Sirk's Notebook: Preseason Training Part 1

The Rookies take in the first day of training

The start of the Columbus Crew’s 2012 season announced itself with the sound of popcorn. As the team took the field for the very first time on Jan. 19 at the SuperKick/TeamZone facility in Lewis Center, the sound of 15-plus soccer balls quickly being knocked back and forth during a warm-up exercise resembled that of a bag popping in the microwave. Or maybe I should have eaten breakfast beforehand.

 

This will be the first in a series of three training camp Notebooks. This one will cover general team-related stuff, such as training anecdotes and my first conversations with some of the new guys. One of the subsequent installments will focus on players’ offseason adventures, while the other will focus exclusively on Eric Gehrig’s improbable fantasy football championship and the resulting fallout. So, you know, the usual hard-hitting, in-depth stuff.

 

Off we go…

 

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES

At this time a year ago, the Crew’s world was still tilted off its axis after a jarring collision with the doomsday asteroid that was Black November. Eight Massive Champions—Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Carroll, Gino Padula, Steven Lenhart, Duncan Oughton, Adam Moffat, and Jason Garey— were suddenly off the roster via trade, release, or expansion draft. So was talented local defender Eric Brunner. When the Crew opened camp with a promising draft class and new acquisitions such as right back Sebastian Miranda, it still felt like the club was wallpapering over the sledgehammer holes in the family room walls of Crew Nation’s soul. To coin a phrase.

 

2012 has a vastly different feel. The club had to build a new foundation in 2011, and now there is a sense of building upon that foundation. Three more Massive Champions— Robbie Rogers, Emmanuel Ekpo, and Kevin Burns—are gone, as are leading scorer Andres Mendoza and all-time leading scorer Jeff Cunningham, but these moves feel like the more natural forms of annual attrition. Midfielder Milovan Mirosevic, forward Olman Vargas, homegrown player Ben Speas, and top draft pick Ethan Finlay all figure to give the offense a fresh look. Veteran Carlos Mendes adds another veteran presence in the back. The promise of a new offensive-minded designated player tantalizes, as does the “found money” aspect of newfound health for those who suffered injuries in 2011. And that’s on top of the natural progression and cohesion of 2011’s newcomers.

 

And all of that is built upon the foundation of the five remaining Massive Champions: goalkeepers William Hesmer and Andy Gruenebaum, defender Chad Marshall, midfielder Eddie Gaven, and Swiss Army knife/pit bull Danny O’Rourke.

 

“I thought there were a few more of us than that,” said Gaven, “but I guess that’s all there is. It’s kinda weird. I didn’t think about that until you brought it up just now. The good news is that we definitely have a team that can do very well this season. Now we just have to go out there and do it. It’s easy to sit here and say we have a great team on paper, but we need to transform that onto the field. I think there were a lot of unknowns heading into preseason last year. This year, I don’t think there are as many of those. I think there’s a bit more stability in terms of the players we have back from last year.”

 

“I think last year had a shock factor when you lose so many important pieces from a championship team,” Hesmer said. “The community was riled up and was curious to see what would happen, so we had that extra pressure to try to make a statement that we could still be good and that we could still make the playoffs. We were lucky to make the playoffs after that bad stretch at the end, but this year we’ve got a good group and some younger guys that are going to step up into their own and hopefully take us a little bit further.”

 

“I’m really, really excited,” said defender Julius James. “We seem to have made some really good offseason moves. We had some good draft picks and everything, plus we have a good core from last year. We had a good rookie class last year too, so it’s exciting to see what will happen.”

 

Crew President & GM Mark McCullers is pleased with how the roster’s quantity and quality of talent is progressing in the second training camp since the painful decisions of Black November.

 

“I think there’s going to be a lot of competition on this team,” McCullers said. “I don’t think anyone, with the exception of maybe Chad Marshall, is going to feel very comfortable in their skin right now. That’s a good thing. I’m excited about the group of players we have.”

 

So let’s meet some of the newbies…

 

 MATT LAMPSON: CREW FAN

One of the coolest things about the signing of homegrown players is that the league is now mature enough that teams are signing players who grew up as fans. The Crew’s first homegrown player, Aaron Horton, went from a kid idolizing Jeff Cunningham to a man playing and training beside Jeff Cunningham. The most recent homegrown signing, Ben Speas, was also no stranger to Crew Stadium as a child. In between came the signing of perhaps the biggest Crew fan of them all, Ohio State goalkeeper Matt Lampson.

 

The player/fan knowledge bases are usually inverses of each other. Players, obviously, know infinitely more about their specific team than any fan ever could. But players come and go over time, so the fans have a much larger and broader institutional memory that trumps that of any specific player.

 

With MLS being so new, that’s not entirely true for the Crew, seeing as guys like Robert Warzycha and Mike Lapper have been with the Crew since 1996 and 1997, respectively, and even Duncan Oughton came aboard early enough and played with so many originals that he didn’t miss a whole lot. But those are old-timers. It’s a very strange thing indeed that a newly-signed college kid has been going to games just as long, if not longer, than the people who will be buying tickets to see him play someday.

 

“It feels good to join the Crew,” Lampson said after his first official training session as a professional. “It’s interesting because I didn’t think my dad could become a bigger Crew fan than he already was. He’s the type of guy that gets there four hours before the game when there’s nobody else there.”

 

As is customary in every sport, players are given an allotment of tickets for each game. Lampson thought he was being a good son when he advised his dad that he didn’t need to buy season tickets anymore since Matt could now be his dad’s legit ticket hookup. (We will now pause for a moment to give the ticket sales staff a chance to stop banging their heads on their desks.)

 

Undoubtedly to the ticket staff’s delight, Mr. Lampson would have none of it.

 

“He told me, ‘Nope, I need to buy tickets to make sure you still have a job.’ So I was like, ‘All right.’ [Shrugs shoulders.] But those are his seats. He would never want to change his seats. He’s right in front of the box where the TV announcers are. He’s in section 126. He’s right there. He’s been a season ticket holder since 1996, so going to all of those games and seeing the Crew, to now be playing for the Crew is a great feeling. And knowing that you can play at that level is amazing too. It’s humbling to be here.”

 

Watching all those Crew games from the stands, Lampson never had a eureka moment where he knew or believed he could step onto that very same field one day. Rather, his journey was a gradual process that morphed his life path from medical school to the six-yard box.

 

“I’m going to go back to my father again,” Lampson said. “He’s in medicine, and so is every single one of my siblings. Even my mom is in medicine. She’s a nurse. What was expected of me may not necessarily have been a professional soccer career. So I went to school and got a biology degree and a minor in Latin and I was all ready to go med school. I had a good season my freshman year, so I thought, ‘Maybe if I keep this up, it could be a possibility.’ My sophomore year was better, and it was like, ‘Listen a minute, we really might have a future here.’ And by my junior year, I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ It felt good to know that, and it feels even better to accomplish it. It’s a dream that every little four- year-old kid has, so to accomplish it is big.”

 

While Lampson hopes to take part in memorable Crew Stadium moments down the road, he reflected on two of his favorite games as seen from his dad’s seats.

 

“I remember U.S.-Mexico when it was frigid, and we beat them 2-0 on goals by [Josh Wolff] and Earnie Stewart,” he said. “That’s my favorite game, but that’s not a Crew game. My favorite Crew game was when Stern John scored against San Jose with three seconds left. Stern John was the man!”

 

Just for Matt, we will now pause and relive that glorious Stern John moment one more time:

 

And for good measure, since Dos A Cero never gets old, let’s also throw in the nine-minute condensed broadcast of La Guerra Fria in case any of you have time to kill and need an awesome diversion:

Anyway, back to Crew Fan Lampson. A real suck-up would have listed Robert Warzycha, Mike Lapper, Ricardo Iribarren and Duncan Oughton as his favorite players growing up. Alas, Matt kept it real. Really, really, real.

 

“You’re going to have to think back with me here,” he said, “but back in the day, since I was easily impressed, the guy who had THE hair was Mac Cozier. He rarely saw the field, but his hair was awesome. I was like 6 or 7 years old. I have no idea what he’s doing now, but back when the Crew played at the Horseshoe, that’s what it was all about for me: Mac Cozier’s hair.”

 

The dreadlocked Cozier played 155 minutes in 13 appearances, all as a substitute, during the inaugural 1996 season.

 

Eventually, Lampson’s focus shifted to goalkeeping. His favorite players changed accordingly. Instead of hair, he became enamored with bug-eyed intensity.

 

“I would say that once I started to get seriously into soccer, since I was a goalkeeper, my favorite players were Mark Dougherty and Jon Busch. Both of those guys were training me back in the day too, so that helped out. And I was just training with Busch this offseason, so it all comes full circle, I guess. They are both quite the characters.”

 

 LAMPSON A GOOD FIT

In just a few minutes of conversation, it became immediately apparent that Lampson fits in with the Crew’s goalkeeping corps. His playing resume suggests that he’ll be a good fit on the training field, and his personality confirms that he’ll be a good fit with his fellow goalkeepers, who have their own unique fraternity. Lampson has had the advantage of training with the Crew for the past three years while at Ohio State, so he’s already got a solid relationship with the long-tenured tandem of William Hesmer and Andy Gruenebaum.

 

“I know those two guys pretty well,” Lampson said. “Andy is…(pause)…a great guy. I’ll put it that way. How’s that for politically correct? And Will is…(pause)…a consummate professional. That’s all I can say. No, I love those guys. I really do. They are so good to work with. I learn a lot from them. They tweak everything to make me better, which, as a professional, is pretty upstanding. I mean, if you look at Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, does Peyton want to bring someone in and maybe help him take his job? I’m not saying that’s the situation here, but as a goalkeeper, where only one guy can play, it can be a tough competition. So it’s very upstanding of them to help me out. Hopefully down the road it pays off.”

 

Unlike four-back, or five-midfielder (six if Steve Sampson is coaching), or three-forward formations, there’s no such thing as a two-goalkeeper formation. It’s the hardest position to break into. As a young goalkeeper, Lampson knows that he has a lot to learn from his experienced mentors.

 

“It’s difficult for goalkeepers,” he said. “I know my role here and I don’t expect anything other than my work ethic to show for now. If that pays off, then good. But I know that as a professional and a rookie and a homegrown player, you are groomed for the future. So that’s what I’m expecting right now, and I’m glad those guys are helping me.”

 

The helpers are happy to have him.

 

“I think first and foremost, he’s just a great kid,” said Hesmer. “He’s a good person. Everybody knows his story.”

 

(For those who don’t know, Lampson was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkins lymphoma in 2007. That’s the most severe stage. After months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he remains in remission to this day.)

 

“When you get to train with him, you get to see how genuine and nice he is,” Hesmer continued. “He’s someone that’s fun to be around every day. And he’s good. I think he’s going to have a bright future in this league. He’s got all of the tools, but most importantly, he has the head on his shoulders. He has the mental toughness that the position requires, thanks in part to what life has thrown at him. He’s got a great future and I think it’s going to be fun.”

 

In addition to Lampson’s personality and work ethic, Gruenebaum feels that Lampson took the correct path to a homegrown contract.

 

“It’s a signing that makes total sense,” Gruenebaum said. “He’s played in some big college games. My concern about home grown players in general is that some of them miss out on that college experience, where you’re playing in some big games in tough environments. Those games can be a big stepping stone in terms of getting experience to take to this level. He has that. Some kids come so soon that they are missing out on very valuable experiences that they will never get again. I get why some kids make that choice so early, because it’s tough to turn that offer down, but he’s got those big time games under his belt.  He’s got some development to do, as we all did at his age, but he’s a hard worker and he has a great attitude.

 

“Will and I click well together in training, and Matt adds to that. I look forward to training every day because of those guys.”

 

ETHAN FINLAY: FIRE FAN

That’s was an intentionally sensationalistic subject heading, but I couldn’t help myself. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first let’s see how the Crew’s first round pick (No. 10 overall) fared in his first professional training session.

 

“I enjoyed it,” he said. “It was a well-run training session. And this is a good group of guys. It’s just a good locker room. Nobody is arrogant. You come in and Chad Marshall’s talking to you, and Eddie Gaven is talking to you, and they’re all great guys.”

 

Draft picks undoubtedly feel pressure to prove their worth in their very first training camp, so Finlay was appreciative of the veterans’ approachability, which took some of the edge off. Nevertheless, the pressure persists.

 

“I think I put added pressure on myself being the 10th overall pick, which was a surprise even to me, but I am very grateful for that,” Finlay said. “Being drafted there puts some added pressure because you don’t want the coach to look stupid, or the GM to look stupid, or Brian Bliss to look stupid. You want to make sure that you show up and you show well. When you come out here with a great group of guys, at least you don’t have the added pressure of, ‘Ahhhhh, is Eddie Gaven going to yell at me?’  It was a great day for me. It was everything I could have hoped for and I am excited going forward.”

 

(Never mind the fact that if Eddie Gaven yelled at anyone, it would barely be audible. The point still stands. If it helps for illustrative purposes, substitute someone with vocal chords in place of Gaven.)

 

A native of Marshfield, Wisconsin, and a guy who spent his college years in Omaha while playing for Creighton, Finlay feels that Columbus is a perfect fit for him.

 

“I’m used to the snow, being from Wisconsin, so that doesn’t worry me,” he said. “What I like is a great little city. You can drive through the city and there’s no traffic. It’s not like Chicago, where to make 25 miles at 8:00 in the morning, I have to give myself an hour and a half. So that’s cool. I love that.”

 

Finlay not only loves the uncongested highways, but also the congested knot of fans in the Nordecke.

 

“I’ve seen the support,” he said. “Omaha had great support for a college team, and everything I have seen and heard about Columbus is that the support here is tremendous. I’m looking forward to getting out there, putting the banana kit on, and hearing them in the corner chanting and cheering. I’m excited.

 

“When I got drafted, my first thought was ‘Wow.’ And then I thought, ‘This couldn’t have been any better.’ Being able to stay in the Midwest, close to my parents, they love it. And then to join an organization that has done it, that has been successful, and has the same values I do. You talk about work ethic, and you see it all over the facilities that this is something the organization prides itself in, and I have always prided myself in that as a person. When your values match up with the values of your organization, it makes it that much easier to find success.”

 

Growing up in Wisconsin, I already figured where Finlay’s MLS loyalties would have lied as a youngster, but it was nevertheless fun to make him say it out loud.

 

“I followed the EPL more,” he said, “but I did follow the Chicago Fire since they were the closest MLS team in terms of going to games.”

 

The words hung in the air for a split second.

 

“So…yeah,” he laughed. “But I’m excited to be here. I’m super excited to get there for that rivalry. I played PDL for those guys for a year or two, and I spent a lot of time with that organization, and in all honesty, I’m okay that they didn’t draft me. When you compare the two organizations, like I said before, I think Columbus and the Crew make for a far better setup for me and what I value.”

 

So to recap, last year Julius James publicly thanked D.C. United for letting him go, and now Ethan Finlay has expressed gratitude that the Chicago Fire didn’t draft him. The Crew sure are acquiring people of Massive character these days, aren’t they?

 

BEN SPEAS: ANOTHER HOME GROWN CREW FAN

A native of Stow (near Akron), Ben Speas joins Horton and Lampson as homegrown Crew fans who are now Crew players.

 

“It’s very exciting,” Speas said of his first day of training. “I’ve always wanted to play for the Crew ever since I was a kid playing club, and then with the Crew Academy. I would go to the games and it was great. It’s definitely a dream come true and I’m definitely glad it’s here. With this opportunity, I feel really honored and blessed. I will do everything I can to help the organization and represent them well.”

 

Speas’ most memorable game as a Crew fan wasn’t even because of the Crew. On August 21, 2004, a 13-year-old Speas found inspiration in a 15-year-old kid playing 90 minutes for the wrong team.

 

“The game I remember most was when Freddy Adu came to Crew Stadium for the first time with D.C. United,” Speas said. “He’s only two years older than me, so it made me realize that this could be me someday. It was a real eye opener that I could really do this, so I worked my butt off from that day forward. It pushed me harder because I wanted to play there myself someday. I can’t wait for a chance to step onto that field wearing the black & gold.”

 

Ben’s story is interesting because it is common for most diehard soccer fans to in some way dismiss the people who show up for the “circus” of a Freddy Adu game or a David Beckham game. But Ben Speas is living, breathing, kicking proof that those event-driven games have value in growing the game. You never know who’s going to be in the stands and who might be inspired on any given game day. Freddy Adu’s first appearance in Columbus may have been a circus, but it motivated Ben Speas to do everything he could do to someday join the circus himself.

 

A product of the Crew Academy, Speas went on to win back-to-back NCAA championships before joining the Crew. He won in 2010 with the Akron Zips, then scored the title-winning goal in 2011 for the North Carolina Tar Heels. Like Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Danny O’Rourke before him, winning seems to follow Speas around. It’s a trend that will hopefully continue in Columbus.

 

“We all want to win,” Speas said. “There are plenty of guys in this organization who have won championships, so I think with the makeup of this team, it’s definitely a possibility if we put the work in.”

 

HESMER ON THE INFLUX OF YOUTH

“I feel like the guys keep getting younger, but the reality is that I’m just getting older. It looks like we have some good young players who are going to contribute, but you never know for sure after day one. You find out after month three.”

 

To read the first second part “Sirk’s Notebook: Preseason Training Part 2: Catching up with the Veterans & Team President and GM” CLICK HERE

Questions? Comments? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk