Sirk's Notebook: Putting Out the Fire

Fire fans loving REO Speedwagon, fighting the heat and more

Emilio Renteria

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Awful April gave way to a Magical May. After going winless (0-3-1) in April, the Crew capped an undefeated May (3-0-2) in league play with a 2-1 win over the detestable Chicago Fire. The win capped an eight-day stretch that saw the injury-ravaged Crew nearly win at San Jose before settling for a late tie, and then finally break through for a historic win at Seattle. Beating the Fire on the heels of a West Coast trip was the cherry on top of the Saturday-to-Saturday seven-point sundae.

“I would like to say it was a good week for us,” said Crew head coach Robert Warzycha.

“This is fun right now,” said Crew defender Josh Williams. “It feels like everyone is in sync. We show up and everybody knows we’re going to win. That’s the attitude that we need to bring. I feel that early in the season, maybe we got down on ourselves and tried to get some pity, but now we believe that we’re going to win and that’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s fun.”

A look back at Magical May’s magnificent finale… and assorted other silliness.

GAVEN’S EARLY GOAL

The Crew took a crucial early lead in the 9th minute on Eddie Gaven’s third goal of the campaign. After receiving a pass from Shaun Francis near the left edge of the box, Gaven cut inside to his right foot and unleashed a low shot that split his defender’s legs and beat Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson to the near post.

“I took a touch to my right,” said Gaven, “thinking the guy who was on me was going to put out his left foot to try to block the shot, so I tried to put it right through his legs. I don’t think their goalie saw it until the last second, and luckily it just kinda squeaked inside the post.”

RENTERIA DOUBLES LEAD

After finally scoring his first goal of the season, and a memorable one at that, during Wednesday’s road win in Seattle, Emilio Renteria wasted no time scoring his second of the year. In the 43rd minute, just minutes after Chicago blew a gift-wrapped opportunity at the other end of the field, he doubled the Crew’s lead with one of those bullish goals that only Renteria can score. After Francis played a good ball into the left channel, Gaven ran it down and once again nutmegged his defender, this time on a pass to Renteria at the corner of the six. Fire defender Austin Berry challenged for the ball, but bounced off the hulking Venezuelan. Renteria then turned and fired the ball into the far corner of the goal from close range.

“I tried to do what the coaches told me to do, so I held the ball,” Renteria said through an interpreter. “I turned, and the ball was in front of my right foot, so I just tried to finish to the far post.”

Berry conceded that he took the wrong approach in trying to force his way through Renteria in an attempt to win the ball.

“That was bad positioning on my part,” said Berry. “I should've just held him up and stayed off him a little bit, but I was too eager to get in and clear it. He used his body well and took me out of position. It's a good learning opportunity for me, but I've got to make that play next time.”

After scoring, Renteria produced a bizarre celebration in which he went down to one knee and pantomimed pulling arrows out of a quiver and firing them into the crowd.

“That was a celebration I said I was going to do if I scored a goal, so I did,” Renteria explained. “It’s just something I thought about and wanted to do.”

So he was not assassinating people in the crowd, like Reggie Jackson trying to take out the queen in The Naked Gun.

“If somebody felt I was pointing at them,” he said, “it was just something I was doing and had nothing to do with them.”

FIRE TURN UP THE HEAT

Chicago pulled to within a goal when Berry made amends by burying a header in the 72nd minute. Berry headed a Danny Paladini corner kick on frame, but it was cleared off the line by Gaven. It was only a temporary reprieve for the Crew, however, as Paladini put the ball right back into the box, where Berry nodded it home.

“It was good first ball in by Danny,” Berry said. “Eddie was just in the right spot and we stayed in good positions to be able to keep it back in and stayed onside. I was able to put it in.”

“I want to look at it again,” said Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum. “I just saw three guys not wearing our jersey go up. I'll just have to take a look at it and see what we can improve on. We pride ourselves on keeping zeros, so we'll take a look at it and see how we can improve.”

BIG WIN

There were tense moments down the stretch, but the Fire would not score again. As stoppage time ticked away, the crowd of 16,024 came to its feet and roared its encouragement, and when the whistle blew, its approval.

After the big results out west, the players felt that this was a game that they truly needed to win in order to make a statement. Failing to cap the week with a win over their Midwestern rival would have erased much of the Pacific progress.

“We went to the West Conference and we tied and won, which was really good,” said Sebastian Miranda. “But today the key to the game was that if we won, we moved to 18 points and fourth in our conference.  This game was very important. Three games in a week, the trip is long, and the hour change, but today we had to win. We had to find a way to win because we are in a fight for the playoffs.”

“Mentally, it’s tough,” Gruenebaum said of the demanding week, “but you know that this is the last one of the stretch. That’s what keeps you going. You’re like, ‘Let’s gut this out as a team.’ That was our mentality. Getting a couple of goals in the first half was huge. We were able to gut it out at the end. Not winning this game would have put a damper on everything. A tie would have been disappointing and a loss would have been devastating. We were able to get a job done. There are about a million ways that we would have rather got the job done, but we got the job done and that’s what matters. Now we just need to work on closing out the game better.”

KEVAN’S FIRST START

With Danny O’Rourke sidelined by an ankle sprain, rookie Kevan George was tabbed to make the first start of his MLS career on Saturday. George had subbed in for O’Rourke in Seattle to make his MLS debut on Wednesday, but this was a bigger test. He passed with flying colors, completing an astounding 89 percent of his passes and playing with composure throughout.

“At first, I was nervous,” George said. “I was more nervous than the Seattle one because I knew beforehand that I was going to start, but it was a really great experience. All the guys made it easy for me to play my game.”

DEPTH ON DISPLAY

George became the sixth Crew player to make the first league start of his professional career in 2012, joining Kirk Urso, Ethan Finlay, Aaron Scheonfeld, Josh Williams, and Cole Grossman. Meanwhile, Justin Meram is currently riding a three-game goal scoring streak, Eric Gehrig has been sacrificing his body in the back, Bernardo Anor has a game-winning goal, Shaun Francis leads the team with three assists, and longtime backup goalkeeper Gruenebaum has been mostly excellent between the pipes.

“Sometimes it feels like the reserve team from last year, but with a bigger crowd,” Williams joked. “We’re a bunch of young guys who don’t care who we’re playing. We enjoy the game and it comes out that way. We believe in everybody and that everybody can step up and play.”

“We won the reserve league last year for a reason,” said Gruenebaum. “We have a great group of guys that have been waiting for their turn. They want to prove that they can play and they have done a great job.”

Injuries to stalwarts such as William Hesmer, Danny O’Rourke, Julius James, Dilly Duka, and Chad Marshall, as well as to notable offseason acquisitions such as Milovan Mirosevic, Carlos Mendes, and Olman Vargas, have created numerous opportunities for the younger players.

“I don’t think a lot of people scripted this, that’s for sure,” said Gehrig. “Especially with Chad going down. He’s our best player and our leader, but we’ve come together and different guys are stepping up.”

“It feels like every game, someone goes down,” said Williams, “and then we have to call on someone who hasn’t even dressed before, and then all of a sudden he’s starting, and then he plays well. There’s a bunch of feel-good stories. It just goes to show the discipline and focus that guys have in training. Like Kevan. He wasn’t even on the San Jose trip, then we fly him out to Seattle and he goes out in front of 40,000 people, and he shows up ready to play. It just shows the focus and discipline that all these guys have.”

George credits his teammates with making that part of the job easier.

“It’s a very family-oriented team,” he said. “It was tough at first, but all of the guys kept encouraging us younger guys and told us that it’s a long season and that our chance will come, so when the time comes, be ready to step up. Guys like Danny O’Rourke, Eddie Gaven, and Tony Tchani have made it much easier for me to be ready for this moment.”

Gehrig was not surprised that George was the latest player to fill in admirably.

“Everybody asks me about the team this year,” said Gehrig, “and I say that this is a very, very good team. I realize everyone is a professional, but whether it’s a guy’s first game or 100th game, everyone steps in like it’s no big deal and does their job. When all of these guys come back, the coaches are going to have some tough decisions. It’s going to push us in practice to try to earn those spots, which is just going to make all of us better.”

As for George, he received an encouraging locker room visit from the man he replaced.

“Danny came over and congratulated me on the start and said he thought I looked good,” George said. “He wanted to see how I felt. It was just a little talk.”

George smiled. Family indeed.

GETTING BETTER

Speaking of injuries, it was exciting to see James, Rich Balchan, and Ben Speas participating in possession drills prior to warm-ups. None of the three has been able to play yet this year, and all looked happy to be knocking the ball around at last.

In the post-game locker room, James was all smiles. Well, he always is, but his smile was even wider than usual.

“Tuesday, man! I can’t wait!”

Based on that comment and the enthusiasm with which it was delivered, it would appear that James is hoping to play in Tuesday night’s U.S. Open Cup match against the Dayton Dutch Lions.

THE HEAT AND HUMIDITY

As if the midweek game and cross-country travel weren’t enough to contend with, temperatures in the mid-90s and suffocating humidity added another complication for the Crew. Columbus attempted to mitigate the sweat-soaked swampiness by getting off to a good start and playing with the lead.

“It was definitely huge getting that goal early,” said Gaven. “We knew it was hot tonight, so we wanted to get all over them and get a goal early, knowing that as the game went later and later, guys would start to get tired more and it would be much, much harder to create goal scoring chances.”

“It was so important,” Williams said of Gaven’s goal. “We said we wanted to get an early goal and jump on them quick, and Eddie stepped up and gave that to us. Then we got another one from Emilio. I was kinda hoping they would just pack up it after that and get ready to go home, but we come out after halftime and I’m looking at (Fire speedster, Dominic) Oduro, and I just shook my head and thought, ‘Oh boy, here we go. Now it’s going to be a track meet for 45 minutes.’”

The Fire didn’t give up. Instead, they fought the heat and humidity to put the Crew under pressure in the second half. Williams said it was tough.

“It was sand soccer,” he said. “It felt like I was running on the beach, my legs were so heavy. We had a great crowd tonight, and when your legs are that heavy, you lean on the crowd a bit. The crowd was great and gave us extra energy.”

At the final whistle, several players collapsed onto the grass and laid there for a few minutes before they could even bring themselves to walk off the field.

“It was hot,” said George, a native of tropical Trinidad & Tobago. “It was even hotter than (home). The humidity was unreal. I couldn’t even feel my legs, but I had to push through it because it was my first start, so adrenaline just took over.”

“It was hard because of the humidity and it was hot,” said Sebastian Miranda. “For both teams, it was hard, but we were smart because we keep the ball and don’t go fast. “

Craig Merz pointed out that Miranda played 90 minutes in all three games this week, including Saturday’s game in the heat, which was an amazing accomplishment for the old man of the group.

“I am never old man!” the 31-year-old Miranda protested. “The coach asked me before the game if I feel good, and I said yes. Now, of course, I am tired. This is what you have to do for win.”

NOT QUITE A BIKE

The heat and humidity robbed Crew fans of seeing another Josh Williams bicycle kick attempt. While in the Chicago box, a ball popped over Williams’ head and he lined up like he was going to bike it, but aborted the process just as he was about to leap. The waist-high ball harmlessly bounced off of his outstretched leg instead.

“I contemplated it,” said Williams, “but then I realized that my legs felt like they had cinder blocks on them and that I probably wouldn’t get back up if I tried it. I couldn’t do it, man. I was dead tired, so I decided to go with a knee ball instead.”
 
BEATING THE FIRE

Here’s an icky stat that will make your skin crawl: The Crew have five (FIVE!) players who played for Chicago Fire Premier in the PDL back in their college days. Those players are Eric Gehrig, Rich Balchan, Ethan Finlay, Kirk Urso, and even Mr. Columbus himself, Danny O’Rourke.

Gehrig, in particular, relished Saturday’s win over his hometown team.

“Oh yeah,” Gehrig said when asked if it meant a little more to beat the Fire. “Frank (Klopas) won’t even look at me. For me, growing up in that system, knowing some of those guys, training with Logan Pause and Patty Nyarko in the offseason, it’s definitely special to get a win against the Fire.”

The other four guys were hurt and did not get to play, but there’s little doubt that they shared Gehrig’s joy. As did everyone in Columbus.

GBAUM ON WINNING

“It feels good,” Gruenebaum said. “I like winning more than I like losing. If you asked me, ‘Which would you rather do? Win? Or lose?’ I would say, ‘Who’s on my team? Carlos? Then I like winning.’ It’s one of those games that you have to gut through, and we made it interesting in the end, but when you have Josh Williams on your team, you’re probably going to win.”

Some numbers based on the bizarrely incorporated shout outs as the players in question walked past the interview: The Crew are 2-0-0 when Carlos Mendes has made an appearance and 5-1-3 when Williams has made an appearance.

FIRE FANS

The Fire front office bussed approximately 600 of their fans in from Chicago so that they could see their team lose in person, then glumly make the long trek home. The Fire fans were located in the south end of the stadium, so Gruenebaum had them hanging over his right shoulder for the entire second half.

“They’re great,” he said. “While you don’t like certain teams because of a rivalry, I can respect Seattle fans, or respect San Jose fans who were throwing paper airplanes at me, which was different.  You gotta respect the other team’s fans. The Chicago fans traveled to support their team, and we’re going to have a bunch of fans when we go there. It’s healthy. I think it’s great. That’s fun. That’s part of it. You take it with a grain of salt. I mean, they don’t ACTUALLY want my family dead. I’m sure that they can take a step back and realize that I’m a human. I mean, whatever. It’s fun.”

The Hammer was laughing and genuinely seemed amused by the Fire fans. Then again, so was I. After all, they proudly waved a flag bought at the rickety merch table during REO Speedwagon’s most recent appearance at the Illinois State Fair.


(Photo croutesy: Sam Fahmi)

I’m sure they popped the cassette single into the dashboard’s tape player and let this 1980s power ballad console them on the bus ride back to Chicago…


MR. NUMBERS NERD: EAST vs. WEST EDITION

The Crew’s successful West Coast run, with a draw at San Jose and a win in Seattle, evened their record against Western Conference foes at 2-2-2, with a goal differential of zero. Since the West was supposed to be the best conference in MLS history, while the East was supposed to be nothing but a bunch of hapless chumps unworthy of most of the playoff spots it would receive, I was curious as to how the whole inter-conference battle was going. After all, the Crew are more than holding their own after two home games and four away games, so what about the East as a whole?

First, a tip of the Ohio Bobcat cap to Big Soccer users “newtex” and “American Brummie.” I was going to calculate all this myself, but I found that they have been dutifully tracking and charting the inter-conference games in a Big Soccer thread, saving me much spreadsheet work.

With that said, through 61 games, the West holds a slim 26-23-12 advantage over the East, with a goal differential of +3. Those aren’t the numbers one would expect to see out of a far superior collection of teams.  This is especially true when one considers that the West has played 34 home games to the East’s 27. Or that in terms of ineptitude, Toronto FC is a significant outlier of historic proportions, and they have lost all four matchups against the West. (Although they went 1-0-1 vs. the Western Conference’s Vancouver Whitecaps in their adorable little four-team Canadian championship intramural tournament.) If you drop the Hosers to make the conference matchups 9 vs. 9, the East suddenly has as 23-22-12 advantage, despite playing seven fewer home games.

The East hosts 18 of the 29 remaining matchups, so it will be interesting to see what happens from here on out. (Even after Toronto FC loses five of those games.)

CRUTCH CARAVAN

As we waited in the hallway for the locker room to open, Danny O’Rourke said, “Look out! Crutch brigade!”

O’Rourke and William Hesmer ambled by on crutches, followed by Chad Marshall, who was crutchless but concussed. At that moment it hit me that the Crew’s fantasy football league may be cursed. Who better to ask about that this than Gruenebaum?

“Here’s my theory on this,” Gruenebaum said. “It’s probably more truth than it is a theory. The year I won fantasy football is the year I had hip surgery. I was out. I wasn’t practicing. I was literally listening to podcasts all day. This is what they’re trying to do. These guys are getting ‘injured’ so they can listen to podcasts all day and prepare for fantasy. It has nothing to do with an actual injury.”

Head athletic trainer Dave Lagow, who would certainly be in a position to know, chimed in as well.

“The thought has crossed my mind,” Lagow said. “It’s not a conspiracy theory yet, but it’s close.”

“Dave’s not even playing this year,” Gruenebaum said.

“No, I made a comeback in Portland,” Lagow said. “Maybe that’s what happened. I professed my newfound enthusiasm for fantasy to Chad, who was sitting right behind me on the plane. I turned around and we had a long conversation. He got really, really excited. And then he went to the Nike store and got me the new Nike Tom Brady jersey. It almost made me cry. That’s a true story. Then next thing I know, he’s concussed.”

Since Lagow has finished dead last in the fantasy league every year, I was confused as to why his commitment to play in 2012 would suddenly cause Marshall to fake a concussion to better prepare for fantasy football when no further preparation would be needed to beat Lagow.

“I see where you’re going with that, Sirk,” Lagow said. “I’m like the Cleveland Browns of fantasy football. BOOOOOOM!”

Gruenebaum tried to get the conversation back on track. Sort of.

“Let’s just say that Dave and I are going to have a solid year in fantasy football,” he said. “We have no other option. Our backs are against the wall. I’m going to come back strong.  I’m going to win some games this year.”

“I’m going to break four wins this year,” Lagow predicted. “That’s all I’m gonna say.”

Gruenebaum, warming up to the win-at-all-costs mentality shown by his teammates, said, “Now I’m going to break my LEFT hip so I can break eight wins this year.”

And what of Tommy Heinemann? How many wins is he going to break after having microfracture surgery on his left knee?

“Tommy’s just trying to write songs,” Gruenebaum said. “That’s why he ‘injured’ himself.”

Even if Heinemann has a songwriting-inspired fake injury, that still leaves Hesmer, Marshall, and O’Rourke faking injuries in the name of fantasy football dominance. I happened to see O’Rourke on his way to the parking lot, so I ran Gruenebaum’s accusatory theory past him.

“I didn’t (bleeping) play all last year and I didn’t win fantasy,” O’Rourke said. “So there you go. Flawed, right there. Flawed. Totally flawed.”

DERAILED HAIR CONVERSATION

As I talked to Gruenbaum, Williams came by and asked the Hammer if the back of his hair looked all right. Gbaum assured him it looked good, then teased up a few hairs on the front of his own head and asked Williams how it looked. Williams told him it looked great.

“Josh has a nice kind of look and I’m just trying to get something going,” Gruenebaum explained. “It used to be that I would shave it with a one (clipper guard) all the way around, but my wife hates that. Since I want to stay married, I have to get big-boy haircuts. This is our compromise. I keep it short, but with a little party in the front there. It’s like a reverse mullet, maybe. I don’t know.”

So sticking up three small hairs on the front of his head is a marriage saver?

“Here’s the deal,” Gruenebaum said. “My wife wishes I were Danny O’Rourke. It’s as simple as that. So I have to get my hair a little spiky. It’s true. I know that when I leave town, she takes out his picture and lights candles in her little shrine.”

Does that mean that Gruenebaum is going to get some tattoos to increase his O’Rourke-ness?

“No, I’m just going to be me,” he said. “If Danny takes her, we signed a contract where I get to punch him in the nose as hard as I can five times at my choice of time. I wouldn’t do it all at once. I’m not going to tell him when, so for the rest of his life, I would haunt him with that.”

So the almost-undetectable hair spike is as far as it goes, then.

“I just always check in with Josh to make sure that little spiky part at the front looks right. It’s kind of weird to me, but I will find my style one day.”

As he left, Williams offered Gruenebaum a word of caution. Pointing to the curly fauxhawk atop his own head, Williams said, “You better not show up on Monday with this haircut!”

Gbaum assured him that he wouldn’t.

HAMMER-HESMER REUNION

Hesmer was seen in the locker room congratulating his long-time goalkeeping partner Gruenebaum on another victory. The Hebrew Hammer said it’s been tough not having Hesmer around due to season-ending hip surgery.

“I just miss the guy, really,” Gruenebaum said. “We need to see more of the guy. He keeps our spirits high. It’s just insight into life. He puts things into perspective.”

So what life lessons did the Hammer learn from Hesmer on Saturday?

“I’m trying to think of the biggest thing I learned from Will today,” he said. “I think it’s that if I ever make any money, he will be handling it.”

AUTOGRAPHS…AND MORE

As he walked off the field, Gruenbaum stopped near the edge of the tunnel to sign autographs for fans. Patrick Guldan and I chuckled that he was signing with his gloves on. Adam Jardy snapped the following photo of the gloved autograph session:


(photo courtesy: Adam Jardy)

Signing with gloves on has to be difficult, right?

“Fans just want your autograph,” Gruenebaum said. “I don’t know if they even look at it, but if they do, there’s going to be a lot of disappointed fans if they look and see a couple of squiggly lines where you can’t even make out the number.”

So why sign with the gloves on?

“If I take the gloves off, then people want them,” he explained. “They already ask for them anyway. Adidas doesn’t send me enough gloves for that, so I need to see if they can send me some more. Fans ask for everything when you’re walking off. Even your underwear. The one time I took off my underwear, it got weird out there, so I just keep everything on now.”

Questions? Comments? Looking forward to the Fire fans’ “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” banner in 2013? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk