Sirk's Notebook: Birthday Three Points
What a difference a week makes. Not at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, mind you. The Crew are still sitting there. In fact, they’ve put another point’s space between them and their pursuers. No, the difference was in the comportment of the Crew’s postgame locker room following Saturday’s 2-1 victory over the visiting Philadelphia Union.
A week ago, after the Crew’s comeback victory over New England, there was a lot of excitement in the locker room. The players reveled in a big win and also watched the end of Philadelphia’s game on television, rooting for a little help from the rest of the league. As I wrote last week, you could feel that the race for the east was officially on.
This week, after taking care of business against Philadelphia face-to-face, the atmosphere was much more subdued. There were smiles and good feelings, of course, but this time, it merely felt like the Crew had crossed an item off of their to-do list.
“I don’t think it was our strongest performance, but it was good enough to win,” said midfielder Kevin Burns. “Like Will (Hesmer) reminded us about the championship year, we can’t get too high when we win and we can’t get too low when we lose.”
Hesmer was pleased, but hardly over the moon, at how he and his teammates performed in their much anticipated First Place vs. Second Place showdown.
“We haven’t had many pressurized games, and you could semi-make the case that this was one,” Hesmer said. “I like how we played. Obviously, we had some moments where we weren’t as intelligent as we could have been, but this season is a learning process and we will continue to get better and to learn from each instance. It’s a big three points. It’s a little bit early to be table-watching, but it’s always nice to be in first place.”
Before he so much as walked out the door, Robbie Rogers already had his focus on the next hurdle, which is a trip to the Emerald City to face a club that Columbus has never beaten.
“Now we need to get our first win against Seattle,” Rogers said.
I never thought I would see the day when normally stoic and guarded Robert Warzycha would be the most visibly elated of the bunch. For a brief moment, the Crew’s coach let it show that he was thrilled that his team came through in such a big match.
“Not a bad night for an old man, huh?” he said with a smile as he walked off the field and into the tunnel.
It was Warzycha’s 48th birthday, and his players had all chipped in to give him every coach’s favorite gift— three more points at the top of standings.
SPIN AND IN
The Crew took a 1-0 lead in the 37th on a lovely team goal with a quirky finish. Andres Mendoza played Robbie Rogers toward the end line on the left side of the box. Rogers chipped a cross into the middle. In traffic, Emilio Rentera knocked the ball out of the air with his left foot and redirected it across his body toward the right post. The ball took three spinning bounces before squibbing into the side netting as the Union pursued the ball in vain.
“Andres played a great ball to me that was weighted perfectly,” said Rogers, “and then Emilio made a perfect run, so it was pretty easy for me. Then I was like, ‘Is that going in? Is that going in?’ I was obviously happy that it went in.”
Rogers wasn’t the only one holding his breath. Even Renteria was relieved when the suspense ended.
“It was a little bit of a surprise,” Renteria said of his goal. “I didn’t think I hit the ball the way it was going to go, but it kept on spinning. I thought it was going to go out, but luckily it went in. It was a little bit of a surprise, but it was a good goal.”
Instead of doing his usual dance, Renteria held up one hand as it were holding a mirror, and then patted imaginary makeup on his face with his other hand.
“I was making myself pretty because I am going to go dancing tonight,” he explained.
The Crew entered the match a perfect 7-0-0 in games in which they scored first. Not only that, but the Crew had erased nine separate leads in 2011 (including three in a 3-3 draw vs. Chivas USA), but hadn’t squandered one single lead themselves. That all changed in the 42nd minute when the Union struck for the first equalizer allowed by the Crew in 2011.
On their eighth corner kick of the first half, Philly converted when Veljko Paunovic buried an unmarked header at the far post off of a Keon Daniel in-swinger. Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer got a yellow card in the aftermath, arguing that he was interfered with by Union forward Danny Mwanga, which caused him to come up empty on his attempt to intercept the ball.
“I went up for it and got pushed by Mwanaga a little bit in the shoulder,” Hesmer said. “It doesn’t take much when you’re at full extension to throw you off. The ref called a couple early that probably weren’t fouls, but then he didn’t call that one or he didn’t see it. I’m not sure. Danny apologized. The next corner kick, he said, ‘Yeah, I got you.’ But I guess the ref made it up to us with the penalty, which was probably harsh. It all worked out in the end.”
In the 50th minute, the Crew were awarded a penalty kick when Rogers’ cross hit the wrist of Union defender Sheanon Williams. His arm was pulled tight against his body, with his raised wrist basically serving as a small extension of his shoulder. It wasn’t egregious by any stretch, and the bang-bang nature of the play ruled out any possible intent. In the newspaper, Shawn Mitchell called the referee’s decision “tough but fair.” I’d say that’s a tough but fair assessment of it. When the ball hit Williams’ wrist, Rogers immediately appealed for the call.
“You can’t defend like that,” said Rogers, raising his arm into the offending position. “If you watch international games, defenders go like this. [He puts his hands behind his back.] You can’t put your hands up. That’s just inexperience. I heard it and I kinda saw it, so I put my hand up right away.”
The referee shared Rogers’ opinion and pointed to the spot.
THE PENALTY KICK
It seems it wouldn’t be a Crew penalty kick without at least some on-field discussion over who is going to take it. After the call was made, Rogers grabbed the game ball and headed toward the spot. Meanwhile, Andres Mendoza went to the signboards beyond the goal line and got himself a ball of his own.
Let’s let Robbie tell the story: “I said, ‘I got it.’ He said, ‘I got it.’ And I said, ‘I got it.’ Then he said, ‘No, I got it.’ And so I said, ‘OK, but if you miss, I’m going to kill you.’ But he scored and I am happy he did. I honestly don’t care about it. The important thing is that he scored and that we won the game.”
“Normally, I take the PKs now,” Mendoza said. “Robbie asked me, but I took it.”
With the specter of the homicidal maniac that apparently lives deep, deep, deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down inside Rogers’ chilled-out SoCal personality looming over him, Mendoza ripped a low hard shot that appeared to be saved by Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon. The ball was struck with such force, however, that it burrowed through Mondragon and trickled across the goal line. This meant that the Crew’s two goals on the night crossed the goal line at, like, a combined three miles per hour.
“Mondragon knows me,” Mendoza said. “We have played against each other in leagues around the world. I hit it really hard and it went in, which was a good thing.”
HESMER SAVES THE DAY
In the first minute of stoppage time, Hesmer came up huge to preserve the victory. From the left side of the penalty area, Philly’s scoring ace, Sebastian Le Toux, ripped a low screamer through traffic that Hesmer got down to save.
As Hesmer began to talk about the save, Crew defender Julius James walked past the horde of reporters. “Ask him about his save!” James urged. “It was a great save! You have to ask him about it!”
We were already on it.
“You always tell yourself that you’re going to have to make one to keep it clean or preserve a late lead,” Hesmer said. “It came through traffic and I saw it late, but luckily I was able to get a pretty good piece of it and send it away.”
While the Le Toux save was Hesmer’s biggest of the night, his most acrobatic came in the first half when he had to scramble back into his goal area to tip a long-range volley from Danny Mwanga over the cross bar.
“It sat up nicely for him,” Hesmer said of the bouncing ball. “I was high and I think he took a little peek. I had an inkling he was going to hit it, so I was already backpedaling. I was ahead of him on that one.”
KILLING THE GAME
Apart from the one dangerous Le Toux chance, the Crew did an effective job of killing off the game. The central defenders gobbled up everything in sight, and the team worked the corners to earn throw-ins and free kicks.
“I think that players like Julius James and Chad Marshall – these guys are leading our team when it comes to organizing our defense,” Warzycha said. “I think they stepped up today, especially Chad, and did very well. How many balls did he intercept in the second half, stepping in front of the forward? I can't remember, but it was a lot. So it was nice to see that we were very organized, we were talking over there, and we were very alert.”
ROBBIE’S ON A ROLL
After some indecisive and ineffectual play in the offensive third of the field during the first parts of the season, Robbie Rogers has his mojo back. We’re talking 2008 MLS Best XI Mojo. He is making quicker decisions, darting at more aggressive angles, and delivering scoring chances to his teammates on a tee. It is no coincidence that the Crew’s recent run of form has coincided with Rogers’ run of stellar play in the final third. He single-handedly roasted the Salt Lake defense to set up two quick goals in the Crew’s unexpected road blitzing of RSL, and has assisted on a goal in each of the Crew’s last two wins at home.
“His game is going to mature, and it is about time for Robbie to step up and make a difference,” said Warzycha. “He is taking his opportunity. We always talk about the final pass, and I think that final pass finally came, and at the right moment. Hopefully he is going to have more assists as he moves on.”
After notching just one assist in the past year and a half, Rogers has exploded for four in the Crew’s last four games. His five assists on the season tie his career high set in 2009, and there are still nine more games to play. He’s been a hard worker in all areas of the field, but regaining that mojo in the offensive third takes his game, and that of his teammates, to a whole new level.
It’s been a while since we had a good visiting coach rant at Crew Stadium. In fact, not since Jason Kreis condescended a sour lecture on turf management back in February has a visiting coach delivered as sterling an address as Union coach Peter Nowak did on Saturday.
Nowak was upset by the handball call that led to the winning goal. He felt it marred and invalidated what could have been a legitimate litmus test for the two teams as they battle for first place.
“For me it is physically impossible to see, from the angle the referee was running, and how far away he was,” Nowak said of the call. “It is physically impossible is what I can say. And make a call like that, in a game like that? It is a little bit too much for any kind of standards. That is what I can say.
“For Columbus, getting the goal like that in the 50th minute, was a nice Christmas present, and then from there they just tried to contain things. That's how the game's second half started and was played. As I said, don't put yourself in a position like that to make a call like that, and allow the other team to basically control the game from this perspective.
“It is still a pity, as I said, why we can't have a normal game, a normal game where a foul is a foul, a yellow is a yellow, and a penalty is a penalty. And then we walk off this field, off this locker room, off this press conference, with the feeling, ‘OK, we did what we did, and the better team won.’ I don't have this feeling, and I think my guys in the locker room, they have the same feeling as well. I know it is a tough time right now, there is all this talk about officiating and stuff, and how we can improve, but listen— these boys worked very hard. Columbus and our team, as well.
“Hats off to them, but let them play the normal game! Why we cannot have, every week - we have a call here and there in this game, and the next game, and the other game, that is ... questionable. If you play the two best teams, let them play, let them fight, let them be on their toes for the 90 minutes, the better team will win, everybody goes happy home.”
Instead, only the overwhelming majority of the people who left Crew Stadium on Saturday went home happy. The rematch is Sept. 17 at PPL Park.
CONGRATS TO DANTE
On a final note, congratulations to Notebook Hall of Famer Dante Washington on successfully completing a Columbus-to-Athens bicycle journey as part of Pelotonia 2011. The race raises money for cancer research at Ohio State University’s acclaimed facilities. Like most of us, Washington has felt the personal impact of cancer. He rode in loving memory of his grandmother and uncle, both of whom perished from the disease. This year’s race raised $8,658,401 for cancer research at OSU.
Dante is a former Olympian, national-teamer, and had a decade-long career as a professional athlete. And he got his butt kicked.
“That was the hardest thing I have ever done, by far,” Dante said. “I had the triple whammy. My quads cramped, my hamstrings cramped, and my calves cramped all at the same time. It was like that time back in my Crew days when Brian West was running down the field and fell down after getting a full body cramp.”
Dante’s longest training ride was 48 miles, and in retrospect, he wished he had tried to do about 80 miles as a mental dress rehearsal. The route is officially listed at 102 miles, but his bike’s final reading was 105 miles.
“I know when you’re already talking about 102 miles, 105 miles doesn’t seem that different,” Dante said. “But when you’ve already pedaled 102 miles through those hills, those three miles are an eternity, especially when your brain has been counting on 102 all day. Everyone I checked with had 105, so maybe they just say 102 since that’s how many miles it was the first time they did it. But it was 105. Trust me.”
I suggested that maybe some of the earth’s tectonic plates have shifted, moving Athens three miles further away from Columbus in the time since the fist Pelotonia was measured. Dante gave it some thought.
“Athens does have the number one party school in America,” he said. “With all the partying they do down at OU, it wouldn’t surprise me if they made the earth move.”
Questions? Comments? Think Dante could do brisk business by running a Columbus-to-Athens pedicab service on Halloween weekend? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via twitter @stevesirk