Sirk's Notebook: Equalizer Edition

An early hole, an equalizer and some PK stats

Justin Meram

Photo Credit: 
Josh Couper / TheCrew.com

Unlike Sisyphus, the Columbus Crew have excelled at pushing boulders to the top of the hill in their recent run of early disaster, come-from-behind draws. On Wednesday night, the Comeback Crew finally took it one step further and pushed the boulder over the hump and down the other side, where it triumphantly rolled into Victoryville.

After falling behind in the 7th minute, the Crew rode late goals by Andres Mendoza and Josh Gardner to a thrilling 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake. After equalizing four consecutive times in the last two weeks, the Crew equalized for the fifth straight time before finally taking their first lead since April 30, the date of their previous victory. The triple-comeback against Chivas USA and the dramatic last-second comeback at New York resulted in draws, but this time, the Crew’s comeback finally resulted in three points.

“Warriors, man,” said rookie sparkplug Justin Meram. “We’re all out there together. We’re all one team. We’re going to keep fighting to get that result. It showed tonight, and it’s showed the last three weeks. Those early goals hurt a little bit, but we’re going to keep fighting for all 90-plus minutes.”

“We really needed those three points, to be honest,” said Crew captain Chad Marshall. “I know it’s only a third of the way through the season, but it felt like a must-win game to us.”

ANOTHER EARLY HOLE

For the fourth time in six games, the Crew coughed up a goal within the first nine minutes of play. This time, the goal came in the 7th minute when RSL’s Jamison Olave outmuscled Emmanuel Ekpo to a corner kick. Olave’s right foot bounced the ball off of the ground and popped it up over goalkeeper William Hesmer’s head and into the net.

“We started as usual,” said Crew coach Robert Warzycha. “We gave up a goal in the (seventh) minute, which we were a little bit frustrated about because it was the first corner and they got a lucky bounce and they score a goal.”

“We don’t like going down, especially early in games,” said Marshall. “It was kind of a fluke goal. Maybe he fouled Manu, and maybe he didn’t, but we need to be better with that.”

“It’s one of those things,” said Josh Gardner. “It’s a trend that we need to break. If we can get that mindset of getting an early goal and THEN putting our stamp on the game, that’s going to be better for us.”

EQUALIZING

In the 76th minute, the Crew tied the game on a run-of-the-mill penalty kick. Meram got fouled and Mendoza converted. Ho-hum. Not much to talk about, really. Pretty mundane stuff. Let’s move on.

EQUALIZING, REVISITED

Oh yeah, I just remembered something about the equalizing penalty kick. It was set up by some good hustle from Eddie Gaven and some nifty footwork from Justin Meram. Gaven barged into the box and pressured Jamison Olave into squibbing a weak, sliding clearance. Meram collected the ball, zigged around Tony Beltran, and then got clipped mid-zag by a beaten Olave.

“I cut right, then cut back to my left and he got me,” Meram said. “It was a penalty. I’m glad it helped our team.”

I knew I was forgetting something about that penalty kick. I’m glad I remembered to work in the details of how it came about. Now we can move on.

REVISITING “EQUALIZING, REVISTED”

Boy, this is embarrassing. I almost forgot to mention the part where Mendoza stole Jeff Cunningham’s assigned penalty kick (which could have set the club’s all-time scoring record and tied the league’s all-time scoring record), rejected reminders and pleas from teammates including the estimable Sebastian Miranda and captain Chad Marshall, expertly drilled the penalty kick to tie the score, then made a shushing gesture to his own bench, essentially telling everyone to shut up about who was supposed to take penalties.

“Mendoza scored the penalty, so I can’t complain,” said Warzycha.

This reminded me of the scene in Major League when Willie Mays Hayes made a showboating basket catch to the end the first inning. When Hayes got back to the dugout, he was greeted by Tribe manager Lou Brown, who said, “Nice catch Hayes…..Don’t ever (bleeping) do it again.” I imagine a similar conversation has already taken place behind closed doors at Obetz.

Well, I guess that’s it for discussing this penalty kick. Hmm. Maybe I should root around and see if I have any quotes from Cunningham about the situation. Let me look, and we’ll circle back a little later in this Notebook. Let’s get through the rest of the game first.

GARDNER’S GAME-WINNER

Josh Gardner picked an opportune time to score his first MLS goal in five years. (Coincidentally, his only other MLS goal was also against RSL, on July 8, 2006, capping a 2-0 win for the LA Galaxy.)

