A few weeks ago, I wrote at some length about how Peter Nowak, at least at the time of his hiring, was the right man to lead the Union through their infancy, that his experience in MLS and with US Soccer made him uniquely qualified to lead a franchise built from nothing and without the benefit of a splashy big-name DP.
But since the rumor broke about a week ago that Nowak was planning on trading his captain, I've begun to doubt myself more and more. It all hinges on one question: was there a good reason to trade Danny Califf?
It's hard to be surprised at how this all shook out--when a club's captain obliquely accuses its manager of being a liar, as Califf did during the Phantom Hamstring Standoff of 2012, rarely does the situation resolve itself cleanly. But this now makes twice in the span of five months in which Nowak has shipped off the club's most popular player to the West Coast over the screaming objections of not only the fans, but the player himself. As much as the Union fans love their captain and all-time leading scorer, it seems like no one was angrier about these trades than Danny Califf and Sebastien Le Toux.
It's hard not to think of the two trades as linked. Le Toux was shipped out of town in a pretty obvious salary dump, and while it would have been more palatable to see him moved to Europe--remember, Bolton manager Owen Coyle's grab for New York center back Tim Ream was originally supposed to include Le Toux--we could deal with a single, admittedly confusing, isolated cashiering of a star player.
But the removal of Califf under similar circumstances, and the ham-fistedness of Nowak's execution of the deal make this a pattern. It's possible that there are good soccer-related reasons to trade Califf--he's always been slow, and he's getting up there in age, but after the way Nowak handed the fiasco, I'm disinclined to believe anything he says.
By the way, Nowak's rationalization of wanting to make the defense faster, and accompanying plan to play Sheanon Williams at center back is so stupid as to defy ridicule. Williams is one of the best young right backs in the league, and his speed and long throws down the right side make him as close as the Union can claim right now to a dangerous counterattacking player. So...we're going to take him out of a role in which he excels, and put him in a position where his lack of size is going to be a serious handicap? Ray Gaddis has been very good so far this season, but if Williams and whoever fills that hole at fullback are better than Califf and Williams, I will open-mouth kiss Michael Orozco Fiscal. And if you were going to make over the defense, wouldn't it have been better to do so in the offseason?
The most telling part of this whole fiasco is the perpetual arched eyebrow Chivas USA manager Robin Fraser sported throughout the negotiations. It was as if Fraser was happy to take Califf once the Union figured out exactly what the hell they were doing.
No fan base I've ever encountered thrives on interaction with the players the way Union fans do, and perhaps no Union player accommodated that need the way Califf did. I've long scoffed at the idea of a "Philly type of athlete," but Califf's personality did him credit with Union fans. He was demonstrative and emotional on the field, colorful, polite, and funny off it. He did his job as well as he could with a minimum of fuss, and often seemed like the adult chaperone on this youth field trip of a soccer team. And to lose him for--due respect to Michael Lahoud, about whom I know very little--nothing concrete is perplexing.
The opacity and complexity of the MLS transfer system make the situation worse. In a European soccer league, the Union would have received a set (and most likely public) transfer fee, a cash amount that 1) allows fans and journalists to evaluate whether the team got a just payment for Califf and 2) can be spent on other players or reinvested in the club. In another American pro league, the team would have received players and/or draft picks. Either way, we would know what the Union got in return for two of its top players. But in a league where player production and player composition are supremely unpredictable, where there's a hard salary cap except when there's not (i.e. when a big-market team wants to add an aging European star), that's not the case. We don't know why all this happened, Nowak isn't telling, MLS isn't helping, and it's not like the team is obviously better off as a result. Maybe this is part of a chain of events that lands the Union a big-name attacking player like Kris Boyd (not literally Boyd, but someone with similar goalscoring ability who isn't in semiretirement). Or maybe not. We can't tell.
By the way, after trading for Califf, Chivas flipped their own veteran defender, Heath Pearce, to New York for Juan Agudelo. With much less rending of garments than the Union seemed to manage.
I don't know exactly what's going on in the backroom, and neither do you. But here's what I've seen.
In January, coming off a supremely successful season, Peter Nowak picked a fight with one of the key players on his team, then noisily shuttled him off to another MLS team in a cloud of doubletalk. Five months later, on the heels of a disastrous start, he did exactly the same thing again. I don't care if this turns out to be a good soccer move in the long run--which, given recent events, is probably not the case--it looks like Nowak is petulant, stubborn, and has no plan.
I don't know if any of these things are true, but back to the original question, of whether there was a good reason to trade Califf...if there is, the Union aren't telling.