Sirk's Notebook: Mascot soccer edition
[NOTE: This Notebook was written based on events from Saturday’s game vs. Los Angeles. It doesn’t touch on the game all that much, so it’s not really all that outdated, even though the Crew lost to Kansas City on Wednesday. Sorry for the delay. – SS]
On Saturday night at Crew Stadium, the Galaxy suffered a 1-0 defeat, much to the delight of the sellout crowd of 21,203.
Too bad it was only the mascot game. In the MLS game, the Los Angeles Galaxy got a stoppage-time winner from Chad Barrett to defeat the hometown Crew, 1-0. The loss left the Crew in a second-place tie with just one point from the team’s last five matches. The Crew’s Septic September has seen the postseason discussion morph from home field advantage to simply making the playoffs.
[With Wednesday’s loss and Philly’s win on Thursday, the Crew are now all the way down in 4th place in the East. It was indeed a Septic September To Never Remember.]
This Notebook will focus on a few non-game stories. After all, the game itself was a broken record. Even though the Crew didn’t fall behind early as has been their recent custom, the 0-0 halftime score was the 14th such instance in 30 league matches, so it was routine nonetheless.
On side two of the broken record, the Crew stepped it up and repeatedly threatened the Los Angeles goal to no avail. I’m convinced that if the Crew played Monopoly, they would land on Chance over and over and over again and draw cards like:
* “Your shot has gone high and/or wide. Move token back 60 yards to challenge ensuing goal kick.”
* “Your header was somehow cleared off the line as always. Pay $100 to gypsy to remove curse.”
*“Your breakaway has been smothered by the goalkeeper. Advance token to nearest railroad and un-tie distraught fans who are begging for a train to come.”
The near misses and terrific saves came back to haunt the Crew when Barrett buried a rebound off of a Landon Donovan shot. Donovan forced a diving save out of Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer after running on to a bouncing ball and unleashing an unchallenged volley.
“I don’t know what we were doing,” Hesmer said. “We had a couple of throw ins over there. Why we can’t just get the ball out of our corner in the 90th minute, I don’t know. We got cute with it a couple of times, and then the ball pops up, and nobody wins it. We sit there and watch a couple of headers back and forth in our defensive third in the 90th minute in a 0-0 game at this point in the season…we’ve got to be going through that. We’ve got to be going through and winning the ball and somebody’s got to take command and not let something like that happen.”
That’s what normally would have happened if it weren’t for a little bit of chicanery from Donovan.
“I heard somebody yell, ‘Leave it!’” said central defender Julius James, who had a hitch in his step as he stopped his pursuit of the ball for a split second, giving Donovan the space he needed. “I thought it was my teammate, but it was Landon. He ran onto the ball and he hit a nice shot. It was a communication error there. I just thought it was my teammate telling me to leave it.”
So James got duped by the soccer equivalent of the baseball’s hidden ball trick or hockey’s behind-the-play stick rattle. It was all the opening that Donovan needed to start the game-winning sequence.
“It was a great shot,” Hesmer said. “He had time to let it sit up for him right where he wanted to volley it, and then he hit it well. I tried to push through it and get is much of it as I could with my palms, but unfortunately, Barrett’s right there running through it.”
It was a gut-punch ending for a team with punch-drunk guts.
“There was a mixup and we lost,” said midfielder Robbie Rogers. “It was just unlucky. We worked so hard tonight. I thought we deserved three points, but we ended up losing. I’m pretty bummed out, but we have four games left so we need to keep our heads up and we need to keep going.”
Rogers stressed that the game wasn’t just the result of a defensive mix-up at the end. After all, goals mitigate the potential for late-game calamity on a single mistake.
“That’s soccer if you don’t finish your chances,” he said. “I feel like we just need a break. We just need to finish one of those chances. I felt like we were going to get the goal, but we didn’t. They’re a good team and they punched us in the end. I have a really bad taste in my mouth. I had my chance, Andres had his chance…we were dangerous, but we just needed to finish one those chances. We need to create our own luck.”