Mendoza attempted to play a ball to Eddie Gaven, but the pass was too far in front of the Crew midfielder. Gaven came up empty with his sprawling lunge for the ball, but it worked out for the best. The ball continued on to Gardner, who took a controlling touch into space before unleashing a 25-yard shot with his non-favored right foot. The blast skipped off of defender Chris Schuler’s left thigh and wrong-footed RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando in the 82nd minute. It gave the Crew their first lead since April 30.

“Eddie provided a little bit of space for me with a little dummy, and I was able to the ball out from underneath my feet with a good first touch,” Gardner said. “I was fortunate to get that deflection. It’s the only way you’re going to beat Rimando. Real Salt Lake is so good.”

Surely that shot was going to beat Rimando anyway, right?

“Yeah,” Garnder said with one of those ‘I wish’ chuckles. “I would like to tell myself that.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter. A goal is goal. The Crew had attempted many long-range shots against Rimando, and most were futile and harmless, but as Marshall pointed out, all it takes is one to go your way.

“He maybe caught a break a on that deflection, but if he doesn’t take the shot, it definitely doesn’t go in,” Marshall said. “Credit to him for taking that shot, and I’m glad it worked out.”

Eight minutes of regular time, four minutes of stoppage time, and one incredible blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reflex save from goalkeeper William Hesmer later, Gardner’s tally held up as the game-winner.

“For us to be coming back and getting points and now wins, that’s a sign that the team is moving in a positive direction,” said Cunningham. “The confidence is high, the morale is high, and the results are coming. I think we are in a good place right now from a team standpoint.”

MERAM THE MAGNIFICENT

For the second straight game, Justin Meram came off of the bench and gave the Crew’s offense the spark that it needed. In New York, Meram roasted the Red Bulls’ defense and assisted on Rich Balchan’s stoppage time equalizer. On Wednesday, he was consistently dangerous and earned the game-tying penalty kick.

“Justin Meram came in and changed the game for us, I thought,” said Marshall. “He got things going for us offensively.”

“That’s my role,” Meram said. “I have to do something like that. If I come on, I can’t play at the same pace. I have to bring something different. I did, and I’m glad we got the win.”

Marshall dismissed the notion that Meram is becoming the Crew’s super sub. It’s not that he doesn’t think Meram has been fantastic off the bench, it’s that he thinks it may soon be hard for the coaches to keep him there.

“If he keeps playing like this, he’s going to be pushing for a lot of minutes,” Marshall said. “That’s what you need from your subs. He changed the game.”

MR. NUMBERS NERD: OUT-OF-THE-LOCKER-ROOM BLUES EDITION

In seven of their 13 matches this year, the Crew have given up the first goal of the game within the first ten minutes of coming out of the locker room to start a half. It shouldn’t be surprising that they fare worse when that happens to start the second half rather than the first, but what’s a little surprising is how well they’ve done when allowing the first goal at the start of the game.

The Crew are 1-0-3 when falling behind 1-0 in the first ten minutes of the game. That’s right—undefeated! They allowed a goal in the 7th minute of their 1-1 draw with Seattle, the 4th minute of their 3-3 draw with Chivas USA, the 9th minute of the 1-1 draw at New York, and the 7th minute in Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over RSL.

Columbus has lost all three games in which they fell behind 1-0 within the first ten minutes of the second half. They allowed the first goal in the 51st minute of their 3-1 loss at D.C. United, the 50th minute in their 3-0 loss at San Jose, and in the 46th minute of their 1-0 loss at Portland.

Conversely, all other Columbus victories apart from Wednesday’s have seen the Crew take a 1-0 lead within the first ten minutes of the second half. They took a 1-0 lead in the 54th minute of their 2-0 win against Dallas, in the 53rd minute of their 1-0 win over Kansas City, and in the 50th minute of their 2-1 triumph over Vancouver.

So the Crew are undefeated in games in which they score the first goal of the game in the first ten minutes of the second half, or ALLOW the first goal of the game in the first ten minutes of the first half  Makes sense. Somehow. I guess.

A TALE OF TWO PENALTIES

Before I publish the entirety of Jeff Cunningham’s post-game comments about the penalty kick situation, I want to take a brief detour. When Mendoza wrested the penalty kick opportunity from Cunningham, my brain couldn’t help but flash back seven years to when the same thing happened at the same south goal of Crew Stadium. On October 31, 2004, Tony Sanneh ripped the ball from Cunningham’s hands and then weakly flubbed one of the worst penalties ever taken, dooming the Shield-winning Crew to a first-round playoff exit.

I remember talking to Cunningham that night. He was heartbroken and confused. He spoke barely above a whisper about how he felt powerless to say no when a U.S. World Cup player and Bundesliga veteran ripped the ball from his grasp. After all, the guy had played and succeeded at the highest levels. Jeff seemed shaken by the notion that he let the team down by not staking his claim in that situation. Of course, it was all in hindsight, after falling for the false bravado and then watching Sanneh pee down his leg in such a crucial moment.

But I think the inescapable (although unspoken) conclusion was that the REAL Jeff Cunningham would have fought Sanneh to the death for the right to take that penalty. The REAL Jeff Cunningham is a confident man. The REAL Jeff Cunningham wants his name on the scoresheet. The REAL Jeff Cunningham craves the cheers and the accolades and the pats on the pack. The REAL Jeff Cunningham would have been livid that somebody messed with his lifeblood, which is scoring goals. And in that moment, when he felt compelled to let Tony Sanneh shank that penalty kick, it seemed to me that the real Jeff Cunningham was lost, conflicted, and adrift. Perhaps even broken. A few months later, he was traded.

(Of course, Jeff went on to win two Golden Boots, climb to the doorstep of the all-time goals lead, and win a Western Conference title with FC Dallas. He regrouped just fine. I don’t mean he was permanently broken as a player. But I think at that moment in 2004, he needed a change of scenery to get his mojo back.)

I bring this up for a few reasons. First, the penalty kick situations from 2004 and Wednesday were nearly identical, apart from the stakes and the end result. But second, I think the real Jeff Cunningham in 2011 is a different Jeff Cunningham than in 2004. The penalty kick struggle played out the same on the surface, yet on the inside, it was entirely different.

The words you are about to read from Jeff Cunningham were genuine and heartfelt. He was totally at ease. There was nothing defensive or agitated in his posture. This wasn’t a rote recitation of what he was supposed to say. His eyes weren’t darting back and forth, desperately looking for an escape route. I’ve seen that routine in years past. This wasn’t it. Not in the least.

After the game, he spent a long time signing autographs and chatting with fans. He even waved a few of them down to field level to pose for pictures. He joyfully carried his 2-year-old daughter, Mikayla, as she gave people high fives. (I missed what prompted this, but when Mikayla made repeated comments about her daddy having a left foot, Jeff playfully told her, “Nah, it’s just for standing, baby. I only use it for standing.”)

It struck me while watching Jeff after the game that the real Jeff Cunningham of today is different. His lifeblood is no longer just scoring goals.  It’s a more complicated, well-rounded mixture. It’s scoring goals, but it’s also his wife, his adorable daughter, and doing what he can to help the team on the field and to nurture the Crew’s young talent off of it.

A young Jeff Cunningham would have been obsessively consumed by the scoring records that are within his reach and would have disemboweled any player or coach that got in his way. But these days, Jeff Cunningham has raised nary a public complaint about his playing time, and as you will read, he willingly backed down in the penalty kick standoff because he thought it was best for the team and for his teammate.

In 2004, he had to stand down against his better judgment. In 2011, his better judgment convinced him to stand down. Unlike the 2004, these aren’t the words of a shattered man. No, these are the words of a man made whole.

Thankfully, his confidence hasn’t wavered. After a flubbed first half chance, after watching a tantalizing header rattle the crossbar, and then after having the penalty kick chance taken away from him by Mendoza, Cunningham’s feathers weren’t ruffled in the least, despite still sitting one goal short of history.
 
“The year I won the Golden Boot, two years ago, the second goal I believe was July 3 – and I scored 16 after that,” he said. “Experience has taught me to be patient. They’re coming, and when they come, they are going to come in bunches. No worries. No pressure. I’m happy that the team got the win. I’m happy for Mendoza. The boy deserves it. He definitely put in the work on a hot night. That’s what we need to do at home, is get three points.”

Cunningham confirmed that the coaching staff gives the team an established order for penalty kicks, and that it was his kick to take.

“The thing Bobby did is make sure that something like this, where you have two people fighting over it, doesn’t happen,” he said. “Usually, I’m one and Mendoza’s two. But I think he felt very confident he’d score and sometimes you have to lead by example and be a servant. You know? It’s like a child – sometimes they want to do things and you just have to let them. No hard feelings. I’m happy he scored. It’s good for him. We need him to be at his best and score more goals, so that goal is probably more important for the club than it is for me at this point.”

Cunningham empathized with Mendoza’s plight. He, of all people, understands a striker’s psyche. He understood Mendoza’s NEED to take that penalty.

“Let me tell you something. As a forward, you need confidence. He has been under a lot of pressure and it’s important that the team rally around him, the organization, the fans. That’s the way you get the most out of strikers. We are very emotional. I don’t know the best word to describe us. We have soft skin sometimes, so it’s important for us to be supportive of him and encourage him. When things aren’t going well, he needs the support of everyone. I’m happy he stepped up and that he’s confident enough to score. Life goes on. We got three points. Everybody’s happy.”

Cunningham appreciated that Miranda and captain Chad Marshall did their duty in sticking up for his assigned right to take the penalty, but Jeff called off the dogs because he didn’t want to rattle Mendoza’s confidence.

 “At that point, he made the decision to take the penalty kick and the last thing you want to do is put doubts in his mind, whether it’s myself or Chad, so we allowed him to take it. I’m telling you, that goal will do more for his confidence than if he hadn’t taken it. We need him. We need him. We need him to be the DP on this team and to be a top player in the league. That’s a situation where we put trust and faith in him that he was going to put it away, and he stepped up and accepted the responsibility, and it led to three points.”

When Cunningham left the game, he received an ovation from the crowd, whereas Mendoza received boos. Jeff said he understood the emotion behind the different reactions, especially since Cunningham could have scored a landmark goal, but he hopes that the fans will come around to support Mendoza.

“The fans – it’s an emotional thing for them, as well. They want it for me. They want it to happen here. They’re excited for me. They’ve seen me here since I was 21 and a pup running around here, and now I’m at the latter part of my playing days and they want it. I think it was a situation here where they felt it. They felt like that was the moment. But like I say, it’s a long season ahead of us and that goal is more important for Mendoza and this organization. As teammates and as a club, the fans need to support him, especially him, because we’re going to need him to carry the team offensively. He needs that love from us and we need to be more supportive of him.”

The coach and the captain have every right to be aggrieved by Mendoza’s insubordination, and I trust that it will be dealt with behind closed doors, but make no mistake, this was Jeff Cunningham’s moment. And if Jeff Cunningham was the first player to hug Mendoza after the goal and is at peace with how it all played out, then that’s certainly got to count for something.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: “SPOTLESS” GOALS EDITION

One thought floating around the fan base and the punditry after the PK kerfuffle was that, in a way, it would be better for Cunningham to tie and break the various goalscoring records from the run of play, rather than from the penalty spot. The thinking goes that it would somehow be more honorable and meaningful to achieve history through a “legit” goal instead of a high-percentage spot kick. That sounds well and good until one reflects on the fact that 44 of Jaime Moreno’s 133 career goals came from the penalty spot. And late in 2010, Cunningham converted a penalty to tie Moreno at 132 goals, and then Moreno reclaimed the all-time lead by converting a penalty in the final game of his career.

Goals are goals, right? But there’s something understandably fitting about the notion of Cunningham breaking the club and league goalscoring records from the run of play. After all, he’s already done that better than anyone else in club or league history. For fun, here are the top-ten all-time MLS leaders in “spotless” (non-penalty kick) goals.

MLS PLAYER GOALS PKs "SPOTLESS" GOALS
Jeff Cunningham* 132 19/22 (86.3%) 113
Ante Razov 114 13/16 (81.2%) 101
Jason Kreis 108 10/13 (76.9%) 98
Taylor Twellman 101 3/5 (60.0%) 98
Edson Buddle# 90 0/0 (N/A) 90
Jaime Moreno 133 44/52 (84.6%) 86
Landon Donovan* 111 25/28 (89.2%) 79
Roy Lassiter 88 9/11 (81.8%) 79
Josh Wolff* 78 3/8 (37.5%) 75
Brian Ching* 72 0/1 (0%) 72

* = active MLS player
# = active player not currently in MLS

Likewise, here are the Crew’s top-ten all-time “spotless” goalscoring leaders:

CREW PLAYER GOALS PKs "SPOTLESS" GOALS
Jeff Cunningham* 62 7/7 (100%) 55
Brian McBride 62 11/13 (84.6%) 51
Stern John 44 1/2 (50.0%) 43
Edson Buddle# 42 0/0 (N/A) 42
Dante Washington 28 0/0 (N/A) 28
Brian Maisonneuve 23 1/1 (100%) 22
Guillermo Barros Schelotto 33 13/15 (86.7%) 20
Alejandro Moreno# 20 0/1 (0%) 20
Eddie Gaven* 21 2/3 (66.7%) 19
Pete Marino 19 0/2 (0%) 0

* = active MLS player
# = active player not currently in MLS

 

HORTON’S DEBUT

The Crew’s first-ever academy signing, Aaron Horton, made his professional debut for his childhood club when he subbed in for his childhood idol, Cunningham, in the 89th minute. Early in the second half, I said to Crew PR man Dave Stephany that my dream scenario was for Cunningham to tie and break the league scoring record in a Crew comeback, and then have Horton sub on for him. While the Hollywood version of the night didn’t quite come true, two out of three ain’t bad.

I will admit that I am a total sucker for this story. I can’t believe that MLS has been around long enough that kids can now sign with teams they have supported for as long as they remember, and play alongside players they idolized growing up. That is such a huge milestone. Even a hometown hero like Danny O’Rourke was in, what, 8th or 9th grade when MLS started? It’s just not the same. Aaron Horton has literally never known a sports world without the Columbus Crew.

And now, at the age of 19, on instructions from Robert Warzycha, a player Horton watched as a kid, Horton subbed in for Cunningham, his favorite player as a kid.

“I thought I was his favorite player, to be honest with you,” Warzycha joked, when asked if he had purposely made such a symbolic substitution.

But man, what a touching moment.

“Growing up and cheering for him as he scored goals for this team, and now to come on for him in my first game for the Crew, it was a great experience,” Horton said from his postgame perch on Cloud Nine. “It’s a great day for me. Growing up here and always dreaming of playing for the Crew in this stadium, it was great. I loved it.”

Cunningham also got caught up in the historic moment.

“I could see that his eyes were lit up,” Cunningham said of Horton. “He’s been working hard in training, and it was a good opportunity for Robert to introduce him. For me, that ovation and the love the fans showed, it was very heartfelt. It’s been a while since I have felt so loved and embraced. And I know they were cheering for him too. It meant quite a lot to me and the young boy.”

Horton will always be a young boy to the 34-year-old Cunningham. More specifically, Horton was the young boy who brought Cunningham to school for show and tell when Horton was in fourth grade.

“A couple of days before, my uncle set it all up,” Horton said. “I don’t remember how that happened, but then I met Jeff the night before. Then next thing I know, the next day, we’re going to school together! He talked to my class and he was great. It’s something I will never forget.”

“It’s been great,” Cunningham said. “His first day at training, he came up to me and said, ‘You came to my show and tell in fourth grade’ and I was like, ‘Don’t remind me how old I am, okay?’ But he’s very humble and he’s eager to learn. Every day, he’s out there with me after training working on his craft. That’s the attitude he’s going to need to be successful. Keep an eye on him. He’s got a bright future. He just needs to keep working and to stay humble. But every day he reminds me how old I am. I see him on the field, doing little things, and I’m like, ‘Man, I remember those days.’ He’s a good kid.”

Horton is soaking up all he can in the hope that he will have the long and fruitful career of his mentor.

“He’s a great veteran,” Horton said. “He’s someone I respect and someone I can learn a lot from. To go from watching him growing up to now playing next to him and learning from him, that’s something I always wanted to do, and now it’s real. This has been such a great experience for me. I feel incredibly blessed. Hopefully I will learn to score goals like he has!”

Cunningham is resolved to do his part to help Horton and the other young players progress in their careers, which has played a role in his own personal contentment during his second stint with the Crew.

“I think it’s important for the league for these kids to have players that they watch growing up, and to not only get to meet them, but to play alongside them,” Cunningham said. “That has to be great. When I came in, I had guys like Thomas Dooley mentor me, so it’s important for me to give back to soccer and to be a positive influence for these new kids as they become professionals. I’m glad I’m still going at my age. And I’m keeping up with them! Don’t me wrong! They aren’t pushing me around at practice by any means! But it’s a fun time for me. I’m at a good club, the coaching staff has been very patient, and the fans have been very warm to me. I’m at a good time in my career. I’m very happy right now.”

A FRESH RETORT TO AN MLS STAPLE

Before the game, Crew Communications manager Marco Rosa dusted off the standard insult for Real Salt Lake’s preposterously Spanish club name, using the English pronunciation as a set-up.

“It says here we’re playing REAL Salt Lake,” Rosa said. “I wonder if there is a Fake Salt Lake.”

Rather than rolling his eyes at the Fake Salt Lake joke he has undoubtedly heard 60 gajillion times before, RSL’s most excellent Assistant Director of Soccer Media Services, John Koluder, put a fun spin on his good-natured retort.

“I prefer Faux Salt Lake,” Koluder said. “If you’re going to make fun of our Spanish, do it in French.”

For those diagramming at home, if someone insists on making fun of RSL’s name, Koluder advocates the French translation of the antonym of the English heteronym of the club’s royal Spanish name.

And to think that that may have been the least complicated thing that happened at Crew Stadium on Wednesday night.

Questions? Comments? Thought you stepped into a 2002 time warp after seeing Robert Warzycha, Mike Lapper, Jeff Cunningham, Dante Washington, Brian Dunseth, Duncan Oughton, Brian Maisonneuve, and Todd Yeagley all in Crew Stadium on the same night? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk