Sirk's Notebook: Crew 1, Santos 0
In the midst of a dreadful MLS malaise, the Crew needed some good news. With Mexican league leaders Santos Laguna coming to town for a CONCACAF Champions League tilt, more than first place in Group B was at stake. With a victory, the Crew could take the first step toward a much-needed mental recovery from their poor league form. Another loss…one shuddered at the thought.
As the clocked ticked up toward 90:00, the game had all the hallmarks of the Crew’s recent frustrations. They possessed the ball and created myriad chances, but a bad touch here, a near miss there, and a stretch of shooting that threatened innocent bystanders more than the Santos goal left the Crew staring down the barrel of a frustrating scoreless draw.
But in the 87th minute, Peruvian Andres Mendoza found the ball on his left foot and the Crew found themselves with a much needed victory. Given the Crew’s recent run of form, it may have been one of the most important goals of the season.
“It was an important goal, but we played well as a team today,” said Mendoza through an interpreter. “What is more important is that we carry this confidence forward to our game on Saturday.”
Yes, Saturday is the next test. But first, a look back at the crucial victory over Santos, plus some miscellaneous goofiness that was missing from the depressing Sounders Notebook.
The Crew’s goal was the result of a lucky bounce and a perfect strike. Jason Garey collected a long pass from Andy Iro on the left side of the field, then attacked toward the center of the field. He played the ball to Mendoza near the top of the arc, who then looked to get the ball back to Garey as Garey ran into the box. Mendoza’s pass was broken up, but the ball bounced back to him. He brought it down onto his left foot, and if there’s one thing Andres Mendoza loves, it’s the ball on his left foot. He’s the Mirrored Manu. He’s the Peruvian Preki. Most importantly, he’s a guy who can pick his spot and finish. Mendoza calmly struck a low 23-yard shot into the side netting.
“Iro played a good ball out of the back and I was able to get a good touch on it,” Garey said. “Andres and I tried to play a 1-2. I played it in to him, but when he tried to play it to me, it got blocked. The ball bounced around and he turned and hit a great shot.”
Garey raised his hands in triumph before the ball even got to the goal.
“I was running in for a rebound in case the keeper saved it,” he said, “but I saw the angle the keeper took and I thought, ‘That’s in. We’re out of here.’”
“Garey made the play,” Mendoza said. “The ball rebounded to me and I turned and took the shot. I felt the cramp as I shot, but the ball went in.”
With the cramp, Mendoza fell to the turf. He was mobbed by teammates, including Brian Carroll, who lifted Mendoza’s cramping leg in an effort to unknot the contacting muscles.
“The cramping-up-and-having-your-teammates-stretch-you-out goal celebration wasn’t the greatest celebration, but we’ll take it,” Carroll deadpanned.
When asked about his leg cramp goal celebration, Mendoza laughed.
“Nah, nah, nah” he said. “They make a joke.”
After taking the lead, the Crew put on a clinic in killing the game. Part of killing the game is taking the ball to the corner flag, and the Crew did this so successfully that they pinned the ball in the right channel for a continuous three minutes and five seconds. And that’s not counting the lead up to getting the ball in the channel. That’s right, once in the right channel, it took over three minutes for Santos to regain possession and advance the ball past their 18 yard box. In that time, the Crew trio of Steven Lenhart, Jason Garey, and Emmanuel Ekpo won four throw-ins, a corner kick, and a free kick, all while holding the ball up in the corner.
“That's part of the game,” said Crew coach Robert Warzycha. “Sometimes you have to do that, especially playing against a good team. Stevie went on the field, and with Ekpo and Garey over there, they did a very good job killing the time.”
Jason Garey summed up the game’s final minutes thusly: “Andres scored a great goal, then we held the ball in the corner for about six minutes, and then we got in a fight. All in all, it was a good night.”
Oh yeah, the fight. The term “fight” is an overstatement, but we’ll let Garey explain the late-game skirmish that broke out in the corner.
“We were keeping the ball in the corner, and they were getting pissed off,” he said. “Manu did one of his little shakes, and the guy just came up and pushed him. I couldn’t let him push Manu like that, so I got into his face and shoved him a little bit. Then he cursed me out in Spanish, but I told him I couldn’t understand what he was saying so it didn’t bother me none, which I think made him angrier, but whatever.”
HAMMERING OUT A SHUTOUT
Goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum has been entrusted with the Crew’s tournament runs, and he has not disappointed. In seven U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League starts, the Hebrew Hammer has collected four shutouts and allowed only three goals.
Against Santos, the Crew committed none of the lapses that led to Seattle’s cavalcade of goals over the weekend. The way Gruenebaum sees it, if there are no lapses to punish, his job becomes simple. He only had to make two saves on the night.
“It’s pretty easy when you don’t have to do much,” Gruenebaum said. “We defended in such an organized manner that it makes my job really easy. I don’t feel like I had to do much tonight, but that’s good. I’ll take that every time.”
Given the Crew’s league funk and the heavy locker room from Saturday, a win over the Mexican leaders was exactly what the team needed. It also vaulted the Crew to the top of Group B with four of the six match days in the books.
“They left their heart on the field today,” said Warzycha. “We played against a very good team, a team that likes to pass the ball and move off the ball. I think we did a very good job. I think it was a matter of understanding each other and working for each other. We made some tackles today, and like I said the guys left their hearts on the field. If you do that, you are going to be rewarded with something.”
In the last Notebook, I had some fun with Brian Carroll’s uncharacteristic on-the-record f-bomb. I figured if mild-mannered Brian Carroll is going to drop an f-bomb into reporters’ voice recorders, that’s noteworthy. It’s certainly out of the ordinary for him, so I considered it a message sent. For that reason, I wanted to check in with him after the Santos victory. Carroll sees the match as a step in the right direction, but only the first step in the right direction.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” he said of the 1-0 win. “We got good effort and energy from the entire group tonight, and it’s a building block for this weekend at New England. Now we need to do it again. It’s good to bounce back and get a result like that, but now we need to keep it going.”
On another note, it was also nice that the Crew turned the tables on Santos, who scored a stoppage time winner to defeat the Crew 1-0 in Torreon, Mexico. It was a heart-breaking and controversial loss. This time around, the Crew broke the scoreless tie in the 87th minute, giving Santos a taste of their own medicine.
“When it got late and it was 0-0, you can’t help but think back,” Gruenebaum said. “It was good to be on the other end of it this time.”
“There’s always satisfaction in beating a team that has gotten you,” he said.
GREAT MOMENTS IN BROADCASTING
Every Crew fan knows that Frankie Hejduk loves his flying two-footed tackles. We’ve been watching them for eight seasons in Columbus and even longer with the U.S. National Team. Even though we’ve seen a million of them, we still wince in anticipation of the inevitable compound tibia fracture, and then exhale when he somehow comes up with the ball more often than not.
With that in mind, Fox Soccer Channel’s Brian Dunseth offered this bit of commentary during Tuesday’s broadcast:
“Of every player that leaves their feet and does a two-footed, like, scissor tackle, Frankie is by far the best I have ever seen at continually getting the ball. You think every time that he is going to get a straight red card for the tackle, but then he ends up winning the ball cleanly.”
Of course, Dunny said this after Frankie got the ball, the man, and a yellow card, but the larger point still stands. The Flying Frankie Tackle is still one of soccer’s great unexplained mysteries and has become part of the Hey-Dude legend.
As mentioned in the Seattle Notebook, Brian Carroll’s baby held off as instructed, so the fantasy draft went off without a hitch. Even better, William Hesmer’s mother came up to see the Crew in D.C. that Saturday night, and she brought an evening’s worth of Parker’s Barbeque from Hesmer’s hometown of Wilson, North Carolina. The guys took the barbeque bounty home with them and feasted upon it during the draft.
“The food was delicious, the beer was delicious, and I can’t be happier with my team,” Hesmer said of the draft.
From what I can gather, the highlight of week one was Andy Gruenebaum’s meltdown in the Los Angeles airport. Jason Garey, who lost to Gruenebaum in week one, explains:
“Gruenebaum had a good week. The 120 hours that he put in during the last two weeks paid off. He was also way too intense. You should have seen him in the airport, going crazy because Chris Johnson hadn’t scored a touchdown in the first ten minutes of the Titans game. Then he was freaking out and complaining because his phone wasn’t updating, and everyone was telling him to relax. He’s so uptight. He needs to relax a little, and maybe broaden his horizons in life.”
Gruenebaum did not deny it. “It was a meltdown,” he said. “Let’s call it what it was. But I think the reason that I have been so successful as a fantasy football owner is because I care that much. If you put that much heart and emotion into your team, you should win. Here’s what I do. I sit around all NFL offseason watching reruns on the NFL Network. I re-watch every single game to prepare.”
“He watches every second of the NFL combine,” Garey added.
“Yeah, even Mr. Irrelevant (the last player drafted), I have his stats,” Gruenebaum. “I’m just a fan. I’m just a guy who is in love with football. I chose the wrong sport. I should have been a kicker.”
“Your leg isn’t strong enough,” Garey reminded him.
“True,” Gruenebaum conceded. “But what if I changed my past and worked out more and injected protein and stuff?”
Uh, moving on, Gruenebaum tasted defeat in week two courtesy of league leader Danny O’Rourke. In a league muddled with 1-1 teams, O’Rourke’s team is the lone 2-0 team, while Frankie Hejduk’s team lost to Hesmer’s team in a week two tie-breaker to be the lone 0-2 team.
O’Rourke was happy with his victory over Gruenebaum.
“My guys had a strong performance and his guys didn’t show,” O’Rourke said. “It was like 115 to 86. My guys coasted to victory.”
“He had a good win,” Gruenebaum conceded.
“He raised the white flag during the 4:00 games,” O’Rourke said. “He knew it was over.”
“Listen,” Gruenebaum said, “Danny is clearly someone to be reckoned with, but he is also the biggest tool I have ever met.”
O’Rourke smiled, turned to me, and proudly said, “You can quote that.”
Consider it done. And in our final fantasy football note, it appears that rookie Dave Lagow, the Crew’s head athletic trainer, hit a major bump in the road in week two. Just one week after stunning league commissioner Brian Carroll, Lagow’s team delivered a performance ripe for the mocking.
“Lagow’s team barely scored 50 points,” Garey said. “I think we are going to give out the Lagow Award whenever anyone’s team has an absolute shocker.”
“I think you should get $5,” Gruenebaum said. “Shouldn’t you get $5 for being that bad?”
“No,” Garey responded. “You should pay $5. This isn’t a charity. This is capitalism.”
“True,” Gruenebaum said. “He should be fined. In an 8-team league, every team should be stacked enough to get close to 100 points, but he only had like 53. It’s embarrassing.”
Gruenebaum explained the problems associated with Hejduk’s 0-2 start and Lagow’s award-winning shocker.
“If the Chargers are bad, Frankie will lose, and if the Patriots are bad, Lagow will lose,” he said. “I love the Chiefs, but I don’t have a single Chief on my team. That’s because I’m smart.”
CREW PREZ ON STO’S PAR 3 SHOOTOUT
After a watching a Tribe game one night, I saw an extended promo for SportsTime Ohio’s “Par 3 Shootout” program, in which 16 local celebrities compete against each other on the par 3 holes at various gold courses. Imagine my surprise when I saw Crew president Mark McCullers swinging away in the promo, which mainly featured Indians and Browns related personalities.
SportsTime Ohio had called the Crew office seeking a Crew player, but being in season, the players weren’t available on the morning of the shoot. PR director Dave Stephany then mentioned to STO that McCullers was a golfer, and STO said that the president and GM would fit the bill as a Columbus Crew representative.
“So Dave asked me,” McCullers said. “I was like, ‘Damn straight! I’ll do that!’ Plus, it’s great publicity for us. I had my Crew stuff on and they did some interviews asking about the team and what’s going on. We’ll see how much of the interview makes the air, but it was great to get the Crew on SportsTime Ohio.”
The contest starts with 16 competitors hacking away in four separate qualifying rounds. The winners of the four qualifiers will meet in the championship round. McCullers was part of the fourth qualifying round, which took place at Cumberland Trail in Pataskala. He squared off against former Buckeye hoopster and current radio analyst Ron Stokes, Mount Union head football coach Larry Kehres, and a Columbus Blue Jackets player that I am blanking on from the promo. (Of all the other contestants in that foursome, I am blanking on the Blue Jacket? Something is wrong with my brain.)
EDITOR NOTE: Derek Dorsett was the Blue Jackets player included in the Par 3 Shootout
The Cumberland Trail qualifier will debut on SportsTime Ohio on Sunday, October 3, at 10:00pm. It will also re-air on October 6 at 8:00pm and October 7 at 6:00pm.
THE TICKET BUSINESS
After the dismal Seattle game, I caught up with McCullers in the tunnel while looking for some non-depressing news. Seeing as the lone bright spot from that game was the crowd of 17,144, I thought I would see how the ticket selling business was coming along.
“This weekend, we passed our gross ticket revenue from 2009,” McCullers said. “That makes five years in a row, and we still have two league games left. Ticket revenue will be up probably about 7-8% depending on our last two home games.”
While armchair analysts love to dissect the announced attendance numbers, it is in some ways a fruitless exercise. The announced attendance includes all tickets distributed, whether paid for or given away for promotional purposes. In the Crew’s case, the announced attendance has held steady over the past few years while paid attendance and ticket revenue have continued to grow.
“You have to have a long term perspective on it,” McCullers saud. “You have to condition the market and you have to offer value. If there’s scads of free tickets out there or if tickets are five bucks, that’s what you are telling the market you are worth. We’re worth more than that, so we have been clamping down on free tickets over the years. That’s why our announced attendance hasn’t changed that much, because that is the count of tickets distributed. The announced attendance has been in the same range, but what we have been successful in doing is squeezing that margin between paid attendance and tickets distributed. And I think we offer a good value. I think fans are finding that a night at a Crew game is worth their money. And we’ve got promotions like the ‘Crew and More’ packs, where you can get tickets to the zoo and other events, and we’ve got four packs with the food included, so it’s still economical to come to a Crew game. We’re sensitive to that. Our tickets remain among the most affordable in Major League Soccer.”
McCullers is excited about the club’s financial prospects going forward, thanks in part to a pair of recent hires.
“We’ve got a new Senior Vice-President of Sales and Marketing, Mike Malo, who started in April, and he’s been a great fit. It took me 18 months to fill that position, but I was determined to hold out for the right person, and I think Mike was worth the wait. He’s a Gahanna native who spent ten years with the Arizona Diamondbacks and was the Director of Marketing with the Philadelphia Eagles before he came here. And we have a new VP of Corporate Sales who attended his first game tonight. Chris Previte was with the Cleveland Indians for 18 years and has a lot of great contacts. I am really excited about the senior team, and we need to push it to the next level.”
McCullers’ view of the next level involves season tickets. Lots and lots of season tickets.
“We’ve had five years of steady growth, but we need to increase our season ticket base,” he said. “Our season tickets have been flat. We’ve got to get people more emotional about the Crew. People come to games and have a good time, but we need to get them to feel that emotion and passion that we see in the Nordecke, and that we see in our season ticket holders throughout Crew Stadium.”
SELF-INDULGENT TUNA RANT
This year, the Crew has rotated tuna casserole into the press box dinner schedule. A few times I have walked into the press box only to be greeted by a pan of that repulsive glop, thereby working games on an empty stomach, thus making me stupider than usual.
I have tried to rally a campaign against the tuna casserole. I have urged Shawn Mitchell and Craig Merz to join me in writing about how much we hate tuna casserole, bombarding the Crew with a tidal wave of public shame that would force them to drop it from the menu.
The true professionals declined to join my anti-tuna crusade. Shawn said, “The last thing anybody wants to read about is some sportswriters complaining about their free dinner.”
“A ha!” I countered in desperation. “It’s not technically a free dinner if you don’t eat it!”
My logical Hail Mary landed incomplete. It turns out that we would then be complaining about the free dinner that we turned up our noses at. Good point.
So I guess I will suffer in silence, except to pass along the fact that I am allergic to dolphin meat and I hope that this will somehow get PETA involved on my behalf. I definitely saw a blowhole on Chris DeVille’s plate. I’m no marine biologist, but I’m pretty sure that tuna fish don’t have blowholes. Just sayin’.
No, but seriously, my only real reason for bringing this up is because, unlike me, Crew technical director Brian Bliss has a way of cutting to the heart of the matter in just a few pointed words. Bliss walked into the press box, looking for some dinner. He became visibly perplexed and astonished when he peeked into the pan.
“Tuna casserole?” Bliss barked at Dave Stephany. “What’s next— quiche?”
Bliss then scooped up a serving spoon full of the casserole and dumped back into the pan, concluding, “I would rather eat a skunk’s (butt) than tuna casserole right now.”
That was easily the quote of the night. Unless the Crew take it as a menu suggestion.
Questions? Comments? Know which Blue Jacket is in the Par 3 Shootout so I can end my mental torment? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via twitter @stevesirk