When starting center back Danny Califf was ruled out of Friday night's game against the Portland Timbers, it was assumed that backup center back - the only one on the Philadelphia Union's roster - Juan Diego Gonzalez would replace him. Instead, a makeshift defense that included right back Sheanon Williams at center back made an appearance in Jeld-Wen Field.
Gonzalez has yet to make a 2011 MLS regular season appearance for the Union. Though he is the only 'true' defender available as a substitute on the Union, he is one of only two players listed as a defender on the team's roster (the other being rookie Ryan Richter) who has yet to play.
The absence of Gonzalez is highly concerning for two main reasons: Gonzalez is the most veteran of any defender on the Union, having played for 10 different teams, including the Union, over his 14-year career. He should be trusted at a high enough level by the Union's coaching staff to start a game, especially one in which the defense ended up with three rookies (Carlos Valdes is technically a MLS rookie) and one second year player. As revealed by the MLS Players Association yesterday, Gonzalez is making $189,000 ($193,462.50 in guaranteed compensation, fifth highest on the team) in base salary, the fourth highest base salary on the Union.
The Union's defense is collectively making $623,000 this season and $103,833.33 on average, on base salary ($661,035 total, $110,172.50 average on guaranteed compensation), making Gonzalez's salary even more uneconomical.
Simply put, he's become a paperweight. An $193,000 paperweight.
MLSsoccer.com and CSNPhilly.com writer Dave Zeitlin asked the following question of Gonzalez, over Twitter:
Michael Farfan, twin brother Gabriel Farfan, Valdes and Williams performed amiably in defense in Portland. Undoubtedly, goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon had some part in keeping the quartet organized and focused throughout the game. The Union managed to have three young players step up along side of Colombian international Valdes, without the involvement of Gonzalez in the least.
Why is Gonzalez on the team then? What purpose does he serve to the Union? His one and only start of the season came in the Union's first ever Reserve League game. That's it. Just one game as a Union player in the 2011 season.
Head coach Piotr Nowak has said on multiple occasions that he would rather pay for young players with attentional, or efficient role players than "overpay" for a big or flashy name. This was Nowak's line of reasoning for not wanting to sign United States international midfielder Benny Feilhaber.
Gonzalez's $193,000 tag seemingly goes completely against Nowak's rationale, yet the Colombian made the 2011 season roster and remains on the team to this day. The Union are only carrying 25 players on a 30 man roster, which makes Gonzalez's cap hit (still not totally known) all the more troubling.
Toni Stahl sure wasn't a success in Philadelphia, totaling only 19 minutes for the Union in league play, but he was relatively young (25) and the 17th overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. Christian Arrieta was slightly less aggravating than Stahl, but at least made 15 starts for the Union during his time with the team. Together the two added up to $102,000 in base salary and $134,800 in guaranteed compensation, or just about $59,000 less than Gonzalez this year (Gonzalez made $180,000 in base salary and $184,462.50 in guaranteed compensation). Gonzalez was a mid-season pick up last year that has yet to stay at a single club in his entire career for more than two and a half years.
Why not keep a draft pick that was a top midfielder in college, selected one spot ahead of the New York Red Bulls' starting center back Tim Ream, and a former two-time USL Defender of the Year and one-time USL MVP, instead of a defender who has moved locations more times than Leonardo DiCaprio in "Catch Me If You Can"?
If the Union decided to keep Gonzalez over other pieces of the 2010 Union, then it raises other points of contention, like his value in 2011 versus another member of the Union's defense. The most damning piece of salary based evidence to waste of Gonzalez's salary cap hit is that a fellow Colombian center back is only making $180,000 on the Union... and starting.
Valdes has performed well beyond any prediction by soccer experts and analysts, to the point that he is already in discussion as an early season favorite for MLS Best XI. For less money the Union have a starter who has both played at a high level and worked incredibly well with Califf in the center of defense, combining to only let up two goals while on the pitch together.
It should also be noted that salary has been used at various times throughout Nowak's time as coach with the Union to justify not signing or transferring in a player. Nowak said Feilhaber was too expense, even for his much needed link-up play and Colombian youth Andres Ramiro "Manga" Escobar supposedly was too expensive of a transfer.
There has been plenty of clamoring from the Union faithful to fix the Union's somewhat anemic offense.
Carlos Ruiz was brought in, at $306,604 in guaranteed compensation ($260,000 in base salary), before the season to both replace Alejandro Moreno and add more goals to the Union's offense. He's scored two goals, but in total the Union only have five in seven games. Sebastien Le Toux has only one goal and one assist this year, and Rookie of the Year candidate Danny Mwanga has yet to score in 2011.
Who's to say that at around $190,000 another midfielder or striker could have been brought into the Union to alleviate the offensive inadequacies that are ailing the club? Or something, anything else.
At the end of it all, Gonzalez should go down as one of the worst non-designated player salary decisions in MLS history, if early season history holds true for the rest of the year.