Few players in Union history left as confusing an imprint as Keon Daniel, whose three-plus year stint with the club officially came to an end Tuesday with the termination of his contract by mutual consent.
His presence has elicited hopefulness, exasperation, devotion, confusion and dissatisfaction, among a wide continuum of other sentiments. Finding a simple summary for Daniel's 64 MLS appearances is well-nigh impossible for a player that has embodied both a major tactical problem and significant solution at versions points in his career.
The contradictions begin with Daniel's very stature. At a formidable 6-1, he was often the most physical of presences among slighter midfielders like Roger Torres and Brian Carroll. Yet he rarely played like it.
His 14 goals in 59 appearances for Trinidad & Tobago indicate his offensive aptitude. His two goals and four assists in 64 games for the Union suggest otherwise. At various times, he's represented for the Union their most attack-minded option, or their most physical, or their most technical.
His two goals are evidence of the promise that has always been so seductive for two Union coaching staffs. The first, June 11, 2011, against Real Salt Lake, was the kind of heads-up hustle goal a player of his stature would find on a somewhat regular basis based on his physicality alone. Instead, it stood alone for him. Statistically, that 2011 season in which he had a goal and two assists in 18 games (nine starts) is remarkably his most productive.
The goal he scored June 30, 2012, is what you'd expect from the technical side of Daniel, flashes of which were also few and far between. Back from the purgatory of Peter Nowak's doghouse as one of John Hackworth's many reclamation projects, Daniel proved why he had a claim to playing time against Houston with a superb goal you'd expect an "attacking" midfielder to score.
Fittingly, the biggest contribution of what would be his final season with the Union was a big miss. For a Union team mired in a losing streak with a faltering offense in the dog days of the summer of 2013, Daniel appeared to deliver the spark that he'd so long promised to, scoring what looked to be a stunning floater of a free kick Sept. 14 vs. Houston to give the Union what it thought was an early 1-0 lead. The goal, however, was called back on a perplexing offside/foul call that was much to the liking of Hackworth.
The blame for Daniel's ill fit doesn't belong entirely on the player, as neither Nowak nor Hackworth devised a suitable way to use him. When deployed wide out right (for lack of space in the center) or left (for lack of other options on the left), he lacked the speed, crossing ability and general interest in taking on players 1-v-1.
Centrally, there was a constant frustration with Daniel's tendency to sit level with Carroll instead of living out the "attacking" mandate in his position's description. Though he did show the ability, especially early last year, to pick out the correct long pass from deep in midfield, his reticence to shoot in attacking positions could border on the maddening. As such, he averaged one shot every 76 minutes with the Union and one shot on goal every 375 games. That’s, amazingly, ones every fifth game.
The irony is that a midfield construction like this year's, with a central operating trio, would've been worked with he and Gabriel Gomez or Michael Farfan ahead of Carroll (apologies for the flashbacks). On this year's team, though, he was so far down in the pecking order for those two spots ahead of Carroll – to name a few, he was behind Maurice Edu, Vincent Noguiera, the emergence of Leo Fernandes, the threat of Cristian Maidana being moved centrally with Danny Cruz on the wing, even Fred or Pedro Ribeiro seemed closer to the field – that it would've taken a cataclysm for him to play.
The truth has become obvious that Daniel is no longer an MLS regular, as the purchasing power of clubs and the talent in the league increases. He could find himself a solid career in the NASL, especially if he finds that potential Hackworth believes is still within him. But the player that Daniel has proven to be for the last three years isn’t up to snuff in MLS any longer.