Danny Califf’s return to Philly: What went wrong?

(Published by The Philly Soccer Page on July 25, 2013)

Two months ago, the pieces seemed to be coming together for Danny Califf’s return to Philadelphia Union as a player.

Toronto FC had engaged the Union in trade talks and sought to send Califf to Philadelphia.

Union manager John Hackworth wanted to reacquire his former captain, who had been controversially traded just a year earlier by Hackworth’s predecessor, Peter Nowak.

And Califf desperately wanted to return to the Union, telling Toronto, “We’re Philly or bust.”

All three parties ostensibly wanted the same thing: For Califf to play for Philadelphia again. In professional sports, that usually gets a deal done eventually.

So why instead did Califf abruptly retire on July 12?

The move stunned Hackworth, who had not talked directly with Califf due to league tampering rules limiting contact between players and prospective new teams. Hackworth believes the 33-year-old Califf should still be playing.

“I still think Danny has games left in him, and I think it’s very unfortunate that he’s not plying his trade anymore,” Hackworth told the Philly Soccer Page. “I don’t know what happened between Danny and Toronto.”

John Hackworth didn't see Califf's premature retirement coming. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)
John Hackworth never anticipated Califf’s premature retirement. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Califf agreed to retire and take a job with Toronto as a scout. It allowed him to keep health benefits for his wife and three young children, stop dragging his family around the continent at the whims of dysfunctional franchises, and instead live wherever they want — including the Philadelphia area, where he and his wife have now bought a new home.

But it also meant Califf had to give up the one thing he loved most since he was a child: Playing competitive soccer. He had lost hope that he could do that and still do what was best for his family.

He might have been wrong about that though.

Califf didn’t learn until I told him Monday that the trade talks broke down largely because, according to Union chief executive Nick Sakiewicz, Toronto had packaged into the deal goalkeeper Stefan Frei and left back Ashtone Morgan. At one point, Chicago was involved in a three-team proposal that would have sent Bakary Soumare to Chicago. (Soumare eventually went to Chicago in a separate deal.) Califf had no idea other players were involved.

“It was like we were solving Toronto’s (salary budget) problem more than anything,” Sakiewicz said. “Why would we want Frei and Morgan? We have a good goalkeeper and better defenders. Toronto was trying to solve a problem. It’s not our problem. It’s theirs.”

Sakiewicz said that if Califf was available on a manageable salary, the Union would consider signing him.

“If you release Danny Califf today, absolutely, let’s go,” Sakiewicz said.

That sounds like a happy ending is possible for Califf and the Union. But if you paid attention to Califf’s ordeal the last two seasons, you might understand why he lost hope.

“Reading between the lines, Danny’s pretty frustrated with the last 14 months of his career,” Hackworth said. “That’s not the way he should have gone out.”

How a California soccer player became beloved in Philadelphia

Califf’s last 14 months have not been fun. In that span, he went from being the Union’s captain and one of the team’s most popular and reliable players, to exile with the league’s two most dysfunctional franchises, and finally premature retirement.

Happier days for Danny Califf, Sebastien Le Toux, and Michael Orozco Fiscal, before Peter Nowak exiled all three under questionable circumstances. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)
Happier days for Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Califf and Michael Orozco Fiscal, before Peter Nowak exiled them from the Union. (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

To understand Califf’s place in Philadelphia, one must understand the Union and how the team came to be. No other team in Major League Soccer owes its existence as much to its fans as the Union. An unprecedented fan drive led by the Sons of Ben demonstrated to league and government officials that the region could support a team and helped secure public funding to construct PPL Park.

Califf became the Union’s first big name and team captain when he signed with the team in December 2009. The Union struggled in their first season, but they made the playoffs a year later in 2011. Califf was a key component as half of one of the league’s best center back pairings. On and off the field, he was a team leader.