Thanks in part to the Galaxy trio of David Beckham (who might as well have been in galaxy far, far away after skipping town the day before the game), Robbie Keane (who missed the game due to a pulled butt muscle), and Landon Donovan, Crew Stadium was packed on Saturday night. The Crew have struggled at the gate in 2011, so playing before a sellout crowd of 21,203 was a glorious opportunity for the team to win people over. The team generated plenty of anticipatory buzz and despairing “Ohhhh’s” with their second half near-misses, but they never gave the place a chance to roar with a goal.
“It was an amazing crowd,” said Hesmer. “Regardless of what drew them here, we need to find a way to bring them back. We want them supporting us. It would have been nice to reward them.”
“I’ve never seen the stadium this packed,” said James, who is in his first year with the team. “We wanted to give the fans something to feel happy about. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. That’s the game of soccer. Hopefully we gave them enough excitement to make them want to come back again. We have a pretty good fan base that comes to the games, but to see the stadium tonight was really thrilling. Hopefully we can get crowds like that in the future.”
As I had asked the others, I asked Danny O’Rourke if it was extra disappointing not to give the large crowd some goals and a win.
“We have great fans that follow us all the time, and those are the fans I’m disappointed for tonight,” O’Rourke said. “But the people who will only come out just to see David Beckham, who doesn’t even show up anyway, they’re going to miss out on good games here.”
Danny’s candor was refreshing, but I also don’t know that it’s that dire. I think when a team with Landon Donovan and David Beckham comes to town, it’s going to draw plenty of genuine and casual fans who only come to a few games per year. Most anybody with an interest in attending a Crew game is going to have that date circled.
As an example, I saw all of Nolan Ryan’s starts at Cleveland Municipal Stadium during his twilight stint with the Texas Rangers. Ryan was one of my favorite non-Cleveland players as a kid, and I was excited to see the future Hall of Famer and his hundred mile per hour heater with my own two eyes.
But I was rooting for the Indians. I wanted them to beat Ryan, which they did on two of those three occasions. Even though I knew I could only go to a handful of Indians games each summer, I made sure that one of them was when The Ryan Express rolled through town. It didn’t mean I was there just to see Ryan. It didn’t mean that I didn’t care about the Indians and never came to other games.
So I get the large crowd for the Beckham-Donovan game. And I even understand the large cheer for Donovan when he entered the game in the second half, as it was Ohio’s first chance to applaud him after his spine-tingling World Cup heroics last summer. There was undoubtedly some percentage of front-running Star Whores in the crowd, but I saw far fewer Beckham jerseys in the stands than I did a few years ago. The Crew implored fans to “black out the Galaxy”, and lo and behold, the stadium was as black as Darth Vader’s cape closet.
Based on the black-clad crowd and the lack of rampant no-shows once it was announced that Beckham blew town the day before, my hunch isn’t that David Beckham and Landon Donovan caused thousands of otherwise indifferent people to come out of the woodwork to gawk at their celebrity. Rather, the Galaxy’s stars likely concentrated ticket sales. In many cases, it’s likely that fans came to see the Crew (potentially) play David Beckham and Landon Donovan instead of seeing the Crew play the Portland Timbers or Houston Dynamo.
And if that’s the case, those people can be sold.
[More on that later on in this Notebook.]
A TALE OF TWO EMPTY ROOMS, PT 1: THE DUDE RETURNS
Former Crew captain Frankie Hejduk made his first trip back to Crew Stadium since the club parted ways with the popular veteran as part of the rebuilding process. It was a strange sight, seeing the Dude walking around in his LA Galaxy gear over an hour before the game, chatting with a bevy of familiar faces who approached him to say hello, be they players, staffers, or fans.
And it was weirder seeing him on the field, wearing the armband while playing against the very club he captained during its greatest successes. His shirt was the wrong color, each run up the flank was in the wrong direction, and when Hejduk wiped out Andres Mendoza late in the game, it felt surreal to demand the yellow card that he deserved instead of hoping that somehow he would get let off the hook just this once, yet again.
And then when it was over, with three points in his back pocket, Hejduk made his way to the Nordecke as he had done every game ever since its creation. He bowed, patted his heart in appreciation, and even drank a beer from the crowd. All in all, he spent nearly a half hour walking around the edge of the field, shaking hands and signing autographs. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena personally went out to the field to scold him for holding up the team’s bus. Wearing a Crew scarf, Hejduk finally made his way back to the Galaxy’s already empty locker room.
