Sirk's Notebook: Awesome October

Gaven's comeback, pink jersey and Burns wants 100,000 followers

Eddie Gaven

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

Adios Septic September! Hola Awesome October!

After a month of morbidity, the turn of the calendar saw the Columbus Crew resurrect their playoff push with a 2-1 victory over loathsome D.C. United on Sunday afternoon. The victory snapped a dreadful 0-5-1 funk that hadn’t seen the Crew win since August 20.

“Well, we were waiting a long time for a win, so the taste was sweeter than normal,” said Crew coach Robert Warzycha.

This being the Crew, they didn’t make it easy on themselves. As usual, there was some sweat before the sweet.

DOWN AGAIN

The Crew fell behind 1-0 for the 21st time in 32 games. This time it happened in the 37th minute when Chris Woolard made an uncontested run through the Crew’s penalty area to volley home a free kick service from Dwayne De Rosario. The Crew had thoroughly dominated the match up to that point, yet D.C. converted on a rare chance at the Columbus end of the field to take the lead.

“That set piece goal was because of non-marking,” said Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer. “It was way too simple.”

This story was nothing new. All season long, the Crew have come up empty on long stretches of control, only to allow a goal against the run of play.

“I think you have to score a goal in that 35 minutes, because for example, one dangerous cross in the box and they score a goal,” said Warzycha. “That is why it is so important to score when you have the momentum. And then there's one ball, and somebody misjudges it, one play, and you're losing the game. So more than anything, we have to capitalize on the pressure we are putting on other teams.”

Trailing at the break, Hesmer said that it was now or never for him and his teammates. The season possibly hung in the balance in the ensuing 45 minutes.

“This was our last home game and they are team that we are fighting with for a potential playoff spot,” Hesmer said. “We came in here at halftime and challenged guys. We basically said if you want to make the playoffs, if you want to be a championship team, now is the time. There’s no more time to mess around. It’s do or die time. You’re either gonna fold and we’re all going to be upset, or this could be a building block toward something special in November. It was a test. I think we answered the bell, but I think there’s still more we can work on. Ultimately, the result is what you’re after, and we got that.”

CREW MAKING THEIR OWN LUCK

Over the past few weeks, players like Danny O’Rourke and Robbie Rogers have repeatedly talked about the Crew’s need to make their own luck. Bounce after bounce was going against them, but the belief was that if they just kept working, things would start to go their way.

Columbus tied the game in the 48th minute in a moment of industrious fortune-engineering. Shaun Francis had a shock blocked high into the air. Instead of giving up on the play, Andres Mendoza shielded off a defender, trapped the ball as it fell from the sky, spun on his man, and fought through traffic to knock the ball toward the D.C. goal. The ball bounced off of Chris Korb, hit off of Woolard, and then caromed into the D.C. net.

“I played to control the ball and turn and shoot,” Mendoza said, “but when I saw the two defenders there, I tried to hit it toward the front of the goal. The defender came through and the ball went off of him for an own goal.”

“Andres fought really hard in the box,” said O’Rourke. “I couldn’t see that well because there were so many people in there, but when it went in, it was definitely a case of hard work and making your own luck.”

For a team that had seen so many bounces or mistakes go against them, making a lucky break for themselves surely had to be uplifting. At last, things were going to go their way.

“I almost shed a tear,” said defender Julius James. “I was very happy.”

“After we were able to get the one in the 50th minute or whatever,” said Eddie Gaven, “I thought, ‘Okay, this is us. We’re going to get it.’ I didn’t know how and I didn’t know when, but I just knew it was going to come.”

GAVEN’S PROPHECY SELF-FULFILLED IN SPECTACULAR FASHION

The Crew took the lead in the 60th minute on a spectacular diving header by Gaven. Right back Sebastian Miranda started the play by nutmegging United’s Santino Quaranta along the right sideline. Racing around Quaranta, Miranda retrieved the ball, took three dribbling touches on a mad dash up the right flank, and swerved a low cross toward Gaven near the penalty spot. The ball seemed a little close for a diving header, but Gaven dropped down and somehow popped it into the top of the net with his noggin.

“That was a great goal,” said Mendoza. “It was an unbelievable finish. The play from Seba was unbelievable with the nutmeg of the defender and then a great cross. Emilio made a run to open up that space, and then it was a great finish from Eddie.”

“I don’t know even know why I tried to head that ball,” Gaven said when asked about his unorthodox decision. “I probably should have just hit it with my foot. Seba made a great run down the right flank and played a perfect ball. I just kinda threw my neck at it, and luckily it went in.”

“Most of the things Eddie does, nobody knows how he pulls it off, yet he does,” said O’Rourke. “Good for him.”

“If you look at Eddie, he’s a goofy guy,” James said. “How he does things is a bit unorthodox, but he gets great results.”

In his press conference, Warzycha responded to the question of whether Gaven’s goal was the Crew’s goal of the year, given its aesthetic appeal and playoff implications.

“I hope not,” said the coach. “I hope more come, so we can choose from the other ones.”
 
HANGING ON

United turned up the pressure in the final 10 minutes and the Crew dodged a couple of bullets. In the 84th  minute, Andy Najar unleashed a low, knuckling screamer from outside the box that Hesmer saved. The rebound popped up into the air, and a prone Hesmer made two stabs at grabbing it as it bounced in front of the net. He snagged the ball just seconds before it trickled away for an easy D.C. tap-in.

“I thought the wind was going to blow it in because the wind was pushing it further away from me,” Hesmer said. “Luckily I was still able to reach it.”

And then in the 94th minute, another wicked strike by Najar clanged off the crossbar. In a game of inches, the Crew escaped by millimeters. (Forget mixing metaphors. I’m mixing measurements!)

“At the end, I mean, yeah, we can be happy that we won and ended our skid,” said Hesmer, “but those last 10-15 minutes weren’t good. We gave them a lot of looks. We weren’t smart and we were a little undisciplined. We still have to be smart and keep learning every game. Fight and energy took us through this one.”

GAVEN’S RETURN

There was some doubt as to how long Eddie Gaven might be able to play in his first game back after suffering a deep bone bruise at Colorado on August 5, but he ended up playing the full 90 minutes. Gaven and his lucky beard rejoined the Crew just when they needed him (and his beard) most.

“That's why he is so important to this team,” Warzycha said of the man of the match. “Even after missing eight games he was very active today, and he was one of the best players on the field.”

“It’s good to have Eddie back,” said O’Rourke. “I can speak from experience that it sucks to be injured that long, so we’re happy that Eddie’s back.”

“It was good having Eddie,” James said. “He just runs all over the place and creates havoc. He’s such a great player, you know? He’s so instrumental to our team and our offense.”

“Eddie is a really, really important part of this team,” said Mendoza. “He likes to go forward and take defenders on. It was a great comeback for Eddie, and he helped us win, which was the most important idea for today.”

Gaven, naturally, deflected all praise.
 
“I just wanted to go out there and help the team anyway I could, whether it was for 45 minutes or whether it was for 90 minutes,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how long I was going to play today, but it ended up being 90. It’s all about the team. I’m just trying to help the team any way I can.”

Spending two months rehabbing an injury is a different kind of work, so in a way, Gaven feels fresh heading into the stretch run.

“I haven’t been getting kicked and stuff for the past eight weeks, so I feel good,” he said. “The legs feel good. Everything’s good.”

UNSUNG HEROES: BURNS AND O’ROURKE

The Crew underwent a last-minute lineup change. Chad Marshall was a late scratch due to an ankle injury that didn’t respond during warm-ups. This forced O’Rourke to unexpectedly shift from midfield to center back and created an impromptu start for Kevin Burns in O’Rourke’s midfield spot.

“Yeah, that was tough, probably more for Burns, because he wasn't in the lineup before the game,” Warzycha said. “And then with Chad injured we decided to put him on. He's a professional. He took it well. Then, obviously, he has experience. Danny did well in the back; he was very good in communication between him and Julius. Having Davies and De Rosario over there, and Wolff, I don't think they did much damage to us.”

Burns found out that he was starting about 20 minutes before kickoff.

“It wasn’t ideal,” he said. “Some people like it that way, but I don’t. It was difficult. But whatever, man. I did the right things and took care of myself. I didn’t know I was starting, but I was happy to play.”

Burns’ job was made all the tougher due to his assignment. Red-hot Dwayne De Rosario (5 goals and an assist in his previous three games) was Burns’ primary responsibility. De Rosario collected an assist on the free kick, but was largely silent from the run of play.

“I had my hands full,” Burns said. “DeRo is like the MVP of the league and I was marking him almost the whole game. That was kinda my job. He went up top for about 20 minutes in the second half, so I didn’t have to mark him as much then, but yeah, it was a difficult task. I was a bit nervous, but I was ready to play.”

COMEBACK CREW

Sunday’s game marked yet another comeback for the Crew. Of course, they’ve had lots of practice at it. They have allowed the first goal in 21 of 32 matches.

In his Wednesday column about Eddie Gaven, Michael Arace of the Columbus Dispatch noted that the Crew are 8-0-0 when scoring first and 4-12-5 when allowing the first goal. He wrote that “those numbers speak of meekness.”

That line stood out to me because I was going to write the exact opposite. I’m not taking a run at Arace, who is a bright and perceptive dude, as well as a phenomenal columnist. I can understand why those numbers might leap off the page and suggest meekness, especially to someone with hockey coursing through his veins, as Arace does. If an NHL team had those numbers, “meek” would be an appropriate adjective. And I think Arace saw the numbers through that filter. But soccer is a lower-scoring game than hockey. The first goal doesn’t mean everything, but it sure means a lot.

To put some perspective on the Crew’s 4-12-5 record when allowing the first goal, they have amassed the second-most wins and points in the league under those circumstances. Even accounting for the extra games due to their propensity to fall behind, they are fourth in MLS in points per game after trailing 1-0. If you toss out the two 1-0 losses on last-second stoppage time goals that left no comeback possibilities whatsoever, they move up to third in the league in points per game after coughing up the first  goal. On Sunday, they also improved to a league-best 3-3-5 when trailing at the half. They lead the league in wins, total points, and points per game when staring down the barrel of a halftime deficit.

Far from being meek, the Crew are among the league’s most resilient teams. The fact that they lock down leads when scoring first or leading at the half makes for the best of both worlds. The only eensy-teensy-weensy flaw is that they fall behind nearly three times as often as they take the lead.

“I think we make the job difficult on ourselves,” said Burns, “but if you look back on the championship year, I swear we did that probably 15 times. It felt like every single time we went down and then we started playing.”

Forget “probably.” The 2008 team allowed the first goal precisely 15 times in 30 games, finishing with an excellent 4-7-5 mark when allowing the first goal. (Like this year’s team, the Massive Champions were also unblemished when scoring first, finishing 13-0-0.) It’s taken more games, but the 2011 team has now equaled those win and tie totals when giving up the first goal. Like 2008, they’ve pulled nine games and 17 points out of the fire.

“It gives the coaches something to worry about, but it’s exciting,” Burns said. “It gives you guys something to write about.”

MR. NUMBERS NERD: STATISTICAL ILLUSION EDITION

* The Crew have the best record in MLS when trailing at the half: 3-3-5
* The Crew have the best record in MLS when leading at the half: 3-0-0
* The Crew have the 8th best record in MLS: 12-12-8

The lesson is to play the Crew even for 45 minutes, thus denying them the confidence of a lead or the fury of a deficit. Columbus is 6-3-5 when the scoreboard isn’t equal at the break, but just 6-9-3 when it is.

MR. NUMEBRS NERD: GOAL / OWN-GOAL REDUX

[UPDATE, PT 1: The press box comment relayed below is actually inaccurate, against staggering odds. Alert reader Jen Bussard emailed to inform me that Juan Pablo Angel of Chivas USA also pulled off the goal / own-goal combo on September 17. The chart has been updated to reflect this overlooked information.]

As soon as Daniel Woolard knocked the ball into his own goal, I told the press box, “Woolard is now the fifth player in MLS history to score a goal and an own goal in the same game.”

Crew PR director Dave Stephany laughed and said, “I don’t think anyone else could have quoted that stat on the spot like that.”

It’s not like I am Rain Man. It’s just that this topic was still fresh in my mind after researching Josh Gardner’s goal / own-goal combo on Aug. 27, in Seattle. I guess I can now update my chart from the Seattle Notebook…
 

PLAYER DATE OPPONENT SCORE GOAL
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)
Juan Pablo Angel (CHV) September 17, 2011 at CHI CHI 3-2 OG (26), G (61)
Daniel Woolard (DC) October 2, 2011 at CLB CLB 2-1 G (37), OG (48)

It’s hard to believe that at 11 minutes between his goal and subsequent own-goal, Woolard’s reversal of fortune is the slowest of the three negative reversals in MLS history. When these things happen, they happen fast.

[UPDATE, PT 2: The point about Woolard still stands since Angel's was a positive reversal. And with this new info, Woolard restored equilibrium, as there have now been three positive and three negative reversals. And lastly, it kills me to publish incorrect information, but I can't help but marvel at the long odds. It's such a rare and freakish occurrence that I honestly didn't even think to look to see if it had happened in the month since Gardner did it in Seattle. Shame on me. But that now leads to the most amazing stat of all: The goal / own-goal combo happened three times in the first 15.5 seasons of MLS play. And now it has happened three times in the span of THIRTY-SIX DAYS! Un-freakin'-believable. Thanks again to Jen Bussard for setting the record straight.]

JERSEYS OFF THEIR BACKS

Game time temperature was 57 degrees, but by the end of the match, it was considerably cooler than that in the shade. It was the perfect environment for the players to remove their jerseys and award them to lucky fans. That had to be uncomfortably cold, right?

“I was actually happy to do that,” said Julius James. “It was fan appreciation. They came out. We were running about and staying warm and don’t really feel how cold it is, but they’re sitting there in the cold. So I am happy to do something to make a connection with the fans. Plus, I played at UConn, so I’m used to the cold.”

“It was cold, but for the excitement of the win and the game, it did not feel cold,” said Andres Mendoza. “I was happy to do it for the fans.”

Apart from the cold, there were also body image issues to contend with.

“That’s why I wore that UnderArmour thing,” said pale Eddie Gaven. “Nobody in the crowd wants to see all this whiteness. I thought it would be best to wear something under my jersey so I didn’t scare away all the kids.”

“I wish I would have known that they were doing that so I could have done some pushups beforehand,” said Kevin Burns. “That way my arms could have gotten a little bit swollen. I noticed a few fans looking though. I was flexing my abs the entire time I was walking back to the locker room. I can only do it for 15 minutes after a game. At the pool, I can do it for an hour.”

PINK JERSEY

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, and the Crew, OhioHealth, and MLS W.O.R.K.S. were doing their part. Fans received commemorative pinks scarves, the game ball had pink decorations on it, players wore pink ribbons, sweatbands, shoes, etc, and Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer wore a pink jersey. It was an ugly pink jersey, with a silver chest stripe and black shoulder patches, but a pink jersey nonetheless.

“I don’t know where that thing came from,” Hesmer said. “We got the win, so I’ll take it.”

Since the Crew won, is it a lucky pink jersey? Might he wear a pink jersey every week from here on out?

“I don’t get to decide those things,” he said. “I’m stuck with whatever Rusty throws out there for me, so he can give me whatever he wants.”

Meanwhile, Danny O’Rourke reveled in Hesmer’s hideous get up.

“First, I want to stress that I am in favor of bringing awareness to the fight against breast cancer,” O’Rourke said as he buttoned up a pink dress shirt that lent credence to his caveat. “It was a good idea for a good cause, but Will’s shirt was terrible. I just wonder if they could have found a better looking pink jersey for him to wear. The one he wore today was awful. But anything that makes Will look stupid, I’m in favor of, so I hope they make him wear it all month.”

ALBANIAN TRANSLATION

On Sunday, I learned that Albanian is a tricky language. It turns out that if a person speaks Albanian, it sounds just like English, but the words have totally different meanings. Let me explain how I learned this. As I approached Dilly Duka’s locker, Crew communications manager Marco Rosa informed me that Dilly does not speak English. Since Marco loves to babble in foreign languages, I suggested that he translate for me, but he said that he doesn’t speak Albanian. This is when Emmanuel Ekpo came to the rescue and helpfully informed me that equipment manager Rusty Wummel speaks Albanian and would make a perfect translator for me.

What follows are my stupid questions, Dilly’s English-sounding Albanian answers as heard by my English-hearing ears, and then Rusty Wummel’s Albanian-to-English translation.

SIRK: The end of this winless streak has to be a relief, doesn’t it?

DUKA: “We’ve been working hard and we’ve been unlucky, so we got a little luck on our side finally. It worked out, so everyone’s happy.”

WUMMEL: (“In Jersey, we like to steal hubcaps and slide cards into their windows so we can steal their televisions as well.”)

SIRK: There’s been a lot of talk about making your own luck. That seemed to be the case on the first goal. Once you finally caught a break, was there a sense of relief that maybe the worm has turned and that things are going to go your way now?
 
DUKA: “I think everyone celebrated like it wasn’t an own goal— like we scored it. The hard work paid off. It was just the right timing for everything. It gave us that push to win the game. We got lucky there, but it goes both ways. We didn’t have luck recently, but now we got it. We just have to build off this so everyone can stay happy.”

WUMMEL: (“In Jersey, we get lucky a lot. And lucky. And lucky. That’s because when the worm turns, it’s usually at the bottom of a tequila bottle. At the club. So we get lucky. And then we’re very happy. Because we get lucky. At the club. In Jersey.”)

SIRK: It was a perfectly chilly day to have to give the jersey off your back, huh?

DUKA: “Playing, you’re warm and you don’t pay attention to the weather so much because you’re running. But taking off my shirt and giving it away, it was just like five minutes. I wasn’t that cold.”

WUMMEL: (“My name’s Dilly Duka. Since I’m from Jersey, I like to take my shirt off all the time. Have you ever seen that one show that they got on TV? That shoulda been ME!”)

NEVER ENOUGH GOALS

Dante Washington was dubbed “The Slumpbuster” by Crew radio man Neil Sika. Dante did color commentary for the radio broadcast, and in Dante’s two previous radio appearances, the Crew beat New England 4-0 in 2008 and defeated Colorado 4-1 earlier this year. That’s eight goals and a plus-7 differential. While Dante busted the Crew’s six-game slump, there was still a sense of disappointment.

“A win is nice, but 2-1? Come on,” Dante said. “I’m going to have to have a talk with the guys. They need to understand that I have standards when I do games on the radio.”

Julius James, for one, would have been much happier with a lopsided score befitting of Dante’s radio history. It had nothing to do with Dante’s standards. Julius had his own motivations.

“I wish we scored more goals because that is my old team and they waived me,” James said. “But I’m in a better place, so I thank Ben Olsen for waiving me and the front office for making that decision. Without them, I would not be with such a great team.”

KATIE’S WITH IT

Immediately after the game, I sought other explanations for the end of the losing streak. For example, earlier in the year, ONN sideline reporter Katie Witham jinxed the team by wearing plum-scented deodorant. Other scents also proved troublesome. After the game, Katie informed me that on this day, she was thoughtful and responsible while combating potential underarm funk. No plums, apricots, cucumbers, apples, pumpkins, strawberries, asparagus, bananas, cantaloupes, oranges, peaches, grapefruits, carrots, mangos or jalapeno peppers were involved.

“I remembered, so I just went with plain old Arrid Extra-Dry,” she said. “Plus I dressed in all-black. I’m intimidating. Standing by the benches, I think I scared the (crap) out of D.C.”

The one flaw in this theory was that D.C. United themselves were dressed in all black. If anything, she would have appeared supportive.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “Well then maybe I scared the (crap) INTO them!”

It’s an interesting twist of blonde logic, and while it doesn’t make sense on the surface, I think the basic premise is sound. In a sport where you have to run for miles and miles and miles, it would surely be better to scare the crap INTO your opponents than OUT of them. Colon-packing constipation would be the far more effective weapon. Well done, Katie!

KEVIN BURNS’ QUEST FOR 100,000 FOLLOWERS

Last week, Kevin Burns (@KevinBurns15) announced that he was in a competition with Robbie Rogers (@robbierogers) to see who would be the first to attain 100,000 followers on Twitter. At the time of the announcement, Rogers had over 67,000 followers. Burns had precisely 354. I tried to mount a publicity campaign calling for a Twitter flash-mob, and it succeeded in bouncing Burns’ follower count to, as of this writing… um… 417.

“Robbie’s not going to get to 100,000 any time soon, so I’ll keep pushing for it,” Burns said. “We’ll see what happens. It’s like getting a goal. You just need one and then you get 10. All it takes is that first thousand Twitter followers and then 99,000 more will come.”

Perhaps his dramatic last-minute insertion into the lineup and effective marking of Dwayne De Rosario will earn him some followers. Or not.

“The problem is that they didn’t announce me in the pre-game,” Burns said. “They thought Chad was still starting so they announced me as Chad. People probably thought I was Chad.”

Burns caught a tough break there, and it’s allowing self-doubt to creep in during the march to 100k.
 
“I think if I tried my entire life to get 100,000 followers, I don’t think I could do it,” he said. “We’ll see.”

But in these trying moments when he is riddled with doubts about his chances at victory, Kevin should learn from the 2008 and 2011 Columbus Crew teams that he’s been a part of. It’s a lesson that was reinforced on Sunday.

Comebacks happen.

Questions? Comments? Own an army of Twitter spambots that can beef up Kevin’s follower list? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo,com or via twitter @stevesirk