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.
“And the feel that the players are holding up their bit on the field.”
Toronto fans have already seen Califf’s commitment. In Toronto’s 2010 home opener, Califf took Julian de Guzman down with a well-placed elbow to the head when the then-Toronto midfielder looked to speed past Califf – then wearing his hair in a mohawk – and go after on the ball.
Califf was sent off.
Toronto, then in the midst of its opening losing streak, went after Califf when Philadelphia was shopping him around early last season. Califf was widely quoted as asking to go to Chivas, another team interested, over Toronto although Earl Cochrane, TFC’s director of team and player operations, has diplomatically suggested that his club may not have been able to meet the Philadelphia asking price.
Califf, not one to dissemble, says people can think what they like.
“It really had nothing to do in the end with Toronto at all. It was a chance for me to go home, live in my own house, live within five miles of everybody in my extended family and play in front of them again after I hadn’t done so in eight years. And I was getting a chance to play for two guys that I had played with (then Chivas coach Robin Fraser and assistant coach Greg Vanney).”
Califf and wife Erin grew up in the city of Orange, about 30 kilometres southeast of Carson where Chivas and the Galaxy both play.
After leaving the Galaxy, they had rented out their house. In coming to Chivas, they were able to move in again.
“So it really felt like a bit of a homecoming,” he explained.
A father of three – daughter Paige is nine while Blake is seven and second son Jude turns four on New Year’s Eve – Califf likes to surf, strum a guitar and enjoy the outdoors with the family.
A favourite pastime is packing the car and heading out on a family adventure. Over these holidays, that included visiting friends in Colorado and hitting the slopes.
Califf plans to leave his family in California until the summer when the school year is over and then bring them north.
The tattooed defender – he has sleeves on both arms and his kids’ names on his torso – is open to new experiences. That triggered four seasons in Denmark, first with Aalborg and then Midtjylland, from 2006 to 2009.
“I left for Denmark when I was 25 and I came into a team that was extremely young, the youngest team in the league and so at 25 I was kind of forced to become more of a leader and mature in that respect,” he said.
He went on to captain Aalborg and then the expansion Philadelphia Union when he returned to MLS in 2010. He has also served as skipper for the U.S. national team.
As a centre back, organizing comes with the territory, Califf says.
“So I feel like it’s my job – both on and off the field – to put people in the right places and try and make the guys around you better,” he explained. “That’s something I take very seriously on the field, but off the field as well. But also I think it has to come within character too.
“I’m not going to try and be something that I’m not. I’m not a huge rah-rah guy within the locker-room. I try and lead by example. Certainly off the field I don’t want to be a guy that’s preaching or anything like that. Because I never enjoyed that as a player when I was younger.”
Califf says he loved his time in Philadelphia, praising both the team’s locker-room and fans. But constant turnover took its toll and Califf eventually became part of the exodus.
“I was a little bit surprised,” he said of his departure from the Union, “but things between myself and (then manager) Peter Nowak had been deteriorating.
“There had been a huge amount of turnover over the first two years and I felt like – and I expressed this to him – that we kept getting rid of quality guys and influential guys. Maybe they weren’t the absolute best guys on the field all the time but they were certainly guys that added a huge amount to the locker-room and I’m certainly a believer in the fact that you’re never going to be successful if you don’t have a good mix and a good group in the locker-room.
“Because things are fine when you’re winning, but when they’re not, if you’re don’t have a good group of guys that can look each other in the eye and pull their own weight and say put up their hands when they make a mistake, then you’re not going to be successful over the long haul and that’s something I’m a big believer in and I think that wasn’t taken so well when I brought up and made that point.”
Califf was shipped to California. Nowak didn’t last much longer.
On the international front, Califf won 23 caps for the U.S. His last time with the team was the 2009 Confederations Cup when the Americans beat Spain 2-0 in the semifinal before losing to Brazil 3-2 in the championship game.
Califf was on the squad but did not see action.
“My time with the national team was incredible and it did span a long time,” he said. “I was with the team a lot more than I actually got capped, unfortunately, but it was an incredible experience and it was something that has been cool for me.
“I’ve played in every single tournament aside from a World Cup so that’s a bit disappointing. But all through the youth ranks and everything like that. I think it’s helped me tremendously as a player and just helped my view of the game as well.”