A couple of important things happened with teams I care about while the lights were out in College Park.
First, Derrek Lee announced that he would exercise his ten and five rights and veto any trade to another team. For this expression of a desire to stay with a Chicago Cubs team that has experienced yet another season of absurd turmoil, Lee was pilloried by a vocal group of fans and commentators for refusing to allow management to move his salary and net back some (likely marginal) prospects. I will confess that I am stunned by this response. To me, Derrek Lee has come to be yet another iconic figure of the franchise -- a good player with immense talent who is also, oh by the way, a very good person. Lee has always represented the team with pride, been a consummate professional, and reflected well on the city of Chicago. I am therefore extremely appreciative of Bruce Miles' spirited defense of Lee in the Daily Herald.
It is almost to the point where I do not recognize a large portion of the fanbase that currently supports the Cubs. Out of necessity, the values instilled in me as a Cubs fan emphasized the personalities of the players rather than the transitory place of the team in the standings. Winning is all well and good, but a Cubs fan has little knowledge of what it is like to put winning on a pedestal above and beyond any other attribute of supporting a sports franchise. The fact that Ryne Sandberg never won a World Series does not, for me at least, detract from the fact that he is one of the greatest athletes in Chicago that I have had the privilege of rooting for. Same with Greg Maddux's two tenures on the North Side. The Cubs never lost because of Ryno or Mad Dog or Kid K or The Hawk or plain old Derrek Lee. The Cubs have lost in spite of having these great players. The belief that Lee should be booed because he has expressed a desire to stick it out in a locker room that will soon once again accommodate Big Z is insanity. General reports out of Chicago indicate that there is little chance that Lee will be re-signed next season. If this is true, the next two months should be about thanking Lee for everything he tried to do for the club and everything he achieved in that vain pursuit. I can say without equivocation that I am proud to support a team that Derrek Lee plays on. He was pure class from the moment he put on Cubbie blue and he has done nothing to tarnish that well-deserved image. Thanks Derrek. Even if it is only for a few more weeks, I am grateful for the chance to root for you a little longer.
Second, D.C. United released Boyzzz Khumalo on Tuesday. In response, a number of United supporters, including some of my fellow season ticket holders, have chosen to eulogize Khumalo's tenure with the team by hammering him for his purported deficiencies. On Sunday, in addition to getting autographs, I asked a few players if they would be willing to have their photographs taken with my daughter for posterity. I asked Julius James, because more than any single player on the team, his commitment and work ethic is exemplary and I love watching him play. I asked Rodney Wallace, because our daughter has been watching him play since he was at Maryland and has heard me rave about him for her entire life. I asked Adam Cristman, because I am in awe of hard he works for a salary of $30,000 a year and admire the hell out of the fact that he has not given up. And I asked Boyzzz Khumalo. I asked Khumalo because he is the nicest, kindest, most engaging player on the team. I asked Khumalo because he is perpetually smiling and always seemed to convey a sense that he understood the privilege of being able to wear DC United's shirt. I asked Khumalo because I wildly cheer for him whenever he is on the field and wince in exorbitant pain whenever he failed to convert a one-on-one opportunity or a sitter in front of goal.
I cannot honestly argue that Boyzzz deserved to be a starter on the team, nor that he didn't get a fair opportunity to prove his worth -- although he would have been helped by some competent forward play on the end of his crosses. I understand why he was cut, although I can think of at least one player on the squad who should have received marching orders before him. But it sucks all the same.
I appreciated the thoughts of Martin Shatzer on Khumalo's release and agree generally with the points made. I loved cheering for you Boyzzz. Keep the dream alive.
I would also make one additional point. As an objective and empirical matter, the closing of DC United's "USL" signings says nothing about the value of bringing in players from the lower leagues. Boyzzz, whatever his faults, was a sound contributor to United. A lot was asked of his fellow Riverhound Greg Janicki and although Janicki left United after some terrible hash work in the center of the defense in CONCACAF Champions league ties, United supporters may be treated to his play again in the MLS when the Vancouver Whitecaps make the leap from Division II next year. In fact, Janicki scored the gamewinner for Vancouver over Montreal at Saputo Stadium last night; it was the second time he scored against Montreal this season and his third goal for the Whitecaps.
Who is the Director of Soccer Operations for the Whitecaps? The same guy that brought Janicki into the fold at DC United, Tom Soehn (actual trivia: who set up Janicki's first goal against Montreal this season? Former DC United midfielder, Justin Moose, who Vancouver recently released). And hopefully, the same guy who will give Khumalo a shot now that he is a free agent.
There are a lot of players with D.C. United ties -- in addition to Janicki, Mike Zaher, and Rod Dyachenko -- sprinkled throughout the second and third divisions of American soccer. And some of them are doing pretty impressive things that make you wonder about whether they are, in fact, good enough to excel in the MLS. Take, for example, Nicholas Addlery -- another one of my favorite all-time United players (for an explanation read this great profile) -- who scored twice for the Puerto Rico Islanders in their manhandling of the LA Galaxy at the Home Depot Center in the CONCACAF Champions League. Addlery has built on a decent campaign with Vancouver with tremendous showings for Puerto Rico and, briefly, while on loan, with C.D. Aguila of El Salvador (as a bizarre coincidence, the principal reason for my love of Addlery is that I chaperoned a girls' soccer team to an event where Addlery guest-coached while he was still with United -- many of the girls' family members came to the U.S. from the area around San Miguel in El Salvador and Nicholas was awesome to each and every one of them).
Tiyi Shipalane is on the Carolina Railhawks' roster after being signed in June, and although he has not featured much for the team he recently impressed as a sub. Cristian Gomez has four goals and three assists so far this year for a bad Miami FC team. PG County's own Stephen DeRoux plays regularly for the Montreal Impact and will be back in the area to take on Crystal Palace at the Soccerplex on Saturday. The NSC Minnesota Stars feature Ely Allen and Louis Crayton. Quavas Kirk plays for the Timbers. Perhaps none of these are good enough to play in the MLS (although I think there is a heck of an argument for Addlery getting another shot) and are correctly not part of DCU, but the fact that these guys could not make it (or, in Gomez's case, could not continue to perform at a first division level) has no more bearing on the utility of tapping up players from the lower leagues than does the club's limited experience with Boyzzz, Shipalane, and Janicki.
To the extent that there is talent in the lower divisions -- and there is talent (Matthew Mbuta, anyone?) -- DCU ought to do everything possible to plug into it.