Sirk's Notebook: Houston edition

Garey returns to pull pranks on O'Rourke and Hesmer and an early red card comeback

Andres Mendoza

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So maybe it turns out that the problem was playing with eleven men. After back to back even-strength shellackings, the shorthanded Crew gutted out a 2-2 draw with the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday night, putting them back into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference.

The Dynamo spent 79 minutes with a man advantage. Houston outshot the Crew 17-6. The Dynamo held a 72-28 edge in possession percentage, including 594 passes to the Crew’s 213. Yet the Crew came within four minutes of winning the match. Go figure.

“I think under the circumstances, it is a great point at home,” said head coach Robert Warzycha. “Scoring two goals while playing for 79 minutes with a man down is great. The guys left everything on the field, scored two goals, and almost got three points. But, like I said, under the circumstances I'm very happy with one point. We knew that we were going to have to work so hard to get anything. I think today, there was very good fight, and I was very happy with everybody's performance.”

THE RED CARD

Emmanuel Ekpo received a red card in the 11th minute when his open hand hit former Crew midfielder Adam Moffat in the face. It appeared that Ekpo was reaching out to put a hand on Moffat’s chest, but his hand got a little high. Moffat felt there was no intent and didn’t expect an ejection. That went double for Ekpo.

“I was surprised I had a red card,” Ekpo said. “It was an unjust call. That’s what I’ll say. It happens all the time in the game of soccer. You try to fend him with your hand on his shoulder and I got his face. It wasn’t intentional, but the ref gave me a straight-up red. I wasn’t expecting it at all.”

DEFICICTS, COMEBACKS, AND LETDOWNS

As is their custom, the Crew eventually went down 1-0. That’s the 17th time in 28 games that they have done so. This time, Je-Vaughn Watson climbed the ladder (a ladder named Chad Marshall) to head home a Jermaine Taylor cross in the 34th minute. Marshall took a knock to the head on the play and would leave the game at halftime due to a hip flexor injury suffered earlier in the half.

Trailing by goal, playing down a man, and then taking the field in the second half without their dominant center back in a game tilted toward their own goal, things did not look good for the Crew. But as Robbie Rogers said after the Toronto debacle, the Crew needed to make their own luck through their own hard work. Prophetic words, those.

Eric Gehrig, who took the field in Marshall’s place, hustled to chase down a skimmed free kick that was heading out toward the Nordecke corner. He took a touch and knocked a cross into the box that made contact with Houston defender Cam Weaver’s arm. The referee awarded a penalty.

In isolation, I am not unsympathetic to Houston’s claim that there was no intent and that the ball hit Weaver’s arm while it was in a natural position at his side. The arm did knock the ball away from a waiting Tommy Heinemann, and ball-to-hand contact has consistently been whistled in many MLS games of late, but I can at least understand Houston’s point of view. On the other hand (haha), the referee generously gave them 79 minutes of man advantage, so I’m not going to bother with violin lessons.

Andres Mendoza smacked the ensuing penalty kick into the upper left reaches of the net to knot the score in the 64th minute. Just as Robbie wished, the Crew had worked hard to make their own luck.

Columbus would take the lead in the 76th minute when Mendoza converted another penalty kick. This one was uncontroversial. As Crew midfielder Dilly Duka ran on to a corner kick from Shaun Francis, he received a forceful kick across the stomach. Mixing it up, Mendoza went low and inside the right post with his second penalty of the night.

“I decided to go a different route because I knew the keeper would go where I shot it before,” Mendoza said, when asked about the potential challenges of taking two penalties in the same game. “I didn’t feel nervous or anything, and I wasn’t thinking too much in that sense, I just felt that I would go the different way. The important thing is that the ball went in.”

A shorthanded comeback victory would have been a dream result, but alas, it was too good to be true. In the 86th minute, Houston’s Calen Carr found himself unmarked in the middle of the Crew’s penalty area. His one-time blast on a Geoff Cameron cut-back pass left Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer with no chance.

POSITIVES TRUMP THE NEGATIVES

On one hand, the Crew erased a deficit and earned a point while playing down a man for almost the entire match. On the other hand, they lost two points in the standings with four minutes to play, which is normally a gut punch. It was the first time all year that the Crew dropped points from a leading position. They had gone their first 27 games without having done so, which was one game short of the MLS records set by the 2010 Los Angeles Galaxy.

