Sirk's Notebook: Crew 1, Salt Lake 0

William Hesmer with the shutout against RSL

Photo Credit: 
Jamie Sabau (Getty)

For the first time in their existence, the faux royalty from Salt Lake came to town with some legitimacy to their silly club name, as Real Salt Lake currently wears the MLS Cup championship crown. The guys who used to wear that crown were in no mood to genuflect. Five months after RSL stunned the Crew in the first round of the playoffs en route to an unexpected title, the 2009 Supporters’ Shield winners from Columbus defeated the 2009 MLS Cup champions from Salt Lake, 1-0, on Saturday night. The water-logged game was more moist & mild than wet & wild, as neither team could muster accurate attacks on goal on the rain-slicked pitch. Salt Lake only put four of 11 shots on frame, while the Crew put just one of 14 on target, and it was on a penalty kick no less.

“I’ll take it,” said Crew coach Robert Warzycha. “How pretty was it last year in those first seven games? [The Crew started 0-2-5 last year.] We played pretty soccer and then I read in the newspaper (that we did not win.) I would rather win this crappy game, knowing that we are going to play much better, than lose a good game. Today was enough for one shot on goal and to score.”

The Goal

The Crew scored the only goal of the match on a 38th minute penalty kick by Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The penalty was the result of some nice interplay between Robbie Rogers, Adam Moffat, and Steven Lenhart. Rogers started the play on the left wing by playing a ball into Moffat, who then played it to the edge of the box where Lenhart had posted up on his defender. Lenhart played a quick ball to a streaking Rogers, who carried it into the box. Salt Lake defender Robbie Russell tangled feet with Rogers while running up his back.

“It was a good run by Robbie,” said Warzycha. “The passes were accurate and it was a good job by Robbie to get behind Russell. (Russell) didn’t have a choice. He had to do something. Fortunately, we got the PK.”

Schelotto, who had missed his last two PK attempts in league play, faced off with RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando, whose heroic PK-saving prowess propelled Salt Lake to pair of shootout victories to cap last year’s playoff run. No matter. Rimando correctly guessed that Schelotto was going left with his shot, but the Crew legend struck the ball with such power that Rimando didn’t have a chance.

Earning the penalty was a much-needed tangible result for Rogers, who played his best game of the year. Not only did he attack and shoot from distance, but Warzycha was pleased with Rogers’ overall game.  

“When Rogers, Gaven, Ekpo or Renteria are on the field, they need to make things happen,” said the coach. “They need to be decisive. I think Robbie had a good game defensively. He was in the right spot and he covered a lot of ground. All of his shots were long, but I think he was in the right spaces today. I was very happy with his performance.”

Mr. Numbers Nerd: One-for-One-for-the-Win Edition

Fifteen seasons may seem like a long time, but it’s not long enough to stop the Crew from finding ways to accomplish things that the club has never accomplished before. Saturday’s game was the first time in 11 tries that the Crew had ever won a game in which they registered just one shot on goal.

Winning 1-0 by converting the team’s one and only shot on goal is one of those oddities that seems to happen every now then. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it happened last year on June 5 when Houston pipped a road win in Chicago. It also happened the year before on Oct. 11 when Kansas City scored on their only shot on goal to defeat New England.

The Crew, of course, took it to the extreme by utilizing a penalty kick for their only shot on goal. According to Elias, the last time a team won with a penalty kick serving as the victorious side’s only shot on goal was Colorado’s 1-0 victory over Los Angeles on June 15, 2005. Jeff Cunningham did the PK honors for the Rapids that day.

On the Other Hand…

While much was made of the Crew’s one-shot performance, Hejduk noted that it wasn’t as if the Crew were getting trampled in the shots on goal department.

“I think it was the same for them,” he said. “I don’t think they had many shots until the final 15 minutes when they started throwing people forward. Then it became a scramble.”

Salt Lake finished with just four shots on goal, including a 70-minute drought between the 6th and 76th minutes. The 76th-minute shot was RSL’s first shot of any kind in the second half.

“This game was hard,” Hejduk said. “They are a good team, and it was good for us to keep that zero. For 75 minutes, we frustrated them. They could knock the ball around all they wanted, but they couldn’t really go anywhere. We did what we needed to do.”

Finishing off the Game

A one-goal lead is always tenuous in a soccer game. All it takes is one lapse in concentration, one slip of the foot, one refereeing mistake, or one moment of brilliance from the other team to level the score. When one of those things happens at the end of a game, causing points to evaporate, it’s heartbreaking.

But what the Crew pulled off two weeks ago in Dallas was simply stunning. The Crew were not struck by soccer’s unlucky lightning. Instead, it took a series of seven distinct dominoes falling one after the other to erase the Crew’s victory. I still marvel at the breadth and scope of it all, so before we look at the end of the RSL game, let’s take a trip down Unpleasant Memory Lane.

In the span of maybe the final 30 seconds of stoppage time in Dallas, all of the following things occurred in sequence, proving just how crazy a game soccer can be:

1. Emilio Renteria, rather than dumping the ball into acres of space and chasing it into the corner, attempted to dribble through a defender. He lost the ball and the turnover put the Crew back under pressure.

2. Emmanuel Ekpo reached out and committed the Crew’s umpteenth foul in their defensive end, setting up a dangerous free kick at the edge of the box.

3. The referee began to set up the Crew’s wall, then let Dallas take a quick free kick even though a whistle should have been required to restart play at that point. As a result, the Crew’s defense was caught off guard and Dallas had a brilliant chance to score.

4. After Hesmer made a clutch save, Renteria attempted to clear the ball low and up the middle. That’s never a good idea.

5. The referee missed a handball on Eric Avila, as the ball bounced off of his outstretched arm and fell in front him, right into his wheelhouse.

6. Schelotto, rather than challenging Avila as he prepared to shoot, quit playing at the top of the 18-yard box to scream at the referee for the missed handball call. This decision hurt further due to the molecular precision of the play that followed, which one thinks could have been ever so slightly disrupted had Schelotto played on.

7. Avila smacked a powerful, inch-perfect strike for the tying goal. An inch one way, it hits Chad Marshall squarely in the leg. An inch the other way, it smacks off the goal post. But instead, it merely glanced Marshall’s shin, missed Hesmer’s fingertips by a fraction of an inch, hit the inside of the post, and caromed into the goal. Absolutely inch-perfect.

So there were seven dominoes that fell in quick succession. Four were Crew mistakes, two were refereeing errors, and one was a brilliant play by the opponent. It was just an amazing Chain O’ Doom. I’m used to the idea of a bad play coming back to haunt you. Or a bad call. Or a brilliant play by the opposition. But the failure at the end of the Dallas game took seven distinct events across all three categories, with one event leading directly to the next, to make those two points evaporate. Not a single one of those mistakes was lethal in isolation, but the compounding effect showed up on the scoreboard and in the standings. And in Danny O’Rourke’s red-carded referee tirade as Dallas celebrated.

Thankfully, there were no seven-domino sequences against Salt Lake. Dangerous situations were nipped in the bud before they morphed into goals, the officials made most of the correct calls, and there was no wonder strike from the visitors. To wit…

* The Crew gave away a dangerous free kick in the 81st minute, but Hesmer rose to the occasion with a diving save. When Salt Lake latched onto the rebound, crossed it into the goalmouth and scored the apparent equalizer, the linesman made the offside call.

* In the 84th minute, Javier Morales hit the outside of the net with a blistering, skipping shot. It appeared that Hesmer had the corner covered had it been on goal, but it was frightening nonetheless.

* In the 88th minute, notorious Crew killer Robbie Findley tossed Jed Zayner to the turf, but the referee swallowed his whistle. Hesmer came up with a huge kick save to thwart the breakaway.

“Findley's breakaway should've never been,” said Hesmer. “It was a clear foul on Zayner, but as we've learned the hard way, you've got to overcome those things at the end of the game.  Luckily, I was able to make the save to keep the lead, as well as keep anyone from going nuts on another referee.”

* Also in the 88th minute, Findley hit the outside of the net after a scramble in the Crew penalty area. Brunner and Hesmer appeared to have that one covered too, but again, also scary.

* In the 90th minute, Hesmer made another point blank save just as the play was whistled dead for a foul on Salt Lake.

* In the 93rd minute, the referee correctly called RSL’s Alvaro Saborio for a pull down on Andy Iro, negating a dangerous Salt Lake opportunity.

* In the 94th minute, Salt Lake knocked the ball down for Kyle Beckerman, but his half-volley was not an inch-perfect strike like Avila’s in Dallas. Beckerman missed wide left by several feet.

Finally, in the 94th minute, Rogers dumped the ball into the left corner for Jason Garey. The Crew forward earned a corner kick, and then Garey and Rogers worked the ball in the corner, earning to two subsequent throw-ins to kill the final 90 seconds of the match.

It may have been a little rocky, but the Crew got the job done, which was very important after the Dallas game.

“It wasn’t a great display from us, but we handled it better,” said Moffat. “Except for the Findley play, we got the refereeing decisions, and at the very end, we played a great ball into the corner and kept it down there. Had we done that against Dallas, we would have three wins in three games.”

“I think we still need to do a much better job of closing out,” said Hesmer. “We need to keep much better possession of the ball instead of looking for the home run ball every time.  However, I think Jason was able to come in and do something that we weren't smart enough to do in Dallas, which is taking the ball to the corner and killing time.”

“Learning from your mistakes is part of being a professional,” said Hejduk. “In those final minutes, we took the ball to the corner and killed the game off. It’s a testament to the guys. It’s just going to get better from here. I think winning scrappy games is important for the team. It shows everyone that you can battle and get past those games. We’re going to see a few more of them before the year is up, so if we can get three points out of them, we’ll have more confidence every time we’re in one.”

Jason Said / Robert Said

I have long ago concluded that soccer is every bit as much art as it is sport. I’m not even referring to the artistry on the field, but the ability for two people to watch the very same game and come away with two wildly different interpretations of what they experienced. RSL coach Jason Kreis and Crew coach Robert Warzycha are just the latest example. Here is a comment from Kreis and Warzycha’s response after Saturday’s game…

Kreis: “In a large way, this was (the Crew’s) best match of the season.”

Warzycha: “Absolutely not. We played better against Toronto. We played better in the second half at Dallas. I have no idea where he is coming with that.”

They might as well have been arguing over a poem or a painting. Maybe they can get a TV show reviewing movies together.

Back Pass Disaster Averted

In the early stages of his first game back from a concussion, Eric Brunner made a play to forget in the 10th minute. He played a casual back pass right into the stride of RSL forward Alvaro Saborio, whose first touch went right around a charging Hesmer. Saborio slipped as he ran down the ball, while Hesmer slipped trying to reverse course. After each player regained his footing, Hesmer made a sprawling stop to snuff out Saborio’s glorious chance at the gaping net.

In the end, it was all for naught, as the officials inexplicably ruled that Saborio was offside, even though it was Brunner, not an RSL player, that played the ball back toward the goal. But even if the goal wouldn’t have counted, Hesmer’s great save foreshadowed his second half performance, while simultaneously picking up a teammate after an error. Brunner settled in and went the full 90 minutes in a shutout effort.

“Any time you get the chance to take confidence away from their forwards and instill it in your team, it's a big plus, especially at the start of a game,” said Hesmer of his unofficial save. 

Raining, Pouring, Not Much Scoring

The game endured a torrential first-half downpour and a steady frigid rain throughout the second half. It made for a lot of chattering teeth and pruned fingers amidst the fan base, but the Crew’s Adam Moffat felt perfectly at home on the field.

“It was lovely,” said the Scottish midfielder. “I genuinely do enjoy playing in the rain. When the jersey gets soaked and you’re carrying around an extra five pounds, that’s the only hard part about it.”

Rainy conditions can impact a game in many ways. I immediately thought back to the 4-3 slugfest with Chivas USA from 2008. This game featured none of those fireworks, as both teams struggled to put shots on frame.

“In a wet game, you expect more goals because you expect the goalies to make some mistakes,” said Moffat. “Then again, if nobody puts the ball on target, you don’t give them a chance to make mistakes. I had a couple of wild swings myself. ”

“When you mix a hard field and a wet surface, the ball is going to bounce more and bounce way faster than usual,” said Hejduk. “Normally you get more rebounds and crazy plays, but this was a weird game. It was tough to get a hold of the ball and to read the field.”

“The weather’s just one of those things,” concluded Lenhart. “Tonight the ball was going fast and we just couldn’t find a way to keep it. You just have to roll with it, but I think it kinda gummed us up a bit. We got the win, though, so I’m down with that. I’m always down with that.”

The Sham-Fro & the Bron-Band

The only reason Crew Stadium did not flood from the torrential first-half downpour is because Steven Lenhart’s afro possesses the absorbency of a million sham-wows.

“Steve was like a shaggy dog,” said Moffat. “He shook his head once he got inside and probably lost 14 pounds.”

“Dude, it’s weighing me down,” agreed Lenhart. “I need to figure something out. I need to wear a doo-rag or something.”

Lenhart did take the field wearing a headband, much to the delight of Moffat, who is as big of a Glasgow-born Cleveland Cavaliers fan as there is.

“Steve’s trying to be like LeBron James with the headband,” Moffat explained. “That’s his favorite player. He’s always calling me, saying, ‘Hey Adam, the Cavs game is on. I have to watch LeBron.’ I say, ‘I thought you were from LA?’ But that’s just how it is. He knows that LeBron is the best player on the best team, so he’s just trying to be like him by wearing a headband.”

Lenhart shook his head and declined comment. The Lenharts, of course, are a staunch LA Lakers family.

“Obviously, the Lenharts got the last laugh last year,” Moffat said. “Steve’s mom is the worst. She’s the biggest Lakers fan in their family. She was trash-talking me last year, but Christmas Day was good this year since the Cavs beat the Lakers in LA. I didn’t say too much, but it was good. I felt happy.”

The Incredible Shrinking Goal

During my pregame wanderings, I happened to stumble across an interesting little scene. As the officials did their customary field examination upon arriving at the stadium, they contended that the north goal was too short. They asked Crew officials to measure the goal to ensure it was regulation height. The Crew staff measured the goal and it was indeed short.

“About an inch,” said one person.

“Not even an inch,” said another.

This amazed me. The officiating crew’s innately precise measuring skills were not unlike the stories you hear about professional baseball players who sort their bat deliveries into three piles: too heavy, too light, and just right…and the difference is less than an ounce in either direction.

As for the goalposts, it seems that the grounds crew had recently cleaned the sediment out of the bottom of the post holes, causing the north posts to sit a wee bit lower than usual. To correct this, they took down the goal and hammered some spacers into the bottom of the bottom of the holes, making the posts precisely regulation height when they were put back up.

At least that’s what it looked like to a novice like me.

“They aren’t putting in spacers,” joked the Crew’s VP of Operations, Scott DeBolt. “They’re actually fixing the underground hydraulic system that we have installed to raise and lower the goals depending on which team is shooting at it.”

Anyway, it should come as no surprise that within an hour or two of their eagle-eyed goal-height assessment, the officials were deemed to be blind by both teams and the fans in the stands, depending on the nature of each specific call or non-call. This type of negative optical assessment happens nearly every game, no matter what. But this has also been the season of some high profile early season gaffes by the referees, so when the officials, say, called Salt Lake offside on an Eric Brunner back pass, I couldn’t help but chuckle over the goal post thing.

It was not unlike the Seinfeld episode where someone stole George’s glasses, and he allegedly spots Jerry’s girlfriend making out with Jerry’s cousin. Jerry can’t be sure if what George saw is correct since he didn’t have his glasses, but George insisted his eyesight was fine because he was squinting. Further confusing matters, George spots a dime on the floor from across the room one moment, and the next moment, he mistakenly grabs an onion out of the fridge and bites into it like an apple, prompting Jerry to exclaim, “You’re spotting dimes; you’re eating onions; I don’t know what’s going on!”

So my mind pictured Jerry Seinfeld at the game shouting, “You’re spotting 7-foot-11-inch goalposts; you’re calling offside on back passes; I don’t know what’s going on!”

Mr. Numbers Nerd: Defending Champ / Playoff Revenge Edition
 
Saturday
night rolled two unique opponents into one. The Crew faced off against
the league’s reigning MLS Cup champion while simultaneously squaring off
against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs the previous
year. I was curious as to how the Crew have historically fared against
such opponents, so I looked it all up.
 
In games of actual soccer
(shootouts counted as draws), Saturday’s win improved the Crew’s
all-time record against defending champs to 13-11-11, including an 8-4-6
mark at home. The Crew have been far less successful in getting revenge
against teams that had eliminated them from the playoffs the previous
year. Saturday’s win improved the Crew to 5-13-9 all-time against such
opponents, including just 3-4-7 at home. Apparently, revenge is dish
best served…seldomly.
 
But Salt Lake was that rare(ish)
combination of both types of teams. The Royals were the fourth team to
eliminate the Crew from the playoffs and then go on to win MLS Cup. (The
others: DC in 1997 and 1999, plus San Jose in 2001.) When one considers
that the Crew have missed the playoffs five times and did not get
eliminated in 2008, that means that four of the eight teams that have
ever eliminated the Crew from the playoffs went on to win it all. Odd.
 
So
how have the Crew fared against such double-headed monsters? The win
improves them to 5-2-4 all time against those overlapping subsets,
including a stellar 4-0-2 at home. The Crew have won three straight at
home, also beating San Jose 2-0 and 2-1 way back in 2002.
 
History,
however, does not bode as well for the return trip to Salt Lake on
August 14. The Crew are 1-2-2 in the road leg of those double-headed
monster matchups. The lone victory came on May 3, 2000, when the Crew
famously won for the first time ever at RFK Stadium, defeating defending
champ and playoff nemesis D.C. United, 2-1, on a late Richie Williams
own goal. Good times.
 
[Note: Again, these records were all in
games of actual soccer, counting shootouts as ties, just like is done in
other competitions, such as the World Cup, when shootouts get involved.
It makes for easier apples-to-apples comparisons to present-day MLS,
and I really wish MLS would make this change for that reason. But using
the official, less-illustrative, apples-to-oranges statistics, counting
postgame shootouts as win-loss decisions, the Crew are officially
13-16-6 against defending champs, 6-18-3 against prior-year playoff
vanquishers, and 5-6-0 against the combination of the two.]

Still Hungry

To this day, I am still astonished that the Crew followed their double-winning 2008 campaign with another Supporters’ Shield in 2009. Not only had that never been done before in MLS history, but it showed a sustained 30-game hunger even after reaching the summit the year before.

Sadly, on the MLS Cup front, that 30-game body of work was undone when Real Salt Lake beat the Crew fair and square over the course of 180 minutes last fall. Clearly, that loss still stings. In comments to the Columbus Dispatch, William Hesmer made in very clear how hard it is for him to see a sub-.500 team holding the championship that the top-seeded Crew had their sights on until they stumbled against that very same sub-.500 team. Gino Padula admitted to the Dispatch that the disappointment of that postseason defeat has provided momentum for the 2010 team.

The thing that has made this team so great over the past two-plus seasons is that they find a way to channel these emotions to the game at hand, week in and week out. While there was surely some extra motivation heading into this match, Warzycha said the Crew are focused on larger goals.

“I thought it was important to get three points, basically,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking it was important to beat Salt Lake because they won the championship last year. For our team, I thought it was more important to not put too much pressure on ourselves and go and win. I understand that they won here last year, but I don’t want to talk about them.”

As has become the custom with this team, what’s done is done. It’s on to this year’s challenges, and Warzycha made it perfectly clear that he and his players have set their sights high.

“I think different clubs have different goals,” he said. “Our goal is not to just qualify for the playoffs, like it probably is for some of the clubs in MLS. Our goal is to win the Supporters’ Shield. To give an example, New York probably wants to make the playoffs because they were not in the playoffs last year, but for us, we want the Supporters’ Shield. I think we have a good team, and we have the personnel here that can win the Supporters’ Shield and the championship.”

There’s a fine line between arrogance and an awareness of self worth. Arrogance is starting a Web site called WeWinTrophies.com when your team didn’t even make the playoffs (see “United, D.C.”). But Warzycha and the players know that even after winning three of the last four league honors, they are still in that title-winning window of opportunity. They have set their sights accordingly. The fact that they let one get away last year has made them all the more determined this year. They may win multiple trophies in 2010. They may win none. But whatever the end results may be several months from now, it’s obvious that they are still mentally driven to wring every last bit of success out of this special nucleus of players. For themselves. For each other. For you.

Random Moment with Dante Washington

I asked Dante for the time in the press box, then quickly noted that I didn’t need to ask him because his watch was so large, I could easily read it from across the table. In fact, I told him if his watch were any bigger, he would have to wear it around his neck, Flava Flav style.

“This watch was actually part of a set,” Dante said. “It came with a neck clock. I was going to wear the neck clock tonight, but decided to wear the watch instead because it’s raining so hard outside. I didn’t want my neck clock to get all rusty.”

Adam Moffat Paparazzi Shot

As we learned a couple of years ago, Adam Moffat is a champion cornhole player. Once his soccer career is over, he plans on going pro in the beanbag tossing game that is extremely popular at Midwestern cookouts and tailgate parties. Moffat is so famously talented at the game that he now attracts the ravenous cornhole paparazzi whenever he plays in public.

“I got spotted playing cornhole,” he said. “I was at Goodale Park with (team chaplain) Jim Schmidtke, and this guy from the Columbus Dispatch comes up and asks if he can take our picture. So someone at the Columbus Dispatch has a picture of me whipping Jim at cornhole. Now people can study my form. It’s perfect.”

Paintball Goofballs

My chat with Moffat morphed into a discussion about paintball. Moffat asked if I had ever played, and I said no. He asked if I had ever played laser tag, and I said yes.

“Paintball is just the manly version of laser tag,” he said. “It’s just laser tag for men.”

After slyly questioning my masculinity, Moffat spoke at length about his love of paintball and the various side-games that he and his teammates have invented. I asked if he wore Braveheart face paint while playing paintball.

“No, I wear a kilt and nothing else,” he said. “I don’t know if I ever told you this one, but at my bachelor party, 17 of us went paintballing. At the end, everyone still had bullets left, so I stood 10 yards in front of everybody. They were lined up like a firing squad. The ref counted to three so I could set off. The firing squad wasn’t allowed to chase me, but they could shoot at me as I ran around. I got destroyed. I zigzagged around until I could get behind a truck. I had 32 welts all over my body. Steve had three guns to shoot me with. That was the last time I played paintball. It was fun, though.”

Lenhart did not deny riddling his future brother-in-law with paint pellets.

“The freaking guy was marrying my sister!” he said. “Of course I was going to shoot him with three guns! Maybe if he had another sister that I could marry, I wouldn’t have shot him so many times. But he doesn’t, so it was what it was.”

Moffat said the guys can get creative with their paintball warfare.

“We play some fun games,” he said. “One is called war. We stand 30 feet from each other. There are five guys on each team. You just stand there and take shots at each other. You have to stand there and take it.”

It may seem like senseless and masochistic violence, but according to Moffat, this game has some practical application on the soccer field.

“It’s good practice for being in the wall,” he said. “After that, if you get hit by a soccer ball, it’s nothing.”

Great Moments in Interviewing History

Craig Merz: “Did they find anything when they x-rayed your head?”

Eric Brunner: “Some nuts and bolts. That’s about it.”

 

Questions? Comments? Have a viable solution to Lenhart’s rainy day afro problem? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via Twitter @stevesirk.

Steve Sirk is a contributor to TheCrew.com. His first book, “A Massive Season”, is currently available at the Crew Gear store. This article was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.