Sirk's Notebook: Homegrown Night
One of the fun things about sports is that you never know what you’re going to see on any given night. Most nights, you will experience varying degrees of excitement and/or disappointment, depending on the result and the action on the field, but every now and then, you get to witness something that feels special. There are always special events, of course, such as stadium openings or championship games, all of which have their own built-in gravitas, but I don’t mean those. I mean the chance to see something special on some otherwise random day.
These outliers can take the form of lightning strikes of brilliance. For example, I personally witnessed the eleventh 99-yard touchdown from scrimmage in NFL history, and the fourteenth unassisted triple play in MLB history. The outliers can be team-oriented rarities, such as a miracle comeback (Crew vs. Revs pitch invasion in 1996) or a record-shattering blowout (the Crew’s 6-2 loss in Seattle when Jeff Cunningham set the MLS career goal scoring record.) Sometimes you will see a jaw-dropping individual performance, such as Dante Washington’s 3-goal, 2-assist whopper against Tampa Bay in 2001. You may see something inexplicable, like the Browns losing a game because Dwayne Rudd tossed his helmet in celebration, thinking that the game was over. Or you might see something truly weird, like Eddie Gaven playing goalkeeper a week after William Hesmer scored a goal.
And apart from team allegiance, unpredictability is a big part of why we love sports, isn’t it? There’s always the chance that you might see something special. Or there’s the risk that you might miss it. One year ago today, I was supposed to attend the Cleveland Indians’ game against the Los Angeles Angels. With first pitch at noon, I decided that morning that I didn’t feel like getting out of bed and making the drive up to Cleveland. The Angels’ Ervin Santana pitched a no-hitter. It still annoys me to know that I was supposed to be there.
On Tuesday night, I was the beneficiary of a different twist. Because I missed the Crew’s 1-0 win over D.C. United on Saturday, I didn’t have a Notebook to write. And since I didn’t have a Notebook to write, I was free to attend the Crew’s friendly with Stoke City of the English Premier League. I wasn’t there to work. I just thought I’d stop by and take in an exhibition game for the fun of it. Win or lose, I had no expectations whatsoever.
And then, like everyone else in the stadium, I saw something special. Aaron Horton and Ben Speas, the Crew’s two homegrown field players, scored goals to lead the Crew to a 2-1 comeback victory. Although it’s obviously an unofficial match, it was the first goal each player scored with the big team. And it happened at Crew Stadium. Against an EPL club.
Horton is an Olentangy Orange graduate who grew up idolizing Crew scoring legend Jeff Cunningham. Speas is a Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy graduate who had the seeds of a professional soccer career sewn into his mind while watching from the Crew Stadium bleachers in 2004. They developed their games through the Crew Academy and signed homegrown deals to play for the hometown team.
And then on Tuesday night, they each shared a milestone moment, not only with each other, but with the cheering fans that they themselves used to be.
Horton tied the game in the 71st minute when Emilio Renteria chased a ball to the endline, managed to keep it in, and then cut a diagonal pass back toward Horton, who had curled his run back out to the penalty spot. Horton calmly slotted the ball into the far side of the net.
“It felt reeeeeal gooood,” Horton said with a giddy, giggly laugh. “I saw Emilio with the ball and I saw him about to cross the ball, so I just wanted to make a play on the ball. I had a feeling it was going to go where I ran to, and when it did, I just wanted to get it on goal and keep it low to give myself a chance. I hit it, and hit it well, and it went into the corner. Then I ran to the Nordecke right after that.”
One had to assume that scoring his first goal at the Nordecke end would have been his preference.
“Definitely, if I had to say,” Horton said. “I mean, I want to score on ANY side, but if I had to pick, I’d pick the side that I scored on. Me and Gehrig talked before the game that if I scored, we were going to do the jerk. I scored, so we did our dance moves. We did the jerk, and then after that, it was just a big mob.”
More smiles. More giggles. More giddiness.
“I’m on cloud nine,” he said. “I can’t lie. I’m on cloud nine. I’ve always dreamed of scoring a goal for the Crew, and on that side too, so for it to happen, it’s a dream come true. To do it against Stoke City is great.”
Speas won the match for the Crew in the 87th minute. Aaron Schoenfeld knocked down a Renteria cross, dropping it to Speas near the edge of the penalty box. Speas lasered the ball toward the far post, but it picked up a deflection and wrong-footed the helpless goalkeeper.
“I thought we kept the ball well, which is why we were able to score that goal,” Speas said. “We were moving the ball side to side. It went out to Emilio, and he whipped it in to Schoenfeld. He laid off a great ball at the top of the box. I was just trying to get forward because I knew that there wasn’t much time left. I knew that if we were going to have any chance to win, we would need to push a little. So I was at the top of the box and I struck it. I was going far post to keep it on goal, but then it deflected and went near post. It was pretty cool.”
“Any goal is great,” he continued. “It was just good to be out there. I was happy to be playing and to be out there with the guys. I thought everyone played well. It wasn’t just the goal, it was everyone. And it was fun to play against a Premier League team.”
Speas’ rookie year hasn’t gone according to plan. Sports hernia surgery caused him to miss the first half of the campaign, so it’s been a long game of catch up. The goal was a happy moment for Speas after months of rehab.
“The injury was unfortunate,” he said. “It took longer than I wanted for sure. I’ve been back for about a month now. I’ve been training and I feel like I’ve got my fitness back. I feel healthy. I don’t feel my injury at all, which is a blessing. I feel comfortable.”
HOMEGROWNS ON EACH OTHERS’ GOALS
Horton said his eyes got big on Renteria’s original cross that set up Speas’ goal.
“It was kinda funny because Aaron Schoenfeld had the assist on that one,” Horton said. “I was screaming ‘Leave it! Leave it!’ because I was coming in again, but instead he laid it off to Ben. Then Ben smashed it and I was so happy for him. I was happy for the win, and then for me and Ben to both score, it was a happy night. I’m very happy.”
More smiles. More giggles. More giddiness.
Speas seemed amused by Horton’s giddiness, and also gave a shout out to fellow homegrown player Matt Lampson. The goalkeeper didn’t allow a goal in 45 minutes of action.
“Matt did well, and Aaron finished his well,” Speas said. “It was good that both of us could score. I’m proud of him. He’s been working hard. Aaron’s got a smile almost every day. He’s pretty giddy.”
This prompted more smiles. More giggles. More giddiness.
WARZYCHA ON HORTON AND SPEAS
Crew head coach Robert Warzycha was happy for the young players, knowing that they will be a part of the future growth of the club. He also felt that they did their part to make an impression in the present time.
“I’m sure they’re going to remember this game for a long, long time,” said Crew head coach Robert Warzycha. “They got their feet wet a little bit playing against a good team. I’m sure it’s a starting point for them. They proved to themselves they can contribute to the team and play a good game and score goals.
“They are all competing on the field. If you get a chance to play, show what you can do, because in the coaches’ eyes, you need to see what players are capable of doing on the field. Aaron finished his chance well and had another opportunity with a header to score but he was in the right place at the right time. The same with Ben – I think he was good in the middle. Next time you’re going to decide the lineup you’re not going to be afraid to play them.”
JULIUS JAMES ON HORTON AND SPEAS
To say that Julius James was all smiles over Horton and Speas would be stating the obvious. James is always smiling. But some smiles are a little bit bigger. Julius’ smile was smiling.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Aaron has been training for so long without playing. If you come to practice and watch, you will see that he is always getting kicked. He’s always on the floor. We beat him up, you know? It’s not because we want to; it just happens. You do the things you normally do, but the effect on him is bigger because he’s smaller. But he’s also shifty and quick. He did really well today. I try to encourage him that the more you get kicked, the better you are. Guys are threatened by you, so they’re going to foul you. Or if you’re too quick, guys are going to foul you. You are doing something right if guys are kicking you.
“Aaron deserved his goal today. He got one in a reserve game too. He has a knack for scoring. I’m really, really happy for him. I’m happy for Ben too. He has been doing fitness every day after practice and working on himself. He’s been focused and he has been gaining the trust of the coaches. I told him that it’s tough as a rookie, and that you just have to become consistent. He’s kept his head down and he has kept working. This is just the tip of the iceberg for Ben and Aaron. They work really hard and I am really happy for both of them.”
MATT LAMPSON: GOALLESS HOMEGROWN
After Speas put the Crew up 2-1, I tweeted: “Matt Lampson is the only homegrown Crew player without a goal tonight. Step it up, Lampson!”
Rest assured that I didn’t just cowardly hide behind twitter. As he walked off the field after the game, I personally confronted Lampson, face to face, about his disappointing lack of goal scoring on the night.
“I thought about running up there and Hesmering the (crap) out of the ball,” Lampson said, referring to Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer’s legendary equalizing goal at Toronto in 2010. “But with a one-goal lead, I realized that it wouldn’t have been the best tactical decision, so I stayed back.”
Starting goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum assured me that he would have run up and Hesmered the (crap) out of the ball, but suggested that perhaps I was being too hard on Lampson for not scoring a goal.
“It was his job to keep a zero, and he did it, so it’s all good,” Gruenebaum said. “A zero on his end at least. It wasn’t a team zero because I messed that up for him. But he did a good job.”
So, wait, the fact that he was “goalless” could be applied to the other end of the field as a positive? Was not allowing a goal his position-specific version of scoring a goal?
“Yes, 100 percent,” Gruenebaum said. “I’m not going to talk any dirt about Matt tonight. I already get him enough. I’m going to let him live this time.”
McCULLERS ON THE HOMEGROWNS
Crew President and GM Mark McCullers found himself wrapped up in the same enthusiasm as everyone else in the stadium.
“I was really excited for Aaron when he scored that goal,” McCullers said. “You know how excited he is about it and you know what it means to him. He’s going to tell his grandkids someday that he scored a goal against an EPL team. I think both he and Ben are going to be good players in this league. I had a feeling about Ben tonight. I had a feeling that Ben was going to score tonight, so I was glad to see it happen.”
Apart from the players themselves, McCullers felt that it was a special night for the Crew organization as a whole.
“That’s what you want to see,” he said. “Two homegrown kids score goals and then Matt Lampson did well in goal. It’s a proud moment is what it is.”
DOUBLE DUTY JAMES
Due to first-half injuries to Josh Williams and Nemanja Vukovic, the Crew had to alter their plans to play a split-squad game. At halftime, starters Carlos Mendes and Julius James learned that they would be required to share the second half, meaning one of them would have to do something no pro soccer player ever does— re-enter a game after being subbed out. Ultimately, it was James who had to work the split shift.
“It was kind of draw-the-straws between Carlos and I to decide who was going to stay in and who was going to come off and then come back on,” James said. “Carlos was like, ‘I’m older, so I’m staying on.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, fine.’ You don’t want the older guy to get cold then have to come back on, so he got what he wanted because he’s older, and I got what I didn’t want because I am younger.”
For James, it was a totally foreign experience.
“Usually, you come out, you cool down, you stretch, and then you just chill and watch the rest of the game,” he said. “Last time I saw (re-entry) happen was in college, and that never happened to me. Either I played or I didn’t play. I wasn’t prepared for that to happen, but we had injuries on top of injuries, so you have to do what you have to do to help the team. You have to bite the bullet and pray to God that you come out of the battle with no wounds. That’s what happened, and we won the game, and that’s that.”
FOREIGN DUTY FINLAY
Rookie forward/midfielder Ethan Finlay added left back to his resume. It was that kind of night. James got extra-smiley again when asked about Finlay’s impromptu defensive performance.
“The thing about Ethan is that he is such a hard worker and he’s a good listener,” James said. “It’s easy to play with Ethan, you know? He will never give you anything less. I really much enjoyed playing with him tonight. He locked up that big guy! That big guy couldn’t do anything! It was fun. Ethan has wheels and he’s aggressive for a smaller guy. He has a bunch of bite to him. It was fun to see this little kid going [cartoon sound effect] like the roadrunner, you know?”
Postgame treatment on the go can result in some interesting fashion choices. Speas kindly let me take a photo of him sporting the “suit pant leg pulled up over the ice bag wrapped around your calf” look. His pants wouldn’t fit over the ice bag. He said he only had to wear the ice for about ten more minutes. I presume he then used it to chill that bubbly in his hand.
THE NIGHT SUMMARIZED IN A PHOTO
The message scrawled on the white board in the Crew locker room….
Questions? Comments? Still hearing Aaron Horton’s giddy giggles echoing around town? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via twitter @stevesirk