CHESTER, Pa. – A little less than two hours before the Philadelphia Union’s US Open cup quarterfinal matchup with the Harrisburg City Islanders, Bakary Soumaré walked through the River End tunnel and stepped onto the grass at PPL Park.
There were no Sons of Ben on hand to cheer his arrival, and instead of wearing cleats and shinguards, the Union’s newest acquisition sported a sharp gray suit and purple shirt.
But even though his debut with the Union is still likely a few weeks away, Soumaré’s excitement was evident as he arrived at PPL Park as one of the biggest signings in franchise history.
“I’m excited to be here,” Soumaré told a group of reporters from the PPL Park field, shortly after the Union traded a first-round pick in the 2013 SuperDraft and allocation money to Vancouver to improve their allocation standing and secure the star defender’s rights. “It’s been going on for a long, long time – far longer than you think. I’m glad it’s finally over with, and I’m excited to start playing with this team.”
WATCH: Bakary Soumaré career highlights
A former MLS Best XI defender with the Chicago Fire, Soumaré left MLS for Europe in 2009, playing for the French side Boulogne and the German club Karlsruher SC.
He said that when Boulogne dropped down a division, that freed him from his contract and prompted him to send a “very innocent e-mail” to MLS technical director Jeff Agoos.
“I said, ‘Listen, I’m thinking about moving back home. It’s a possibility, even though there are Bundesliga offers,’” Soumaré recalled. “Gradually, that turned more into a reality. I talked to [Union sporting director Diego Gutiérrez] about it and he said, ‘I could use you here.’ It took a while but we were able to finalize it.”
Soumare cited his relationship with Gutiérrez as one of the determining factors of him wanting to revive his MLS career in Philadelphia. The two played together with the Fire in 2007 and 2008 and remained close friends ever since.
Standing a few feet away, Gutiérrez smiled as Soumaré was introduced to the Philly media, and later discussed how the 6-foot-4 defender’s talent, maturity and familiarity with league will do wonders for the Union’s small and inexperienced backline.
“Baky’s a guy I know extremely well,” Gutiérrez said. “I got the opportunity to share a locker room, share the field with him and battle with him side by side. And I know that he’s a guy that’s extremely responsible and holds himself accountable to everything. He takes his profession very seriously. When we got word that he might become available, this is a player I highly recommended to our staff and our club.”
When asked if the recent trade of center back Danny Califf was made with this move in mind, Gutiérrez hedged but did admit that it’s a “domino effect.”
One thing is for certain: With Carlos Valdés the only true center back on the Union roster, the club could certainly use Soumaré’s talents.
But they won't get them immediately. On the mend from knee surgery he underwent three months ago, the defender said he will not travel with the club for their upcoming road matches against Houston on Saturday and the LA Galaxy on July 4 as he works toward full fitness.
But he also made sure to note that he signed a long-term deal with the Union and is ready and eager to make his mark with his new club for years to come.
“I know a few guys in the locker room, so the transition won’t be super-difficult,” Soumaré said. “I can bring it on the field. I can bring it in the locker room.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.