After the 2011 season, the Union appeared one or two players away from being a true title contender. They had a good defense anchored by Califf and Carlos Valdes, a solid veteran goalkeeper in Faryd Mondragon, several promising young players, and a do-everything striker in Sebastien Le Toux.

To cap that, Le Toux and Califf had established connections with fans almost unheard of in professional sports. The scorer and the captain were cut from the same cloth, both lunch bucket style, honest, heart-on-their-sleeves players whose accomplishments exceeded their natural talents. They were a perfect fit with Philadelphia fans.

“When this club started and (Califf) was announced, we knew he was a U.S. international, we knew his pedigree,” said Jeremy Sharpe, a Union fan from Coatesville, Pa. and organizer of the Bearfight Brigade supporters group. “As we saw him play, he very much defined what we hold most dear in our athletes. He was a blue-collar guy, he worked really hard, and he left everything on the pitch. That’s what Philly fans love most in their athletes.”

Danny Califf sports his best fake mustache and glasses while accepting a birthday cake from Union fans. (Photo: Earl Gardner)
Danny Califf sports his best fake mustache and glasses while accepting a birthday cake from Union fans at a Stache Bash charity event. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

Union fans had been so instrumental in the team’s creation that, bolstered by then-team president Tom Veit, they felt emboldened to collapse the traditional distance between fans and players. Le Toux and Califf led the Union players in returning the favor and established unusually close relationships with fans. These weren’t merely autograph-signing sessions with a smile and handshake. Le Toux fell for a local girl he’s still with today and became an idol for children following the team. Califf became a cult figure among fans, who once threw him an impromptu birthday party during a Sons of Ben charity event. Some nicknamed him “Bearfight” after the drink and his style of play. A few fans became good friends with him, like Sharpe, who said the laid back California surfer guy with the mohawk and tattoos just clicked with intense, straight-talking Philadelphians.

“He stopped being Danny the soccer player and started being Danny the guy I hang out with,” Sharpe said.

For Califf, the Philadelphia area truly became home. Until then, he had spent his entire professional career in Denmark and California, where he grew up. Philadelphia wasn’t like those places.

“Erin and the kids absolutely loved it, and for me, I just have a connection with people who are real,” Califf said. “I know that’s cliche. Maybe it’s who I am. I just tell people who I am and, whatever, they judge me, OK. But Philly’s like that.”

Exiled by Nowak
Califf was playing at a high level when the Union traded him in May 2012. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)
Califf was playing at a high level when the Union traded him in May 2012. (Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

In January 2012, Peter Nowak demolished that environment. He sent Le Toux on trial to EPL side Bolton after contract talks with the Union went sour, with Nowak seeking Le Toux’s sale. After Le Toux defied Nowak and left Bolton early, pleading to stay in Philadelphia, Nowak shocked fans by trading the talismanic striker to Vancouver for allocation money. Days later, Mondragon left the club under murky circumstances never fully explained. It was all similar to the way Nowak quietly dismissed former Union center back Michael Orozco Fiscal a year earlier. A pattern was emerging.

Soon, it was Califf’s turn. In May 2012, Nowak traded Califf to Chivas USA in what the Philadelphia Daily News called “one of the most bizarre trades in the history of Major League Soccer.” Nowak claimed Califf requested the move to southern California, where the defender grew up. Califf’s wife refuted that by posting on the Union’s Facebook page, “My husband DID NOT WANT to be traded — The Truth.” Outsiders didn’t know it yet, but Nowak had already lined up Califf’s replacement, Bakary Soumare.

The Califf trade contributed to Nowak’s firing a month later, after which Nowak would sue the Union and face allegations from the Union and Orozco Fiscal that he sought to personally profit off Union player transfers. Those claims have never been publicly proved or disproved.

Into purgatory with Chivas USA

Upon joining Chivas, Califf immediately stabilized his new team’s back line. After starting the season 3-5-1, Chivas went 4-2-4 with five clean sheets in their first 10 games with Califf at center back. Meanwhile, Union fans continued to support Califf after his departure, with some traveling to Harrison, N.J., to cheer him on when Chivas visited the New York Red Bulls.

Danny Califf and his wife, Erin, at Red Bull Arena in 2012, where Union fans traveled to support him after he was traded. (Photo: Earl Gardner)
Danny Califf and his wife, Erin, at Red Bull Arena in 2012, where Union fans traveled to support him after he was traded. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

His new team’s improved form wouldn’t last, however, as the team lacked the depth and overall talent to compete at a high level for a full season. Chivas failed to win any of its next 14 games to close the season, with Califf missing the final four with an injury.

After the season, Chivas part owner Jorge Vergara acquired full ownership of the team and set about returning it to its exclusionary pro-Mexican roots. An overhaul of the team roster and staff began, replacing many who were not of Mexican or Latin American descent with those who were or could speak Spanish. The players were never specifically told their ethnicity or language ability was the reason, Califf said, but team staffers were.

“That was done to the staff,” Califf said. “That was not done to the players. The players just got from inference that they were going to go back to the model they had in 2005 once Vergara took over.”

Two former Chivas USA youth coaches have sued the team for discrimination, which Chivas has denied. Former Chivas right back James Riley told HBO’s Real Sports in an episode that aired Wednesday night that he felt he and other players were traded or released because they were not of Mexican descent. “It was just a systematic expulsion of players that didn’t align with what they were trying to do with Chivas USA,” Riley said.

Joining Toronto’s rebuilding efforts too soon
Photo By Earl Gardner
Califf became collateral damage in Toronto’s change of power. (Photo: Earl Gardner.)

On Dec. 14, Toronto made Califf the first overall pick in the Re-Entry Draft, the MLS answer to free agency.

Philadelphia would use their selection four picks later on Conor Casey, Califf’s roommate at the 2000 Olympics. Prior to the pick, Hackworth had asked Califf about what kind of player and person Casey was off the field to gauge how he might fit in with the Union. Califf praised Casey. “Just a quality individual,” Califf said. Today, Casey is a favorite for MLS comeback player of the year.

Califf joined Toronto less than three weeks after Kevin Payne became the Reds’ general manager on Nov. 27. At the time, Earl Cochrane was handling Toronto’s player personnel moves. Cochrane and manager Paul Mariner made transactions Payne would later disavow. For example, they picked up Eric Hassli’s contract option on Nov. 26, only to see Payne trade Hassli in February due to salary reasons and say he had never been consulted about Hassli’s contract extension. Toronto fired Mariner in January and replaced him with Ryan Nelsen.

“I was signed by Paul Mariner,” Califf said. “It was more Paul Mariner and Earl Cochrane. Then Ryan and Kevin came in.”

Califf started training camp two weeks late due to lingering knee trouble. After working with Toronto’s medical staff for a few weeks, his knee felt perfectly fine. The team opened the season by taking five points from their first four games, a feat Toronto hasn’t matched since. Califf said he felt no pain in his knee despite playing three of those games on artificial turf.

Then he caught a stomach virus in early April.

“It was like a four-day thing, and I wanted to come back and play against Dallas,” Califf said. “Ryan (Nelsen) was like, ‘No, no, go back and go home and get fit.’ And then the next game we played Philly. It was a massive game for me, like the biggest game of the year for me.”

Union fans lined up a unique welcome, finding light-hearted, creative and humorous ways to heckle Califf in his return to PPL Park. Califf got in on the act, trading good-natured barbs with fans on Twitter as Union fans came up with various “Califf lies,” funny one-line stories about Califf that had obviously never happened. Califf flew his family in from California to see the game. He had been living apart from them since February.

When Union fans learned Califf inspired the character Stewart on Beavis and Butthead, many reconsidered their fandom.
When Union fans learned that Califf inspired the character Stewart on Beavis and Butthead, many reconsidered their fandom.

“I think he’ll probably get a lot of respect, because Danny is the kind of class individual who has earned that — especially from the fans here,” Hackworth said at the time. “I think the fans here appreciated the way he handled himself as a pro and a person, on and off the field.”

For Califf, the experience was like no other.

“It was amazing coming back and feeling the reaction from the fans,” Califf said. “It was f**king amazing, just feeling all that from the fans at PPL.”

But Nelsen didn’t start him. When right back Darel Russell went down with an injury in the opening minutes, it was a different former Union player — Ryan Richter — who replaced him. Califf never entered the game.

In fact, he never played a regular season game for Toronto again.

Califf watched from the bench as Toronto went nine straight games without a win. Toronto acquired center back Steven Caldwell and unsuccessfully tried to acquire another English league center back, Tal Ben Haim, on loan. Prospects looked bad for Califf, but observers didn’t understand why he was sitting behind struggling young center backs Doneil Henry and Gale Agbossoumonde. “While not fleet of foot, he seemed to have done the job asked,” The Canadian Press wrote of Califf. “He has become a $165,000-a-year bench player,” The Toronto Star wrote, “seemingly for no fault of his own.”

Toronto talks trade with Philly

Finally, Califf talked to Toronto management, and they agreed to trade him. Califf said he was even willing to go to Philadelphia as a backup if necessary.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to move my family around the country for 18 months,’” Califf said. “I said we’re Philly or bust. And (Cochrane) made an amazing deal. I was going to Philly on a minimum salary.”

Le Toux would leave and return first to the Union. Califf never made it back. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

The trade looked like it could happen. After all, if Le Toux could return to the Union after Nowak’s departure, why couldn’t Califf? Hackworth took pains to avoid discussing the negotiations when asked directly about it at the time during a news conference, ostensibly for fear it would endanger the deal. Soumare, the man Nowak had secured to replace Califf a year earlier, had requested a trade and was on his way out of town, leaving the Union without a true center back behind starters Jeff Parke and Amobi Okugo.

But the Toronto-Philadelphia trade fell through. Califf had no idea why. He was crushed.

“I contacted (Sakiewicz) to clear the air,” Califf said. “I got permission from Toronto talk to him. He never got back to me.”

Sakiewicz initially told PSP that Califf had not contacted him. After being informed Califf had already told PSP he had called and emailed Sakiewicz, Sakiewicz acknowledged this was true. He said he was worried about league tampering rules, which prevent players from speaking to other teams without their current team’s permission. This is also what prevented Hackworth from speaking with Califf, despite Hackworth describing their relationship as “close.”

“I was sure he didn’t have permission from his bosses, because they never told me about it,” Sakiewicz said.

This doesn’t rule out all potential contact, however.

“That doesn’t prevent the (player’s) agent from talking to the clubs,” league spokesman Will Kuhns said, though he added that this is a one-way means of communication because the teams cannot respond to the agent of another team’s player unless permission has been secured from the player’s current team to engage in discussions.* “The player can also contact the league office if he wants to change his situation.”

Sakiewicz said he likes Califf both as a player and person and would consider bringing him back to the Union if he was available on a manageable salary. He said he was skeptical Califf would join the club as a backup and indicated he would have to speak with Califf to hear it directly from him. Acquiring Califf was not so simple, he said.

“It has to be the right move for us,” Sakiewicz said. “It has to be the right move for the team. You don’t hire people because they’re your friends. We need a backup center back, but do we need that as much as a box-to-box midfielder? I don’t think so.”

John Hackworth (right) has never publicly criticized his former boss, Peter Nowak, but Hackworth thought the Union should never have traded Califf away . (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)
John Hackworth (right) has never publicly criticized his former boss, Peter Nowak, but Hackworth thought the Union should never have traded Califf away . (Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz)

It’s unclear what trade scenarios were discussed besides the multi-player deal involving Frei and Morgan. For example, did they consider trading Califf for a draft pick, as is common around the league? Were waivers considered, which would put the Union 10th in line to claim Califf? Also, the league can step in to help broker a deal if a player requests it, a league official said.

Hackworth declined comment on the trade talks’ specifics. Sakiewicz said he was only peripherally involved in the discussions, with his participation limited to one phone call from Hackworth informing him the trade wasn’t working out. He said he is generally not involved in trade discussions until it’s time to finalize a deal.

Toronto spokesman Mike Masaro also declined comment on the trade negotiations. “I’ve spoken to our guys here,” Masero said via email, “and as club policy we do not comment on any trades unless they occur.”

Those trade talks would mark the last discussion between Toronto and Philadelphia — and Califf and Philadelphia. Nobody gave it a second chance after that. Califf didn’t think he had one.

“Toronto came back and said, ‘Do you want to go somewhere else?’” Califf said. “I said, ‘No.’ So we started working on a buyout offer and talking about other options.”

That culminated with Califf agreeing to retire, which Kuhns said clears a player’s annual salary from the salary budget. Califf left the team in June to be with his family in California while the lawyers sorted out the paperwork. He took a job as a scout with Toronto, which would allow him to live anywhere he wanted, keep most of the money from his contract, and maintain health benefits for his family.

Califf’s retirement caught Hackworth completely off guard.

“We talked to Toronto earlier in the year about trading for Danny,” Hackworth said, “but the last six weeks, there hasn’t been any discussion, because we had no idea he was going to retire, that Toronto was going to take this, you know, very interesting course that they’ve taken with a lot of guys.”

That “very interesting course” is Toronto’s massive roster purge, which peaked over the last month. More than 20 players have left the team since the end of last season. Nelsen has imported short-term loanees and transfers to replace them. Torsten Frings and his $2.4 million salary were nudged into retirement. Eric Hassli, who made $800,000 last year, was traded to Dallas. Over the last month, Toronto waived 2012 team MVP Terry Dunfeld, traded promising young midfielder Luis Silva to D.C. United for allocation money, transferred captain Darren O’Dea to Ukrainian side Metalurh Donetsk, and saw off Califf into retirement. O’Dea would later say Payne was “honest” but had to be “cutthroat” to fix a franchise O’Dea said “was in shambles before.”

Home in Pennsylvania, as a player or not

For Califf’s part, he said he genuinely likes the idea of working as a scout for Toronto. The job interests him, and he clearly has an interest in coaching during his post-playing career.

Still, he would clearly rather be playing than scouting. Like Hackworth, he feels he can still play at a high level. He had planned to play at least another two years. When asked if he had any injury problems, he said, “No, other than being an older guy and having maintenance issues.”

Califf said he wouldn’t play for any team other than Philadelphia or Toronto. He knows he is not part of Nelsen’s plans. And he never wanted to leave Philadelphia in the first place.

Califf routinely met up with fans on-field after home games. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)
This was routine. Califf and Union fans after a home game. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Califf still has friends on the Union. He and his family have stayed at Brian Carroll’s house when they have returned to the Philadelphia area. Chris Albright and Conor Casey remain good friends of his, and there’s also Sebastien Le Toux, Amobi Okugo, Jack McInerney, Michael Farfan and pretty much everyone he played with on the Union.

This past weekend, Califf and his family came home to Pennsylvania. They are staying at a friend’s house in Glen Mills until they close in August on the purchase of a house near Thornbury Park in Thornton, Pa. Their children will start school in the fall, not far from where the Califfs used to live in Media. He plans to serve as an assistant coach for Marple Newtown High School and youth soccer power FC Delco.

PPL Park is about a 12 mile-drive from Califf’s new home.

Part of his scouting job will be to watch the Union play. On Monday night, he turned on the televised replay of the Union’s recent match against the Portland Timbers.

“That was the first soccer I had watched since I retired,” Califf said. “It was really hard. I could only really watch 45 minutes.” So he turned the game off.