Sirk's Notebook: Pioneer Cup

Eddie Gaven's lack of beard and the soon-to-be Gruenebaum/Heinemann rock band

Crew lineup against FC Dallas

Photo Credit: 
Josh Couper / TheCrew.com

The Crew have traditionally excelled at dominating exclusive cup competitions against teams dressed in red. Not content to slap around Toronto’s Hapless Hosers year after year in the Trillium Cup, the Crew have set their sights higher by engaging in a cup competition against last year’s MLS Cup runner-up, FC Dallas. The Pioneer Cup will be contested between the two Hunt-owned teams in honor of Crew founder and eventual FC Dallas owner Lamar Hunt. The name Pioneer Cup is intended to pay tribute to Lamar Hunt’s legacy as an American sports pioneer. Also, it’s more tactful than competing for something called the “Vying for the Hunt Family’s Affections Cup.”

With a sibling rivalry cup on the line, the Crew did what they do with these types of competitions. They defeated the Hoops, 2-0, in a game that saw the Crew score at home for the first time since November. Columbus took advantage of a prolonged man advantage after mononymous Dallas midfielder Jackson responded to a 32nd minute yellow card tackle on Dejan Rusmir by committing a 33rd minute yellow card tackle on Eddie Gaven. Jackson’s reckless, open-field lumberjacking of Gaven within a minute of his previous caution was the equivalent of peeling out after receiving a speeding ticket. The Crew, playing the role of traffic court bursar, cashed in.

“Obviously, a win is a win,” said Crew coach Robert Warzycha. “Defensively, we played a very solid game against a very good team.”
 
Unlike February’s tentative 11-on-10 play against Real Salt Lake, the Crew took advantage of going a man up for nearly an hour.

“Sometimes it is tough to play with the man advantage because you think everything is going to fall your way,” Warzycha said. “With the man advantage, you actually have to play a little harder to punish the other team for being down a man.”

For the first time all year, the Crew actually did some punishing.

A HOME GOAL!

After scoreless draws in February and March, Crew Stadium patrons got to see an actual goal on the first day of April. In the 53rd minute, the Crew earned a penalty kick on a lovely bit of interplay. Center back Chad Marshall played a long, ground pass up the gut of the defense. Striker Andres Mendoza showed for the ball and laid it off, one-touch, to Eddie Gaven, who played a quick through ball for Emmanuel Ekpo. The nimble Nigerian slipped behind the Dallas defense, took a touch, and then got knocked to the ground by Hoops defender George John. Referee Jair Marrufo immediately pointed to the penalty spot.

“I saw the play was possible where Mendoza would play it straight to Eddie,” said Ekpo. “And I know Eddie is quite good on the ball, so I called to him and he played a perfect ball. I knew the defender was coming to get the ball, so all I needed was a little touch and then he was going to commit the foul. He did and it was a PK. It was because of a great ball from Eddie.”

It would have been a shame for that beautiful combination play to go to waste, but Andres Mendoza converted the 54th minute penalty kick to give the Crew a 1-0 lead. Mendoza hit a low, left-footed shot toward the right post. Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman read the shot beautifully, but the ball squeezed in under his outstretched arm.

“Hitting it well is a part of that,” Mendoza said through an interpreter. “He got a hand on it, but it still went in.”

Before the penalty kick, Mendoza and Robbie Rogers had a brief discussion. Rogers had converted a penalty during the Crew’s season-opening loss at D.C. United, and he made a brief lobbying effort before recognizing the potential future payoff of a Mendoza goal.

“I tried to tell him, ‘Hey, let’s keep it the same and let me take it,’” Rogers explained. “But he’s a striker and it’s his job to score goals. I wanted him to get that goal so that he can get a taste for it. Sometimes when strikers score a PK like that, it gets some momentum going and then they score more goals.”

CUNNINGHAM’S NEAR MISS

The Crew nearly doubled their lead in the 62nd minute thanks to a pair of offensive reinforcements. Striker Emilio Renteria subbed in at half, and he was joined by striker Jeff Cunningham in the 61st minute. Just one minute later, Renteria played a nifty back heel pass into Cunningham’s path inside the Dallas box. Cunningham’s first touch betrayed him, and then his ensuing shot went wide right.

“I wish I had that one back, man,” said Cunningham, whose next goal will set the Crew’s all-time scoring record and tie Jamie Moreno for the MLS scoring record. “It was too early in the match for me. It was a really good pass. For a second I thought I was offside, and then just being just introduced into the match and the excitement of the possible record-tying goal, there were a lot of emotions in that brief three-second piece of action. I wish I had that one back, but I’ll tell you what—I am happy that the team played well tonight. I think the three points will steer us in a positive direction going forward.”

A GOAL FROM THE RUN OF PLAY!

I don’t wish to diminish the Crew’s penalty kick goal, because there was some beautiful and intricate teamwork that created the opportunity, but Columbus really, really, really needed a goal from the run of play. They took their sweet time, but they finally got it in the 91st minute. Robbie Rogers played a square ball to Eddie Gaven at the top of the box. Gaven went to his left foot and buried a low bender just inside the left post.

“Robbie played me a great ball, so I had plenty of time,” Gaven said. “I just took a touch to my left foot and put it in the corner.”

Rogers seemed perplexed by the ease of the sequence.

“It was weird because their defense just, like, let me pass it to him,” he shrugged. “Maybe they were tired. I’m not going to complain.”

ANOTHER SHUTOUT

The Crew’s defense produced yet another goose egg on their home turf. The Crew have played 270 minutes at home, in all competitions, without allowing a goal in 2011.

“It’s not just the back line,” said rookie defender Rich Balchan. “It’s the whole unit. We’ve been focusing on our shape and having our forwards forcing them to one side and then having our midfielders shift. I think as a unit, it’s gotten a lot better.”

Despite the home shutout streak, Balchan is not content. After all, only half of the games are played at home. On the road in 2011, the Crew have surrendered four goals at Salt Lake and three goals at D.C.

“We need to be able to do this on the road too,” Balchan said. “It’s one thing to do it at home, but we need to be able to defend in a hostile environment too. It’s easier to play at home because you are confident, but you also need to be able to handle the crowd and handle the pressure of playing away. Now we need to do that when we go to LA to play Chivas.”

CUNNINGHAM PITCHES IN ON D

In the 72nd minute, Cunningham found himself in an uncustomary position. After a Dallas corner kick went through to the far side, Cunningham had to engage in some one-on-one defending in the Crew’s penalty area. He won his showdown with Daniel Hernandez, winning the ball and then playing it out for a throw-in.

“That was a situation where the team needed me to not do anything stupid,” Cunningham said. “Not to concede a penalty…not to hurt the team. I know Daniel pretty well and I almost knew what his decision was going to be in that position, so I just…I play a little defense every now and then when it’s needed. I don’t like to be in that position, that close to my goal. Forwards, we aren’t known for our tackling. It could have been a penalty because he fell and you never know with these referees nowadays, but yeah, I am just happy that I was able to not cost the team three points tonight.”

PRESSING THE ADVANTAGE

Warzycha made three offensive substitutions in the match, two of which came after the Crew already had a 1-0 lead. The coach did not opt to add more defenders in an effort to hang on for a 1-0 victory. Instead, he hoped to go for the throat, also noting that the best defense is a good offense.

“When you are playing at home with a man advantage, you have to believe that you can score goals,” Warzycha said. “You cannot just sit back and bunker in and see what happens. Sometimes you can get punished for that, so we tried to keep the ball as high as possible.”

The players were appreciative of the mindset. Rich Balchan noted that the defenders got to maintain their familiar rhythm. Robbie Rogers said the offensive players enjoyed their license to attack.

“We don’t need to be defensive,” Rogers said. “I think it was good that Bobby put on another striker in that situation. It helped us.”

CONFIDENCE BOOSTED

The players seemed upbeat after a much-needed three point outing.

“We needed this win to boost our morale,” said Ekpo. “We connected passes, and scored some goals, so I think from this game forward, our confidence will be better and we will understand each other better and we will score some more goals.”

Rogers agreed.

“Winning at home, scoring two goals, and getting the shutout is all great for the team’s morale,” Rogers said. “I would have been, not bummed, but it would have discouraged me a little bit if we didn’t score from the run of play tonight. I am really happy that Eddie got that goal .I’m excited to go to LA this weekend because I don’t think I have ever won against Chivas in LA. I think we have tied LA a few times before, but we’ve always lost to Chivas since I’ve been here.”

But hey, in terms of Home Depot Center victories, the Crew got the one that counted.

“True,” Rogers said of MLS Cup 2008. “I think that’s my only win out there. I want us to get another one.”

WIN BONUS?

Balchan experienced his first victory as a professional. Surely that’s reason enough to splurge with that first win bonus, right?

“I don’t know,” Balchan said. “I didn’t even know we got a win bonus. I am just more focused on moving forward and keeping the wins coming.”

I guess that means no spinning rims on the Balchanmobile.

THE BALLAD OF NO-BEARD

After last week’s scoreless draw against New York, Eddie Gaven vowed to shave off his preposterously thick Unabomber beard in the hope of turning around the team’s fortunes. Sure enough, the Crew got the victory and Gaven bagged a goal.

“I don’t know if that was a reason, but maybe there’s something to it,” Gaven said. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I will be able to grow it out now after that win. I probably will though. My face was freezing out there tonight.”

OUT OF CONTEXT QUOTE OF THE NIGHT

“I should smack your [butt] before every game!”—Fox Soccer Channel reporter Brian Dunseth to Crew head coach Robert Warzycha in the postgame tunnel.

The context is that after their taping their pre-game interview, Dunseth shocked his serious-minded ex-teammate by giving Warzycha one of those American football “attaboy” butt-slaps, much to everyone’s amusement. Apparently the victory was equal parts Eddie Gaven’s razor and Dunny’s comedic butt-slap.

NCAA POOL

The ultimate achievement in locker room other-sports-related competition would be to claim the fantasy football title AND win the NCAA basketball pool. Only one man had a shot at doing the two-sport double, and that was reigning fantasy football champion Danny O’Rourke.

With great anticipation of triumphant tales about bracket dominance, I approached the ultra-competitive O’Rourke for a status update on the team’s NCAA pool.

“I don’t know, man,” he said. “This tournament’s been brutal. I gave up on my brackets after the first weekend. I haven’t even been paying attention.”

With my hopes of O’Rourke’s compounded glory dashed, I turned to the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps this NCAA pool was going to be a story of redemption. Head athletic trainer Dave Lagow bombed in his first fantasy football season, so maybe he would make a heroic reversal with his brackets.

“I personally have a grudge against Andy Gruenebaum,” Lagow said, which sounded like a perfectly normal thing to say, but also not the words of a bracket leader. “He full-on jinxed me. I was sitting pretty up until Kansas lost. I had Kansas and North Carolina go down on successive nights. So I went from having Andy Gruenebaum shaking my hand and promising he would get me my money right away to being completely done and out of the running.”

Wait, Andy Gruenebaum is running the bracket pool?

“Exactly,” Lagow said. “The whole thing has been fixed from the beginning.”

As expected, Gruenebaum has denied fixing games in such a way to deprive people of their money.

“See, they say all that because they like to set you up just to kick you down,” Gruenebaum said. “I think they just wanted me to handle everyone’s money so they could make fun of me for it. I was encouraged by Will (Hesmer) to run a pool. It was a very inclusive pool, open to all of the players, their significant others, the trainers, and everyone. Now they’re trying to blame me because it was a weird tournament.”

The Hebrew Hammer said that his tourney pool was so open and accommodating that he even allowed O’Rourke and Lagow to enter multiple brackets, even though it didn’t do either of them any good.

“The thing is,” he said, “they each entered two brackets, but both of their brackets were similar. I don’t get that. And I don’t believe in that, either. I believe you should only enter one bracket. I believe in the Bracket of Integrity.”

Let’s move on to some results.

“Frano came in second,” Gbaum said of left back Shaun Francis. “Eddie Gaven came out of nowhere to finish third. He was dead and buried, and had Notre Dame winning it all, but he also had Connecticut going to the final. Once Kansas lost, everyone was pretty much out, and Connecticut kept racking up points for Eddie, and now he clinched third. He’s going to win $31. The rich get richer, right?”

And now, without further ado, the 2011 Columbus Crew locker room NCAA tournament bracket pool winner is…

“Korey Veeder won the pool,” Gruenebaum revealed, adding that the rookie was reluctant to participate. “The thing is, I had to hold a gun to his head to make him join. He didn’t want to, and I was like, ‘Come on, man. Be a part of the team. Join the pool.’ Now that he’s won the whole thing, I am going to keep half of his money for myself since he never would have joined if it wasn’t for me. Half the money is still more money than he would have won if he didn’t join, right?”

Gruenebaum’s wife, Lacey, was aghast.

“See!” she said. “This is exactly why you get your reputation!”

GRUENEBAUMS VS. HEINEMANNS

Andy and Lacey Gruenebaum have developed a fast friendship with new Crew striker Tom Heinemann and his wife, Katrina.

“We have a good time with them,” Andy said, “but it gets competitive. It’s like we have a series of events that we’re competing in. We took them two out of three at darts. We only played one game of poker, so it doesn’t count yet. Tom won, but there’s no way he deserved to win. I went all-in and he had no business staying in, and then he got lucky. But that was just one game, so it doesn’t count.”

The Heinemanns romped to indisputable victories in all hoops-related competitions.
 
“They crushed us in 2-on-2 basketball and Around the World,” Andy said. “I’m more of a Pop-a-Shot guy, like at Dave & Buster’s. Tom and Katrina both played basketball, but Lacey and I never did, so it was ugly.”

“Plus,” Lacey added, “they have a combined eight inches on the two of us.”

“We never even got set on offense,” Andy groused. “I would throw the ball to Lacey and then before I could even get into rebounding position, she would just throw it at the basket. It was awful.”

Lacey shrugged it off. “That was the first time I played basketball since probably 8th grade.”

The assertion baffled her husband. “Really? I would have guessed never.”

Next on the competition docket is the board game Settlers of Catan.

WYLD STALLYNS

It’s not all competition between Gbaum and Heinemann. They cooperate in other endeavors, such as music.

“Next up is my music career,” Gbaum said. “I’m learning to play the guitar. Tom can play and sing, so we need to get our band going. I am going to grow my hair out and wear a top hat like Slash. I’m working on bar chords now. I’m getting better. I’m doing pretty well for playing only six months.”

“That’s true,” Lacey said. “I can actually make out the songs he’s playing.”

“I can play ‘Karma Police’ by Radiohead,” Andy said. “I can play the intro to Sweet Child O’ Mine. It’s not clean like when Slash plays it, but I can play it. Slash is my hero. I want to be able to play guitar solos. Tom is cool with being mellow and strumming his guitar, so that’s perfect because that means I can be Slash and play all the guitar solos.”

So in future years, can we expect the Hebrew Hammer to sell out Crew Stadium as a guitar god instead of as a goalkeeper?

“We probably won’t play Columbus, to be honest with you,” he said of his future band. “We’ll probably play abroad because the music scene is so much more advanced in Europe. They’ll get us. But maybe we would play a Columbus show as a favor.”

NO SMOKING

After 25 years of smoking, Crew communications manager Marco Rosa was prompted to quit thanks in part to the persistent hounding of Andy Iro, Josh Gardner, and others. Rosa’s been cigarette-free since March 9.

“Iro’s been giving me a hard time since the end of last season,” Rosa said. “And then when this season started, the first thing he said to me was, “Hey, how are you doing? Are you still smoking those things?” Unfortunately, I was. But between Iro, Josh Gardner, and a couple of coworkers, I was prompted to quit. I’m doing it for myself, but it’s good to know that I have those guys to lean on.”

“It’s a bad habit,” Iro said. “Every time I saw Marco, it seemed that he had a cigarette in his hand. I’m glad he quit. If he cheats, he’d only be cheating himself.”

With Rosa on the wagon, perhaps Iro will test his powers of smoking cessation persuasion on a more daunting subject—equipment manager Rusty Wummel. Or maybe not.

“The day you get Wummel to stop smoking is the day I get elected President, mate,” Iro said. “Since I’m not American and can’t be elected President, that tells you everything you need to know. There’s your answer.”

So, Rusty, how does it feel to be a lost cause?

“It doesn’t feel too bad,” Wummel said.

Danny O’Rourke, however, doesn’t give up as easily. Danny O’s tenacity has served him well over the years, and he’s still working on Wummel.

“I have a three-year bet with Rusty that if I score a goal, he has to quit smoking,” the as-yet-goalless O’Rourke said.

“What’s this three-year bet?” Wummel wondered. “Is that his contract length or something? He keeps making [stuff] up left and right. I’m not worried. He’s on an extended vacation right now.”

O’Rourke brushed aside the mischaracterization of his surgery rehab, and insisted that Wummel’s day is coming.

 “I’m saving it for 2012,” O’Rourke added.

CELEBRATORY CUPCAKE

I love having Jeff Cunningham back in Columbus. I never know what’s next. After conducting his postgame interviews with a cupcake in his hand, he decided to give away his cupcake, which had been a gift from the locker room volunteers.

“Anyone want a cupcake? Here! Have a cupcake!” he said as he put the cupcake in my hand.

A fraction of a second later, the snatched the cupcake back.

“Wait, no!” he said. “No, no, no! These nice people made me a cupcake, so I am going to eat it! I don’t feel like I earned a cupcake tonight. I don’t think I deserve a cupcake, but since it was a gift, I am going to eat it. It would be rude to give it away.”

Friday was Cunningham’s first victory in a Crew uniform since a 1-0 win at Chicago on October 6, 2004. That’s worthy of a celebration. Cupcake deserved.

Questions? Comments? Have a name suggestion for a Europe-conquering musical act featuring Andy Gruenebaum and Tom Heinemann? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk