Sirk's Notebook: Goalfest Edition

Three Goals, welcoming Alejandro again and lockerroom stories

Behind the net against Chivas

Photo Credit: 
Jamie Sabau - Getty Images

For the first two months of the MLS season, a Red Cross nurse with a turnip clenched in her fist would have described her futile task as being “like trying to squeeze run of play goals out of the 2011 Columbus Crew.” Then came Saturday’s triple-comeback 3-3 tie against Chivas USA. After scoring just four run of play goals in their first 10 games, the Crew burst forth with three, including a pair by their Designated Turnip, Andres Mendoza.

Sure, the Crew capped their winless May with a winless three-goal outburst. But at least it was a three-goal outburst, right? After two months of Plain in the Rain, what’s wrong with a little Fun in the Sun?

“While it was exciting for the fans,” said Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers, “I’m sure they’re like us and wish that we would’ve won, even if it was 1-0.”

Well, yeah. But still, Buck-a-Beer & Goals-to-Cheer Night wasn’t so bad.

As Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer said, “Dollar beers and six goals, you can’t complain about that.”

BAD START

The Crew’s start, on the other hand, was certainly worthy of some griping. Especially since nobody could have anticipated the goalfest that was to follow. In just the fourth minute, Chivas took the lead when former Crew midfielder Simon Elliott hit a cross to Justin Braun along the end line to the left of the goal. Braun then crossed it back to the right post, where Nick LaBrocca had a simple right-footed finish.

“It ping-pongs back and forth and we don’t cover either side,” said Hesmer. “We got caught ball watching and it’s an easy tap-in at the back.”

In a trivial oddity, Elliott’s assist meant it was the third consecutive game that a former Crew player factored in a goal against Columbus. Two weeks earlier, Steven Lenhart assisted on a goal in San Jose, and the week before Eric Brunner scored the game’s only goal in Portland. Thankfully, that streak will end in New York this weekend, unless the Red Bulls sign, like, Dante Washington or some other former Crew player.

EQUALIZER NUMBER ONE

The Crew tied the score in the 17th minute when Emmanuel Ekpo went on a 40-yard dribbling excursion up the middle of the field, then nutmegged Chivas defender Andrew Boyens while playing a ball behind the Goats’ defense. Mendoza ran onto the ball to the left of the goal and hammered it home with the outside of his left foot, slicing the ball back inside the far post.

“Mendoza was making a run on the left and Tommy [Heinemann] was running up on the right,” said Ekpo. “I think Mendoza was further up the field and there was a little space through the defenders, so I slid the ball to him and he made a good goal out of it.”

A good goal, indeed. It was the type of clinical finish that the Crew have been waiting for all year.

“He’s a world-class finisher,” Rogers said of Mendoza. “When he’s sharp, he can finish with the best of them.”

A NORDECKE FIRST

Ever since the Nordecke was born, opposing corner kick takers have had a lot on their minds. First they were buried in Death Streamers of Doom. And if New England goalkeeper Matt Reis is to believed, they also had to dodge the occasional machete. Even once the Death Streamers were outlawed, corner kick takers have had to endure a torrent of abuse that has thrown them off their game just enough to ensure that no Nordecke corner kicks turn into goals.

Until now. On Saturday, Heath Pearce did what no opposing corner kick taker has done in 3-plus seasons. From that maelstrom of madness surrounding the northeast flag, he swerved a corner kick off of a teammate’s head and into the Crew’s goal. Andrew Boyens separated from his marker, Tommy Heinneman, and then leaped up between Heinneman and a helping Chad Marshall to nod the ball past Hesmer and give the Goats a 2-1 lead in the 37th minute.

“We got beat on a set piece,” Hesmer said. “That’s disheartening because we work so hard on set pieces at both ends of the field.”
 
EQUALIZER NUMBER TWO

Simon Elliott assisted on Chivas USA’s first goal, and then he unofficially assisted on the Crew’s second. Elliott played a back pass to nowhere. Andres Mendoza collected the loose ball and calmly beat Chivas goalkeeper Dan Kennedy from 18 yards on the ensuing breakaway in the 52nd minute.

“Andres had two nice finishes,” said Rogers.

DIGGING ANOTHER HOLE

Jorge Flores had two excellent chances to score in the second half for the Goats. First, he rattled the right post in the 49th minute. Whereas the post proved to be the goalkeeper’s best friend, Hesmer’s hands failed him eight minutes later. Flores ripped another shot that overpowered Hesmer, who got his mitts on the ball, but not enough to stop it from dropping into the goal.

“The third one is one I want back,” said Hesmer. “I got a pretty good hand on it, but I was leaning back a little too far and I wasn’t able to push it wide.”

EQUALIZER NUMBER THREE

Crew midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo had not scored in league play since May 9, 2009, so on a night of improbable goal outbursts, it only made sense that Ekpo got in on the act. In the 63rd minute, the nifty Nigerian deftly collected a high pop up about 8 yards from the Chivas net. He muscled defender Zarek Valentin off the ball, then wheeled and hammered a right-footed shot inside the near post.

“It was an airborne second ball,” said Ekpo. “It was way high, so I just had to put a shoulder on the guy, and then I made a good first touch, which really helped me.”

ALL THE ALMOSTS

The Crew scored three, but they could have easily doubled that amount. Mendoza had a shot tipped wide, and Ante Jazic had a pair of goal line clearances, robbing Heinneman in the first half, then Jeff Cunningham in the second half. Jazic’s first theft robbed Heinneman of his first career MLS goal. Jazic’s second theft robbed Cunningham of his record-tying 133rd.

Heinneman has been robbed two weeks in a row, but he’s rolling with it.

“It’s a bit frustrating, but I know that if I keep working at it, the goals will come,” he said. “You can sit and pout all you want, but it’s not going to change anything, so I’m going to get back to work this week and I’ll get one soon.”

MONKEY OFF THE BACK

The Crew had set the MLS record by failing to score a first half goal in 10 consecutive matches to start the season. That streak ended Saturday. (In the process, they raised their first half scoring average from 0.00 goals per first half to 0.09 goals per first half!) And the Crew only had four run-of-play goals in those 10 games, but then they scored three of them on Saturday.

“Everyone’s been talking about how we haven’t scored in the first half and that we can’t score goals, so to score in the first half and get three goals was positive,” said Rogers. “And then we had some other chances cleared off the line. We were a little unlucky, but it’s positive.”

“It’s a boost, but it’s something all of the guys know we’re capable of,” Heinneman said. “We knew we could do it, so we kept hard at work, and hopefully this will spark us going forward.”

SCALING THREE MOUNTAINS

For a team with such scoring problems, the idea of staging three comebacks seemed like the most improbable of fictions. But the Crew did it. Celebration of the achievement was tempered, however, by the realization that they dug those holes for themselves and it cost them two points.

“It’s tough coming back from a one-goal deficit and we did that three times tonight,” Heinneman said. “I think it shows character in terms of the guys we’ve got on this team. I think every time we have a home game we want the three points.  It was an exciting game to watch, it was kind of a crazy game but we’re disappointed we didn’t come away with three points though.”

“If you would have told me before the game that we would score three goals,” Hesmer said, “I would have bet you $10,000 that we would win. It happens though. After that first goal, we just need to bear down harder and make sure that the second one doesn’t happen. I think we’ll get it right. I still have a lot of belief in this team. The good thing is that we responded to each goal and were able to tie it up. Defensively, this is not us. We are never going to get used to giving up three goals. We’re going to get to work this week to solve it, that’s for sure. But it’s good that we’re scoring.”

“If we score one more and have three points, I'll be pleased,” said Crew coach Robert Warzycha. “But we came back three times from a one goal deficit, and I take that as a positive because it shows a lot of heart.”

BIZARRO MATCH

When the Crew played the Goats in L.A. on April 9, the result was a goalless snoozer with no real chances until Robbie Rogers was wrongly denied a stoppage time breakaway by a mistaken offside flag. Just six weeks later, Saturday’s game was the polar opposite, with goals and chances galore.

“I think both teams were really conservative in L.A.,” Hesmer said, “but if you watched the tape of their game against New York, it’s almost like they had a mentality change. It was like they said, ‘The (heck) with this, we’re going to go at people and attack them. We’re going to force the issue.’ Tonight, obviously, we were at home and we wanted to force the issue. This game was a complete mentality change for both teams.”

MR. NUMBERS NERD: MUTUAL GOALFEST EDITION

In my mind, a soccer game in which each team scores three goals is one of crazy shootout type of games like when each team scores double-digits in baseball or over 30 points in football. It’s one thing for one team to blow another out, but it’s always a special time at the stadium when you see teams lighting each other up back and forth.

Saturday’s game marked the 21st time the Crew played a league game in which both teams scored at least three goals. Eleven of those 21 games have occurred in just three seasons: 1996 had four, 1998 had four, and 2008 had three. Historically, these games haven’t worked to the Crew’s advantage. Counting post-game shootouts as the draws that they were, the Crew’s record in such games now stands at 3-8-10.

I think we all remember the crazy rain-soaked victory over Chivas USA from the Massive Season, but here is the complete list of victories, two of which came just three weeks apart at the Shoe:

8/16/98: Crew 5, Kansas City 3 (Stern John hat-trick off the bench.)
9/6/98: Crew 4, MetroStars 3
4/12/08: Crew 4. Chivas USA 3

In addition to the 21 league matches, there have been two other instances in which the Crew and their opponent lit each other up for at least three goals apiece. Both had a winner. In the first game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on September 30, 1998, the Crew jumped out to a 4-0 halftime lead and beat the MetroStars 5-3 at Ohio Stadium. The Metros would get their revenge on August 6, 2003, when they edged the Crew 4-3 at Crew Stadium in a round of 16 U.S. Open Cup match. That game is most famous for the moment when referee Kevin Stott red carded the Crew’s Brian West for stepping on the ball while dribbling. His foot slipped off the ball and caused him to take an awkward tumble which was deemed to a dangerous tackle worthy of a straight red card. Eight years later, I’m getting a migraine just thinking about it.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: TRIPLE COMEBACK EDITION

Warzycha is fond of saying that “goals change games.” As far as simple truths go, it’s definitely simple, and it’s definitely true. In any given year, the team that scores first in an MLS game collects the full three points 60-70 percent of the time. (Through Sunday, this year’s mark is 65.6 percent, as the team that scores first has a record of 63-4-29.)

Allowing the first goal can be psychologically deflating, it can force a team to chuck aside the gameplan and chase the game, and it can leave them susceptible to counterattacks, thus digging a deeper hole. Even if a team does manage to get the goal back, sometimes the effort required weakens the mind and body, so that after a brief reprieve, the team can find itself trailing yet again. Subsequent comeback attempts increase in difficulty due to the original reasons, compounded by the duplication of effort and the pressure of time.

As mentioned, the Crew erased three separate deficits on Saturday night. If that seems unusual, it’s because it most certainly is. Saturday marked only the second time in club history that the Crew accomplished the feat. The first instance was one of the most memorable games in Crew Stadium history. On June 30, 1999, Stern John capped the Crew’s third comeback against San Jose with an improbable miracle goal with three seconds left on the official scoreboard clock.

(Three thoughts when looking back at that video: 1. This was one of the exceptionally rare instances where the official scoreboard clock added, rather than subtracted, tension and drama from the end of a game. 2. It’s odd to see the future Nordecke appear virtually empty. 3. Stern John. Are you freakin’ kiddin’ me? That was a ridiculously well-taken shot, although I am now in my 12th year of wondering how and why BOTH San Jose defenders desperately bit on that one cutback move.)

Here’s the scoring summary from that historic game, which the Crew went on to “win” in a post-game shootout:

SJ --Cerritos (Baicher) 25
CLB--Elcock (unassisted) 37
SJ --Cerritos (Diaz Arce, Cannon) 69
CLB--John (Warzycha) 79
SJ --Diaz Arce (Doyle, Baicher) 83
CLB--John (unassisted) 90

Total combined “answer time”: 29 minutes.

And so that we have the details of both historic triple comebacks all in one place, here’s the scoring summary from Saturday’s game:

CHV -- Nick LaBrocca 2 (Justin Braun 1, Simon Elliott 1) 4
CLB -- Andres Mendoza 2 (Emmanuel Ekpo 1) 17
CHV -- Andrew Boyens 1 (Heath Pearce 3) 37
CLB -- Andres Mendoza 3 (unassisted) 52
CHV -- Jorge Flores 1 (Ben Zemanski 2, Ante Jazic 3) 57
CLB -- Emmanuel Ekpo 1 (unassisted) 64

Total combined “answer time”: 35 minutes.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: TRIPLE COMEBACK WITH A TWIST

According to the always helpful Rick Lawes over at MLS HQ, the Crew’s triple comeback marked just the 8th time in MLS history that a team erased three separate deficits in order to gain at least a point. I do not have the full list, but my brain immediately gravitated to one of the most insane matches in MLS history. On May 8, 2004, the MetroStars rallied three separate times to earn a 5-5 draw at San Jose. Not only did the Metros overcome three deficits, but the last one was a two-goal deficit as they had to rally from 5-3 down on the road.

Here are the goal scorers from that crazy game:

NY- Cornel Glen 6
SJ- Brian Ching 13
SJ- Chris Brown 24
NY- Joselito Vaca 25
SJ- Landon Donovan 43
NY- Fabian Taylor 45
SJ- Ronnie Ekelund (pen) 58
SJ- Craig Waibel 60
NY- Amado Guevara (pen) 64
NY- Cornel Glen 90

For fun, here’s the video of Glen’s amazing heel-flick equalizer off a feed from Eddie Gaven. Yup, eight of these triple-comebacks in MLS history, and Eddie Gaven has been a part of at least two of them. (And a Trini has capped the triple-comeback with a 90th minute goal in two of them. Weird!)

DO WHAT YOU DO

Alejandro Moreno came back to Columbus with the Goats, and he did what he does, which is what he did when he did it for the 2008 MLS Cup champions. He held and distributed the ball, he drew some fouls, and he drove everyone a little bit batty.

Last year, Moreno wrote passionately and eloquently about his love for Columbus. He considers the reciprocation of that love to be a “life diploma,” and one of the true measures of his playing career.

When the Crew remodeled their locker room this year, they saw to it that the exit to the player tunnel is now emblazoned with Moreno’s famous mantra from the Crew’s 2008 title run:

These words are inscribed on the inside of the championship rings, but Ale was not aware that his pearl of wisdom has become further embedded in club lore, so I emailed him the picture.

“My time with the Crew continues to be very real and very personal,” he wrote. “Time does not erase my feelings about the team, the fans, and the city. Thus, if – as you referred to it— my pearl of wisdom does remain a part of the black and gold, then I am proud and honored to do my part, however small it may be.”

From a guy who leaves it all on the field every time he suits up, no matter the team and no matter the opponent, and from a guy who has had plenty of other successes in this league, it’s good to know that Massive never dies.

LOCKER ROOM PRANK

After Saturday’s game, fans were invited onto the field to take a shot on goal. As a result, there was no Autograph Alley session scheduled. This did not stop Autograph Alley wrangler Arica Kress from posting a fictitious lineup on the team’s white board.

Although it’s a funny visual to picture the coaches sitting at a table, Sharpies in hand, in an empty tent while the fans were all out on the field, the coaches did not fall for it. At least not in the end. There may have been some double-checking.

DUMB LOCKER ROOM STORY

Long after the players and coaches had left the building, members of the team support staff relaxed in the locker room at the end of their day’s work. The smack talk flowed like apple juice. As always, equipment manager Rusty Wummel’s smoking habit was a popular target of derision. At one point, team director of operations Tucker Walther chucked a bottle cap at Wummel, who successfully dodged it.

“If that was a cigarette, you would have caught it,” Tucker said.

People helped Tucker pile on with preposterous details. By the end, it was determined that if Tucker had thrown a cigarette, Rusty would have launched himself over a bench, caught the cigarette in his mouth in mid-flight, flicked his lighter, lit the cigarette, and sucked it down to ashes by the time his body crashed onto the floor. And he wouldn’t have spilled a single drop of his apple juice in the process.

It sounds ludicrous, but on a night featuring three run of play goals and a triple-comeback from the Crew, nothing seemed beyond the realm of possibility.

Questions? Comments? As convinced as I am that Saturday was the kind of strange night where Danny O’Rourke would have scored a goal if he had played? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk