CHESTER, Pa. – They chanted his name before the game. They chanted his name during the game. They chanted his name after the game.
For as much was made about ex-Union star Sébastien Le Toux’s return to PPL Park for Saturday’s Philadelphia Union-Vancouver Whitecaps game, the biggest cheers were reserved for Philly captain Danny Califf.
And for Califf, the only thing better than the outpouring of support from the Union faithful was him responding by anchoring the defense to its first clean sheet of the season in a scoreless draw.
“All was right,” the smiling Union center back said, “in my end of the world.”
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Two weeks ago, all was not right in Califf’s end of the world.
Much to his surprise and disappointment, he was benched for the home opener with manager Peter Nowak later revealing it was because the captain was still working toward full fitness after undergoing offseason knee surgery. Califf, who maintained he was completely healthy the whole time, sat out last week’s game too, as the Union dropped to 0-3 last season.
Getting back out on the field Saturday was not only a relief for Califf, but vital to the Union earning their first point of the year.
“It was great,” Califf said. “It was amazing not only to be back out there but to feel the outpouring of the emotion and support was awesome. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
It was no coincidence that Califf’s return to the lineup – combined with starting right back Sheanon William’s return from Olympic qualifying – coincided with Philly’s best defensive performance of the season. Carlos Valdés and Porfirio López joined Califf and Williams on the starting backline, but Gabriel Farfan took over for Lopez at left back in the second half and drew rave reviews from Nowak.
The Whitecaps did not register any shots on goal and the few dangerous chances they did generate were thwarted by goalie Zac MacMath, who was aggressive coming off his line.
“We’re obviously disappointed we didn’t get three points but keeping a clean sheet, especially for the confidence in the back and with Zac, is really key,” Califf said. “I think tonight was a real solid team performance. If we continue to play games like this, we’ll get plenty of results.”
The Union’s backline will have a much better chance of continuing its success from Saturday if Califf remains in the lineup.
Luckily for them, Nowak said afterwards that Califf was “good” on the injury front, before praising his captain’s performance.
“I think he played a tremendous game today,” Nowak said. “I take my hat off to him. You have to be prepared physically and mentally and it was a very good game from Danny.”
One thing’s for sure: it sure beats watching games from the bench or on TV.
“I think it’s part of you,” Califf said. “We live to compete. Practice is great but it doesn’t bring that same level of commitment and excitement. It doesn’t bring it all out of you like matches do. When you don’t have that, I think part of you is missing.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.