The locker room was largely positive about the result.

“Crazy game,” said defender Julius James. “We needed points today. We see the heart that we have. Coach couldn’t name a man of the match tonight for the team because we had a very good combined effort. It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t come out with the win, but given the circumstances, one point is not bad at all. It’s bittersweet, but it’s more sweet than bitter because it could have been a lot worse. We never put our heads down and we kept working.”

“Obviously we’re not happy with that last goal we gave up,” said midfielder Danny O’Rourke, who battled for 90 minutes in his first game in over two months. “It was a lack of marking. Maybe we took our foot off the pedal. But from watching the last two games and not being a part of them, what frustrated me was that we went down and the floodgates stayed open. It’s one thing to get scored on and to fight back and maybe give up another goal, but certainly not six goals or four goals. I was happy today that after we gave up the first goal, we fought back and didn’t lose any more ground. It’s the character that I am used to seeing here. You always fight for a point in those situations (after an early red card.) Obviously, we would have liked the win, but after those last two games, this was a morale boost.”

“The results we’ve had lately haven’t been great,” said midfielder Robbie Rogers, “and the morale of the team was maybe a bit low, so I think we did a great job of keeping our heads up and fighting. It’s a positive result. If you look at the possession, it was probably 80 to 20 or something. [It was 72-28, so that wasn’t hyperbole on Robbie’s part.] We’ll take our point, which puts us back into first place.”

“Our response in the second, especially after losing Chad, was tremendous,” said Hesmer. “The guys put in all the work in the world and I thought we were going to sneak out with three points, but to get one out of it is not the end of the world.”

After two very un-Crew like performances, James was happy to see the Crew’s inner qualities back on display.

“We have character on this team,” James said. “The last two games, we tried but things did not work out for us and we did not show our character as well as we should. Tonight we had a great opportunity to show the home crowd that we are a fighting team and that we can represent them really well.”

WELCOME BACK

Wednesday marked the first league starts of the season for both midfielder Danny O’Rourke and left back Shaun Francis. It had been a long road back for each of them, and they got thrown to the lions with the early red card.

“As you know, after the long injury that they had, that was a great introduction to the game tonight,” said Warzycha. “It wasn't that they played 90 minutes, but they also had to work extra hard because of the man advantage that they had. So yeah, I'm pleased with their performance, absolutely.”

“I don’t want to say much about the red card,” O’Rourke said, “but I told Manu, ‘Now I know what it’s like playing with me. Normally I’m the one who gets a red card and then you guys have to run around for so long.’ I’m going to stop getting red cards now. I feel bad now that I know that it’s like!”

Switching into serious mode, O’Rourke said that the red card didn’t actually impact him too much in terms of his role on the field.

“It was maybe a little extra running, but it just skewed toward defensive running,” he said. “I probably would have done about the same amount of running, but I would have had the ball more if we were even. It wasn’t ideal, but it kind of suits my game anyway. I was tracking people down and breaking up plays. It was a good game for me to be in. Now hopefully I can get the legs ready for Saturday.”

O’Rourke had an aborted comeback earlier in the year that saw him draw a second half red card in a U.S. Open Cup match against Richmond, then play 21 minutes off the bench in Dallas on July 2. It was then determined that he had come back too early, so he spent the past two months intensely working with head athletic trainer Dave Lagow, assistant athletic trainer Skylar “Paco” Richards, and strength and fitness coach Mike Tremble.

“I feel night and day better,” O’Rourke said. “Back then, it was one of those things where I could get ready for a game, but if we had a Saturday game, it would take me until the next Saturday to recover. My muscles just weren’t ready yet. Dave has been very patient with me, and I have done a lot of lifting and running with Mike Tremble. He’s been great too. He got my legs strong and got my fitness back up. And then a couple of buddies of mine recommended something called muscle activation therapy, which gets the muscles to fire correctly in the right manner. It would take too long to explain. But fortunately Paco is certified in that, so I was playing musical chairs with our support staff. All of them have been very supportive and patient with me, so hopefully I can repay them by working hard.”

SPEAKING OF WORKING HARD…

So how about that Andres Mendoza, huh? We all know he can fire left-footed shots and convert penalty kicks, but with the Crew playing down a man, and with Mendoza being asked to drop back and play a more withdrawn role, he packed what seemed to be a month’s worth of running into 89 minutes.

“He holds the ball for us, he was very clean, and very responsible in the middle of the field,” said Crew coach Robert Warzycha. “Yeah, I was very happy with his performance.”

When asked if it was the hardest Mendoza had worked since coming to Columbus, Warzycha said, “He works differently. I think he works differently, because we asked him before the game to just drop a little bit; that was the game plan anyway, so he would play that position anyway. I think even in the game against Toronto he worked hard too. I think he is fit, and it was good that he played almost 90 minutes. That is good for him, also - that he finds out how fit he can be, and he is, so he can survive 90 minutes.”

Meanwhile, in the soothingly aloof atmosphere of Planet Andres, Mendoza didn’t see what the fuss was all about.

“I have played that position before and I am very comfortable there,” he said. “I was able to help a little bit more and move the ball a little bit more.”

Whether the Crew wins or loses, whether he scores two goals or no goals, whether he runs ten miles or two miles, I am convinced that Mendoza’s pulse never gets above, like, 50. His detached tranquility seems impervious to all external stimuli.

I don’t mean that in a bad way. He’s not a robot or a cold fish. It’s not like he’s unpleasant or never smiles. But if they followed the Crew, I bet ducks would have a series of quacks that means “like everything off of Mendoza’s back.”

FANTASY FOOTBALL: WEEK ONE

Week one of fantasy football is in the books. The winners and losers:

* O’Rourke defeated Marshall.
* Hesmer defeated Gruenebaum.
* Heinemann defeated Lagow.
* Grossman defeated Gehrig.

“I won, of course,” said O’Rourke. “Chad’s kicker tore his ACL on the opening kickoff.”

It would seem that the newcomers got off to a good start with a pair of victories, but I was advised not to read too much into it since they didn’t have to face the Core Four.

“Newcomers played newcomers,” said O’Rourke, dismissing the 1-0 starts by Heinemann and Grossman.

Meanwhile, in the goalkeeper derby, Hesmer hammered the Hebrew Hammer.

“I put a whuppin’ on Gbaum and it felt good,” Hesmer said. “I think it was 122-85.”

That would explain why Gruenebaum didn’t bring up fantasy football during our brief postgame encounter.

“I was yelling at him to go up and start chirping, but he wouldn’t for some reason,” Hesmer said. “Funny how that works.”

OBETZ SHENANIGANS

I told O’Rourke that a certain someone with gumbo breath told me that I was supposed to ask him what happened to his locker at Obetz.

“That would be Jason Garey,” O’Rourke said. “I pick him up to get some food on Monday night. I was going to treat him to dinner. Me, Jason, Will, and Duncan went to Marcella’s. We’re catching up, talking football, talking about life in Houston…we’re having a great time. He said he went into our locker room and messed with some guys’ stuff. I was like, ‘Did you mess with my stuff?’, and he says, ‘No, no, of course not.’ So I get in there Tuesday morning and everything from my locker is gone. All my stuff is over by the back room. My name tag is on the wall and all my stuff is laid out beneath it.”

O’Rourke was not the only victim.

“Jason Garey took everything out of my locker,” said Hesmer. “Every little thing. Even the stuff from the bottom. Then he put it all back where the trialists’ lockers are. He got Danny’s locker too. For him to have that much time in there, he either got (Houston coach) Dom’s permission to skip practice that day or he had an accomplice.”

“It took me about ten minutes just to get all of my stuff back into my locker,” O’Rourke said. “I told him payback is a you-know-what. I’m going to get him when he least suspects it. He had a good time, but we’ll see what happens with that.”

It’s got to be bad enough having Danny O vowing vengeance upon you, but it could have been worse for Garey. Thankfully, for his sake, Garey did not desecrate Hesmer’s abducted wooden giraffe.

“Garey left Geoffrey alone,” Hesmer said. “That would have been crossing the line.”

For those who may not recall, Geoffrey is a wooden giraffe stolen from Hesmer’s home by Andy Gruenebaum. After a night on the town, the giraffe eventually made its way to Obetz, where it has been decked out in Crew gear and has served as the Crew’s locker room mascot during their climb up the table to first place.

“I thought I was going to have to take Geoffrey home after ten goals in two games,” Hesmer said, “but we’re working our way back from six to four to two, so hopefully we will have a zero on Saturday.”

Questions? Comments? Think the Crew’s recent run of SAT-pattern-question scorelines dictates a 2-0 win in Philadelphia? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk