Sirk's Notebook:

Record Breaking Goal and Film study with Wile E. Coyote

Jeff Cunningham

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

The only rain that fell in Seattle last weekend was the rain that fell on the Crew’s first-place parade. More specifically, it rained goals. A historic number of goals. And there were some historic goals amongst the historic number of goals. Depending on one’s viewpoint and allegiance, the Crew’s 6-2 loss to the Seattle Sounders was equal parts historic, horrific, and hysterical. It was hysthorric.

It was a game that featured:

  • The equaling of the Crew’s record for goals allowed, originally set 15 years ago in a 6-4 loss at Kansas City on May 2, 1996.
  • The Crew setting a club record for goals allowed in the first half, with four.
  • Jeff Cunningham scoring his 134th career goal to take sole possession of the all-time MLS record.
  • Lamar Neagle scoring the first home hat-trick in Sounders history. (The first overall hat-trick in Sounders history was scored by Blaise Nkufo last September in Columbus.)
  • The Crew’s Josh Gardner scoring a goal and an own-goal less than a minute apart from each other.

It was getting hard to keep up with the research in Neil Sika’s radio booth. By the time I would research one historic occurrence, it would become outdated after the words had barely escaped Neil’s lips. In one instance, a factoid was interrupted by not one, but two goals, which obliterated the unearthed nugget before it could even be fully shared with the listening audience. If the press box scoresheet runner had been wearing a pedometer, she would have gotten credit for at least a half-marathon.

Here are some notes from a crazy trip and a crazy game…

BAD START

Needing a good start in a tough environment, the Crew did the opposite, and they did it in stunning fashion. In the fourth minute, Seattle’s Lamar Neagle took a routine throw-in near midfield. It’s not the sort of event that causes one to cue up the Jaws theme, but for some reason, right back Sebastian Miranda decided to jump up in an effort to block the throw-in with his head. Miranda was unsuccessful and the ball went to the feet of Mike Fucito, who was posted up against Crew defender Rich Balchan near the sideline. Neagle, meanwhile, made an incisive run toward the Crew’s goal that Miranda didn’t follow. Fucito squared the ball into Neagle’s path, forcing Balchan to turn on his jets to catch up with the streaking Neagle as he angled toward the net. Balchan caught up, but the angles were not in his favor. With no recovery run from Miranda and no help coming from the middle, Balchan rode Neagle’s outside shoulder and disrupted him enough so that Neagle couldn’t get full power or placement on his shot attempt. Crew goalkeeper William Hemser went down to his left and appeared to make the save, but rather than pushing the ball wide, the spin he placed on the ball allowed it to carry on into the net. The Crew’s cavalcade of miscues gave the Sounders a dream 1-0 lead just four minutes into the game.

“I didn’t really hit it too well,” said Neagle, “but a shot on goal has a chance, so sometimes you get those.”

“It bounced up on the turf and came back into me,” said Hesmer. “I got caught in between pushing it wide and trying to catch it. I didn’t get enough of it. I thought initially, when I looked at it, it was still wide. It looked like it spun and went inside the post.”

“We were a little fortunate to on the first goal, you know, the bounce,” said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.  “I know Hesmer’s a quality goalkeeper. Those aren’t the kind of goals you expect to get against him.”

Those are also the type of goals that Hesmer doesn’t expect himself to give up.

“I can’t let that happen,” Hesmer said. “It is just too hard to play in a place like this when I give up a bad goal like that. I have to do better on that one. From there, it was just downhill.”

THE PENALTY

The downhill journey continued in the 16th minute when Balchan was whistled for handball in the box. Seattle had another Throw-In Of Doom. As the throw came in, Balchan and Fucito were tangled in a body position war at the outside edge of the box. Fucito rolled away from Balchan at the very last second and the ball hit Balchan’s hand, which was directly in front of his chest. It was a very tough call due to the location at the very outside edge of the box, the obvious lack of intent or ability to avoid the contact, and the fact that Balchan gained no advantage whatsoever since the ball would have hit him squarely in his sternum anyway.
 
“I will have to see the replay,” said Balchan. “He was backing into me, the ball was bouncing, and then he moved out of the way and the ball hit my hand. My hands were here. [He holds them in against his chest.] The ball hit my hand. I didn’t play the ball.”

Nevertheless, Mauro Rosales buried the PK to give the Sounders a 2-0 lead.

A week earlier, the Crew got the penalty call in another instance where the ball played the hand. At least in that particular instance, Philly’s Sheanon Williams had his hand raised next to his shoulder, and those extra inches of body extension blocked a Crew cross. At least the hand affected the play, even if the ball played the hand. In Balchan’s case, the hand had no impact on the play, which made it a tough call to swallow.

Knowing the final score, it’s easy to say it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. And really, given that Seattle was firing on all cylinders and the Crew were sputtering, that may have been the case. On the other hand, that penalty and that goal may have been huge. The 2011 Crew have been no strangers to slow starts and early 1-0 deficits. Entering Saturday, they had fallen behind 1-0 on 14 occasions and garnered 13 points in those games. (Throw out the 91st minute goal in a 1-0 loss to Chicago, and the Crew had averaged exactly a point per game when allowing the first goal.) They have also earned points in 7 of those 13 non-Chicago contests. If the Crew were able to weather the Seattle storm and hold it at 1-0 for a little bit, they very well could have found their footing and scratched out a result as they had done so many times already in 2011. But at 2-0, the wheels came off. A few minutes later, it was 3-0 and the route was on.

NO EXCUSES

The Crew offered no excuses for their performance. Despite my playing devil’s advocate in the previous section, nobody vented about the penalty call and its potential impact on the game. Balchan’s comment about it was dragged out of him. He was not looking for a sympathetic ear to bend with a tale of woe. The Crew simply acknowledged that their worst and Seattle’s best was a lethal combination that afternoon.

“We made bad mistakes in bad parts of the field and they punished us for it,” said Chad Marshall. “The game was over 20 minutes in.”

“It was an off game for everyone,” said Jeff Cunningham. “That’s not the characteristic of this team. We’re a very tough team to break down. It was just an off game. Congratulations to the Sounders. That was a classy performance from them. We didn’t play well, but they were outstanding. It was good football. You have to give them credit.”

When asked what he told his team after the game, Crew coach Robert Warzycha replied, “What can I say?”

And he was right. His players know how to read a scoreboard and they experienced the 6-2 drubbing as up close and personal as anyone can experience it. Nothing else needed to be said. 

“Sometimes it is good to get a cold shower,’ Warzycha explained. “We still have eight games until the playoffs. We have to regroup and win the next game.”

On the bright side, the last time the Crew laid such a rotten egg was the home loss to Chicago. They responded with the run of good form that has propelled them to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

“It’s behind us,” said Marshall. “We look forward to getting back on the field against Toronto.”

Who doesn’t?

THE MOMENT WE’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR

In the 60th minute, after a phantom penalty call resulting from Emilio Renteria’s off-balance tumble in the Seattle box, Crew Nation got to salvage something from the misbegotten match.

Jeff Cunningham stepped to the penalty spot with the weight of the MLS all-time goal scoring record on his shoulders. As Seattle icon Kasey Keller danced on the goal line, Cunningham calmly slotted the ball into the right side of the net. After a season long build-up, Cunningham finally stood alone atop the goal scoring list.

“I kind of waited for (Keller) to move,” Cunningham said of his historic shot. “I saw him cheat a little bit to his right, and that point, the decision was made for me in terms of which direction to go in. For me, it was a good penalty kick. It was an important kick for me.”

This past offseason, the Crew brought Cunningham home to where he played the first seven seasons of his career. The plan was for Cunningham to not only break the league scoring record in a Crew kit, but perhaps even shatter it as a super sub and spot starter. The pressure has mounted as the pursuit dragged on month after month. Cunningham tied the league mark in dramatic fashion with a 90th minute game-winner in Vancouver on July 6. The record-setter did not have the same dramatic flair, but this was a record 14 seasons in the making.

“Unfortunately, the result did not go our way, but I am still proud that the goal finally came,” Cunningham said. “Now there’s less pressure and I can enjoy the rest of the season. I knew it would come at some point. I didn’t expect it to take until this point in the season, but I am happy that it’s behind me now so I can focus on playing well and helping this team finish the season on a positive note.”

Once outside of the locker room, where he was understandably restrained out of respect for his teammates and the loss they all endured, Cunningham opened up a little more and allowed himself to show some of the emotion behind the historic achievement. He repeatedly kissed the record-setting ball and spoke of the league’s history.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “Fourteen years and now to be on top of the scoring lead is a great honor. There have been some great players that were a part of this league, and I am honored to be up amongst them as far as goal production. I am humbled to be in the same class as those guys like Jaime Moreno, Brian McBride, Landon (Donovan)…all those guys…Dante Washington, Roy Lassiter…(Raul) Diaz Arce,  (Marco) Etcheverry…this list goes on and on. I am just honored to be amongst those guys. I appreciate all of the support from the fans of the Columbus Crew where I started. To get the opportunity to possibly finish my career here, I couldn’t ask for anything better, man. I’ve been playing this game since I was three or four years old, and to be at this point in my life, holding this ball, you don’t have any idea. It’s a big honor and I am very proud. I am just honored to be mentioned amongst the best players that have played in this league. I may not put myself in the same class as those players, but to be amongst them in terms of goal production, and to be mentioned with them, it’s a big honor.”

Cunningham offered a tip of the cap to Jaime Moreno, the D.C. United great that Cunningham caught and surpassed this season.

“He’s the reason I don’t have an MLS Cup so far,” Cunningham said. “His days with D.C., in the early parts of my career with Columbus, it seemed that every time we got in the conference final they got the better of us. At the same time, I’ve learned a lot from him and to be mentioned in the same breath as him is an honor.” 

THAT’S JEFF CUNNINGHAM, FOLKS?

In the immediate aftermath of Cunningham’s record setting goal, I was puzzled and angered by two tweets by national-level journalists. Let’s start with Ives Galarcep, who tweeted:

“Why would you take a PK in a blowout loss ON the road to break the MLS career goals record? That’s Jeff Cunningham folks.”

(NOTE: The tweet has since been deleted, but was preserved by Bill Archer, who already gave it a thorough roasting. Also, Ives clarified that his comment was more about his disappointment in seeing a record broken in such drab circumstances. Even if that’s true, the “that’s Jeff Cunningham, folks” line at the end of the original tweet reveals something a little deeper, doesn’t it?)

This tweet riled me up because it’s just so impossibly cynical and denigrates the 14 years of work that went into the record. It made it sound like taking the penalty kick was a selfish act of self-glorification that defined Jeff Cunningham. The fact is, Jeff Cunningham had no control over the circumstances of this game. His only alternative was to ignore his coach’s orders while keeping the pressure of the record hanging over himself and the team as they head down the stretch, all so that he could find a more perfect and gratifying moment to bask in the glory of the goal scoring record. And THAT would have somehow been preferable and more selfless/honorable than taking the penalty kick? It boggles the mind.

That’s Jeff Cunningham, folks? You mean the same Jeff Cunningham who has accepted a greatly reduced role with no public complaints? The Jeff Cunningham who has been working with the Crew’s younger players? The Jeff Cunningham who stomached a teammate’s taking of the penalty that would have allowed him to tie the league scoring record and set the Crew scoring record in front of the home fans? And not only that, the Jeff Cunningham who vociferously rushed to that teammate’s defense after the game amidst the public outcry? The Jeff Cunningham who declined a pre-game ceremony recognizing him as the Crew’s all-time leading scorer after he broke the record on the road with a 90th minute game-winner, all because the man he had shared the record with was being honored that day as the first inductee into the Crew’s Circle of Honor and he did not wish to distract the focus from Brian McBride? The Jeff Cunningham who didn’t blatantly celebrate the record-breaking goal since the Crew were getting blown out on the road? The Jeff Cunningham who was careful not to talk too gleefully about the record in front of his teammates in the locker room, given what everyone had just been through for 90 minutes? The Jeff Cunningham who felt blessed to even be healthy enough to set foot on the field that day?

“A week ago, I thought I was going to need surgery,” Cunningham said after the game. “To be standing here right now with the ball and this honor, it’s amazing, man. Trust me. Last week, I was very unsure as to how my season was going to play out, but I toughed it out. The trainers helped me, my teammates supported me, and here I am. It’s an honor.”

I understand that Jeff’s reputation was cemented a long time ago by his brasher, younger self, but the Jeff Cunningham of 2011 patiently and quietly earned this moment, regardless of the circumstances. The fact that it wasn’t as absolutely perfect as many wanted, expected, or demanded it to be? Well, that’s Jeff Cunningham, folks.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: GOAL KING EDITION

On to part two of my tweet retorts. MLSsoccer.com’s Simon Borg celebrated Cunningham’s historic feat by tweeting, “Cunningham may have all-time goal-scoring record but he won't be remembered as a top goal-scorer. Exciting talent. But not a ‘scorer.’”

Just like Hank Aaron won’t be remembered as a homerun hitter. Exciting talent, but not a ‘homerun hitter.’ Babe Ruth, Harmon Killebrew, and Cecil Fielder…THOSE were homerun hitters!

Anyway, as is his style, Borg’s comment was utterly ludicrous and surely meant to stimulate furious counterarguments. There’s no other possible explanation because his claim does not hold up to examination. Obviously, Cunningham has scored more league goals than any MLS player ever, which speaks for itself. He has scored 114 “spotless” (non-PK) goals, which is the runaway lead in MLS history. Moreno had 89. Ante Razov is the only other man to top 100, and he had 101. That means that Cunningham has 12.8% more spotless goals than the league’s #2 all-time player in that category. When it comes to clutch goals, Cunningham has scored an MLS-record 40 game-winning goals. Razov is second with 33. That means that Cunningham has 21.2% more game-winning goals than the #2 all-time player in that category. No MLS player has tormented home fans like Jeff Cunningham in a visiting uniform. His 57 road goals are also the MLS mark, three more than Razov.

Perhaps Borg was referring to the rate of goal production. That doesn’t really hold up either. Of the six men in the 100 Goal Club, only Taylor Twellman scored more goals per 90 minutes than Cunningham. Lowering the bar considerably, but still setting it at a very impressive and significant milestone, of the 27 men to score at least 50 goals in MLS history, only five of them (including Twellman) have topped Cunningham’s mark of 0.53 goals per 90 minutes.

In their time, Stern John (44 goals in 55 games and 0.88 goals per 90) and Mamadou Diallo (47 goals in 74 games and 0.72 goals per 90) were hands down the two most unstoppable forwards this league has ever seen, but they weren’t in the league long enough to generate larger career numbers. And there are some non-‘goalscorer’ players who have moved up the goal charts due to their longevity, such as all-star midfielders like Steve Ralston (76 goals, 0.21 G/90), Cobi Jones (70 goals, 0.25 G/90), and Mark Chung (61 goals, 0.22 G/90.)

Jeff Cunningham wasn’t a goalscoring meteor who briefly flashed through our lives. And he has been anything but a longevity-based accumulator. No, Jeff Cunningham holds the league’s all-time goalscoring record because he has been scoring goals at a very good rate for a very long time. It’s not some random, fluky accident. He has scored goals in every which way imaginable, with the vast majority of them (85%) coming from the run of play, not the penalty spot. He has seven double-digit scoring seasons and is the only player in MLS history to have won two Golden Boots outright. Here on Planet Earth, that body of work is the very definition of a top goalscorer, Simon.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: GOAL / OWN-GOAL EDITION

Josh Gardner pulled off an interesting feat on Saturday. In the 73rd minute, he beat Kasey Keller with a wicked long-range free kick into the upper reaches of the Seattle net. Then, in the 74th minute, he beat William Hesmer when he knocked a bouncing cross into the Columbus goal. In the span of 54 seconds, and just 23 seconds of actual playing time, Gardner scored a goal and an own-goal. Reversals of fortune do not get much crazier than that.

When I bugged him for some answers, the always helpful Rick Lawes at MLS headquarters advised me that this is only the fourth time in MLS history that a player scored a goal and an own goal in the same match. It had never happened until 2008. Now, amazingly, it has happened once every season since then.

Here is the full list:

Player    Date    Opponent    Score    Goals
Jack Jewsbury (KC)    April 9, 2008    vs. NE    NE 3-1    OG (12), G (28)
Brian Namoff (DC)    July 18, 2009    vs. COL    DC 3-1    OG (14), G (56)
Edson Buddle (LA)    October 16, 2010    vs. COL    LA 3-1    G (9), OG (18)
Josh Gardner (CLB)    August 27, 2011    at SEA    SEA 6-2    G (73), OG (74)

Some other G/OG facts:

  • At one minute, Gardner has clearly set the record for fastest reversal of fortune, eclipsing Edson Buddle’s mark of nine minutes.
  • Gardner joins Buddle as the only player to negate his own goal with an own-goal. (No goals scored in between.)
  • Jewsbury is the only player to do the opposite, by effectively erasing his own-goal with a goal of his own.
  • Namoff’s is the happiest story of the bunch. His own-goal put his team down 1-0, but then he went on to score the game-winning goal.
  • Namoff is also the only player to score his goal and own-goal in the same net in opposite halves. Everyone else scored at both ends of the field in the same half.
  • Gardner is the first player in MLS history to pull off this strange feat on the road, and the only player not to start his schizophrenic scoring spree within the first 14 minutes of a game.
  • MLS teams are now 2-2-0 when one of their players scores the goal & own-goal double.
  • All goal / own-goal games have featured a 3:1 goal ratio. That has nothing to do with anything, other than being a quirky coincidence. Apparently, if a home player does it, it’s a 3-1 score. If a visiting player does it, you double that score line.

Also, a tip of the cap to my longtime friend and colleague Matt Bernhardt, who unearthed the fact that this feat has been accomplished one other time in Crew history, although not in league play. On August 6, 2003, Brian Maisonneuve did the goal & own-goal double in a 4-3 U.S. Open Cup loss to the MetroStars at Crew Stadium. In the 24th minute, Maisonneuve’s own-goal trimmed the Crew’s lead to 2-1. In the 43rd minute, Maisonneuve beat Johnny Walker to cancel out his own-goal and restore the Crew’s two-goal advantage. Columbus would end up losing the game anyway, 4-3, on a night in which Brian West got a straight red card for tripping over the ball while dribbling. (I think that’s the second time I have referenced that red card this year. It’s been eight trips around the sun since that happened, and I am still as befuddled today as I was back then.)

FILM STUDY

The Seattle game seems like the type of game where you might just burn the film and pretend it never happened. But as I thought about, for example, the multiple breakdowns that led to the first goal…and then I thought, if I could combine all of the Crew’s players and coaches into one single character for narrative convenience, the study of the Seattle game film might look a little something like this, allegorically-speaking:

Thankfully, the Crew’s track record is infinitely better than the coyote’s. For the Crew, last weekend’s debacle was an uncharacteristic blip. For the coyote and the Cleveland Browns, it’s a way of life.

BLISSFUL ISOLATION

Well before the game, I noticed Crew technical director Brian Bliss standing alone on the field. Just a solitary man on a barren carpet in an empty stadium. For reasons unknown, I snapped a photo from upstairs.

When I talked to him later, I mentioned that I saw him out there. Bliss said other people took notice too.

“Someone remarked that they didn’t want to interrupt me because I looked like I was deep in thought. I said, ‘Nah, my mind doesn’t work that way.’”

SEATTLE SUNSHINE

Within the space of one year, I have now spent nine days in the Pacific Northwest. It has been perfectly sunny each and every day. The only raindrops I have felt in all that time came during what was literally a seven-second spritz that descended from an undefined wisp of a cloud while in Portland on Wednesday. I became convinced that the “it rains all the time” complaints are simply propaganda designed to deter people from moving to Cascadia and that all the rain seen on TV is dazzling CGI trickery. Again, in my experience, we’re talking NINE for NINE with sunny days.

“I strongly suggest that you broaden your body of work,” said Sounders television broadcaster Arlo White. “Your sample size is insufficient, and it’s leading you to draw some erroneous conclusions.”

Sounders midfielder and Massive Champion Brad Evans is from Arizona, so surely he feels right at home in the Sunshiny Seattle that I have come to know. Or maybe not. He backed up White’s assertions.

“We didn’t have three consecutive days of sunshine until sometime in May,” he said. “It’s normally gray. You guys got here at the right time.”

Sounders coach Sigi Schmid also congratulated us Ohioans on our timing.

“You came here during our three weeks of summer,” Schmid said. “We’re enjoying it while it lasts.”

Whatever. Nice try, fellas. My sunshine-in-Seattle streak has more data points than the growing Sounders-are-undefeated-all-time-against-the-Crew streak, yet nobody is calling the latter a fluke of timing and sample sizes. My advice? If you are going to Seattle, pack polarized sunglasses, a thick tube of SPF-50, and a solar-powered hand-held mist fan to keep cool.

BROADCAST BOOTH WINDOW WAR

While killing time in Neil Sika’s radio booth before the game, I noticed that one of the production guys in Arlo White’s television booth walked over to our shared window-wall and taped a Sounders logo facing into our room. I gave him a dirty look and he laughed. Then he proceeded to tape another Sounders logo facing into our booth. And then another. And another. As he kept going, we were treated to the following wall of Sounders logos:

I figured if this guy was that committed to his joke, then I had to fight back. So I took a copy of the game notes and tore out the small Crew logo at the top so that I could tape it facing into Arlo’s booth. Yeah! I was going to give those Sounder types a taste of their own medicine! Here’s a photo of my handiwork:

As I taped it to the window-wall, the production guy started laughing. I thought he was amused and impressed by my McGyver-like ingenuity in defending our Massive honor. No, that wasn’t it. As he began to tape the next Sounders logo to the window, he flipped over the card so that I could see the other side. Each card contained a promo that Arlo had to read on the air. These promos were taped to the window-wall for easy access. That the Sounders logos on the backs of the cards faced into our booth was merely a side effect of this legitimate process.

So, yeah, the joke was on me after all. It seems that the Sounders’ dominance over the Crew even extends down to lowly web-goof idiots like me.

THINGS I AM THANKFUL FOR

I haven’t fully ranked the many blessings in my life, but the fact that Crew Stadium’s press box lacks a wall of photos dedicated to journalists in action would have to be near the top of the list.

Not even the inclusions of Katie Witham and Ashleigh Ignelzi could negate the rest of the optical horrors that would populate such a wall in Crew Stadium. We’re a scary bunch. Except for Dwight Burgess, of course. He’s a handsome man. Just ask him.

RANDOM ANECDOTES

Some random anecdotes to finish this thing off…

* Brian Bliss was a member of the last Crew team to cough up six goals in a game. He played in that 6-4 loss in Kansas City on May 2, 1996, right?

“Yeah yeah yeah,” he said with a laugh. “But none of the six were my fault!”

Perhaps we need Wile E. Coyote to review that particular game film too.

* Crew radio man Neil Sika wore his self-described “European style” by sporting dress pants and dress shoes without socks. As we walked out of the stadium after the game, a Seattle Mariners ticket scalper was beside himself.

“WHERE. ARE. THE SOCKS?!?” he bellowed from the street corner. “What the (poop), man?!?!? He ain’t got no socks!!!”

Sika had a good laugh as we continued walking.

“My style has the people of Seattle talking,” he said. “It’s creating buzz.”

* When I was at the Mariners game on Friday night, I was excited that the yellow boat beat the green boat in some stupid animated scoreboard boat race. I decided that it was a Massive omen for the soccer game the next afternoon, and tweeted accordingly.

Like the Crew, I took my lumps. I will give the final word in this Notebook to Laurie Onside of Seattle (@SeattleOnside), who zinged me with the following tweet after the 6-2 disaster:

“@stevesirk If I were you, I'd have a talk with that yellow boat for stealing all the yellow win in Seattle.”

Questions? Comments? Ever seen a Star Wars stormtrooper casually walk through your hotel’s lobby? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk