A slow start to the 2012 Major League Soccer regular season weighed upon the Philadelphia Union's front office. It bothered the leaders of the team enough that they reached out to Hoffenheim, as part of their ongoing discussions about a full partnership, about bringing a player in on loan that could help solve some of the Union's problems.
In came Kai Herdling, who began training with Philadelphia's first team almost immediately. The Hoffenheim reserve team captain apparently made a good enough impression on the Union's coaching staff to loan him in until at least June 30.
When commenting on the 27-year-old striker, Union head coach Peter Nowak said the move was cover for the injured Roger Torres and to add a new leader in the locker room.
"He's a guy who can be a striker, not really a playmaker, but very technical with the ball," said Nowak.
Unlike Nowak, GolTV's Phil Schoen was not as enthused about the Union's acquisition from a personnel point of view. In an interview with the Brotherly Game, Schoen spoke about how the move perplexed him.
"In my mind it's grasping at straws," Schoen said. "In my mind Nowak realizes there's a problem up front. This [move] seems to have come out of the blue. Once Hoffenheim was promoted to the Bundesliga he wasn't someone that had the talent to continue with them at that level."
Nowak went on to qualify the choice of bringing in Herdling by disclosing the team's need for leadership.
"We're not looking for just the skill, but for someone to lead," Nowak said to Comcast Sportsnet Philly's Ryan Bright.
With that comment, Nowak may have tipped his hand on the results of the offseason purge of some notable veteran players.
It is important that Nowak mentioned leadership as a reason for temporarily acquiring Herdling because of the aforementioned offseason moves that he chose to make. It was a broken record over the offseason, but the sale of star striker Sebastien Le Toux meant more than simply on the field results from one play.
A former Union - who asked to remain anonymous because of industry sensitivity over talking about former teams - player told the Brotherly Game that Le Toux's impact was off-the-field as well, despite what has been suggested since his transfer to the Vancouver Whitecaps. When asked about leaders on the team last year, the former player said a few players stood out in his mind.
"Danny Califf, [Faryd] Mondragon and Le Toux in my opinion," said the former player. "I mean, Veljko [Paunovic] of course and Migz (Stefani Miglioranzi) in a way and Carlos."
"The older guys, but Califf, Le Toux and Mondragon in different forms," the former player added.
The team's leadership has been lacking all year, evidenced by the discipline problems that exploded against Chivas USA and almost gave away two points. Both Keon Daniel and Gabriel Farfan were red carded for poor challenges in Los Angeles.
Nowak and his captain, Califf, had a public spat at the beginning of the season that led to confusion over whether or not the veteran center back was injured or had been benched due to his words to the media.
Califf has had reported problems with his right hamstring since the incident and the role of team captain has been thrust onto the shoulders of Carlos Valdes. The silent, humble and modest Brian Carroll was the other player that Nowak named as an "assistant" captain heading into the season.
Captaining the team from the bench, or the stands, has not worked thus far for Califf, nor the Union. What has happened behind the scenes is up in the air, but it's clearly evident that Nowak felt it more than necessary to bring in a different voice in a leadership role despite having Califf, Gabriel Gomez and others already on the team.
Leadership has been the one constant throughout Herdling's professional career. Despite failing to latch onto Hoffenheim's first team in either 2. Bundesliga, the German second division, or Bundesliga, Germany's top league, Herdling's influence on his teammates was great enough that the Sinsheim, Baden-Württemberg suburb club cut short his loan to a fourth division team to bring him back to its reserve team.
"He's a local guy who is a role model for their youngsters," Nowak said to reporters about Herdling's leadership qualities. "With the young guys we have in our locker room, I think he'll be a good role model for them, as well."
Schoen, in his interview with the Brotherly Game, pointed out that Herdling had failed to make a mark at any point in his career with Hoffenheim beyond the fourth division, noting that only leadership appeared to keep him on board.
"Other than one game against Mainz in 2010, he played in the regional leagues, which are now basically the fourth division," Schoen said. "I think the numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, but they did keep him around as captain for leadership."
"He was training with [the Union] for a while," Schoen said, "but plucking someone from the fourth division of German soccer seems to be filling a spot on the roster versus plugging a hole on the team."
The Union did fill a spot on the roster, but in doing so they tried plugging a hole that went beyond tactics and on field play.