CHESTER, Pa. -- Just three months ago, disgruntled defender Bakary Soumare requested a trade from the Union. Now, he could prove their savior.
After losing central defender Jeff Parke to a hamstring injury in the first half of Saturday’s 2-2 draw against the Seattle Sounders at PPL Park (see story), Union coach John Hackworth -- whose club has been tap dancing around a thin backline -- was forced to do some shifting.
Add to that Sheanon Williams' red card in the second half, and things suddenly look serious for the Union’s defense -- so serious that Soumare is a legitimate starting option when the Union visit the Chicago Fire on Saturday.
“Thank goodness Baky is in good form,” Hackworth said. “We’ll be OK.”
But is that OK for Soumare? The seemingly exiled 6-foot-4 Malian defender has been extremely vocal about his lack of playing time with the Union.
He has only played one game with the team, facing his former club, the Chicago Fire, in a 3-1 loss. The limited run has caused him to label his time with the Union the toughest of his professional career.
But even with the off-field drama and the fact that the Union have been aggressively shopping him, Soumare, 27, says he’s ready to play if called upon.
“It’s my job. I’m here and I’m part of the team,” he said. “It’s been business as usual since I’ve asked for a trade. Things haven’t changed, my mentality is the same, I’m working hard.”
Going from trade limbo to potential starting lineup is a bizarre turn of events for Soumare, but it gets even weirder. It’s no secret that the defender has been interested in returning to the Fire, as he still lives in Chicago during Union road trips. Now he could play in Toyota Park on Saturday -- but with the wrong team.
“Of course the next game is Chicago,” Soumare said in disbelief.
“Finding a trade is difficult, but I know [the Union] are trying to accommodate me and you have to respect them for it. What I’ve asked for is out of the ordinary but they are trying to make it happen. Says a lot about the club.”
This whole mess could be a good thing for Soumare. In theory, on-field time could actually play a part in a trade, since he's only contributed in one game after a major knee injury saw him return to MLS from Europe. With eyes on his health status and ability, a trade partner might be willing to cut a deal with the Union after seeing positive and recent video on Soumare.
Soumare, however, isn’t so sure about that.
“If I play well, yes, maybe it can expedite a trade,” he said. “But if you play well, the team might not be willing to trade you. There are so many scenarios.”
Asked if playing time could change his trade request, Soumare wouldn’t give an answer but continued to street how unhappy he’s been in Philadelphia.
“I don’t want to get into that,” he said. “I just want to say it’s been very difficult. I’ve played for seven years and this is the first time … a quarter of the season has gone by and I missed it. I’ve never gone that long without playing. It’s mentally difficult. We’ll see.”
Acquired in June of 2012, the highly-touted designated player and 2009 MLS Defender of the Year nominee expected to factor in immediately to the Union’s defensive plans. But a mix of complications from a knee injury and roster congestion kept him out for nearly all of the season.
Come 2013, many analysts believed Soumare to be the perfect pairing with newcomer Jeff Parke, giving the Union a towering physical presence on the back line and allowing Amobi Okugo to move back to his more natural defensive midfielder position.
But that’s not how Hackworth saw it, benching Soumare for the first nine games of the season.
“It’s difficult not playing,” Soumare said. “The waiting game is tough, when you don’t know where you’ll be next week or what’s going on. It’s difficult and I’ve never been put in that position before. But that’s part of the job. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. It didn’t work out here and that’s why I asked to be traded.”