Very quietly, now that the weight of the Union is no longer resting squarely upon his shoulders, Danny Califf is having one of his finest seasons as a professional.
Though nominated, he wasn't named to this year's MLS All-Star team. He still wears the captain's armband, but only because the customary captain, goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, hasn't returned from a fractured right finger.
But for Califf, being able to go about his work and focus solely on his role has allowed him to lead by example - and his teammates have taken notice.
"He's a lot more relaxed, a lot calmer," said fellow defender Sheanon Williams. "He just knows where to be on the field and he is one of the guys everyone looks up to. When he speaks, guys listen because he knows what he's talking about. He's been playing for a long time and has a wealth of experience."
A California kid, Califf, 31, is in his 11th season as a pro both domestically and abroad. He won an MLS Cup in 2002 and was regarded as one of the league's most intimidating central defenders, mainly during his four seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy (2000-04). When Califf arrived here last season, he was expected to be the senior leader of an upstart franchise, and one could see his laid-back West Coast attitude slowly being replaced by frustration, anger and confusion with each loss in an arduous inaugural campaign. Califf repeatedly referred to last season as one where his teammates were consistently "shooting themselves in the foot."
"Last year, I think the mentality was that we were going to go forward and we were going to play attractive soccer and only defend sometimes," Califf said. "I think that left us out to dry quite a bit in the back. I seemed to bear the brunt of that because I was the captain, I was the organizer. It was disappointing. I don't think I ever outwardly showed it, but it was disappointing and honestly one of my most frustrating seasons as a pro."
Along with the pressures at work, Califf noted that he had concerns at home, making sure his young family was adjusting to life in Philadelphia.
With all of those worries dissipated, Califf can concentrate on one thing: doing all he can to ensure the Union are in MLS' playoff picture this time next month. He got the Union off right scoring the first and only goal in a 1-0 season-opening win on the road against Houston. He's still known to lay out a bruising tackle from time to time or frustrate opponents (just ask Vancouver forward Eric Hassli), but he can do so now without having to worry about the personnel around him.
You know, now that the pressure is off.
"I have been really pleased with us as a whole," Califf said. "I know it's cliché to say that team success precedes personal, but to be honest when we play better as a whole it makes it a lot better on us in the back. I think it's a combination of me playing with a bit more confidence and a lot more comfortable.
"I think Faryd [Mondragon] has been a big part of helping me to relax, too. Just having another veteran presence in the locker room is invaluable. Plus, he bridges the gap with the Latin contingent in the locker room, which is another stress reliever for me."
SOBs EN MASSE
Roughly 50 members of the Union's supporters group the Sons of Ben have eagerly awaited the trip to tonight's game. In part, I am told, because of Kansas City's world famous barbecue, but more so to cheer on the Union, which heads into unfamiliar digs at the palatial Livestrong Park, MLS' latest soccer-specific arena. According to SOB vice president Corey Furlan, 35 members are staying at the Q Hotel in downtown Kansas City, courtesy of a group-rate plan started in June.
"Keep in mind many of us are taking time off work to be here," Furlan said. "In this economy, that speaks volumes to the commitment we have to supporting this team. A lot of people committed to this trip when KC was near the bottom of the standings. Now [with SKC in second place in the East], this may be one of the Union's biggest away games to date."
ODDS AND ENDLINES
Red Bull New York defender Rafael Marquez is the loneliest man in that locker room this week after he dogged teammates following a 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night. Marquez told reporters: "I'm focusing on performing at my highest level, that doesn't mean the whole backline can perform at that level and that's a problem . . . I think this is a team game and, unfortunately, there isn't an equal level between my teammates and I." It's a weak move on his part, but perhaps in his feeble defense, the million-dollar Mexican did play for world power club Barcelona before arriving stateside and collecting a contract with RBNY valued at $4.6 million this season . . . Speaking of contracts, I don't know much about them but I do know that Sheanon Williams is in line to collect more than the $42,000 in guaranteed compensation this season. With the exodus of a few players at the end of this campaign, one thinks that Williams, who has given maximum effort up and down the Union's right flank, will be in the money come 2012.
SHOTS ON GOAL
Union (9-7-12, 39 points) at Sporting Kansas City (10-9-10, 40 points)
When: Tonight, 8:30
Where: Livestrong Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.
TV: Fox Soccer Channel
On the web: Streaming online at MLSSoccer.com
Last time out: A 0-0 draw when SKC visited PPL Park in June.
For kicks: Led by Kei Kamara, Sporting Kansas City has steadily climbed the ladder in the East. Kamara leads SKC with eight goals on 66 shots . . . Livestrong Park was unveiled earlier this year and SKC has benefited immensely from its new digs. The squad is 7-2-5 at home with its last match a 3-0 shutout of Houston on Sept. 10 . . . Playmaker Omar Bravo is a force up top for SKC, tied with Kamara in goals (8), but is a bit of a hot head, already ejected twice this season . . . This is the fourth meeting all-time between the two teams, with the Union down 0-1-2 . . . Union defender Sheanon Williams is out this week due to a concussion suffered in Saturday's match against Columbus. As of now, midfielder Stefani Miglioranzi is slated to fill in at right fullback . . . Additionally, the Union will bring up Chase Harrison from its USL Pro affiliate in Harrisburg to serve as backup to goalkeeper Zac MacMath. First-string GK Faryd Mondragon is still nursing a fractured right finger and backup Thorne Holder suffered his second concussion of the season.
INJURY REPORT (As of Tuesday)
Out for the Union: Faryd Mondragon, GK (right ring finger fracture); Thorne Holder, GK (concussion); Sheanon Williams, DF (concussion); Levi Houapeu, MF (left ankle strain)
Doubtful: Justin Mapp, MF (left quad strain)
Probable: Veljko Paunovic, FW (left calf strain)
Out for Sporting Kansas City: Daneil Cyrus, DF (left foot fracture); Konrad Warzycha, MF (right knee surgery)
Questionable: Birahim Diop, MF (lower back strain); Luke Sassano, MF (right knee sprain)
Probable: Chance Myers, DF (right foot contusion)