Sirk's Notebook: Kansas City

Slow start, Dilly's energy and defensive changes

Tony Tchani

Photo Credit: 
Jamie Sabau - Getty Images

The Columbus Crew have straddled the .500 mark for much of the season, and the last two home games have offered apt examples of the good and the bad. Two weeks ago, the Crew asserted themselves early, expertly finished chances for a pair of first half goals, and strangled the life out of a potent Salt Lake attack. Last Saturday against Kansas City, the Crew came out flat for the first 15 minutes, got punished for rare defensive breakdowns, and displayed an all-too-familiar lack of precision in the final third. Salt Lake got thumped 2-0 by Dr. Jekyll. Kansas City picked up three road points with a 2-0 win against Mr. Hyde.

Or is it supposed to be the other way around? Mr. Hyde is a fearsome monster, whereas Dr. Jekyll is just some friendly, sociable, middle-aged fellow. Perhaps I should think these things through before trying to use them in an article.

Anyway, on to the notes and quotes and whatnot…

DOWN EARLY

The first several minutes seemed to be a never-ending series of unforced turnovers by the Crew, to the point that I wondered on twitter if the word “trainwrecky” was an adjective.

“Right away, from the kickoff, they went into their gameplan where they were sitting in and waiting for us to make a mistake,” said goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum. “For some reason, we decided that playing through the middle was a good idea.”

The turnovers piled up, and one of those turnovers put the Crew in an early hole. In the 6th minute, Josh Williams, starting at right back, played a square ball across the field directly to Kansas City’s Kei Kamara. After advancing the ball deeper into the Crew end, Kamara squared the ball to Peterson Joseph, who then split the Crew defense with a pass into the box. Jacob Peterson ran onto the ball and one-timed it into the corner of the net to give the Sporks a 1-0 lead. Ironically, it was Williams, hustling back to defend his turnover, who kept Peterson onside by being a step behind the rest of his defenders.

“We had some mistakes, starting with me,” Williams said. “I take full responsibility for the first goal. It was a bad turnover, and then I was the last guy back. I tried to hold the line, but I held him on.”

“It was a mistake on our part,” Gruenebaum said. “Petersen made a good run through and it was a good ball. It’s a breakaway, and one that I would like to be able to save. He finished it well, but I don’t know. I’m always going to think that I should have saved the goal, so it’s frustrating.”

CONVERSIONLESS CHANCES

Kansas City is tough to break down under any circumstances, but give them a lead, and it becomes even harder. The Crew knew that they weren’t going to get many chances, so they needed to finish the ones they got. They didn’t. In the first half, Bernardo Anor ripped a long-range shot just wide, Emilio Renteria hit the outside of the net, and Justin Meram hit a great chance directly at KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. But it was in the second half that the Crew came closest to knotting the score.

In the 47th minute, Meram got on the end of Eddie Gaven cross. His header from the six-yard box clanged off the bottom of the crossbar and landed a few feet in front of the goal line.

“I made a near post run and Eddie served it,” Meram said. “They make fun of me because I am one of the worst headers in practice, but for some reason I find a way to get my head on the ball in games.”

In the 75th minute, Renteria did a great job to bring a ball down and split the KC defense at the edge of the box, but Nielsen closed him down to make a sliding save. The rebound went out to Tony Tchani, who missed the empty net by the slimmest of margins.

“You have to finish your chances when you have them,” said Crew head coach Robert Warzycha. “The header Meram had, it was great, but it hit the cross bar. It needs to be in the back of the net. Obviously, Emilio's chance, if you don't foul and get the penalty, you've got to finish it.”

Meram lamented that the Crew never got the goal they needed to break Kansas City out of their shell.

“Whenever you give a goal up early to a team on the road, they sit back and the whole dynamic of the game changes, where we can’t slow the game down at all,” he said. “We’re basically at tempo. If my header goes in, or Emilio’s chance goes in, then we’re 1-1 and the whole game changes and we have the momentum at home. The Gods weren’t on our side tonight.”

THE CLINCHER

The Sporks clinched the match in the 82nd minute thanks to another turnover gift from the Crew. This time it was left back Bernardo Anor giving the ball away to Kamara near midfield. Kamara turned on the jets, and after a lengthy dribble, found Teal Bunbury in the box for the finish.

“Once again, it was a mistake on our part,” Gruenebaum said. “They’re good. They’ll take advantage of it. It was a good ball in by Kei and a good finish. He kinda froze me with a touch. Once again, everything is happening from us. You make a mistake, and sometimes you get punished. There are going to be games where we make mistakes and don’t get punished. I’m waiting for one of those.”

“It’s a league where the team with the fewest mistakes wins,: said Williams. “Unfortunately, we made the most and they punished us. They’re a good team and we need to know that, starting with me. I thought we played well enough to win, but we need to eliminate those mistakes.”

SLOW START

The Crew have made an unpredictable habit of random bad starts. Sometimes they are disastrous, such as the first half against New York back in April. Sometimes the Crew survive the onslaught, as they did in San Jose. Saturday’s game fell in the middle. They didn’t get blown out early, but they allowed a game-altering goal.

“That really killed us to be honest with you,” said Eddie Gaven. “We didn’t come out sharp for the I-don’t-know-how-many time-th time this year. It seems like we’ve done that quite often. They were able to get a goal, and at that point, they just started to drop back and put numbers behind the ball, which made it very, very, very difficult to create chances. They ended up getting one late, but we were throwing numbers forward. It was just a very frustrating game from start to finish, really.”

“It seems like some games, we come out flying, and other games we don’t seem to have it in the beginning,” Williams said. “I don’t know if it’s we think that just because we’re at home, we can come out kind of slow.”

“I wish I had an answer for it,” Gaven said. “I really don’t. There’s been some games where we come out all right, and some where we don’t. I don’t know why. We warm up the same way. We do everything the same way.”

“I don’t know what it was today,” said Meram. “The first 15 minutes, we were just kind of complacent. All of us. In the second half, it was a whole new dynamic. Dilly came in and brought great energy for us. Giving one up early hurt us, but we had some chances. I feel like we could have gotten three points.”

DILLY’S ENERGY

Meram mentioned Dilly Duka’s energy, so here’s what Duka himself had to say about his 28 minutes of action off the bench.

“I came into the game, I think my first touches were in a pretty good area and I took it to the byline to serve it in and hopefully create something,” he said. “It worked. For some reason, on that left-hand side, I was getting the ball a lot. I had the ability to serve it and I was open. It just didn't work out. Coming in, I just wanted to bring energy and help the team out. We were down a goal, so we were throwing our numbers forward, so that's what you saw.”

DEFENSIVE CHANGES

Warzycha tinkered with the lineup in a major way on Saturday, benching both outside backs. Right back Sebastian Miranda gave way to Williams, who made his first start of the year in that position. Left back Nemanja Vukovic sat as Anor made his first career start at the position, having converted from being a midfielder.

“We weren't playing good,” Warzycha explained. “You change the lineup of the players. Obviously, you're going to play better. I think Josh and Bernardo, other than the two mistakes, they played a good game. With Bernardo against Kamara and Josh against Sapong, I think they had a good game.”

Sure, saying “except for the two mistakes” has an “other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” feel to it, since the cold reality is that mistakes by defenders tend to end up in the back of the net, but both players openly took responsibility for their errors, so the coach chose to accentuate the positives.

“It’s definitely a feeling out process,” Williams said of playing right back, “but I’ve played there before, so it’s no excuse. I’m the hardest person on myself. I try to be perfect every game. I like it out there (at right back.) I feel like I can use my athleticism. But it’s a feeling out process for both me and Bernardo. For Bernardo, it’s a completely new position, so there might be a few mistakes, but hopefully they keep sticking with us.

“It feels like any other game,” Anor said. “I was prepared for it. I have been practicing this position for a long time already. They gave me a chance tonight and I feel comfortable.”

After the game, I saw Warzycha put his arm around Anor in the tunnel and tell him he had a good game. The conversation continued well out of earshot, but it was clear that Warzycha did not want Anor beating himself up over the error that led to the final goal.

“As a coach, he is a great guy,” Anor said. “He supports me after the game even though I made that mistake at the end. I think that’s something that we appreciate a lot. Even when we were down 1-0, we were pushing and helping each other out. It’s a great group.”

Gruenebaum, who had to pick the ball out of the net after those two mistakes, stressed that nobody was down on Williams and Anor.

“We have guys that can play,” he said. “It adds another dimension. Yeah, there are going to be mistakes with new personnel, but that’s not an excuse. We need to have each other’s backs. Mistakes are going to happen. It’s how you respond to them.”

THAT OTHER DIMENSION

One of the dimensions that Williams and Anor were counted on to provide was offensive thrust. Williams is one of the most athletic players on the team, and has been an offensive threat since appearing in the lineup, and Anor is a natural midfielder. The goal was to use those to players to take a best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach to controlling Kansas City’s attack. If they are busy chasing the Crew’s defenders, they will have less energy and opportunity for doing damage at the other end of the field.

“They told me that they wanted to attack more,” said Williams. “Kansas City has a three-headed monster up top, so the more that we could make them defend, the more tired that they would get. It’s just a matter of when to go up, and when to come back.”

“We were trying to push higher and hopefully bring Kamara back,” said Anor. “He’s a physical player. A very good player who is built perfectly for this league. He is tall, strong, and fast. We had to prepare for him and all of their forwards. They did not get many good chances, so we did our job for the most part.”

OUTSIDE BACK INJURIES

One outside back suffered excruciating cramps. The other tore his ACL. And he’s the one that finished the game.

In the 63rd minute, Anor went down in a heap after an awkward tangle with Kamara. Kamara grabbed Anor’s shorts and pulled him down to the ground as he fell onto Anor’s left leg. As Anor writhed in agony, Kamara helpfully wagged his finger at Anor for allegedly faking the injury. Anor returned to the match a few minutes later and played the rest of the game.

Afterward, with a bag of knee on his ice, I asked how his knee was doing.

“I’m good,” he said. “It’s good.”

He wasn’t. And it wasn’t. An MRI confirmed that he tore his ACL and will miss the remainder of the season.

Meanwhile, Williams left the game in the 78th minute after experiencing severe cramps in both legs.

“Both calves cramped up,” he said. “It was painful. I’ve never had anything like that. It was scary at first, but then I realized it was just cramps. Luckily, Eric (Gehrig) came over and helped me out, and Dave (Lagow) came on. That was definitely painful, man.”

The human body is a funny thing. One guy’s muscles quit on him and he’s understandably done for the day, while another guy’s ACL gets torn in two and he’s none the wiser.

AT THE END OF A FRUSTRATING NIGHT

Staying on the field long after the game was over, Williams and Eric Gehrig swallowed their frustrations, put on their happy faces, and signed tons of autographs for the fans. It’s not always the easiest thing to do after a tough loss, but to Gehrig and Williams, it was a chance to thank another good crowd for standing by the team, even in a loss.

“I was one of those fans at one time,” Williams said. “As a player, I appreciate that they come out and support us, so the least we can do is maybe make their day and sign a few autographs. I know how it made my day when a player did that for me, so after every game, I try to do that.”

I joked that it was the Cleveland State guy and the Loyola-Chicago guy just trying to further the Horizon League’s good guy image.

“The Horizon League raises good guys!” Williams confirmed with a laugh.

Meanwhile, several other Crew players pulled a marathon autograph session during Autograph Alley in the tent outside the west side of the stadium. I stopped by the tent long after I was done with interviews, and the line still stretched well outside the length of the tent. Crew staff estimated that more than 400 people had queued up to meet the players, and the guys stayed until every last autographed got signed.

The result of the game was a disappointment, but it was heartening to see another good crowd and the players putting some smiles on those fans’ faces, despite the result.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: MAN vs. TEAM EDITION

Much has been made of the following goal scoring totals…

2012 Columbus Crew: 17
2012 Chris Wondolowski: 17

The fun part about that stat, if there can be a fun part about such a stat, is that one of the reasons that Wondo is not in the lead is because he got stoned on a penalty kick by….Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum.

For the record, the internal Man vs. Team all-time scoring leaders looks like this:

1. 1998 Stern John, 26.
2. 1999 Stern John, 18.
3. 1996 Brian McBride / 2012 Columbus Crew, 17
 
Thankfully, there’s still a lot of season left.

WILLIAMS AND LeBRON

We didn’t get to this last time, but I wanted to give unabashed LeBron James fanboy Josh Williams a chance to gloat over LeBron’s long-awaited NBA title, even if he had to torch his reputation, stab his hometown in the back, and form a superstar-laden dream team to get it. And to be fair, LeBron was transcendent in the playoffs. He definitely overcame his on-court demons and took his game to a legendary level. Anyway, Williams, a fellow Akronite, still ardently trumpets LeBron’s skills despite some reservations about LeBron’s character. It has been a hot topic of discussion in the locker room over the years, so I thought I would give Williams a chance to gloat on behalf of Akron.

SS:  Okay, we didn’t get to this last time, so let’s get to it now. LeBron.

JW: It’s over. Nobody can say anything from now on. He ended that discussion for me. Now nobody wants to talk about it. It’s funny.

SS: I still think he’s a piece of (doodoo).

JW: A lot of people do.

SS: Winning a championship didn’t change my feelings about him.

JW: He’s not the greatest guy in the world for what he did to Cleveland, obviously, but you can’t deny his greatness. He really stepped up. He quieted a lot of people.

SS: So who has their tail between their legs now?

JW: Cole. I’m going to go with Cole, Danny O’Rourke, Gehrig….even Eddie started rooting for the Thunder. After game one, he texted me, saying, ‘I hear the Thunder!’ I had to look at my phone three times because it was like, ‘Did Eddie really just say that to me?’ So yeah, I had to give it to Eddie a little bit too. But the guys in this locker room now respect LeBron more. ‘The King’ is what I have heard from a lot of guys.

SS: During the Toronto trip, we all discussed how you and Cole talk about LeBron more than most married couples talk about anything. How’s he been taking it?

JW: I’ve always said that he is the greatest player in the game, and Cole would always argue that he doesn’t have any rings. He’s switched sides and now says that he is the greatest player on the planet by far. He said he 100 percent meant it. He said the way he played, you can’t really deny that. He wasn’t devastated. I mean, he still thinks LeBron’s a piece of (doodoo), like you said, so that didn’t change with Cole, but he definitely has some respect for him as a player now.

SS: So you’ve got some guys turned around to your side now. What about Chad? He’s still going to say Kobe, right?

JW: Yeah, Chad’s a Kobe guy. I don’t really mix it up with Chad. He’s a lot bigger than me, so I let him have his space. I try to get little digs in here and there, but he’s really happy about that Steve Nash trade.

SS: So you were actually bursting with 330 pride when LeBron got his ring, huh?

JW: Oh man, I was smiling from ear to ear the next day. I went into the locker room ready to talk to everybody, but nobody wanted to talk about it anymore.

SS: I sort of get the Akron pride thing, but on the other hand, I don’t recall anyone wanting to throw a parade when, say, (Cleveland native) Charles Oakley won an NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls.

JW: Are we comparing Charles Oakley to LeBron? Is that where this is going? Is that really where this is going? I don’t know what to say to that. At the end of the day, I just think that it’s the coolest thing ever that the best athlete on earth right now is from Akron. As far as him being a good person, there a lot of stories that he’s not a good person, but he’s still a lot of fun to watch on the basketball court.

[NOTE: I totally whiffed on the Charles Oakley thing. He was traded to the Knicks a couple of years before the Bulls won their first title. I guess I should have gone with other Clevelanders like Eric Riley, who won a ring with the 1994 Houston Rockets, or James Posey, who won a ring with the 2008 Boston Celtics. Then again, if Josh was incredulous over the Charles Oakley comparison, one could only imagine how he might have reacted to Riley or Posey. The way the Crew are going, he probably would have herniated several discs is his back from convulsively laughing at my idiocy. The next time you see a healthy, upright Josh Williams running around on the field, be thankful that I possess shoddy, less-than-encyclopedic basketball knowledge.]

A FAREWELL TO DAVE

Longtime Crew PR man Dave Stephany is leaving the club to pursue a new opportunity with Time Warner Cable News & Local Programming. I have been working with Dave since the summer of 2000, so it’s hard for me to imagine that the next time I step into the Crew Stadium press box, he will not be there. (His last game is this Saturday, but I will not be at the game.)

I could thank Dave for a lot of things, but for the purposes of this space, I will simply thank him for his existence. If you have enjoyed any Notebooks during the past five seasons, or if you have enjoyed the book A Massive Season, just know that none of it would have existed without Dave Stephany. After the 2007 season, I was pretty much out of gas. I was swamped at work, I was burned out on the Notebook (which was then being published elsewhere), and I wanted to take a breather and then maybe write about something else. Dave called me up and asked if I would be interested in rejoining TheCrew.com and suggested that we have lunch to discuss it. I only went because I like Dave and it was an excuse for us to have an expense account lunch. I had no intention of saying yes. But over the course of that lunch, his enthusiasm was so contagious that I found myself agreeing to rejoin TheCrew.com and to produce another season’s worth of Notebooks. And I was very angry with myself. And I was secretly angry at Dave for roping me into it.

I finally confessed this to him as we stood in champagne puddles on November 23, 2008.

I have had so many priceless experiences over the past five seasons, and I have enjoyed working with so many personable and entertaining players, staff members, and colleagues, that it sometimes make me shiver to think how close I was to walking away.

So thank you, Dave. A most Massive thank you.

Questions? Comments? Confused as to whether it’s Jacob Peterson and Peterson Joseph, or Joseph Peterson and Peterson Jacob? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk