Independence + Union = 1970s Oakland Raiders?

A “criminal element.” That was Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach Chuck Noll’s description of the Oakland Raiders’ defense in 1977.

After seeing last week’s games on TV, it’s my belief that maybe, just maybe, Philadelphia’s two professional soccer expansion teams, the Union and the Independence, are supposed to be the respective MLS and WPS equivalents of the Raiders teams of yore.

The Union of Major League Soccer have been getting into card trouble from the very beginning; we all know that. From piling up three ejections in a preseason game against FC Dallas, to the season opener at Seattle where it took the team less than 40 seconds to get its first regular-season yellow card and less than a half of play to get its first red, it became very obvious very quickly that this would be a rather physical team, to say the least.

Still, I don’t think anybody would have predicted that defender and team captain Danny Califf would deliver an on-the-run clothesline to Dwayne De Rosario to get a red card in the first half against a sad-sack Toronto FC side Thursday night, thereby helping to blow a game the Union really should have won. You can see it close up in the video below at around the one minute mark.

Upon watching the replay, Califf said, “After seeing it, I would have thrown myself out.” The thing that Califf was lacking on that play was the wiliness of Philadelphia Independence defender Heather Mitts.

I admit that, at first glance, the roster for the Independence of Women’s Professional Soccer did not scream, “goon squad.” Sure, one of the team’s defensive starters didn’t get to play in their opening game because she had to serve out a suspension from getting red carded in the WPS title match the previous season. Sure, they’ve also got a player who’s nicknamed “The Beast.” Sure, in their opener against Atlanta, the Indies racked up a lot more fouls than the visitors, but it didn’t seem like an overly physical game. Then they went to Boston on Sunday.

It took just six minutes or so into the game for Mitts to outdo Califf, as she managed to get former Breakers teammate Kristine Lilly in a brief headlock, spin her around, and pull her down, all in one quick motion, and all in the box. And here’s the best part: while the referee immediately called a penalty kick for Lilly, the call was reversed right away. Turns out Lilly was offside just before the Mitts mugging occurred. The result? Philadelphia got the ball, and Mitts got away with the whole thing. That’s how you play defense, kids.

Take a look at the foul that somehow didn’t end up as one in the beginning of the video below, and “recognize awesome” (although probably not in quite the same manner the WPS marketing folks hoped you would):

At around 4:15 in the same video, you can see another Independence player, Jen Buczkowski (who happens, like Califf, to be a team captain), flatten a Boston player for her second yellow card in the game, resulting in an automatic red card and ejection. The difference between Califf’s red and Buczkowski’s is that latter occurred so late in the game that it didn’t have a chance to make an impact on the final score, which was a 1-1 tie. Once again, the Independence seem to indulge their violent impulses more intelligently.

It’s probably fitting that the Philadelphia teams are playing in such an aggressive, and perhaps overly-aggressive, style. After all, if there’s anything sports fans have historically loved around here, it’s goons and teams that are basically a collection of oddballs and psychos. Plus, one of the things MLS and WPS have been lacking is a team in a villain role, one that everyone — except its borderline sociopathic followers — loves to hate.

Every great pro sport needs a Snidley Whiplash, and Califf and Mitts came close to at least supplying the whiplash part. American soccer fans, it appears your old-school Oakland Raiders are here at last.

Update: The apparent essence of Philadelphia soccer has been distilled into a single image. The Independence front office actually just posted the photo below on the club’s Facebook page with the caption, “Okay, we can admit it…we may have gotten a liiittle lucky with the offsides call on Sunday.”

Heather Mitts gets Kristine Lilly in a choke hold.

From the Philadelphia Independence Facebook page.

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