Sirk's Notebook: Elimination Day

Sirk's Notebook: Elimination Day - Crew 2 - Rapids 1 (5-4 in PKs)

Andy Gruenebaum

Photo Credit: 
Jamie Sabau - Getty Images

Team Good-But-Not-Quite-Good-Enough was at its good-but-not-quite-good-enough-iest in the second leg of their playoff series against the Colorado Rapids. The Columbus Crew won. And they tied. And they lost. And they did these things all at once. They won the game 2-1, their playoff series ended in a 2-2 tie, and they lost the postgame penalty kick shootout that determined which team would advance, 5-4. The end result was a good day at the stadium except for the bad result after the day’s good result resulted in a deadlocked result. Or something. What a strange situation.

Exacerbating the oddness was the fact that the Crew created enough glorious chances to put a touchdown on the scoreboard. They were good enough to create, off the top of my head, at least nine chances that were more likely than not to become goals. And continuing with their year-long trend, they converted an incredibly poor percentage of them. Two for nine is just 22%. Even factoring out the one that Colorado cleared off of the goal line, which is certainly a credit to the Rapids, that still means that the Crew put only 25% of their incredible chances in the net. Nothing is automatic in soccer, of course, but even if they finished at just a 50% clip on probable goals, the game and series would have been a blowout.

And to be clear, I am talking ball-on-the-foot-of-the-final-player chances….not vaguely and ominously dangerous build-ups and pressure that might eventually lead to goals through the law of averages, not plays that could have been great chances if the final pass were better, not good chances that resulted from nowhere near certain distant threats (i.e. Ekpo’s long range blast tipped over by Pickens, or Laurentowicz’s free kick off the top of the crossbar for Colorado), and not counting things like “set pieces are always dangerous in the offensive third with Schelotto and Marshall on the field.” I’m not even talking about the three heavily-contested headers won inside the six. I am talking dead red, ball on the boot, all that’s left is to tuck it away chances. Chances where your brain, having watched thousands of soccer games, involuntarily thinks “GOAL!” and then has to reconcile inexplicable happenings, like, say, two breakaways that don’t result in shots on goal, or, say, a living legend hitting a lazy pop fly on an uncontested shot from dead center at the 18.

Team Good-But-Not-Quite-Good-Enough was good to create the glorious chances that could have torn the series wide open, but not good enough to turn probable goals into actual goals. And that is indeed a glaring problem. Especially when it results in only a one-goal series cushion, which a talented duo like Omar Cummings and Conor Casey can instantly erase within the tiniest margins of time and space. Which they did, in the clutchest of fashions, with six minutes remaining in the series.

And when 210 minutes of soccer could not determine which team would advance, the series was decided by soccer’s competitive Achilles heel, the penalty kick shootout. When Brian Carroll’s do-or-die PK took a one-way flight to Didn’t-and-Dead, the Crew’s season came to an abrupt and unsatisfying halt.

I am not using Team Good-But-Not-Quite-Good-Enough as a pejorative, either. That just seems to be the most accurate descriptor of the Crew’s first trophy-less season since 2007. They were good to take a Champions League quarterfinal lead on the road and at altitude versus Toluca, but not good enough to hang on. They were good to hit the 50-point mark for only the second time in club history, but they weren’t good enough to hang in the Supporters’ Shield race after September. They were good to lead the Eastern Conference for months on end, but not good enough to close it out. They were good to advance to the U.S. Open Cup final in a hostile environment, but not good enough in front of each goal to claim the prize. They were good to create enough chances to hang a touchdown on the Colorado Rapids and blow the playoff series wide open, but not good enough to finish them and advance to the conference final.

It was a good season, no doubt about it. And if it wasn’t good enough to win any domestic trophies, well, that’s the fate of good teams in any given year. This year, the Crew are in the same boat as Salt Lake and New York, with the fate of FC Dallas to be determined in MLS Cup. 2009 saw the empty-handed Los Angeles Galaxy miss the Shield by a point and lose the MLS Cup final on penalties. The 2008 Houston Dynamo captured nary a trophy. In 2007, Chivas USA had a good but not quite good enough season. And so on down the line. The 1998 and 2001 Crew teams are good examples here in Columbus.

It happens to someone every year. And while it will be weird not  to unveil some sort of championship display in front of Toronto FC next spring, at least the Crew can show the video of goalkeeper William Hesmer scoring the goal that denied TFC their first-ever victory against Columbus in four futile years of trying. It’s a not a trophy, but it’s still awesome.

Anyway, moving on to some notes from elimination day….

FURIOUS START

The Crew dominated the match at the opening whistle. In the 4th minute, Eddie Gaven had the left side of the net to shoot at, but hit the inside of the left post. In the 6th minute, Andres Mendoza missed wide left on a breakaway. On and on it went. Great chances, good chances, half-chances, and dangerous opportunities began to pile up. Finally, in the 23rd minute, Eddie Gaven gently redirected a centering header from Guillermo Barros Schelotto in the six-yard box to put the Crew on the board.

“We came out on the right foot,” Gaven said. “We were pretty much all over them for the first 20-30 minutes. We got the one goal, but we should have had more. I probably should have had three.”

THE WINGERS COME THROUGH

The lack of statistical production from the Crew’s speedy wingers Robbie Rogers and Emmanuel Ekpo has been lamented for much of the season. It was a newspaper topic earlier in the week, and Crew coach Robert Warzycha rhetorically wondered how much better the team’s results would have been if that production had materialized.

In the 70th minute, the answer appeared to be “cruising to the conference finals.” After combining for one goal (Rogers) and no assists in the regular season, Ekpo and Rogers combined for one goal and one assist on a single play. Ekpo’s incisive through-ball sent Rogers on a breakaway, and the 23-year-old sent a low shot past Rapids goalkeeper Matt Pickens to give the Crew a 2-0 lead in the game and a 2-1 lead in the series. Rogers celebrated by ripping off his jersey to earn an unnecessary yellow card, but such was the excitement of the moment.

“I was cheating because I saw the ball bouncing around in the middle,” Rogers said. “Manu played a great ball to me. It was perfectly paced. The defender Wallace tried to take me down, so I was lucky not to fall. If it was in the box, I probably would have gone down and Guille would have scored anyway. But the goalie didn’t come out. His positioning wasn’t great, and he left his right side, my left side, open, and I just slotted it. I was excited because that made it 2-0, but I don’t know why I took off my shirt.”

CLUTCH & CLUTCHER: CUMMINGS & CASEY

The Crew were six minutes from advancing to the conference final, but the Rapids had other ideas. In a moment of perverse poetry, the Rapids answered an afternoon’s worth of squandered Crew chances by burying an expertly crafted half-chance with their season on the line. On the right flank, Omar Cummings shimmied and shook in front of Shaun Francis until he created the necessary space to get off a quick cross. On the other end of the pass, Conor Casey bulled forth and wrapped his leg around Eric Brunner to get a toe on the ball and redirect it past Andy Gruenebaum for the goal that would knot the series at 2-2.

“Casey flashed in front of Brunner,” Gruenebaum said. “It was a great ball in from Cummings, and Casey got a toe to it. I was a spectator. There wasn’t much I could do.”

“Blink of an eye,” said Crew captain Frankie Hejduk. “One little play. Bam. It’s disappointing. We had it in our grasp. We were six minutes away from being in the next round, but hats off to them. They battled back. It was a great play by them. Omar Cummings did well with it and Casey got a touch on it. Those two have been a lethal combo all year, and they did it to us tonight at the end. After that, we still had opportunities to put the game away. It wasn’t like it was over when they scored. We had our chances to put the game away, but we didn’t.”

Indeed, the Crew had three prime all-that’s-left-is-to-finish chances to win the game in the 30 minutes of extra time, not counting “almost” plays or heavily challenged chances like Lenhart’s header off of a Schelotto free kick. Hejduk, Burns, and Lenhart (on his breakaway) coulda shoulda woulda notched the extra-time winner.  Colorado had a grand chance of their own, but Mac Kandji hit  his 108th minute shot right at Gruenebaum.

And since neither team got the winner, the series ended in an impasse. The tournament had to move forward, so it was time for soccer’s traditional PK charade.

G-BAUM’S ALMOST SAVE

A crucial moment in the penalty shootout transpired in the top of the second frame. Colorado’s Kandji sent a shot low to Gruenebaum’s left. The Crew’s keeper had a bead on it and got his hands to it, apparently making the save. Alas, the ball trickled to the post, banked off of it, and then eked across the goal line.

“It was kinda slow motion,” Gruenebaum said. “If that ball stays up, it’s pushed around the post, but it just got under me enough that it snuck in. I am going to have nightmares about that one because I have been in a lot of PK shootouts, and only once has it happened where I didn’t make a single save. Even though you’re not meant to save them, it’s still frustrating. I always expect to save at least one, but it didn’t happen today. They took their PKs well.”

Like all of the Crew’s almost-goals on the day, Gruenebaum’s PK almost-save would come back to haunt the Black & Gold.

THE BC MISS

There is no crueler fate in soccer than to be the player who skies a decisive penalty kick. Unfortunately, that fate befell Brian Carroll. With the Rapids holding a 5-4 edge heading into the bottom of the fifth frame, Carroll sailed his shot over the bar, ending the Crew’s season. He was quickly embraced by teammates, and then made a trek to the Nordecke before walking off the field. A stand-up guy, Carroll waited at his locker to confidently answer any and all questions about his losing launch.

“That’s how it’s decided in the World Cup and down to the MLS playoffs,” he said. “The guys stepped up and all hit their PKs solidly. I picked my spot like I always do, and I just hit it a lot higher than normal. I can’t really give you an explanation. I just didn’t hit it good enough to go in.”

Carroll has had past success in shootouts. In 2004, he converted his sixth-round PK, which proved to be the decisive tally in the Eastern Conference Final, propelling D.C. United to an MLS Cup berth. In college, he nailed a PK to lift Wake Forest over Clemson in the 2000 ACC tournament.

“I’ve been in that situation in the past in MLS and college and this is one of the only ones I’ve missed,” he said. “It’s a weird feeling. It sucks. But it happened. It’s real. The only thing I can do is…I mean, it would be worse if I hung my head and didn’t comment about how I thought we played solid and did a good job of getting forward and creating chances. We put in a better effort in this second leg than we did last year. There are a lot of positives that we can take from this heading into next year. The negative is that we are not moving on right now, and that’s because of my missed shot.  But that’s how it goes. It’s happened to better players than me. I don’t know what else to say about it.”

Carroll’s teammates were supportive of their crestfallen midfielder.

“BC’s fine,” said Gruenebaum. “The guy has strong shoulders, even though he’s already broken one of them. He’s been the lynchpin of this team, and if we went back out there, I would want BC taking one of them. In training, every single one of his was perfect. I told him that sometimes it just doesn’t happen for you. It is really unlucky that it happened to one of the greatest guys.”

“It’s not his fault,” said Gaven. “It could have happened to any guy. There are a lot of things we could have done earlier in the day so that it didn’t get to that point. He’s been great for us all year. I’m sure he feels really bad right now, but it’s definitely not his fault.”

“We are all behind him,” said Hejduk. “It takes a lot to have the balls to go up there and take one. Some players don’t want to take one. He did it, but you know, some of the best players in the world miss penalties. BC’s been a great player for us, and he had the balls to step up and take that responsibility. Unfortunately, it just didn’t go in for him. As players, we all know that it’s a lot of luck. You go up there, pick your corner, hit it, and then hope for the best. He picked his corner, but he mis-hit it. He’s given us incredible effort all year, so we’re not down on him at all. It’s just how it is. And soccer players know how it is. Fans will be upset and think, ‘How could he miss that?’, but you’ve  just run for 120 minutes and your body’s tired. Sometimes you mis-hit it in that situation. Forwards mis-hit balls all the time. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”

In addition to the teammates themselves, even the offspring of BC’s teammates rose to his defense.

“Can I say something for your article?” asked 12-year-old Nesta Hejduk. “Nobody can be mad at BC because what about the other 120 minutes before that? Everyone could have won the game before it went to PKs.”

“That’s right, it’s a team game,” Frankie said to his son. “That’s why nobody’s mad at BC. He tried his best, but it just didn’t go his way. It’s not his fault we got eliminated. We’re a team.”

Carroll appreciated all of the uplifting comments, both to his face and to reporters, even if the words didn’t exactly ease the pain of the moment.

“Guys were extremely supportive and saying how important it was to have someone who wanted to take that fifth shot,” he said. “I’m happy that they have the confidence to let me take that fifth shot. It means a lot to me, so it’s a bummer that I wasn’t able to pay it back to the squad by converting it.”

MY PK RANT

Before I begin my PK rant, let us consider what Hejduk had to say about using penalty kicks to decide an elimination game or a playoff series…

“No soccer player wants to end it that way,” Hejduk said. “When you’re on the losing side, it’s worse. When you’re on the winning side, that moment is pretty sweet. I’ve been on both sides, and this side isn’t cool at all. Before the PKs started, Pablo (Mastroeni) and I were talking in the middle of the field, saying, ‘Really? This is what it has come down to? This sucks.’ We didn’t want to end it that way. We wanted to keep playing and play it out. But that’s how the game goes and that is the tradition.”

My position on PKs is in no way influenced by the fact that the Crew lost a playoff series because of them. Rather, it is influenced by the common sense notion that it is utterly ridiculous to decide an athletic competition by a separate contest different than the competition that preceded it. In the playoffs, all other American sports keep playing the actual sport until a winner can be declared. In soccer, all of that goes out the window after 120 minutes. It’s stupid.

Frankie mentioned that it’s tradition. Well, tradition is no reason to keep up with numbskull practices. I also understand that after 120 minutes, the players are near collapse, meaning the risks of injury, dangerous play, and craptastic soccer increase substantially. But this is only because of the rules limiting game day rosters and in-game substitutions. Who says it has to be that way for elimination games?

My solution is simple. For elimination games only, the first 120 minutes proceed as normal. But if no winner is determined after 120 minutes, the game moves on to sudden death overtime, switching ends every 15 minutes. And at that point, teams can sub in any unused player from the rest of their roster. So for elimination games, the coach declares his 18-man game day roster that can be used in the first 120 minutes, but the entire roster of 24 (and soon to be 30) dresses. Those extra players can start warming up during extra time, knowing that they will be subbed in if it comes to sudden death. For the players’ safety, it would be a rule that any field player who started the match must be subbed out before the start of sudden death. All players would be capped at 120 total minutes.

This plan:

1. Protects players from exhaustion and injury by capping their playing time to the current limit of 120 minutes.

2. Allows elimination games to be decided by actual soccer. You know, the sport that’s being played in the first place.

3. Calls team depth into the equation. While soccer’s strict limits on game day rosters and in-game substitutions are a major component of coaching strategy, lifting these artificial limitations after 120 minutes in elimination games would allow team depth to contribute to a legitimate soccer outcome. I mean, wouldn’t it have been great to watch a guy like Duncan Oughton pouring every ounce of his heart into extending the Crew’s season?

The other aspect is that after every 30 minutes of sudden death, each team would be required to remove a player from the field. So the first 30 minutes of sudden death are still 11v11, the second 30 are 10v10, the third 30 are 9v9, and the fourth 30 are 8v8. If it’s still tied at that point, as improbable as it would be due to fresh legs and increasingly open space, only then would penalties rear their ugly head. After all, the 120 minutes per player limit would exhaust all other alternatives.

Again, this has nothing to do with the Crew losing. I’ve always felt this way about penalties. But after hearing Frankie talk about how he and Pablo said they would prefer to decide it on the field, I thought I would vent a little and offer my dream solution. Not that it will ever happen.

(I didn’t bring this up to any of the players because I figured that the day they got eliminated by PKs was not a fair time to ask them about my scheme.)

THE LOCKER ROOM

The locker room was disappointed, sure, but it wasn’t a morgue. The locker room after the Open Cup final was painfully silent. This was different. I think there are a few explanations for that.

First is the fact that the Crew won the game, even if they lost the PK shootout. It’s a weird set of emotions. Had it been a regular season game, it would have been a triumphant locker room, and the only lament would have been that the score could have been much more lopsided based on the chances. But this situation was emotionally confusing.

“This time, we actually won the game, but got eliminated on penalties,” said Gruenebaum. “It’s a weird feeling to win a game, then continue on and get eliminated on penalties.”

“It feels strange because you win a game, but then lose penalties,” Hejduk agreed. “You win but you lose. I don’t know how to explain it.”

The second explanation is that the coaching staff made sure the players remained positive.

“It’s pretty much our coach,” said Rogers. “Bobby (Warzycha) told us, ‘Hey, we won. You guys played well. Sometimes you lose on penalties, but that’s just how the game is. It can be cruel.’ Next season, I am sure there will plenty of guys around to be motivated by this loss.”

And the final explanation is that the Crew were just comfortable in their own skin. They knew that they gave their all. They knew that based on the chances they created, they are largely to blame for not winning the series outright. They knew that PKs are fickle. And they knew they gave a good account of themselves over a long and grueling season.

“It was a successful season,” Rogers said. “We got to the Open Cup Final. We got out of our group in Champions League. We made the MLS playoffs again. We won today, but we’re out.”

GUILLE SPEAK

Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s postgame comments drew a lot of fire from MLSsoccer.com’s locally reviled generator of contrived tabloid controversies, Simon Borg, but I feel that Borg completely mischaracterized the state of the Crew’s locker room. I suppose that can happen when you come in from out of town and don’t really know the guys that you are dealing with, and also start with a flawed and faulty premise that the “reality” was that the Rapids “were the better team in both the first leg and the second leg,” although the chances and the scoreboard painted a very different picture. Apparently Borg wanted to see Crew players sobbing in the fetal position and declaring that the Rapids were unquestionably their thoroughly dominant masters. Instead, he saw a team own up to its own mistakes and recognize that its squandered opportunities on the day also squandered the opportunity to host the conference final.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto said that the Rapids were lucky that the Crew blew myriad chances, and that he felt that the Crew were the better team. He also twice congratulated the Rapids for advancing to the second round. How any of this was out of line with what transpired, or was out of line with professional decorum, is beyond me.

Anyway, here are some Schelotto quotes, reprinted here in their actual, unedited Guille-ese, as always.

“I think in the 90 minute we play for to win,” Schelotto said. “We create big chance in the first half, but sometime it happen with the post and the line and we get only one. Then they score 2-1, finish penalty, we out. I think we tune the match in this game. I think we know what we were doing on the field today. Everyone in the stadium saw a very good team playing in the 90 minutes. They have Casey and they have Cummings and they got one possibility and they tied the game. That’s it.

“I think we had a lot of great chances in the first 45 minutes. Somebody take the ball on the line, Eddie Gaven hitting the post one time,  Mendoza got a possibility, Frankie got a possibility in extra time… but it can be difficult we get again out, because last year we were winning 2-0 and same thing today but same thing happen.

“I don’t know how you explain, because I think we are better than Colorado. They get the second round. Congratulation for them, but I can feel that we are better.”

Schelotto cramped up at the end of extra-time, right before the penalty kick shootout.

“Cramp, just in 120 minutes, for the last two or three minutes,” he said. “But I feel good for shoot penalty kick. I think the penalties isn’t true about soccer because we play much better than them for 90 minutes, 120 minutes, and we have to win. We have great chance. I know they had lot of chance in the first game in Colorado, but not like we had today.  I think we are better, but they get the second round. Congratulation them.”

Since Borg took great exception to Guille’s comment that he feels the Crew are better, let us consider that there are many ways to evaluate “better.”  To wit, I have compiled the following chart that shows some prime considerations from 2010:

 
  CREW RAPIDS EDGE
30-Game MLS Season 50 points (while waging a three-front war across the continent) 46 points
Regular Season head to head 1-1-0 / 3-2 agg 1-1-0 / 2-3 agg
U.S. Open Cup Advanced to final Eliminated in MLS qualifying
CONCACAF Champions League Eliminated in spring quarterfinal (4-5 agg vs. Toluca) // Advanced out of group stage in the fall. DNQ // DNQ
Playoff head to head 1-1-0 / 2-2 agg 1-1-0 / 2-2 agg EVEN
Goals scored in PK tiebreaker 4 5

Was Schelotto supposed to consult the above chart, which didn’t even account for the Crew’s edge in prime ball-on-boot scoring chances in the series, and tell Borg, “Yes, by virtue of a penalty kick shootout, the Colorado Rapids have proven that they are unquestionably better than us!”

Besides, asking if the better team won is irrelevant because the playoffs are not about determining the “better” team in a general sense. They are about determining the better team on that specific day or on that specific week. And that’s fine. I have no problem with playoffs. I love them. I love the big thrills and disappointments that come with do-or-die moments when everything is on the line. But I also recognize that the “better” team over the long haul may not win. This year’s MLS Cup will feature #4 Dallas vs. #7 Colorado. That’s fine by me. They earned it.

And with the above chart, I don’t mean to imply that there was a huge gap in quality between the Crew and Rapids. This year had the best playoff field in MLS history. As the size of the league grows, the odds of a crappy team making the playoffs diminishes. The last playoff seeds this year had 46 points, which is a very solid total and easily the best playoff cutoff mark in MLS history. The Rapids are no slouches. In this series, neither team could beat the other over 210 minutes, so it went to penalty kicks. Literally the only advantage the Rapids have on that chart is a penalty kick shootout. But that’s what it took to advance. The Rapids advanced fair and square. But I can completely understand why Schelotto or anyone else would feel that the Crew are “better” in the overall sense. It’s not that hard of a concept to grasp.

Also worth noting for those who read Borg’s hit piece, nobody on the Crew stated that they should have advanced in Colorado’s place. They didn’t badmouth the Rapids. (Except for Rogers griping about getting hacked in Colorado, but he said every other team does it too because “it’s not rocket science.”)  Even Guille’s “luck” comment was not a Rapids insult, but an admission of the Crew’s failure, for which they paid the ultimate price. In fact, many players credited the Rapids for hanging in there and making a clutch play to tie the series with just minutes to play. So just know that the locker room was nowhere near as bitter or delusional as Borg seemed to imply, based a few honest and understandable responses to the overly broad and utterly irrelevant question, “Did the better team advance?”

But faux tabloid controversies are so much more fun to write.

FROM THE HEART OF THE CAPTAIN

As always, Frankie Hejduk was the last player left in the locker room. With the place pretty much cleared out, Hejduk reflected on the season.

“If there’s anything that’s more of a buzzkill in sports than this, I don’t know what it is,” he said. “It doesn’t exist. This wasn’t a fun way to go out, but I think we went out fighting. I think we can hang our heads high. [Note: I wasn’t sure if he meant “we can’t hang our heads” or “we can hold our heads high”, but then decided that “we can hang our heads high” was its own kind of twisted linguistic genius that accurately summed up the situation.] We didn’t give up all year, no matter how many games we played. We dug deep tonight to play those 120 minutes. I think we can hang our heads high. After all those games and the schedule given to us by MLS, we did our best. We have nothing to be ashamed about. We can be disappointed, but we can’t be ashamed. We went out fighting.

“If you would have said before the season that you could be in the Open Cup final, could be in the Supporters’ Shield race in September, could be in the race for the East with one game to play, could make the playoffs, and could advance to the next round of Champions League, I would have taken that in a heartbeat. It turns out that none of them really went our way in the end, except for advancing in Champions League, but it’s not easy to play all of the games one after another, and to fly everywhere, and to try to be fresh week in and week out. In 2008, it was a whole different beast. You can’t compare them. In 2008, we were fresh every single game. We were fresh week in and week out. But because of the amount of games this year, you can’t always be fresh. You have to dig deep and play at 80% or 85%. I think we did well in handling all of those games and doing as well as we did.

“There are a lot of teams that would love to be in our position. The end results didn’t really go our way, but I will take this season any day over many other seasons. I am sure a lot of players and a lot of teams would agree with me. We had plenty of victories this year. That was fun.”

And with that, the Dude smiled and offered me a high-five. Then he walked away with his head hung high.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: SCHEDULE IMBALANCE EDITION

We’ve heard a lot about the Crew’s brutal schedule this year, and Frankie’s comments about playing at 80-85 percent freshness game in and game out got me to wondering about how schedule disparities impact the playoffs. After all, from a Crew perspective, the fresh 2008 team marched straight to the MLS Cup podium, while the weary 2009 and 2010 teams were eliminated in the first playoff round.

I was about to dig into it when I saw that the fine folks at Climbing the Ladder (http://usasoccer.blogspot.com/) beat me to the punch and spared me hours of research. They calculated playoff records based on a number of random factors, such as top goal scorer, away record, the comparative age of the two coaches, etc. You can read their blog for the full results, or for many other fascinating statistical nuggets. But in their research, they found that the number one predictor of first round playoff matchups is the difference in games played by each of the two teams.

Since the current playoff format started in 2003, there have been 25 first round series in which one team had played more competitive matches heading into the playoffs than did their opponent. The team that played fewer games has advanced in 18 of the 25 instances, for an astonishing 72 percent rate of advancement.

The magic number appears to be more than five games’ difference. Teams that have played more than five additional games than their opponent are 0-7 in first round series.

Actually, a more practical cutoff seems to be more than three games. For series where the difference was three games or fewer, the team with more games is 6-7 in first round series. It’s pretty much a wash. But teams that have played more than three additional games than their opponent are 1-11 in first round series. That’s a .083 series winning percentage! And based on the 12 series sample size, the latter number calculates to being statistically significant at 98 percent confidence, so it does not appear to be a fluke. The only team to advance with a discrepancy larger than three games was the 2009 Houston Dynamo, who advanced past Seattle despite playing five more competitive matches than the expansion Sounders.

This year, the Crew played 42 competitive matches heading into the playoffs. The Rapids played 32. That ten-game spread is tied for the second largest in playoff history. D.C. United played ten more matches than Chicago in 2007, and Houston played a whopping 14 more matches than the Red Bulls in 2008. (So the Crew doubly benefitted from this trend in 2008.)

Although four or five or six additional games may not seem like a lot, the numbers go to show that the talk of schedule congestion is more than just lip service. There are now eight seasons of data to back up the notion that playing even a moderately heavier schedule than your first round opponent is a recipe for doom. And the fact that the CONCACAF Champions League group stage runs concurrent to the MLS stretch run seems to play a role in that. Since the CCL expanded to include group play in 2009, MLS participants have lost 5 of 6 first round playoff series. Maybe it’s a hidden blessing that the Crew won’t have to contend with that circus next fall.

Again, I must offer a big thank you to Climbing the Latter, as this section was calculated and written based on the research and raw data posted on their blog. If you enjoy the Mr. Numbers Nerd segments in my Notebooks, you should definitely bookmark Climbing the Ladder. It’s a tremendous resource and a treasure chest of unique statistical compilations.

THE FUTURE

Changes will be in store for the 2011 Crew. That’s for certain. The question is the matter of degree. Only goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum is out of contract, but an expansion draft looms, trades are a possibility, and some elder statesmen could be in contract option limbo.

No question mark is more prominent than Schelotto, whose contract contains a team option for next season. Guille got a lump in his throat when asked if he had played his last game.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think no, but sometime you have to take a decision with the coach, with the manager, with the owner. I want to keep playing here because I feel good. I hope to stay here in Columbus. After December, they have the option for next year. If they do not pick up the option, I do not know what can happen.”

At the postgame press conference, Crew coach Robert Warzycha dismissed the notion that it could possibly be the end of an era, depending on who doesn’t come back.
 
“I don't think it’s the end of an era, because as a team we're going to continue to win the games and we're going to continue to be successful,” he said. “So maybe we're not going to be the same personnel, maybe we're not going to have the same players, but this happens every year. When we won the championships in 2008, and then last year, there were some new players. So it’s going to happen next year. That's how leagues operate and how every single club around the world operates. You always want to get better.”

When asked specifically about Schelotto, Warzycha said, “There's a lot of things coming up, so we'll see how it goes. Everybody's future is something we're going to discuss. We'll let everyone know when the time comes.”

And so we wait…

SURGICAL MIX-UP

Let’s end this rambling mess with some fun items. When I saw Danny O’Rourke hobbling on crutches by the field before the game, I couldn’t help but notice how out of proportion his legs were. Check out this photo:

His right leg (on the left of the photo) appears to be normal sized, but his other leg was practically bursting out of his jeans, Incredible Hulk style. Some might of have just assumed that he was wearing a leg brace under his jeans, but Danny gave me the real scoop on what happened.

“I thought I was just getting some stuff cleaned out of my knee,” he said, “but they accidentally transplanted one of Emilio’s legs onto me.”

Not so coincidentally, Emilio Renteria, the Crew’s ultra-muscular Venezuelan, also underwent recent knee surgery. Apparently, Dr. Edwards removes the limbs from the body, fixes them up, and then reattaches them when they are good to go. And in this case, the wrong leg evidently got put on the wrong body.

“It doesn’t match the rest of me,” O’Rourke said, “but it’s ripped.”

Laughing at the sight from afar, Duncan Oughton came over to take a closer look at O’Rourke’s mismatched limb.

“Either he got one of Emilio’s legs by mistake,” Oughton said, “or Danny does steroids, but only in one leg.”  

LOCKER ROOM ART

As Nesta Hejduk and I knocked a ball around the empty locker room, I noticed the following drawing on the white board:

After assessing the artistic merit of the drawing, I asked 12-year-old Nesta if he was the one who had created it.

“No, my dad did,” he replied. “He drew it for my little brother.”

“What’s it of?” I asked.

“A tree and a house,” he matter-of-factly replied.

By now, you’d think I’d have a firm grasp of the fact that if you ask a stupid question, you can expect a stupid answer. But what I was really getting at was the specifics of the scene. When the elder Hejduk returned to his locker, I asked him about the drawing.

“That’s our family,” Frankie explained. “Dude, I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, but I tried. That’s me and my wife standing in front of the house. She’s doing some gardening. She has some really big hands in this drawing, for some reason. Like I said, I can’t draw. Anyway, it’s a nice day outside, and we’re out there, and that’s Nesta on the swing and that’s Coasten going down the slide. So that’s it, dude. It’s just our family having fun together.”

While everyone would prefer to be prepping for MLS Cup, the offseason can offer its own solaces and silver linings.

THANKS

I will try to keep this short, but again, I must admit that the Notebook is a production far greater than I can manage on my own. First and foremost, the players make it possible by graciously showing their personalities and sharing personal tidbits, answering ill-conceived and poorly articulated soccer questions to the best of their ability, and tolerating my snooping presence in general. This was especially true while I was embedded with them on the Seattle trip for the Open Cup final. They are a first-class group of guys that you can be proud to root for.

Heck, even Crew alumni Mike Clark, Jon Busch, Brian Dunseth, and Alejandro Moreno stepped up to make fantastic Notebook contributions this year. “Columbus ‘Til I Die” may be more than a fan slogan.

Organizational support is also important to producing this gibberish. Dave Stephany has to put up with me the most, but T.J. Ansley, Jason Smith, Marco Rosa, Mark McCullers, Brian Bliss, Robert Warzycha, Rusty Wummel and the invaluable Tucker Walther always saw to it that I had what I needed whenever I needed it. And my “needs” can be a bit unorthodox from time to time. As Bliss said after proudly posing for a photo with his Bobby Dazzler shoes, “No other TD in the league is going to give you stuff like this.” Whether that says more about my good fortune or Blissy’s unlikely shoe fetish remains to be seen, but it’s appreciated nonetheless.

Fellow media members remain a consistent source of camaraderie, information, and education. I continue to benefit from the professional experience and mental generosity of Shawn Mitchell and Craig Merz. Dwight Burgess and my Slovenian brother Neil Sika made great road trip chauffeurs, with their driving skills surpassed only by their ability to entertain me while doing so. Sam Fahmi and Jason Mowry kindly let me use their photos if I needed them to better tell a story. Patrick Guldan’s unerring knack for asking the most poorly received press conference question week after week made me feel better about myself. Matt Bernhardt’s insistence on publishing full transcriptions of postgame press conferences tacked several hours back onto my life. Jess Laicy sometimes kept me company on my press box stoop, and periodically provided me with yummy banana cupcakes. Dante being Dante is always a welcome part of my Crew experience. I could go on, but your eyes are surely glazing over at this point.

So before that happens, I will conclude by thanking you, the Crew fans who read my self-indulgently lengthy ramblings throughout the season. This whole endeavor is ultimately about bringing you closer to the team and giving you something fun to read until your legs go numb on the toilet. Your questions and comments throughout the year have been very much appreciated. I consider myself fortunate that Crew fans tend to be supportive, passionate, and massively awesome. So thank you.

Well, that’s it for the Notebooks this year. I think I speak for everyone in Crewville when I say that February 22, 2011, can’t get here soon enough.

Questions? Comments? Ever see a masked man in a raccoon-tailed chinchilla thong doing pushups in public in the Short North? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via Twitter @stevesirk