Sirk's Notebook: San Jose Roadtrip

Lenny back with friends, blinding sun and Meram's curler

Soccer is a funny game. If you had told the Columbus Crew that they would have earned a point after flying across the country to play a road game against one of the top teams in Major League Soccer, they would have taken it. If you had shown the Columbus Crew highlights of the first 30 minutes and final 20 minutes of Saturday’s match in San Jose and told them that they’d earn a point, they would have taken it. Yet after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with the Earthquakes, the locker room was more funereal than fun. That’s because the Crew were moments away from an improbable victory before allowing a 90th minute equalizer that not only erased two points in the standings, but also spoiled a slick, winner-worthy goal from Justin Meram and a career-best game from Andy Gruenebaum.

“Maybe once we’re a little bit removed from the moment, we will be able to better appreciate getting the point,” said Cole Grossman, “but any time you give up a late goal to tie the game, it’s going to feel like a loss, whether your goalie makes 20 saves or no saves. I don’t think anybody’s appreciative of a point right now, but maybe once we settle down, we might think that a point is a decent result. Still, we had three points in our grasp, so it is unbelievably frustrating.”

EARLY TROUBLES

The Quakes jumped on the Crew early and often. In the 3rd minute, Gruenebaum stopped a long range knuckler from Khari Stephenson. In the 7th minute, he caught a Simon Dawkins blast hit right at him. San Jose held possession in the Crew end and constantly threatened the goal.

“We always talk about coming out and biting first to set the tone early,” said defender Josh Williams, “but they came out with a fire that I haven’t seen since I’ve been playing. They came out flying.”

The Crew were bending but not breaking, but a penalty call seemed like it would finally open the floodgates.

THE PENALTY

In the 21st minute, former Crew forward / hyper-physical super-pest Steven Lenhart attempted to dribble around Gehrig in the box. The two bumped into each other and both went down. After what seemed like an eternity, the referee blew his whistle and jogged, rather than pointed, to the penalty spot. The Crew vociferously argued the call, saying it should have been a foul on Lenhart. Gruenebaum would save Chris Wondolowski’s ensuing penalty kick.

“I just touched it around him and then we got tangled up,” Lenhart said. “It was just a dogpile, I guess. I haven’t looked at the replay. I wanted to shoot, so I wasn’t going down easy, but I guess the ball never lies. We didn’t score.”

“You know how Steve is,” Gehrig said, referencing Lenhart’s time in Columbus. “He’s turning on me and he has his hands all over me and is throwing me to the ground. Yeah, I was behind him, but I don’t see how it was a PK. But like he said, the ball doesn’t lie, I guess. I don’t think it was a PK, but Andy made the save, so that’s that.”

In a night filled with big saves, Gruenebaum’s PK stoning of the league’s leading scorer, Chris Wondolowski, was among the most improbable. However, it was the result of solid homework.

“We watched a lot of video on their goals, and I happened to notice that Wondo is a pretty good player,” Gruenebaum deadpanned. “He goes that way at least once and he hits it hard, so I just dove and just made myself big. When I noticed it was starting to go back to my right, and that I over-dove it, I just stacked my pads. I was watching Brodeur today.”

Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils is Gruenebaum’s goalie hero, despite playing a different sport.

THE ONSLAUGHT CONTINUES, THEN SUBSIDES

Sometimes a penalty save will pick up a struggling team. Instead, Gruenebaum’s save seemed to kick the Quakes up another notch. In the 23rd minute, the Hebrew Hammer went low to his right to stop a Lenhart header that was destined for the corner of the net. In the 26th minute, he made a superb kick save to deny Dawkins from in close. In the 28th minute, he saved another Dawkins effort.

After about the 30th minute, the Crew started taking control of the game, giving their defense a much-needed breather.

“Josh and I were talking in the back that we just needed to weather the storm,” Gehrig said. “Every match has those kind of moments. Andy obviously did most of the work, but Josh and I did our best. Dawkins is flying, Khari Stephenson is blasting, and then you have Lenhart and Wondo, but once we settled down and started keeping the ball, good things happened.”

“The adjustment was that we squeezed the field a little bit more,” said Crew coach Robert Warzycha. “The defenders squeezed the field from both sides, and then the midfielders were moving quicker from side to side. We were winning the ball higher on the field, which then made it easier to possess the ball.”

“We started winning some second balls and we started holding on to the ball more,” said midfielder Eddie Gaven. “Early, they were quicker than us and sharper than us, and when we did win it, we were just lumping it forward. But as the game went on, we were able to play a little bit and create some chances. It was good, but we definitely don’t want to come out every game and get killed for the first 30 minutes. We need to make it better against Seattle.”

MERAM’S MAGICAL CURLER

The Crew delivered a cruel counterpunch in the second minute of first half stoppage time, when Justin Meram curled in a beautiful goal to send the Crew into the locker room with an improbable 1-0 lead. As Meram dribble on the left side of the box, San Jose defender Steven Beitashour gave Meram a little too much room to maneuver. For a crafty player like Meram, who isn’t afraid to try something audacious, that little bit of space was all he needed to bend a looping shot inside the far corner of the net. Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch was helpless on the play.

“I picked my head up, and he (Beitashour) was backing off and jockeying me, waiting for me to make a move,” Meram said. “My instinct was, ‘All right, if he’s going to give me that space, I’m going to hit it.’ I just saw the far post open. It’s one of those where he (Busch) is reading me to cross, so he didn’t even move. He didn’t see it coming. That was that.”

“He hit a great shot,” Gaven said of Meram’s strike. “That was huge. To be able to come in at the half, up 1-0, in a road game where we know we didn’t play our best, that was huge.”

Meram’s goal half-fulfilled an Eric Gehrig prophecy.

“First thing this morning,” Gehrig said, “I texted him and said ’You’re going to score two.’ I had a dream that he was going to score two. He didn’t score two, but he scored one hell of a goal. It was unbelievable. It was ridiculous.”

“Man, that’s Premiership stuff right there,” said Williams. “If that’s not goal of the week, then I don’t know what is. That’s two weeks and two bangers. This one was top-class. It was great.”

Meram scored a 35-yard worm-burner a week earlier against Dallas. These two incredible goals in back to back weeks were the first two of his career.

“In college, I scored a lot of goals,” Meram said. “As a rookie last year, I didn’t get my chance. Finally when I got the monkey off my back (last week), now I go out and play. I feel comfortable. I got that natural instinct back, which is good. As a goal-scorer, there’s always those droughts and moments where you’re either hot or you’re not. I’m going to keep riding this as long as I can. I’ve got a little confidence right now. Two games, two goals—that’s always good.”

HOLDING ON

In the final 20 minutes, San Jose ratcheted up the pressure in search of the equalizer. In the 73rd minute, Gruenebaum made a fantastic 1v1 save on Alan Gordon, who was narrowly offside anyway. (Not that it lessened the impact of the save since the whistle didn’t blow until after Gruenebaum saved it.)

There was a scary moment in the 79th minute when Williams slipped, and then Gehrig slid to break up the pass on a 3-on-1. Had his heroic attempt to break up the play failed, the Quakes would have had multiple players bearing down on Gruenebaum.

“Andy probably would have saved it, the way he was playing,” Gehrig said. “At those points in the game, you knew they were going to come at us because they were down a goal. Me, Josh, Seba, and everyone, were just trying to make plays. Andy too. You lay your body out, killing yourself, trying to keep the shutout. That’s what I was trying to do, and that’s what everyone else did.”

Gruenebaum would make on last phenomenal diving save on a 84th minute close-range header from Gordon.

The clock ticked toward victory, but Gordon wasn’t finished yet.

THE EQUALIZER

In the 90th minute, Gordon won a flick header to Wondolowski. Gehrig stood up Wondo, who laid the ball back to Gordon. From there, Gordon one-timed a shot off of the crossbar. Unfortunately for the Crew, Gordon followed his own rebound and unleashed a flying side-volley that squeezed between Shaun Francis and the right post to tie the game.

“It hits the crossbar and I’m like, ‘Hey, all right! Another one!’,” Gehrig said. “But then somehow it squeaks it in. It was great play by Alan. Credit to him.”

“I didn’t do well putting it away on the initial shot,” Gordon said, “but luckily I got to the rebound and was able to finish. Once I saw I had a chance to follow up my shot, I knew I had to have it.”

He did have it. And just like that, the Crew had a tie instead of a win.

“The way Andy was playing, and the way I am always confident in our team, I thought we were coming out with three,” Williams said. “We were picking each other up and I never once doubted us. We knew they were going to throw the kitchen sink at us, but at the end of the day, maybe our legs died or something. They got a good goal, but it was unfortunate. It was a tough pill to swallow.”

DEVASTATION

Having been moments away from stealing a win the way Vancouver stole a win in Columbus, the road point left the Crew more mournful than mirthful in the locker room.

“It’s one of the more disheartening feelings, to give up on in the 90th minute,” Gruenebaum said.  “Especially when you feel like after surviving all that, you’re going to steal one. A result on the road against San Jose is good, but after playing that game, it’s devastating to lose the lead.”

“Losing late like that always hurts that much more,” said Gaven. (His choice of “losing” instead of “tying” says a lot about the emotion of the late equalizer, doesn’t it?) “Andy played incredible tonight. Justin scores a great goal, we’re up 1-0, and we’re playing well at that point. To come out with one point, it’s better than losing for sure, but we felt like this was one that we definitely should have won. “

Meram felt the worst for Gruenebaum and the defensive unit, who had battled so hard in the face of San Jose’s relentless attack.

“I wish we could have gotten the win out here,” Meram said. “Everyone played extremely hard today. Andy Gruenebaum was the best goalie I have ever played with, with the saves he made today. He was incredible. Our whole back line fought hard against Wondo, Lenhart and Gordon over the course of 90 minutes. It’s going to be a battle, and we fought, but we unfortunately gave up that goal in the 90th.”

MORE ABOUT GRUENEBAUM

Josh Williams: “That was a performance out of a goalkeeper that I haven’t seen maybe in my whole life.”

San Jose coach Frank Yallop: “The first 30-35 minutes, we were excellent and could have been three-nil up. Their ‘keeper was excellent and kept them in it.”

Warzycha:  “He was very good. What can I say?”

Wait, that’s it? Just “very good?”

“He did what he is supposed to do,” the coach said with a smile.

It was later apparent that Warzycha was playfully understating Gruenebaum’s performance when I spoke to him. With other reporters, he used words like “unbelievable” and “phenomenal” to describe Gruenebaum’s heroics.

GROSSMAN FOR MILO

The Crew made what appeared to be a surprising halftime substitution, yanking prized offseason acquisition Milovan Mirosevic in favor of second-year man Cole Grossman. Afterward, Warzycha explained the rationale for the move.

“Injury,” Warzycha said. “You don’t take a player off at halftime, especially as good a player as Milo is. It was a groin injury, which is why Cole came in at halftime. I think Cole did well.”

Grossman had no idea about Mirosevic’s injury when he was told to enter the game.

“I was just told to stay loose at halftime,” he said. “Then they told me I was going to start the second half. I wasn’t expecting that, to be honest, but it was fun.”

WILLIAMS AND GEHRIG FORCED TO BATTLE

As if the speed of Dawkins and the craftiness of Wondolowski weren’t enough to deal with, Williams and Gehrig found themselves in a physical battle all night long with Lenhart and Gordon.

“That brought me back to my rookie year, battling every day and taking elbows every day in the face,” Williams said of playing against Lenhart. “But it was good. I like that stuff. We were talking in the game and joking around. It was good. I like the physical play and battling around. He’s a good guy and he plays tough, man. It’s part of the game, the elbows and the little nicks here and there. At the end of the day, I think we did a decent job on him in the second half. In the first half, he got loose a couple of times. It’s all a learning experience. Me and Gehrig are still bonding, and that was a tough one.”

Lenhart, as always, enjoyed mixing it up.

“There’s never hard feelings,” he said. “We just smile and tug each other a little bit. I love someone who plays hard, so I appreciated that.”

Gehrig, meanwhile, bore the brunt of the rough stuff. He got wiped out on bad yellow-card challenges from Lenhart and Gordon, and he also sported a black eye from a Gordon elbow.

“With guys like Gordon and Lenhart, you have to match their physicality,” Gehrig said. “Otherwise, you are going to get eaten alive. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but if we get the shutout and I get elbowed in the face and kicked in the leg, then it would have been worth it. But I guess, at the end of the day, we just have to swallow it and take our point.”

PREGAME PLEASANTRIES

Lenhart spent some time pregame exchanging hugs and pleasantries with his former teammates. He and Gruenebaum had a quick conversation while hugging it out. Afterward, they posed for this photo, in which Steve kept his game face on despite Gbaum’s attempts to butter him up:

So, what exactly did they talk about?

“I told him a win bonus would go a long way toward keeping my marriage intact,” Gruenebaum said. “I use that because it pulls on the heartstrings of good guys. Steve’s a good guy, so I told him I didn’t need any goals. At least HE didn’t get one.”

“I tried to,” Lenhart said afterward, “but he’s a good goalie. He’s such a beast.”

HERE COMES THE SUN

I can’t imagine that the coin toss is more meaningful in any other MLS venue as it is at Buck Shaw Stadium. During warm-ups, I got firsthand knowledge on just how crazy the sun can be at Quakes games. If your team is defending the east goal, you will be blinded in the early stages of the match. Here are some photos taken during warm-ups. It’s hard to capture the true scope of the sun-blindness with a cell phone camera, but I tried.

Here’s a shot of Crew goalkeeper Matt Lampson warming up:

Here’s Steve Lenhart conversing during warm-ups. I was hoping the sun would stream through the fro to create crepuscular rays like on a cloudy day:

And here are two more general shots during warm-ups:

Thankfully, Crew captain Danny O’Rourke won the all-important coin toss.

(The little Earthquakes structure for the coin toss prompted my friend Rob to say, “It’s like they’re going to have prom here later.”)

As a result of O’Rourke’s coin toss win, it was Quakes goalie Jon Busch who had to don the baseball cap and stare into the sun for the first 15 minutes of the match. It would seem that the Crew squandered the advantage since they did not put a single shot on goal during this stretch, but when one considers all that Gruenebaum had to do early in the game, that coin toss win was much more important at the defensive end of the field.

By halftime, the sunset made for picture-perfect tree silhouettes at the west end of the stadium:

 
SPEAKING OF HALFTIME…

One of the peculiarities of Buck Shaw Stadium is that the teams use cramped locker rooms in the nearby basketball arena. They must make a lengthy trek to and from the soccer stadium. The good news is, after making that journey, you’re already warmed up and ready to play the second half.

Here is a photo of some of that journey. The basketball locker rooms are out of frame to the right. The benches inside the soccer stadium are well out of frame to the left. The tiny yellow things near the middle of the picture are Crew players.

MERAM MAY HAVE TURNED LEBRON’S CAREER AROUND

As of Saturday night, LeBron James was in the midst of another series of late-game funks and his heavily favored Miami Heat trailed their playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, two games to one. Upon scoring his goal, Meram celebrated by mimicking LeBron’s pregame chalk toss.

“The LeBron celebration was just to give him a little luck in his next game,” Meram explained. “I think he’s a great player and I wanted to show him a little love.”

On Sunday, LeBron put up 40 points, 18 rebounds, and 9 assists as the Heat tied the series. On Tuesday, he totaled 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists as the Heat took a 3-2 series lead.

I’m not happy about how Meram is using his powers in this instance, but if he does indeed have the ability to reverse years of predictable failure, it’s a good omen for the Crew’s Wednesday match in Seattle. Spanning all competitions, the Crew are winless against the Sounders in seven matches.

MASCOT MUPPETRY

I didn’t know this, but San Jose’s mascot is a muppet.

Questions? Comments? If the universe folded in on itself due to excessive awesomeness, think Gruenebaum could have saved Meram’s curler? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk