The Throw-In: Wearing the armband a rough gig in 2012

Throw-In: Captains

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Marco Etcheverry, Chris Armas, we hardly knew ye.

Being captain just ain’t what it’s cracked up to be anymore. Time was, your biggest stud would wrap that armband around his biceps, trot out onto that pitch and do what he did best, year after year: lead.

The benefits were pretty good. You were the locker room maestro and the go-between for the players and the technical staff. You were the voice of the squad with the press and the respectful, intelligent guy who put the team on his back.

Best of all, you were the team. You were, as the janitor in The Breakfast Club said, the eyes and ears of the institution, my friends.

These days, it takes a bit of a thicker skin. It’s not quite open season on team captains, but this year has seen more turnover, drama and adversity for that dude in the armband than any in league history. To wit: Shalrie Joseph’s stunning trade to Chivas USA on Wednesday marks the fourth team captain to have been dealt in 2012.

That’s something that isn’t supposed to happen in Major League Soccer. What’s even stranger, Joseph becomes the third captain shipped in or out of Chivas this season. Danny Califf came in from Philly back in May, and Heath Pearce was dealt to New York in what was essentially a captain-for-captain swap.

Califf is wearing the armband again after a tumultuous beginning to the season in Philadelphia that saw then-Union manager Peter Nowak decide his onetime captain was no longer in his plans. And this after Califf ceded the armband to Faryd Mondragón in 2011 after wearing it for the duration of the Union’s debut 2010 season.

Now Joseph – who had been captain of New England since 2009 – will ostensibly take on a vice-captain role, alongside another former captain in Juan Pablo Ángel.

But Joseph isn’t even the longest continually serving captain in MLS. That honor belongs to Pablo Mastroeni, who inherited the armband in Colorado at the tail end of 2004 from John Spencer. And yet the former US international has had his most trying season, absent from the pitch since March with concussion issues.

Mastroeni has been back at the training field of late, helping to cheer on his troops and provide encouragement, but even he admitted this year has been the darkest of his career. He’s no doubt had to look his playing days in the eye and wonder how much time he’s got left.

He’s not alone among captains to stare down their own mortality. Chad Marshall has had some scary moments as well. The Columbus Crew veteran will celebrate his 28th birthday later this month, and yet he’s only just returned to the pitch after two months out after suffering a concussion.

This is a guy who should be in the prime of his career, a two-time MLS Defender of the Year, yet it’s a weekly approach of caution for the eight-year veteran with a history of head injuries.

Like Mastroeni, Daniel Hernandez is in the twilight of his playing career in Dallas, and this season he’s transitioned into a player-coach role. But that may have made for some awkwardness with his longtime coach Schellas Hyndman – who coached him back in his college days – as FCD went out and acquired Julian de Guzman to play his own position.

To his credit, Hernandez has taken it in stride and understands it’s what’s best for the team. He’s watched his beloved FC Dallas struggle under the weight of injury after injury and probably gets it better than most that on days he can’t do the job, it’s best to find someone who can.

Out in Portland, it’s a similar story for Jack Jewsbury. Captain Jack has suffered along with his Timbers as they’ve slid into the cellar of the Western Conference, and weathered the storm as Spencer was sent packing. Jewsbury was Spencer’s guy, his voice on the pitch. And yet the veteran accepted his role without argument as Spencer moved him from midfield to defense and back again in an attempt to light a fire under the squad.

Then when Gavin Wilkinson took over on an interim basis, there were whispers that Jewsbury would be out of the starting XI entirely as the Timbers GM plays caretaker for the rest of 2012. But Jewsbury’s still out there, playing good solider.

And maybe that best exemplifies his leadership credentials. Same goes for Hernandez and Mastroeni. You do what’s best for the team and hope your loyalty is repaid with strong performances and good results.

Of course, that says nothing for the guys who have been shipped out this season. And to their credit, they’ve (mostly) taken the high road, too. They’ve said their piece to the media or via Twitter, and then put their heads down and moved on.

But there is perhaps a message here for fans, too. The days of longstanding captains leading their team out of the tunnel year after year are gone. As Revolution supporters will now surely tell you, enjoy what you’ve got, while you’ve got it.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.