Sirk's Notebook: Crew 0 - RSL 0

Champions League notes plus a Lockerroom makeover

Emillio Renteria

Photo Credit: 
TheCrew.com

One of the great things about the CONCACAF Champions League is that it’s an opportunity to square off against exotic foreign clubs that one would rarely, if ever, see otherwise. Well, unless you draw another MLS team. The only thing foreign and exotic about Real Salt Lake is the laughable Spanish prefix in their silly club name.

And one of the great things about playing in Crew Stadium in February is that the weather totally psyches out the visiting team. The Mexican National Team refused to warm up before the 2001 World Cup qualifier for fear that they would shatter to the touch. And Toluca never really looked all that comfortable in their 2010 CCL match. But playing Salt Lake doesn’t have nearly the same oomph as whisking a team away from a tropical beach, rain forest, or other common CONCACAF climate and plopping them into The Ice Cube Tray That Lamar Built. I mean, what effect could an 18-degree wind chill and a little snow have on a team based in the mountains of Utah?

Apparently, a lot. After the Crew and Real Salt Lake played to a shot-deprived 0-0 draw on a frosty field littered with residual sleet pellets from Monday night’s rain/sleet/snow potluck o’ precipitation, RSL coach Jason Kreis seemed awfully concerned about the conditions and how they affected his team.

“I have to say that it’s difficult to play a soccer match when the field is frozen the way it was,” he said. “It affected possession and it affected the soccer match.”

And the explanation for the Crew holding RSL to zero shots on goal for 90 minutes?

“I think more than anything, it was the conditions for the match tonight,” he offered. “It’s just difficult. It’s hard to possess the ball.”

And how about his team’s outlook for that return leg next week?

“I am hopeful that we will have better weather, and I am hopeful that we will have a better field condition,” he said. “Our field will be covered, so it will not be affected by snow. I’m not sure why this field wasn’t (covered.) I was told it would be covered. So that’s a concern. Hopefully we will create a better pitch.”

The Crew’s VP of Operations, Scott DeBolt, explained to Shawn Mitchell of the Columbus Dispatch that covering a damp field in these conditions could cause long-term damage. Nevertheless, one can only hope that Brett Tanner and his staff, who recently received the 2010 Sportsturf Professional Soccer Field of the Year Award, have been taking extensively detailed lawn care notes from a visiting soccer coach.
 
But maybe the grounds crew had an ulterior motive in their deviation from Kreis’s Immutable Laws of Turf Management. Anyone got a conspiracy theory? Anybody? How about you, RSL defender Nat Borchers?

“I was quite surprised (the field) wasn’t covered,” said Borchers. “To be fair, I think that was the game they wanted. When you’re playing a possession-oriented team, you want to leave some snow and ice on the pitch to make it harder for us.”

I guess there’s just something about Crew Stadium in February. It drives visitors crazy, no matter where they’re from.

CREW NOT FAZED

Before the game, I wander out and took a picture of one of the bad bits of the field, where there were small accumulations of sleet pellets. Here’s what it looked like:

Was it ideal? Of course not. But it’s not like passing the ball would result in one of those ever-growing cartoon snow boulders. As possessors of the ball for most of the match, and therefore the team that would be most affected by the conditions, the Crew didn’t think the field had much of an impact.

“There weren’t a lot of bad passes where the ball would skip over the foot,” noted Crew coach Robert Warzycha, who felt that, if anything, the field maybe resulted in less one-touch passing because players wanted to the comfort and safety of an extra touch.

“There were ice pellets and there were some grooves,” said midfielder Robbie Rogers. “Both teams had to play on it, and I don’t think the game was too sloppy. I thought it was good overall and that the weather wasn’t that big of an effect.”

Andy Iro said there was the occasional bad bounce, but the frozen, sleety field had more of an effect on him defensively than offensively.

“I tried to keep the slide tackles to a minimum,” he said.

WARZYCHA DOESN’T TAKE THE BAIT

One last field-related nugget. After Kreis repeatedly went out of his way to voice his displeasure over the field conditions, MLSSoccer.com’s Simon Borg had a meaty hook. As Crew fans are no doubt aware, Borg loves stirring the pot. After Kreis’s press conference, the field definitely became a legitimate storyline, so Borg went to work on trying to provoke follow-up reactions. Unfortunately for him, Robert Warzycha doesn’t have much patience for such transparent provocation, which resulted in this hilariously succinct exchange:

SB:     Jason Kreis, the Real Salt Lake coach, said that he expected the field to be covered, and that the Salt Lake field WILL be covered. He was disappointed in the field conditions. Do you have any reaction?

RW:     No.

DUAL EJECTIONS

The other controversy on the night was the dual ejections of Crew forward Emilio Renteria and Salt Lake defender Nat Borchers in the 72nd minute. The cards came after Renteria was found lying on the grass behind the play. After consulting with the assistant referee, center ref Jair Marrufo issued a red card to Renteria and then to Borchers.

Replays never revealed what Renteria might have done, and neither coach professed to have any knowledge of what transpired, but Borchers was more than happy to fill everyone in with his recollection of the events.

“Myself and Renteria were battling for position,” Borchers said. “He took a swing at me with his elbow and connected. Then he tried to run through and I picked up knee up, and then he fell over and made a meal out of it. I think that it was really unfortunate. If you want to use an analogy, what I did was petty theft, and what he did was a first-degree felony. It’s going to be interesting to see how CONCACAF deals with this incident. I hope they caught it on tape because it was a very unfair judgment against me. I’m really disappointed. Did I retaliate? Yes. Was my retaliation a red-cardable offense? No chance.”

When asked to reiterate the precise nature of Renteria’s first-degree felony, Borchers obliged.

“Elbow up,” he said. “Hit me right in the neck. Had I not backed off him as he hit me, I might be speaking to you through a breathing tube tonight. I thought it was bad play on his part. In the heat of the battle, you can do stupid things, but that was bad from him. Unfortunately, the referees didn’t catch it.”

A little while later, Renteria fielded questions. Simon Borg was kind enough to translate. When Borg relayed Borchers’ version of events, I don’t think I can accurately convey how funny it was to see Renteria’s look of wide-eyed befuddlement. I couldn’t understand a single word of the conversation other than “Nat Borchers”, but it was clear that Borg told Renteria what Borchers said, and it was abundantly clear that Renteria was incredulously gobsmacked by the accusation.

“I am not one who hits central defenders,” Renteria said. “Every time I was looking for the ball, he would hit me, but I am not one to hit defenders. I hit him in the hand, but I never gave an elbow. I hit him on the hand, and then Borchers kicked me with his foot.”

We will never know for sure, barring any new video footage, but like most disagreements of this nature, the truth is probably in the middle. Given that the assistant referee got Renteria tossed, his elbow surely got up. My guess is that Emilio went to swat away at the hand of a jersey-clutching Borchers, and as a result, inadvertently caught Borchers with an elbow. Borchers would understandably be furious about catching an elbow in the throat, just as anyone would, and Renteria would be incredulous at the thought that he was intentionally throwing head-hunting elbows like Andy Herron on Jay Heaps. That’s all conjecture on my part since there’s no video, but it’s a very real possibility that both players were being perfectly honest in their differing versions of the truth.

A SURPRISE RESULT?

Most observers expected Salt Lake’s well-oiled machine to take it to the refurbished Crew. The Royals were playing at full strength with a lineup that contended for the Supporters’ Shield until the final day of the 2010 season, while the only thing stopping the Crew from handing out nametags was the fact that the backs of soccer jerseys already serve that function. Despite playing with five brand-new players in the starting lineup, the Crew dominated the first half. In the latter 45 minutes, Columbus controlled much of the game thanks to a man advantage after Tony Beltran’s 53rd minute ejection, but Salt Lake settled in against a strangely unassertive second-half Crew to grind out a 0-0 result.

Kreis rebuffed the idea that the game favored Salt Lake on paper, saying, “I don’t think you do justice to the league or to any team by saying, ‘On paper, this or that.’ The answers are always found in between the lines over the course of 90 minutes.”

The Crew seemed encouraged by some of the answers they found.

“I thought we were the better side for most of the game,” said Crew forward Jeff Cunningham. “They did what they came here to do, which was to sit back and not give up a goal. They executed their game plan. However, as a team, I thought we played great. We just didn’t get the goals that we needed.”

“I was impressed with the way we came out and the way we played against them,” said Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers. “We created some good chances and we limited them to nothing. I thought it was really positive. It was our first game, so it’s only going to get better. (The second leg’s) going to be difficult in Salt Lake. They have a really good team, but if we play the way we did in the first half, I think we can get the result.”

THE ENGLISH CAPTAIN

Back in the training camp Notebook, I babbled a bit about potential captains. To give you an idea of how unqualified I am to babble about such things, the player wearing the armband Tuesday night was a player I didn’t even mention: Andy Iro.

“I dunno man,” said Iro of his surprise captaincy. “I think between the guys that got waived, traded, and hurt, I became El Capitan by default. Whatever, man. I’ll take it.”

Well then. Maybe I shouldn’t feel bad for whiffing on that one after all. But Iro’s steady play while wearing the armband is yet another testament to his continued growth as a player. He made a huge step forward in 2010, and armband or not, he will have a leadership role on this young team.

On Tuesday, Iro found himself surrounded by new faces. He was joined on the back line by first-round draft pick Rich Balchan and newcomers Sebastian Miranda and Josh Gardner. Behind him, goalkeeper Ray Burse made his Crew debut, and in front of the back line, midfielder Cole Grossman made his first professional start.

Iro downplayed the idea that he was the anchor of that bunch, which limited Salt Lake’s potent roster to zero shots on goal.

“They’re each very good players,” Iro said. “Maybe some of them were a little more nervous than others, so there was a little calming down them down. But they held their own against some very good players.”

The captain was especially proud of Grossman’s work on Salt Lake’s offensive engine, Javier Morales.

“Cole was impressive,” Iro said. “Morales is one of the best players in this league. If you shut a player like Morales down, then you’ve obviously had a good night. You can go home and enjoy yourself a little bit. Hopefully he lets off some steam, because he was running all over the place tonight, He’s just a guy who does whatever he’s told to do. For me, it was pretty easy. I was just able to direct guys who were willing to learn and willing to move, and they are all good enough players to hold their own.”

Iro also felt that everyone in the back was comfortable on the ball, which will help the Crew’s possession game.

“As long as we keep the ball away from me, we’ll be alright back there,” he said.

A HAPPY HOMECOMING

For the first time since October 31, 2004, Jeff Cunningham set foot on the Crew Stadium field while dressed in the home colors. The Crew’s co-(for-now)-all-time-leading-goalscorer entered the match in the 75th minute. He received a welcoming ovation from the frigid audience.

“It was great, man,” Cunningham said of that moment.  “The reception that I got was definitely heartfelt. I felt like a rookie again. That was great. The fans really made me feel good.”

Cunningham is excited to be back with the Crew for his 14th MLS season. After spending some time in training camp with the influx of youngsters, the veteran thinks his second tour of duty in Columbus is going to be a good one.

“I think Robert has high expectations for this club,” he said. “The group that he has brought in is a good team. It’s a building process, and we’re still in the infancy stage, but I am confident that we are going to do well this season. A little patience may be required, but I think we’ll do well as a team. There’s some good talent, and I think these guys are going to open some eyes this season.”

UNFAMILIAR NUMBERS

Cunningham and Iro took the field in brand new numbers. Iro donned #4, while Cunningham wore #33.

Cunningham wore #11 for seven years while scoring 62 league goals for the Crew. Now that he has returned to his original club looking to set the career goal-scoring record for both the Crew and the league, he will be doing it in an unfamiliar number. He didn’t pull rank to reclaim his #11, which currently belongs to second-year midfielder Dilly Duka.

“That number has a special meaning to him as well,” Cunningham said of Duka. “These young guys have a bright future ahead of them. I’m a team player, so I’m just going to kick back and let them do their thing.”

Meanwhile, Iro has had designs on the #4 shirt since the day he was drafted. However, fellow 2008 newcomer Gino Padula got it, despite Iro’s incessant pestering of team equipment manager Rusty Wummel.

“Me and Gino came in together in 2008,” said Iro, “and I kept asking Rusty, ‘Can I get four? Can I get four?’ He was probably like, ‘Ahhh, who’s this rookie who keeps asking for number four?’ and so he gave it to Gino. I mean, Gino was already like 35 years old back in 2008 anyway, so he got it. But it’s a number that I have had a lot of success with back in college. It holds a good place in my heart, so why not, you know? It worked out well. First time I wore it, I got to be captain!”

I noted that Iro took a page out of the Robbie Rogers playbook by actively changing his number.

“Robbie’s an inspiration to me,” Iro deadpanned.

I relayed the message to Rogers.

“If you want to change your number, you just have to be a man and change your number,” Rogers said. “It’s just a number. I didn’t even know Iro changed his number, to be honest. What number is he now?”

He finally got Gino’s #4.

“In that case,” Rogers joked, “I should just take #7 and wear Guille’s number. That would be funny.”
 
Rogers and Schelotto remain close friends. They speak to each other every few days.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: CREW NUMBER CHANGES

Tuesday night, Iro and Cunningham became the 14th and 15th Crew players to make appearances in two different jersey numbers in their Crew career. Among those who also did the deed are current assistant coaches Mike Lapper and Ricardo Iribarren. Here’s the full list of double-dippers, in alphabetical order:

Ubusuku Abukusumo: #25 (1998), #4 (1999)
Roland Aguilera: #7 (2000), #4 (2001)
Matt Chulis: #15 (1999), #5 (2000)
Jeff Cunningham: #11 (1998-2004), #33 (present)
Ansil Elcock: #2 (1997), #13 (1998-2001)
Andy Gruenebaum: #28 (2006), #30 (2007-present)
Ricardo Iribarren: #21 (1996), #4 (1998)
Andy Iro: #6 (2008-2010), #4 (present)
Manny Lagos: #22 (2004), #11 (2005)
Mike Lapper: #11 (1997), #2 (1998-2002)
Chris Leitch: #23 (2003), #33 (2006)
Kyle Martino: #21 (2002-2004), #10 (2005-2006)
Robbie Rogers: #19 (2007-2009), #18 (2010-present)
Dante Washington: #9 (2000-2003), #99 (2004)
Chris Wingert: #19 (2004-2005), #3 (2005)

MR. NUMBERS NERD: 4x11 EDITION

No jersey in Crew history has graced more backs than the #4 shirt. Iro is now the 11th player in Crew history to wear #4. The others? Janusz Michallik (1996-1997), Iribarren (1998), Abukusumo (1999), Mario Gori (2000), Aguilera (2001), Daniel Torres (2002-2003), Mark Williams (2003), Robin Fraser (2004-2005), Rusty Pierce (2006-2007), and Padula (2008-2010).

Oddly enough, Iro is the fourth player to switch his number to #4, along with Iribarren, Abukusumo, and Aguilera. And Cunningham is the second player to move to #33. No other numbers have been switched to more than once.

LOCKER ROOM REDECORATION

The Crew’s locker room got a facelift over the offseason. I have some crappy cell phone photos to pass along. I apologize in advance for some of the glare on the photos, but it was hard to find angles without glare from the lights.

First up, the door to the locker room is now emblazoned with a massive Crew logo. A silver star representing the 2008 MLS Cup title adorns the wall above the doorway.

A few feet inside the locker room, one can find Lamar’s rock. This used to be located in the tunnel, but now the rock that was hand-picked by Lamar Hunt during Crew Stadium’s excavation is prominently displayed in the locker room. I was informed by a very reliable source that the Crew’s director of team operations, Tucker Walther, moved the rock and its pedestal inside all by himself. (“I picked the whole thing up just like I am picking up this beer,” he assured me in the midst of an impressive 12-ounce curl.)

With the expanded rosters, the Crew needed more lockers. One of the whiteboard walls has been converted into additional locker space. Mounted above the new lockers are five plaques commemorating the Crew’s five domestic championships.

Here’s a glare-filled close-up of the 2008 MLS Cup plaque:

And along the back wall, the words “Columbus Crew” are now emblazoned in the familiar Copperplate font. Here’s a shot of the nice big “Columbus”:

I asked Iro for his thought on the spruced-up digs.

“It’s good,” he said. “I think Tucker’s been here during the offseason. He did a nice little paint job. I think the letters are a little off right there, but you can’t blame him. I think the U’s a little off.”

Head athletic trainer Dave Lagow was beside himself. “That’s classic Iro!” he bellowed. “Nothing is ever good enough for him! ‘We’ve added some touches to the locker room this year.’ ‘Yeah, it’s good I guess, but the U’s off.’ Unbelievable! Typical Iro.”

“What?” Iro retorted. “I said Tucker did a nice little paint job. And with those championship plaques.”

“I made them by hand,” Tucker confirmed. “I hand-crafted them out of black onyx.”

“It looks nice,” Iro reassured him. “This locker room is looking really nice. Now if we can just get a nice hot tub, that would nice as well.”

“Consider it done,” Tucker said, now granting wishes as if he were a genie. “I’ll fill up a tub with hot water, and all you have to do is fart. Problem solved.”

 
ROBBIE’S ESPANOL

Last month, Rogers told me that his Spanish has been improving. Tuesday, I asked if that has helped him communicate with some of his teammates.

“It’s easier for me to speak with Andres and Emilio because their accents aren’t as crazy as the Argentine accent,” he said. “With Gino and Guille, it’s difficult because they say [gives examples of funky Argentine talk]. But when you speak with Emilio and Andres, it’s more like the Mexican accents you hear in California, so it’s more familiar to me. It’s way more similar than the Argentine accent.”

VADIM’S KIND OF WEATHER. OR NOT.

Given the wind chill and the icy conditions, it seemed that Crew goalkeeper coach Vadim Kirilov would feel right at home. Being from Moscow, this seemed like Vadim’s kind of weather. Surely he was in his element.

“In Moscow, it is a little bit colder,” he informed me. “It is about 20 below.”

So what Arizona was to Columbus, Columbus is to Moscow?

“I like the weather in Arizona better,” he said.
 
Oh well. Another random theory shot down in flames.

CLEVELAND BEATS THE LAKERS

I thought it would be fun to torment die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan Robbie Rogers about his team’s recent loss to the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers. For the sensible among you who don’t follow NBA basketball, my hometown Cavs have the worst winning percentage in the NBA, recently set an NBA record by losing 26 consecutive games, and earlier this season, lost to the Lakers by the preposterous score of 112-57. Yet the second time around, they stunned the basketball world by avenging their 55-point loss with a 104-99 victory over Kobe Bryant and the two-time defending NBA champions.

“Oh my gosh,” Rogers said with a wince when I mentioned the game. “That was crazy. I was watching the updates on the game tracker on Yahoo while we were in Phoenix. I was joking around that we might lose. Then Ashleigh Ignelzi told me that we might lose, and I was like, ‘Whatever.’ But then we actually DID lose. To not come away with a win in Cleveland? That’s an all-time low for the Lakers.”

So losing to the Cavaliers was the absolute worst moment in LA Lakers history?

“Well, maybe not that bad,” he said. “We’re still contenders and we’re still the champs. But come on. It was a bummer.”

KIWI QUIP O’ THE NIGHT

Tuesday’s game marked Duncan Oughton’s debut as an announcer as he teamed with Dwight Burgess on the Crew’s webcast. Oughton will be providing color commentary on all of the Crew’s ONN television broadcasts this season.

At halftime, Burgess came into the press box and shared this Oughton gem. At one point, the Kiwi noted that a player would have been better served playing a pass into the center rather than out to the wing. Burgess told Oughton that one of the truths of broadcasting is that it’s much easier to see those types of things from up high in the booth.

Instantly drawing on his 10-year playing career, Oughton shot back, “I’ve seen it from the bench too.”

Questions? Comments? Think the Crew should always play with a yellow ball? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via Twitter @stevesirk