Sirk's Notebook: Comeback Crew

Comeback Crew, Super subs and the start of Fantasy Football

Julius James

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Getty Images

“I’m not much for giving inspirational addresses. I would just like to point out that every newspaper in the country has picked us to finish last. The local press seems to think that we would save everyone a lot of time and trouble if we just went out and shot ourselves. Me, I’m for wasting sportswriters’ time. So, I would like to hang around and see if we can give ‘em all a nice big [bleep]burger to eat.”

These, of course, are the immortal words of fictitious Cleveland Indians manager Lou Brown on opening day in the film Major League. If I read them with a Polish accent, my mind can picture Robert Warzycha delivering the very same speech in the crumbling bowels of RFK Stadium when the MLS campaign opened in March. I can even picture Emilio Renteria replacing Pedro Cerrano as the bald, muscular, foreign player baffled by an English word he had never encountered before. (“[Bleep]burger?”)

Like the Indians of Major League, the 2011 Columbus Crew looked overmatched and awful on opening day. And now, just like the Indians of Major League, the 2011 Columbus Crew find themselves in the midst of a pennant race in the East. After Saturday’s 3-1 comeback win over the New England Revolution, the Crew lead second-place Philadelphia by three points. A showdown between the top two teams looms this coming Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Crew Stadium.

The scene in Saturday’s postgame locker room was that of a team that knows it’s in the race and is truly in the spirit of it. Having taken care of their own business, many members of the team watched the end of the Philadelphia-Dallas game, openly rooting for some bonus help. Dallas blew a 2-1 lead late when they committed their second penalty of the night. Still, the game ended 2-2, and the Crew happily put two more points between themselves and their closest pursuer.

After five months of jockeying for position, it seemed to me that with 10 games to go, the race to the finish was officially on.

“You could definitely say that,” said Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers, who assisted on the game-icing goal on Saturday. “We want to be first place in the East, of course. We need to make a good strong run at the end, and I think we’re doing that.”

“Everyone wants to be on the top, not just now, but at the end of the season,” said forward Tommy Heinemann, who pressured New England defender Kevin Alston into the equalizing own goal that sent the Crew on their way to the comeback win.

With the Crew’s new blood has come fresh enthusiasm. The vets have been through this before, and their even-keeled leadership will be key, but for me, it was fun to see the team rooting together as if they were any other Crew fans. Obviously, they are motivated by their own professional interests, but the energy in the room suggested that this team knows that they are in the thick of things and that they are psyched to be a part of it.

“I think you can get that sense, but I don’t think we should be too focused on anyone else,” said midfielder Kevin Burns, a veteran who has been through all this before. “If we worry about ourselves, we will be much better off. We should focus on who we play next and leave it at that, but yeah, you can definitely feel that the race is on now.”

While there’s certainly no harm in doing some out-of-town rooting after you have already locked up three points for yourself on the night, Burns and other even-keeled pragmatists will be happy to know that the team’s internal focus and external rooting interests will converge on Saturday when the Union come to town.

“We can’t step off the power now,” said Rogers. “We’ve got a big game next weekend. It’s basically a six-point game.”

COMEBACK CREW STRIKES AGAIN

How does a preseason afterthought climb to the top of the conference? Well, one way to do it is to collect 13 points after allowing the first goal, while giving back nary a single point after taking a 1-0 lead. Even more amazingly, the Crew have conceded the first goal in exactly half of their 12 home matches. They are now 3-1-2 in those matches. The only loss came when the Chicago Fire scored the first goal of the game in second half stoppage time, which is nearly comeback-proof.

On Saturday, after the Crew dominated possession for the majority of the first half, New England took a shocking 1-0 lead into the break when Benny Feilhaber buried an 18-yard shot into the side netting. The final seconds of the half is a brutal time to give up a goal. It can rattle a team’s confidence and turn the halftime huddle on its ear, but the Comeback Crew took it in stride.

“We talked about it at halftime, that this wasn't the first time we were 1-0 down at home, and that we would be able to score some goals in the second half late,” said Warzycha.

“We gave up the goal at a bad time, but the way that we fought back, and the way that we were patient shows how much this team has matured,” said Rogers. “I’m really excited about that. Especially at home, we don’t like to lose. It’s a great characteristic that Bobby has instilled in this team.”

“It’s not only that we have the fight in us,” said defender Julius James, “but it’s also that we are being calm. At no point were we scrambling. Coach came in and calmed us down. He told us that we played well in the first half, and to just enjoy the game and move the ball quicker. That’s what we did and the goals came.”

“We’ve done it before, and I think we knew that we were the better side,” said Burns. “Once we got the first one, I think guys just kinda knew that that was going to be the most difficult thing to do, and once we did that, it would be like, ‘Let’s go.’ Obviously, that’s what happened.”

Despite their comeback success, James cautioned that it’s a useful but risky pattern.

“The resiliency of this team is a hallmark that could possibly come back and bite you because not every team is going to allow us to do this,” James said. “We are trying to fix the problem (of falling behind), but tonight was a great example of the fortitude that our team has as individuals and as a team.”

OWN GOAL EQUALIZER

The Crew tied the game in the 54th minute when New England’s Kevin Alston blooped a right-footed volley into his own net. The blunder occurred as Alston and Tommy Heinemann raced for a lobbed service provided by Crew striker Andres Mendoza. Alston got the inside position and finished Heinemann’s chance for him, although teammate Danny O’Rourke instructed Heinemann to claim the goal for himself no matter what the video showed.

“We both went for it, and then I don’t quite know what happened,” said Heinemann. “The important thing is that we got the goal and then we got the win.”

As Burns stated earlier, getting that first goal was the turning point. Rogers agreed.

“We were a bit bummed because we felt we played well and should have been up,” said Rogers, “but we allowed that late goal, which allowed them to get into the game when I felt they had no business being in that game. We were itching to get back out there (in the second half) and to finish our chances. Once we got the first one, it was like, ‘All right, we should be up, but now we’re on the board and let’s go get some more.’”

A SET PIECE FOR THE LEAD

The Crew were officially credited with a set piece goal on Jeff Cunningham’s game-winning goal in Vancouver on July 6. That was a joke, though, since the corner kick had been cleared and the goal came after the Crew lumped the ball back into the Vancouver penalty area. On Saturday, the Crew scored their first legit set-piece goal of the season. In the 75th minute, Josh Gardner’s corner kick found the head of high-flying Julius James, who headed the ball down and bounced it into the roof of the net to give the Crew a 2-1 lead.

“I knew I had to head it down,” said James. “I was so close that I had to head it down into the dirt.”

(James got up so high in the air that it prompted Columbus Dispatch beat writer Shawn Mitchell to ask James if he can dunk a basketball. “I am very ashamed to say that I cannot,” James replied. “There is something wrong with my timing and my mechanics. I have ups. I have ups. On most of the teams I have been on, I have had the highest vertical, but in terms of dunking, my mechanics don’t have it.”)

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The Crew put the game away in the 81st minute. After a beautiful give-and-go between Rogers and Dilly Duka eventually came up empty, Chad Marshall broke up the Revs’ counterattack. He gave the ball back to Duka, who then deftly played Rogers behind the New England defense on the right edge of the box. Rogers picked up his head and found Emilio Renteria wide open at the six yard box. Renteria poked the ball past Revs’ goalkeeper Matt Reis to give the Crew a 3-1 lead.

To Rogers, Renteria’s wide-openness was far less surprising than the fact that Robbie found the fuel in his tank to make another run on his banged-up ankle to latch on to Duka’s perfect pass.

“I’m not surprised Emilio was open because it was like a fast break,” Rogers said. “I told Dilly I’m surprised I even got to that ball. It was a good ball from Dilly and Emilio got himself it a good spot.”

Heinemann said it’s a forward’s dream to be unmarked from the six, which raises the question of how exactly does a bull like Renteria find himself alone in the heart of the china shop?

As a defender, Julius James said he understands how it happens. And he had some other theories.

“It doesn’t mystify me because I know defenders can make mental lapses,” James said. “Or maybe he made a good run. Or, he’s a strong guy, so maybe he stiff-armed half their team and knocked them all down. I don’t know how he got that open, but I am happy he scored in his first game back.”

SUBS SUPREME

When Renteria entered the game in the 58th minute, it marked only his second appearance since May 21. When Dilly Duka entered in the 66th minute, it was his first appearance since June 4. Those two got healthy at the right time, as their performance off the bench made all the difference on Saturday. Never mind the recently-closed transfer window. The Crew’s reinforcements may be coming from within.

“It’s amazing to have guys that can come off the bench and do that for you,” said James. “They provided a lift to the team. I haven’t seen Dilly or Emilio play in a while, so I was on the field thinking, ‘Wow! These guys were here the whole time!’ It was great was great to see them play again.”

“You talk about energy, that's what (Duka) brought,” said Warzycha. “He was very clean on the ball, he made good choices. We possessed the ball better with him.”

Rogers certainly benefitted from the presence of Duka and Renteria, as the third goal saw his run and cross sandwiched in between plays made by the two substitutes.

“Dilly combines well and plays good through balls, and Emilio is such a beast up top,” Rogers said. “He brings so much energy and holds the ball up well. He’s a threat. He’s dangerous. I was happy with how they both played. They really helped us, which is what you have to do when you’re a sub.”

Warzycha was obviously pleased to see reinforcements arrive from the injured list. Players like Rich Balchan, Jeff Cunningham, Shaun Francis, and Danny O’Rourke could also be back soon, joining a team that has already scrapped its way to the top of the conference.

“I think we have a very good team,” Warzycha said. “I think you see that they play as a team, they attack as a team and they defend as a team. Everybody is responsible on the field. That is what we are trying to do. Whether it is the final project - no. We have some guys injured that maybe can jump in the lineup, but everybody is contributing, so that is a very positive sign.”

MR. NUMBERS NERD: NET POINTS FROM FIRST GOAL SCENARIOS EDITION

As mentioned earlier, the Crew have attained 13 points from games in which they gave given up the first goal, going 3-7-4 in such contests, and they have not given back a single point in games in which they have scored first. (They’re 7-0-0 when scoring first.) This means that the Crew are a net +13 points from the combined first-goal scenarios. That is tops in Major League Soccer. Keep in mind that this number skews negative because a tie game will result in minus-2 points for the team that scored first, but only +1 point for the team that equalized. The Crew are one of just five MLS teams with a positive number, making their +13 all the more astounding.

Here’s how the Eastern Conference stacks up, with the teams listed by their standings position through Wednesday’s games:

CLB +13
PHI +1
KC 0
HOU +3
NY -16
DC -6
TOR -2
NE -16
CHI -5

As you can see, Saturday’s game played right into the season long patterns established by both Columbus and New England. And how about those Red Bulls? They waste 1-0 leads like they’re dollars.

And here’s how the Western Conference has fared, also listed by standings position through Wednesday’s games:

LA +2
DAL -2
SEA +9
COL -8
RSL -3
CHV -10
POR -4
SJ -5
VAN -8

With a 4-5-3 record and 15 points, Seattle is the only team to collect more points than the Crew after allowing the first goal. However, the Sounders have given away six points after taking a 1-0 lead. Their record is 7-0-3 in such situations. One of those three draws happened in Columbus on May 7, when Emilio Renteria’s 67th minute penalty kick negated Fredy Montero’s 7th minute tally and recovered a point for the Crew.

FANTASY FOOTBALL IS UPON US

For the fourth straight year, the Notebook will be providing extensive coverage of the Crew’s fantasy football league. Or at least the interesting part, which is the smack talk.

With the NFL lockout over and the preseason underway, a restructured fantasy league is gearing up for action. The Crew’s offseason roster moves gutted the Crew’s fantasy contingent, but the league has evolved with the times. Chad Marshall has replaced Brian Carroll as league commissioner. There are also three new additions to the fantasy group.

“We have four guys from last year,” said Danny O’Rourke, referring to himself, Andy Gruenebaum, Hesmer, and Marshall. “Well, it’s five guys if you count (head athletic trainer Dave) Lagow, although I’m not sure if he really had a team last year. We wanted to get to 10 guys, but we couldn’t find 10 guys who are that passionate about it, so we have an eight team league. We added (Eric) Gehrig, (Cole) Grossman, and Heinemann.”

If the newbies didn’t fully realize exactly what they were getting themselves into, they quickly found out when O’Rourke downed several espressos, sat in front of his computer, and eviscerated the rest of the league with a torrent of recklessly-chosen and ill-considered words.

“Danny’s writing emails that are as long as books, trying to make us shake,” said Heinemann. “He’s trying to make us flinch.”

“Danny already started the banter with a…a…this is what Danny does,” said Gruenebaum. “He writes a normal thing and then checks every other word with a thesaurus and then puts in a bigger word so that he actually sounds smart. But it was pretty witty and it kicked off the banter.”

Danny’s belligerent opus, which clocked in comfortably north of 2,000 words, overflowed with jestful jabs, brutal barbs, and preposterous prognostications. It referred to a man named “Greunenbaumsteinbergerwitz,” noted the psychological baggage burdening Marshall due to Chad’s close association with “a full-grown, 40-year-old Hobbit” (Duncan Oughton), and equated O’Rourke’s demand that Gehrig get a haircut to the necessary demolition of an abandoned house that has become a neighborhood eyesore. The missive suggested that Lagow may possibly triple his 2010 win total by winning three matchups in 2011, invented a new failure verb by predicting that Heinemann will “Lagow” his draft, and accurately calculated that, despite being a reliably solid drafter, William Hesmer’s Crew fantasy football championship total nevertheless matches O’Rourke’s career MLS goal total. And all that’s just the tiniest tip of the invective iceberg.

“If there wasn’t banter like that, it wouldn’t be fantasy football,” said Lagow. “I can’t remember if it was Chad or Will, but they summed it up perfectly. It was like Danny would make one comment about each person’s fantasy football team, and the rest was just a vicious personal attack. But it’s a funny read. He tries to redeem himself by making fun of himself, but he takes it pretty easy on himself. He just states the obvious.”

As far as I know, Danny’s email did not include any graphs, so I took the liberty of making one.

FANTASY FOOTBALL NEWCOMERS RIPPED

The three newcomers to the Crew fantasy league bore the brunt of the locker room razzing on Saturday night. The vets weighed in on their newest competitors.

“Cole doesn’t know as much as he leads you to believe,” Gruenebaum said. “He just knows where everybody went to college.”

It was stressed by multiple parties that Grossman’s freakishly encyclopedic knowledge of where every player went to college will be useless since he knows nothing about football itself.

Meanwhile, Heinemann has filled the league with suspicion.

“Tommy is a dark horse,” said Gruenebaum. “Nobody knows a lot about his fantasy game. He comes off like he plays a lot, but you can’t trust a man who doesn’t grow a ‘stache in with his beard.”

“And you can’t trust a man who doesn’t drink during a fantasy draft,” Hesmer added, referring to a draft day tradition that is customary in leagues from coast to coast.

“I’m going to spike his pink lemonade,” said Gruenebaum.

In lieu of beverage consumption, O’Rourke suggested alternative impairments to Tommy’s draft, such as requiring that Duncan Oughton makes every third selection for Heinemann’s team.

And then there’s Eric Gehrig. The guys could not be more thrilled that Gehrig is in the fantasy football league.

“This is a true story,” said Commissioner Marshall. “In a conversation yesterday, Gehrig talked about drafting Carson Palmer in the second or third round. Seriously. He’s going to have a big year.”

Palmer has announced his pending retirement from the NFL unless he is traded from the Cincinnati Bengals. Meanwhile, the Bengals traded top receiver Chad Ochocinco earlier this month, prompting O’Rourke to add, “No, that’s a good pick, Gehrig. Palmer’s got great chemistry with Ochocinco. They’re going to put up big numbers together for the Bengals this year.”

Marshall laughed. “So as you can see,” he said, “it could be a struggle for Gehrig. That’s good. It could be a guaranteed playoff berth for me.”

“Even Lagow has a chance now,” added O’Rourke.

Gruenebaum and Hesmer were equally mystified by Gehrig’s pre-draft chatter.

“Gehrig is having a shocker,” said the Hebrew Hammer. “He’s planning to draft a guy that has already retired.”

Hesmer speculated on other retired players that might be on Gehrig’s radar.

“Gehrig’s first three picks could be Carson Palmer, Randy Moss, and Tiki Barber,” Hesmer said.

Despite all the jabs, the newcomers remain undaunted.

“I heard about (the fantasy league), and some guys didn’t want to be in it because these guys get a little too cocky in the locker room, but at the end of the day, we’ll see where we’re at,” Gehrig said. “I’m a die-hard Bears fan. I knew more (than Danny) about the NFL when I was 12 years old. Cole and I have a lot of experience in the football realm.”

“I realize what I’m getting into, but I like it,” said Heinemann. “I like it a lot. It’s going to be a tight league, so the waiver wire is going to be big. Whoever wins the waiver wire is going to have a good chance of winning the title this year.”

O’Rourke’s manifesto listed the following championship odds. These odds are for pre-draft conversational purposes only. The west side casino isn’t open yet.

Hesmer: 6-1
Marshall: 6-1
Gruenebaum: 7-1
O’Rourke: 9-1
Heinemann: 12-1
Grossman: 13-1
Gehrig: 17-1
Lagow: No odds given. One can only assume that the odds are so astronomical that they could not be published. Or even calculated.
 
QUIP O’ THE NIGHT

The press box air conditioning unit zonked out Saturday afternoon. The greenhouse effect of a window-walled room baking in the sun all day made for sweltering, sauna-like conditions. Crew radio man and Geordie deity Neil Sika walked in and said, “It’s only fitting that this happened against the Revolution. This is what it felt like when they signed the Federalist Papers.”

Never mind the jumble of historical inaccuracies in that statement. It still made me laugh.

VANDALISM OF THE NIGHT

During a recent concert, someone committed an act of vandalism on one of the wall murals that leads to the Crew’s locker room. On one hand, it’s aggravating and disrespectful, especially since those 2002 U.S. Open Cup and 2008 MLS Cup murals are such an eye-pleasing and historically significant decorating touch. On the other hand, well, I now present to you the most unlikely Gene Simmons in the world— former Crew defender Daniel Torres:

Questions? Comments? Know if re-casting and re-shooting a movie and calling it “Major League (Soccer)” will result in multiple acts of litigation? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via Twitter @stevesirk