Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
CHESTER, Pa. — Following the conclusion of the European season, Bakary Soumare was contemplating what to do with his future. His club, French outfit US Boulogne, had just been relegated from the second division and released him due to financial reasons.
There were offers to keep him in Europe, where he had spent the last three seasons. But ultimately Soumare decided that the next phase in his career would take him back to the place that gave him his start.
Soumare signed with MLS earlier this week and was subsequently picked up by the Philadelphia Union after they had finalized a trade with the Vancouver Whitecaps to secure the top pick in the allocation order that was needed to acquire him. It was a signing that addressed one of the Union's biggest weaknesses and also one that Soumare admits he had been anxiously waiting for.
"It's been going on for a long, long time, far longer than you would think, but I'm glad that it's finally over with and excited to start with the team," said the 26-year-old Soumare, wearing a purple dress shirt with a gray vest over it as he stood in front of media on the field at PPL Park on Tuesday. "Obviously, it's one of the gaps they were trying to fill, size, athleticism, some leadership role a little bit, and just an addition to a team that's already good as we saw last week."
Aside from being closer to home, part of what lured Soumare to Philadelphia was his relationship with Union Sporting Director Diego Gutierrez. The two had played together during Soumare's two-and-a-half-year stint with the Chicago Fire, and that was key in Soumare's return to MLS.
"I was here recently and I met with (Union owner Nick Sakiewicz) and Diego, and right away I knew that this where I wanted to be," said Soumare, who will wear the No. 4 jersey with the Union. "Everyone knows I have a relationship with Diego, and that really helped right there because we've been friends for a real long time. We've played together, so I know what he brought to the table as a player and I know he's bringing that here."
What Soumare brings to the table for the struggling Union (3-8-2 on the season and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference) is a physically-gifted centerback with good feet and an imposing presence at 6-foot-4 to pair with Carlos Valdes. The Union have been in need of a central defender with those kind of qualities ever since former head coach Peter Nowak traded away Danny Califf to Chivas USA in May.
Califf's departure may have been ugly due to him being a fan favorite with the Union fans. But the deal to ship him out of Philadelphia looks to have been done with an eye towards getting Soumare, a much younger option than the 32-year-old Califf.
"Everything, it's like a domino affect," said Gutierrez. "We all make decisions from ownership on down, we're always on the same page. Nobody here in this club makes decisions by themselves, so we all talk about them, and if they make sense in the short term and the long term, I think the club is going to make those decisions.
"You've got a transfer window and you see a bunch of guys that might be available and Bakary Soumare happens to be one of those guys, that comes in to play. Was it a done deal three months ago? No it was not, it was not. But it was certainly something that we had to decide."
A Mali international, Soumare is not quite ready to jump into the Union's starting lineup just yet. He has been out of action since the European seasons came to a conclusion (he spent the second half of the 2011-2012 season on loan with second division German club Karlsruher SC and made only seven appearances) and lacks fitness.
Soumare and the Union are confident he'll get back in playing shape soon enough and he could make his Union debut in a few weeks. And while the sooner it comes the better for Philadelphia, the Union are likely going to as patient as possible after having had to wait some time to finalize a deal that has brought back a more seasoned Soumare to MLS.
"He comes back to us a grown man," said Gutierrez. "That is the main difference I see. He's a guy that when I speak to him right now I see somebody that's very mature. He's had the experience of playing in Europe for three years, and that makes you grow up and you can see it right away.
"I'm anxious to see the impact that he's going to have in our locker room because with the other veterans that we have, (Gabriel) Gomez and Valdes and Brian Carroll and all the other guys that are influential, he's going to be one more and I think this team is going to be very, very good."