In Danny Califf, Toronto FC has picked up a much needed veteran defender with a championship pedigree.
But the struggling MLS franchise has also acquired a thinking man’s footballer, who makes the best use of his skills while helping teammates look better.
At an October 2011 coaches’ seminar, the then-Philadelphia Union centre back shared two catch phrases he had learned from legendary coach Clive Charles with the U.S. Olympic team in 2000.
The first is “Be a pessimist.” For a defender like Califf, that means reacting to the opponent and trying to anticipate what might go wrong, so he can have his teammate’s back.
And to illustrate the catch phrase in real life, he pointed to a game against Toronto FC, when speedy winger Joao Plata went on one of his patented slashing runs at the Philadelphia penalty box.
Califf slid over five or six yards, in case Plata got though the first line of defence. The pocket-sized Ecuadorian did just that but Califf was there to tackle him, putting out the fire.
Calling himself not the most athletically or technically gifted player, the six-foot, 180-pound Califf says the simple phrase has “played a petty massive role in my development as a player.”
“That small little piece of information has really taken me a long way,” he told the coaches.
The second mantra from Charles was “Understand your strengths.”
For the 32-year-old Califf, that means remembering why you’re on the team.
“My job is to win the ball and give it to the guy that gets paid to make the game,” he explained to the coaches.
Charles, who coached Canadian star Christine Sinclair at the University of Portland, died in 2003. But Califf is living proof that he continues to develop players.
Toronto, the league’s worst team in 2012 with a 5-21-8 record, claimed Califf from Chivas USA with the first overall pick in the Dec. 14 MLS re-entry draft. Califf, who made US$275,000 last year, has already signed a new deal with Toronto and will look, alongside Irish international Darren O’Dea, to reinforce a backline that gave up a league– and franchise-worst 62 goals last season.
How bad was Toronto in 2012? O’Dea signed with the team on Aug. 3 and has yet to win a regular-season game.
Toronto has not won in the league since July 18 when it defeated visiting Colorado 2-1. The beleaguered franchise, which started the season with a league-record nine-game losing streak, finished the campaign with an 0-10-4 run.
Coming from a 7-18-9 Chivas team (he played four games for Philadelphia in 2012 before being traded to the L.A.-based squad), Califf knows all about hard times.
But, as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy, the California native also won the CONCACAF Champions Cup (2000), U.S. Open Cup (2001), and MLS Cup (2002). He finished first in the regular-season standings with both Los Angeles (2002) and San Jose (2005).
His first Toronto FC start will be his 200th in MLS.
Although hardly a geezer at 32, Califf has been around a long time. He wonders if some people have forgotten his actual age.
“I actually think that quite often,” he said with a chuckle.
But he is no stranger to the business side of soccer. With Chivas going through ownership and management changes last season, Califf says he saw the writing was on the wall.
And he is enthusiastic about coming to a Toronto franchise that, while has yet to get it right on the field, has – for a time – offered a blueprint for success in the stands. And he knows Toronto has made moves to improve, tearing apart its roster while bringing in former D.C. United boss Kevin Payne as president.
“I do feel like I’m coming in at the start of a big upswing for the club, certainly on the field and I’m sure the (positive) off the field stuff will continue,” Califf told The Canadian Press. “So it’s just about now improving the product on the field and really giving the fans that are so passionate about their club something to really get behind, results to get behind.