I was warned that I was going to get murdered at the hands of several Galaxy staffers if I went in there and got him talking, but it was too historic of an occasion to pass up. This would not be one of our leisurely chats of old. Under the watchful eye of hurried and harried handlers, Hejduk spoke quickly as he got dressed, trying to cram as many words as he could through the palpable cloud of impatience.
“It was an emotional game,” he said. “To come here was a special moment for me. To have to switch the hat and go to the other side of it was a little bit crazy, but it’s a business, and they made a business decision. I know what championship teams are made of, and this LA Galaxy team, to come here to Columbus, which is not an easy place to win, and I know that for sure, to battle back with the type of week that we had, and to keep on going for 90 minutes and to get the goal last minute, really says a lot about the heart and character of this LA Galaxy team, and that is what championship teams are made of, and we are right on the way to the path to get there.”
(That last sentence ran on for miles, just like its speaker. If anyone is able to fittingly speak in run-on sentences, it’s Hejduk, right?)
Hejduk also expressed gratitude to Arena, who at that moment was undoubtedly rolling his eyes while glancing at his watch on the bus, for allowing him to wear the captain’s armband at Crew Stadium.
“It’s special,” Hejduk said. “I’m really thankful to Bruce for doing that for me, and like I said, it was a really emotional day. To step on with the captain’s armband brought back some great memories. But this LA Galaxy team fought hard and fought back. They really started pressing in the second half and sending numbers forward, but we were solid defensively, and Josh Saunders made a couple big saves, and we got ‘em. We had three dangerous players come off the bench in Magee, Landon, and Barrett, and they showed why they are such special players.”
Hejduk also expressed his strong emotional attachment to the people of Columbus.
“It was great,” he said of his interactions with the fans. “They really feel for me. It was emotional. It was great to see them embrace me the way they did because, at the end of the day, I’m playing against their team. But they know that my heart and all the effort that I gave over the years was for them, and it was really great of them to show me so much respect. I love them. That’s why I put my hand on my heart and was bowing and all that. It was eight of the best years of my life. That’s an emotional time. But when things change, things change, for whatever reason. It was a crazy and emotional day.”
But beneath the overwhelming emotion, business is still business. Just as any of us would have pressed a button that would have caused Frankie to score a 92nd minute own-goal to give the Crew a 1-0 victory, he was happy that it was his team breaking hearts.
“I’m excited that we got the three points,” he said. “When you go to the business side of it, we came here to win. It was all fine and dandy to say hi to everyone, but I still had a job to do. My job was to help this team win the game. And we did.”
And with that, Hejduk was ushered out of the room before the bus ran out of gas while idling in the parking lot.
A TALE OF TWO EMPTY ROOMS, PT. 2: DANNY O’WORK
It had been an hour since the game had ended. Like Hejduk, Crew midfielder Danny O’Rourke spent plenty of time on the field with the fans after the game. But then it was right back to work. After missing most of the season with a knee injury, O’Rourke’s work is never done.
Danny had already been back in the trainer’s room for a good half hour when he sent word for me to come back and chat. The trainer’s room is a reporter-free Xanadu where players can duck interviews while getting luxurious massages, or so the theory goes. (Until you realize that any potentially luxurious massaging is being done by the decidedly un-luxurious Dave Lagow, who has been known to lament, “I rub dudes for a living.”) There’s no doubt that training room ducking happens in every sport from time to time. But this was not one of those times. Danny is not one of those people. There was much work to be done.
I came in as assistant trainer Skylar “Paco” Richards was wrapping up a muscle activation therapy session. As O’Rourke reclined on the table, Paco took great care to ensure that O’Rourke was aligned properly, squatting down to examine Danny’s legs as if he were lining up the tournament-winning billiards shot. Once his legs were lined up to Paco’s satisfaction, O’Rourke heeded Paco’s movement commands, sometimes accompanied by a grunt or a grimace.
“It’s a hundred times better than before,” O’Rourke said.
And then Paco left Danny to do resistance exercises on his own. Using a big rubber band trapped under the leg of a training table, Danny spoke in bursts between reps of leg exercises.
“It’s frustrating,” he said of the Crew’s 1-0 loss. “I don’t think it was our best performance, but if we walked out of there with three points, great. Emilio was a spark for us. I think for the most part we played solid defensively once we sorted out the way they were moving in the first half. To have such a great crowd and to not get a victory is a little gut-wrenching.”
O’Rourke reflected on the team’s month-long struggle to get results.
“We need to step up and compete,” he said. “We put the work in, but things aren’t going our way right now. Things went our way early in the season with things like PKs, red cards, and we were finding ways to win. Luck’s now turned its ugly head and we’re getting the blunt end of it. Good teams work harder and make their own luck. The next four games, that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
[NOTE: Somehow, the Crew managed to lose Wednesday in Kansas City on a late own-goal off of a throw-in. Yes, that actually happened. Their luck obviously hasn’t turned yet.]
“We just need to win,” Danny said. “When we win, the locker room is fun. It’s not fun right now. In the past, we wouldn’t panic because we had that continuity. We knew how to work hard but simultaneously ease that tension that would be building up. Otherwise you play tentative. We have to find that balance.
“We need to lock down a playoff spot. If we don’t make the playoffs after all the hard work we put in, that would be bitter. It’s man-check time. We need to step up. Right now we could easily feel sorry for ourselves because we haven’t been doing well. But that’s not the type of guy I am and that’s not the type of guy my teammates are. This loss stings a little. It just doesn’t sit right. Especially when they put out a team that we should have done better with. But credit to them. They had some young guys who moved around well. They showed their depth, and that’s why they’re one of the teams to beat this year.”
O’Rourke said all that the Crew can do is put it behind them and get ready for the match in Kansas City. The teams entered the match tied for second place, but in the scrunched-up Eastern Conference, those 90 minutes could majorly impact each team’s playoff hopes.
“I think Wednesday’s going to be a good game,” Danny said. “A win there can be a catalyst for us because Kansas City is a good team.”
[Unfortunately, Danny wasn’t physically able to make the trip and the game was not a catalyst. See the previous note about somehow losing on an own-goal off of a throw-in.]
As we wrapped up our official conversation, Danny prepped for an ice bath, which reduces swelling and tissue breakdown after lots of running and exercise. He deemed the water to be insufficiently cold, so we went to work. We each grabbed a scooper and chucked pound after pound of ice into the tub. Danny decided that this was inefficient, so we filled an entire Gatorade bucket with ice and then dumped that in too.
The result was THIS:
“That has to suck,” I said, empathizing by stating the obvious.
“It’s miserable,” he said. “Keep me talking or I’ll go crazy.”
Danny kneeled down into the cryotherapeutic slush.
“How long do you have to do this for?” I asked.
“At least ten minutes,” he said with a quick gasp as his body endured the sudden temperature shock.
“I feel like I’m watching some sort of stupid Fear Factor stunt,” I said.
But then Danny got to talking to keep his mind off of the teeth-chattering chill. He talked of his muscle activation therapy, and how it’s important that he does all of this stuff directly after the game so that his brain can begin making the reparative neural adjustments during his REM sleep that night. He used his hands and forearms to demonstrate a hip socket and all that can go wrong to create compensatory muscle and tendon problems throughout the length of the leg. He spoke of his own physical struggles to recuperate from games and prepare for the next one, and how interesting it has been for him to read up and learn about all of the fascinating science behind his various therapies and exercises.
In previous conversations, Danny had been quick to praise the Crew’s training staff for getting him ready to play again this year, and it’s now apparent to me that being able to play effectively for 90 minutes is merely a milestone in the recovery process, not its culmination. Away from the field, the other 9,990 minutes of the week are still anything but normal.
Anyway, it wasn’t all medical talk. Naturally, we also talked fantasy football. Danny relished beating Andy Gruenebaum to move to 2-0 on the season while simultaneously dropping the Hebrew Hammer to 0-2. I also learned the shocking fact that Danny did not follow the NFL at all until he started playing fantasy football five years ago.
Ten minutes later, O’Rourke emerged from the tub. More than 90 minutes after he had somehow run around for more than 90 minutes, I left him there, shivering in his soaking-wet game shorts.
It was after 11:00 p.m. Unlike Danny O’Rourke, I was done working for the night.
NIFTY TICKET IDEA
Two weeks ago, the Crew announced their GOAL 10K initiative, asking Columbus to “Dare to be Massive” in an effort to climb back to 10,000 season tickets. Knowing that Saturday’s game was sold out, the ticketing department came up with a smart idea to sell tickets on the spot. Before the game, I tweeted this photo of a seat-specific season ticket solicitation that was attached to the seatback itself:
I had seen such signs at “select a seat” events at various venues, but I had never seen an organization combine a “select a seat” event with the actual sporting event itself. On the surface, it made great sense. It took the concept of season tickets out of the abstract and made it very real. If a fan was having fun at the game, he or she was provided with instant information on how to make that seat his or her own for 2012, including the cost and payment options. Simple, yet brilliant.
“It’s a great way to very visually promote a particular seat location’s availability,” said Crew President and General Manager Mark McCullers. “It shows existing season ticket holders seats that they may want to add or locations where they may want to upgrade. For new prospects, it puts the idea of them being a season ticket holder and occupying that seat every game into their mind in a very tangible way.”
The idea came from the ticket sales staff, who then went out and spent a couple of hours manually tagging over 1,000 seats. “This type of action is born out of GOAL 10K and the enthusiasm for that mission,” McCullers said.
As good as the idea was on paper, I was curious as to whether it met the club’s projections. After all, that would be the true litmus test of whether it was merely a creative idea, or if it was both creative and effective.
“I would say that the tactic has been very successful,” McCullers said. “The interesting thing is that of those that brought the tags to our sales tent, 50% were existing season ticket holders looking to add or upgrade, and 50% were new prospects. We also know that lots of the tags were taken, so they may be on someone’s desk at their home or office – so we should get additional calls. It has exceeded our expectations.”
Oh, and that seat I randomly photographed before the game? Don’t bother trying to buy it for 2012. I have received confirmation that it’s already been sold.
As longtime readers know, Mascot Soccer is one my most eagerly anticipated events of the year. This year, the Crew announced that the normal mascots would be playing Stars Wars characters, which is the mascot soccer equivalent of MLS bringing in Manchester United for its all-star game. My good buddy Flick, who shares my mascot soccer obsession, is also a Star Wars nerd. When I broke the news of the intergalactic matchup to him, he was giddy.
How big of a Stars Wars nerd is Flick? He owns this jersey, which I am shocked he did not wear for the mascot game:
As always, I joined Flick and the Nefarious Numbers Runner Known as Z-Man is section 107 for the big game. This year’s match-up posed a problem for Z-Man, who normally wagers based on which team has the most functional footwear.
“The Star Wars team has a huge advantage in footwear,” he noted, “but they are not fit at all. I think the people in bulky costumes will still be able to outrun them.” Flick agreed and started coming up with names like “Obi-Waddle Kenobi” for the Star Wars team.
We also thought it would be awesome if the soccer ball was a Death Star, but then we realized that the dimple part of it would make the ball roll funny. I also wondered if Darth Vader could get whistled for handballs if he held out his hand and caught the ball even if it was off in the distance, just like how he can asphyxiate incompetent underlings from across the room. When I saw he was started in goal, I thought that might be the reason why.
Crew video ace Cornell Thomas kindly shot video of the majority of this year’s game. You can watch it here:
The normal mascots defeated Star Wars, 1-0, on a goal by Stinger of the Columbus Blue Jackets. There was a scrum in front of the Star Wars net, and Stinger barreled the ball into the goal. A little Boba Fett, who stood in the goal with Darth Vader, was knocked down in the process, but no foul was called.
We gave Stinger man of the match honors. Not only did he score the goal, but he also did some stellar recovery work on defense. As one might expect, he was buzzing all over the field. Gapper, of the Cincinnati Reds, kept the clean sheet in goal. “He’s got hands like Brandon Phillips,” Flick said.
After the final whistle, Gapper celebrated by dancing with his shirt off. “Gapper’s going to get a Robbie Rogers yellow card for ripping off his shirt in celebration,” said Flick.
One event that is not documented on Cornell’s video is the game-ending challenge Moondog put on the aforementioned little Boba Fett. It was the second time that the mini bounty hunter was knocked to the turf in a scrum involving the Cavaliers’ canine mascot.
“Was Little Boba Fett wearing a LeBron jersey?” Flick wondered. “I think it's fair to say that we might be seeing a new carbonite wall hanging at Jabba the Hutt's palace once Little Boba Fett tracks down Moondog.”
As I mentioned, Flick is a big Star Wars nerd, and he emailed the following thoughts about the mascot game. He was disappointed that the home side didn’t utterly destroy the interplanetary visitors.
“The 2008 Crew thrived on perfect chemistry;” Flick wrote. “The chemistry of the Star Wars team had to be awful with it being made up of so many groups: the Galactic Empire, the Rebel Alliance, Jedi, bounty hunters, and desert planet scavengers. Let's focus on the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance/Jedi. It's like Spain's national team with players from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid...except these guys will literally kill each other. Don't let that elegant weapon from a more civilized age fool you; those lightsabers will slice you faster than a mistimed Frankie Hejduk two-footer.
“Don't even get me started on travel. I'm sure it took a few hours to travel down I-71 from Cleveland, having to stop frequently for Moondog's urine breaks, but even Los Angeles to Columbus seems close and simple when compared to a road trip from a galaxy far, far way… no matter how many charters you own that are capable of making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.
“Let's talk tactics. Since Yoda wasn't around, we can only assume he is the manager and he remained back in the locker room. Star Wars took the field with two Jedi up top and Darth Vader in the back. Seriously? Noted peace keepers in the attack and an acknowledged deadly finisher in defense?!? It's obvious what happened: When identifying the formation, Yoda uttered, ‘Take the field in 2-4-4, we will,’ and everything got inverted. Yoda definitely needed a translator for clearing up his instructions.
“Yoda did get one thing right: not slotting any stormtroopers into the lineup. Have you seen those guys shoot? Not impressive at all, like an outside back spraying shots into the south end or something. Yikes. It looked like they did have nice trooper diversity lining the field, though, which is ironic in a way since the Galactic Empire didn't seem to be big fans of diversity. You had the standard stormtrooper, sandtroopers, scout troopers, and snowtroopers. Throw in some clone troopers, and it was a Skittles bag of stormtrooper markings.
“How about the Rebel Alliance pilots up top? Sure, overall they performed well in their most famous attacking effort - taking down the first Death Star - but I think it was readily apparent that the Rebel Alliance has to accept all comers, and they're not big on fitness requirements.
“Bounty hunters… bounty hunters! They're mercenaries, man. You can't build a team with them in your starting eleven. They will sell-out anything for a better deal. And if anyone knows how to negotiate a better deal, it's Stinger. I think he and Mayor Coleman got a couple of those bounty hunters on the take.
“I could go on, but I think I've dissected this contest enough… except to ask, what was up with Moondog? I'm sure Dan Gilbert will see Moondog's twice crushing a small child as fulfilling his comic sans, teen break-up promises of championships, but my goodness. He's lucky the Star Wars team didn't start their very own Joey Barton – shoot-first Han Solo – or else he would have been left as nothing but a mess in a hive of scum and villainy.”
Wow. It’s been far too long since Flick made a Notebook appearance. Shame on me.
Head athletic trainer Dave Lagow was perturbed by Josh Williams’ wardrobe choice on Saturday. He tried to explain it to me, which then set up a deadpan zinger from Danny O’Rourke.
LAGOW: “He had his pants tucked into his boots, but his boots weren’t laced, because, you know, he cares but he doesn’t care too much. Then he had on a khaki shirt. Khaki. I mean Crocodile Hunter khaki.”
O’ROURKE: “I asked if he was raiding tombs with Lara Croft.”
Star Wars jokes…video game jokes…I think my stay in Seattle during NerdFest 2011 has finally seeped into the Notebook. Maybe that Seattle road trip was the downfall of all of us.
Questions? Comments? Organizing a Magic: The Gathering tournament in the tent after Sunday’s game? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via Twitter @stevesirk