunity to face enough first-team competition to learn their trade properly. Losses and draws can be understood if the youth on the team are struggling but growing; at the current rate Mwanga, McInerney, and Okugo appear to be stalled in their development.
And so it goes for Union supporters. The direction of the first team is rarely clear, which forces fans to cling to the few players that have who directly relate to them. Califf was one of those players, and he’s the latest selloff for the Philadelphia organization. Now more than ever, the plan for the future of the Union needs to be crystal clear. Without more confidence in the true course of this team, a season of losing games and favorite players will continue to eat at the connection to the fanbase.