Sirk's Notebook: Season Finale

Speas debut, breakout campaigns for Gbaum, Higuain & Williams

Gosh, has it already been two weeks? Judging by the fact that, over the past fortnight, I have not been to any Crew games and the only games I see on TV involve teams that evoke either disgust or apathy within my otherwise kind and caring soul, it would appear that the Columbus Crew’s 2012 season has actually come to an end. On the bright side of a silver lining of a positive note—and I realize that this is a very specific application of positivity that may not apply to anyone else—I guess that means that this Notebook isn’t all that outdated.

So here’s the usual collection of quotes, anecdotes, and miscellaneously miscellaneous miscellany from the season-ending 2-1 victory over Toronto FC, not much of which actually has to do with the game.

SPEAS MAKES MLS DEBUT

The season finale could have been a downer with the Crew already eliminated from playoff contention the previous weekend. Even the Trillium Cup had been wrapped up back in August. All that was left was to laugh at Toronto FC and to hope that Crew Academy product Ben Speas would get to make his official MLS debut.

A native of Stow, Ohio, near Akron, Speas had been dreaming of this moment for a long time. While in high school at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, Speas routinely made that ridiculous commute to Obetz to participate in Crew Academy practices. He would get up at 6:00 a.m., be at the gym at 7:00am for CVCA before-school soccer workouts, attend class, leave school early, depart for Obetz, train with the academy, and be home and in bed around 11:00 p.m. His dad did the driving so that he could do his homework in the car. It wasn’t easy, but he was chasing his dream.

Speas went on to win two national titles with the Crew Academy U20s, as well as NCAA titles with both the Akron Zips and North Carolina Tar Heels. After winning the title with UNC, he left school to sign a contract to become a homegrown player with the Crew.

And then he got sidelined by a sports hernia and missed most of the first half of the season. He found himself playing catch-up for most of the year. He scored a memorable game-winning goal in a friendly against Stoke City of the English Premier League, and he helped the reserve team win its second consecutive championship, but the MLS minutes didn’t come as the team was fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot.

In the season finale, Speas finally took the field in an official match as a member of the Columbus Crew.

“It wasn’t much different, but I was excited,” he said.  “It was awesome. It was a dream come true.”

As the season wore on, Speas wasn’t sure that the moment would come this year, but he was not about to squander the opportunity if it arrived. Even if it arrived during a cold and windy rainstorm.

“I was just preparing for it, to be ready,” he said of his debut. “I am more than happy that it came, obviously. To be out there, it was everything that I had dreamed of. It was awesome. Even though the weather was pretty much the worst that it could ever be, it was awesome.”

When Speas daydreamed of this moment, the weather surely cooperated in a way that it didn’t in real life.

“Yeah, it probably wouldn’t have been freezing and raining, making half the fans leave at halftime,” he said with a laugh. “But it was good. It was awesome. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.”

Speas showed some dangerous attacking intent on the left side, getting off three good, low shots. One forced a save and two whistled just wide of the near post.

“Whether it was dribbling at guys or taking some shots, I knew I wanted to get some shots in at least and show what I could do,” he said. “I was just trying to be dangerous and to help the team. Obviously I would have loved to score, but I’m not mad at myself that I didn’t get a goal.”

Speas mentioned the support of his teammates. Defender Josh Williams knows a thing or two about the long wait for that first official MLS game. He was thrilled that Speas got to experience it before the season ended.

“I talked to him before the game and said, ‘Who ever would have thought two Akron guys on the left side?’” Williams said.  “I’m excited for him. He’s a hard worker, he’s good with the ball, and he’s a confident player. I think he can take this and run with it.”

Speas intends to do just that. Now that he’s gotten his feet wet, both literally and figuratively, Speas is looking forward to putting his injury-delayed rookie year behind him and using his first appearance as a springboard for the future.

“I was confident in myself that I could play out there, but it’s nice to just get it under your belt,” he said. “I’m very grateful and thankful that it came before the year was over. I wish the year was still going, but it’s over, so now I look forward to next year. I will be ready. If I’m used in one game next year, I’ll be ready, and if I’m used in more, I’ll be ready.”

CAPTAIN GBAUM

With Chad Marshall, Danny O’Rourke, and Milovan Mirosevic missing the Toronto game due to injury, goalkeeper Andy Greunebaum wore the captain’s armband.

“It always means a lot to be chosen,” said the Hebrew Hammer. “I think of myself as one of the veteran guys on the team. I’ve been around. I feel like I’m a pretty good leader, I guess. A leader of WHAT, I don’t know. I’m one of the more vocal guys on the team. It means a lot. Every time I’ve been the captain, it’s been an honor. It just goes to show that all I have to do is take out Chad and Danny, and maybe a couple of others, and then I’ll get it every time.”

WEATHER

With temperatures in the low 40s / upper 30s, accompanied by wind and rain, the season finale was not an easy one to play in or attend.

“It was a perfect day,” joked Williams. “I haven’t played in one of these games since high school JV. You just try not to get stepped on.”

Federico Higuain was late joining his teammates on the field to start the second half because of a weather-related wardrobe snafu.

“I was really cold, so I put on a turtleneck to be a little bit warmer,” he said through interpreter Ricardo Iribarren. “In Argentina, it is different from here. It’s not that strict. I tried to get into the game and the fourth official said I could not wear that, so that’s the reason I had to go take it off.”

From the warmth of the locker room, and after sharing a friendly embrace with radio analyst Dante Washington, Gruenebaum offered his assessment of the playing conditions.

“It was absolutely frigid,” Gruenebaum said. “What more can you say about it, really? It was very uncomfortable. All I could think about while I was out there was getting into Dante’s arms and having him hold me. And now that I’m here, it’s everything that I thought it would be, and more. Every day I go without seeing Dante is just one day worse.”

WHAT A YEAR: JOSH WILLIAMS EDITION

The 2-1 win over Toronto capped an incredible season for Josh Williams. Despite signing in September of 2010, Williams did not appear in a league game with the Crew until the home opener against Montreal on March 24. Injuries opened the door for Williams, and he took full advantage with his solid play. By the end of the season, he had played in 30 games, with 27 starts, one goal, and three assists. After being one of the Crew’s best players while playing center back, his versatility allowed him to fill-in at left back for the second half of the season, even though it’s not his natural position.

(To learn more about Williams’ amazing journey, here are two features I wrote in the spring. Part one is at Fox Sports Ohio and part two is here at TheCrew.com.)

As we spoke in the locker room for the last time in 2012, I asked Williams if, on opening day, he ever imagined his season playing out like it did.

“Not at all,” he said. “I was thankful just to get on the field and happy that the coaches had confidence in me. It seemed like just yesterday that you and I sat down for that first interview, and then it seemed like I blinked, and we’re standing here today and I’m wondering, ‘Where did the season go?’ It’s just nice to be a part of this organization I rooted for growing up, and now I get to put the jersey on. And then to go through what we’ve gone through, it’s a very close group of guys. We’ve bonded really well. It was nice to get a win here and end the season on a positive note.”

Williams ended his personal season on a fitting note when his 90th minute header went right to the goalie. Williams had several tantalizing near misses over the course of the year. He hit posts, he had shots cleared off the line, and had two goals called back—one on a dubious off-the-ball foul call and another by an incorrect offside. He did finally score a goal that counted on August 29 in Philadelphia. Alas, his last minute header in the season finale did not get him a well-deserved second goal that would enable him to celebrate with the home fans.

“I had that planned out a little different when I came running in,” he said with a laugh. “I was thinking, ‘This would be the dream ending to bang one in at the 90th minute,’ but of course, with how it’s gone this year…I’m just glad I got one. Otherwise, I could have spent all offseason thinking about could have been. It was a fitting ending. It was a good ball and I tried to get to a good spot, but I’m not really about the stats and all that. As long as we got the win, I’m fine.”

Williams now heads into a very different offseason. Gone are any questions or doubts about whether he will return. He now has the confidence that he is an integral part of the team.

“It’s definitely good knowing that,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good talent here. I think a big reason I excelled this year was because of my training last offseason. I need to get back to the gym and come back more ready than I was this year. I proved I can play in this league, but I want to take it up a notch.”

WHAT A YEAR: ANDY GRUENEBAUM EDITION

Like Williams, Andy Gruenebaum had a season that nobody could have predicted before training camp opened. Gruenebaum’s wasn’t as much of a shock, as he at least had a track record, but his season was still an eye-opening breakout for the long-time backup to William Hesmer. When Hesmer went down for the year with hip surgery, Gruenebaum single-handedly (literally, on some nights) kept the Crew within striking distance of the playoffs during those low-scoring, pre-Arietta/Higuain early season matches. Somehow, Gruenebaum was snubbed for the all-star team, despite being more than worthy.

(To read more about Gruenebaum’s ascension from back-up to should-be All-Star, here’s an article I wrote for Fox Sports Ohio in July, with Hesmer’s perspective on his friend’s season to that point.)

At the end of the year, Gruenebaum finished with a league-leading 124 saves, 15 more than the next closest competitor. His save percentage of 75.3 was third-best in the league, and he finished tied for fifth with eight shutouts. He was also named the Crew’s 2012 Most Valuable Player, Defender of the Year, and Breakout Performer.

“It’s been an interesting season,” Gruenebaum said. “It basically comes down to us not making the playoffs. All the personal stuff is great. It means a lot to me, don’t get me wrong, but nobody is going to remember that in a few years. If you can compete for a championship, that’s something you will have with you for the rest of your life. That’s what it’s all about. I would trade it all for that. So from a personal standpoint, it’s great, and it means a lot, but it’s still an empty feeling. The individual awards are great, but nobody is going to remember those. They’ll remember championships, like in 2008. It would have been nice to challenge for one this year.”

Fueled by the confidence from his personal successes and his hunger for another team championship, Gruenebaum is already looking forward to 2013. His hope is that the season-ending victory sends the team into the offseason in the right frame of mind.

“It was important to end the season on a high note, and we did that,” he said. “Now we need to continue to train and work hard to get ready for next year. That’s all you can do. You can sit here and dwell on it, and this and that, but you have to remain positive because there is next year. Unless the Mayans are right.”

WHAT A PARTIAL YEAR: FEDERICO HIGUAIN EDITION

Designated Player Federico Higuain joined the Crew in August, making 13 appearances, 11 of which were starts. One of his appearances was as an 89th minute sub, so he effectively played a dozen games for the Black & Gold. He put up 5 goals and 7 assists, and paired with Jairo Arietta (9 goals, 4 assists) to transform the Crew’s attack from pedestrian to potent. Now that he is acclimated, he envisions bigger and better things in 2013.

“I’ve used these 12 games to adapt to the league, to the speed of the league, the players, to get used to the system, so I’m really happy about that,” he said. “I’m sad that we didn’t make the playoffs. I expect next year to have a better year and to help the team make the playoffs and to reach any goal that the team tries to reach.”

MR. NUMBERS NERD: CLEAN SWEEP EDITION

By defeating Toronto in the season finale, the Crew completed its first maximum-points sweep of any season series consisting of three or more games. Of course it happened against Toronto. The Crew now holds an 8-1-7 all-time record against the Hosers.

Other notes relating to the Crew’s 3-0-0 sweep:

* The Crew finished 4-0 against New England in 1999, but three of those wins came via the shootout after a tie game. The Crew garnered only six points from those four “wins”, so they did not achieve maximum points from the alleged “sweep.”

* The Crew has had a pair of 10-point series, in which three victories were also paired with a draw. The Crew went 3-0-1 against D.C. United in 2002 and Chicago in 2004. This means that the only trio of three-real-win/no-loss season series in Crew history have taken place against D.C., Chicago, and Toronto. Perfect!

* The Crew has also picked up a trio of three-point wins against the same opponent on four other occasions, finishing 3-1-0 against New England and New York in 1997, New England again in 1998, and San Jose in 2000.

For more fun with numbers, you can read last week’s Mr. Numbers Nerd segment about how the Crew earned the dubious distinction of being the best MLS to ever miss the playoffs.

SLOVENIAN STEROTYPE?

As he called the action, I couldn’t help but notice that Crew radio broadcaster (and my Slovenian brother) Neil Sika left the tag on his official adidas Columbus Crew winter hat.

Concerned that Sika kept the tag on because he planned to return the hat for a refund after the game, thus perpetuating the Cleveland stereotype of the cheap Slovenian, I later asked him what was up.

“I just forgot to take the tag off,” he said. “I didn’t realize that the tag was still on there until after the game.”

Whew! Stereotype averted!

TUCKER SPATTED

When the Crew’s director of team operations, Tucker Walther, walked out into the tunnel before the game, his right ankle had been taped in a major way.

“I got spatted,” Tucker explained.

This spatting was the handiwork of head athletic trainer Dave Lagow. After the game, Lagow and I had a chat about it. Tucker soon joined the fray.

SS:     I saw you gave Tucker a pre-game tape job.

DL:    I thought Tucker needed a little extra support. I was afraid he might get injured, along with everybody else, and you understand how important Tucker is. If Tucker goes down, we’re done. He happened to be on the table, I saw an opportunity, and I took it.

SS:    Did it help?

DL:    I noticed that was a little more spry today. I think he was sharper and quicker in his movements. Whether that will be a continuing thing going forward, I don’t know.

SS:    Did he have an existing injury, or was this precautionary?

DL:    This was precautionary. We would have rested him entirely if he had expressed any concern.

SS:    So because Tucker kicks so much (butt), you decided to tape up his kicking foot just to be safe?

DL:    Did he bring this on? Because our specific conversation when I was doing it was that no attention would be brought to it. He would not seek out attention.

SS:    No, I just noticed it in the tunnel. He didn’t bring it up until I said something and took pictures.

(Tucker joins us.)

TW:    I was spat upon.

DL:    No, you were spatted.

TW:     I’m sorry, I was spatted.

SS:    My theory is that because you kick so much (butt), Dave had to tape your kicking foot.     

TW:    Shouldn’t you have done my plant foot?

DL:    No, no, I feel you’ve been strong there. It’s when you’re really impacting that you are getting the most force through there.

SS:    When you put your foot up someone’s (butt), that’s when you can break an ankle up in there without proper support.

DL:    That’s how hard you kick (butt).

SS:    Dave felt that if you went down with an injury, the whole team side of the operation would fall apart.

DL:    It would be Armageddon.

TW:    It was funny how many people noticed it, gave me a look, and didn’t say a thing. That was the best part.

DL:    That’s exactly what we wanted though.

TW:    I was sitting there, and next thing I knew, I was spatted.

DL:    It was spur of the moment. Going into the offseason, we can’t have Tucker going down.

SS:     He’s got a preseason to plan.

(Tucker turns around shouts across the room to equipment manager Rusty Wummel.)

TW:    Hey Rusty! Get ready! I’m planning a 12-week pre-season!

RW:    (Unprintable retort.)

 
SPEAKING OF RUSTY…

The reigning MLS Equipment Manager of the Year left a note on the locker room white board, telling players to give one of their game jerseys away after the match as part of the Shirt Off Their Backs promotion on Fan Appreciation Day.

Below Rusty’s note was an additional note, in different handwriting:

Considering that Danny O’Rourke has said that one of the reasons that Wummel won the MLS Equipment Manager of the Year Award is because it goes to the person that gives the lease amount of stuff to the players, I assumed that Danny O was the culprit. While he approved of the comment, O’Rourke said he could not take credit. Rumor has it that this bit of mischief was the work of William Hesmer.

FRIENDLY FOOTBALL WAR

Moments before the Crew kicked off a 2-1win over the Hosers, Duncan Oughton’s Cleveland Browns put the finishing touches on a 7-6 victory over Frankie Hejduk’s San Diego Chargers. Having gone to school in Southern California, and being Hejduk’s longtime friend, Oughton has a liking for the Chargers, although the Kiwi remained true to Ohio when choosing his NFL team.

“The Chargers are my second favorite team,” Oughton said. “Obviously I have become a Browns fan, and Frankie and I had a little bet riding on the game. I’ve won some free apple juice. I’m happy to have won the bet. It was a barnburner of a game. 7-6. Wow. It was a tightly-fought contest with points galore, but I supported my Browns and I won the bet. That’s what it’s all about.”

How’s Hejduk taking such a humiliating defeat?

“Frankie’s all right,” Oughton said. “I think he’s just (upset) that he lost a bet to me, more than anything.”

WILLIAMS’ VIKINGS TOP GEHRIG’S RAMBLERS

On Sunday, November 11, Crew teammates Josh Williams and Eric Gehrig found themselves reliving a titanic clash from their college days. The Cleveland State Vikings faced the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers in the Horizon League men’s soccer championship match.

Williams (CSU) and Gehrig (Loyola) were college rivals before they were Crew teammates. On November 16, 2008, precisely one week before Williams and his dad sat on the couch and cheered the Crew to an MLS Cup triumph, he felt the sting of close-but-not-quite. In the 2008 Horizon League championship game, his Vikings lost to Gehrig’s Ramblers, 1-0.

Williams was in the first freshman class recruited by CSU coach Ali Kazemaini, who took over a program that had finished 0-16-1 the year before.  By Williams’ junior year, they were conference finalists.

“Everyone said we were terrible, but we turned it around,” Williams remarked when we talked in May. “It’s something I will never forget. That was quite a run to the championship game. Unfortunately, we were stopped by Gehrig. Thankfully he didn’t score.”

Williams experienced another near miss as a senior, but at long last, he has seen his Vikings hoist the trophy.  After leaving Columbus at 7:45 a.m. to make the 3.5 hour drive to Detroit, he and several of his former Viking teammates personally witnessed CSU’s 2-0 vanquishing of Loyola, earning the Vikings their first-ever Horizon League title.

“It felt good to see that,” Williams said. “We played well. Back when my team lost to Loyola, they had most of the possession, but this year’s team was the opposite. We played a really attractive brand of soccer and earned the win.”

Both before and after the game, Gehrig taunted Williams via twitter with the following photo of his two Horizon League championship rings:


Photo by Eric Gehrig

“Gehrig always has those rings, and he can silence me with that photo,” Williams said, “but we beat him the last time we played, so I can hold on to that. And the Vikings won today, which feels great.”


Photo by Josh Williams

CUBS vs CARDINALS

A few weeks ago at training, I asked Cole Grossman what happened to his St. Louis Cardinals, who had just blown a 3-1 series lead in the National League Championship Series, losing to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Eric Gehrig overheard us talking and starting making airplane crash noises in reference to the Cardinals’ disastrous plummet.

“Let’s talk about this,” said Grossman. “Last year, the Cardinals won the World Series. This year, the Cardinals lost in the seventh game of the National League Championship Series. Basically, the Cardinals have done more in the last two years than the Chicago Cubs have done for over a century.”

Gehrig, as a fan of the team that has not won the World Series since 1908 or the National League since 1945, declined to offer a rebuttal.

“That’s true,” Gehrig said. “I can’t argue that. But you know what? [More airplane crash noises for the Cardinals.]”

As a Cleveland Indians fan, I am familiar with this type of baseball argument, so I applaud Gehrig for sticking with the only viable weapon in his extremely limited arsenal.

BITTERSWEET BOOKEND

In the season opener, Crew rookie Kirk Urso made his first career MLS start. In the season finale, Ben Speas made his first MLS start. The two were good friends and teammates on North Carolina’s 2011 NCAA championship team, but they never got to share the field with the Crew. In between their respective debuts, which bookended the season, Urso passed away on August 5 from a congenital heart defect.

Not even two weeks before his passing, Urso stood at Speas’ locker during interviews after Speas scored the game-winning goal in the friendly against Stoke City. In the season finale, Speas was hoping to replicate the feat in memory of his dear friend.

“It was a little bit emotional at the beginning,” Speas said. “I was thinking about him a lot. I was hoping to get a goal for him. He didn’t get a goal, but my first goal, it will be to Kirk.”

KIRK’S WORDS

I will leave you with Kirk’s inspiring words, which are now permanently installed in the Crew locker room, where he will always be in spirit.

Questions? Comments? Wishing there was some sort of methadone-type treatment for Crew withdrawal? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk