Sirk's Notebook: Comeback Crew

Jairo and Federico's brace, Homegrown debut and the Comeback Crew

Federico Higuain

Photo Credit: 
Jamie Sabau - Getty Images

In 2012, the New England Revolution have lost seven games by the score of 1-0. Saturday night was not one of those losses.

Behind four spectacular goals from their two recent foreign signings, the Columbus Crew erased an early two-goal deficit, reversed a potential late-game collapse, and walked off the field with a thrilling 4-3 victory.

“It was a crazy night, especially for the fans,” said Crew defender Julius James. “A game with seven goals? Americans like their high-scoring games, and that’s what they got tonight.”

Midfielder Dilly Duka felt that the score didn’t do the wild game any justice.

“I told Tony (Tchani) that the game should have been 11-10, us,” he said. “It was crazy. It was a lot of fun to play in.”

Let’s look back, shall we?

BAD START

The game should have been over before it began. The Revs easily could have put the game away in the first 20-25 minutes. They took a 2-0 lead on a deflected shot by Ryan Guy and then an empty-net, near-post bankshot by Jerry Bengston after Josh Williams kept Bengston onside a few steps behind the rest of the Crew defense. Bengston dribbled around charging goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum before slipping a shot off the post and past Williams’ hustling, sliding recovery effort.

New England had multiple opportunities to put more goals on the board against a tired and sometimes discombobulated Crew defense, but the Revs failed to convert. Still, it hardly seemed to matter. After all, the Crew hadn’t scored more than two goals in a game all season long.

(Cue ominous music….)

 
TIED UP IN A HURRY

The Crew got a lifeline from new designated player Federico Higuain in the 26th minute. The Argentine stood over a 28-yard free kick in the middle of the field. With a four-step approach, Higauin curled a hard shot into the upper right corner of the net. New England goalkeeper Matt Reis could only manage to feebly tangle himself in the side netting while in vain pursuit of the ball.

In the 32nd minute, birthday boy Jairo Arrieta leveled the score on a laser beam finish. Running on to a beautifully lobbed pass from Milovan Mirosevic, Arrieta took one controlling touch before scorching the roof of the net from ten yards away.

“My first goal was a beautiful goal because I struck it hard and it went in the right spot,” Arrieta said through interpreter Ricardo Iribarren. “It was good because it tied the game and helped the momentum of the game.”

Higuain and Arrieta had scored two spectacular goals to get the Crew back into the game. Their best was yet to come.

HIGUAIN’S SECOND

After Eddie Gaven drew his second dangerous foul in the New England end, Higuain lined up for his encore. From about 27 yards away, slightly off to the left of goal, Federico curled a shot over the wall that squeezed in between the near post and Reis’ fingertips for his second goal of the night. How inch-perfect was his shot? Sam Fahmi captured this photo as the ball crossed the goal line.

 Photo by Sam Fahmi

“When he hit the first one, I was like, ‘Wow! Sick!’” said Duka. “When he was lining up for the second one, I told myself that he might do it again. When it went in, I thought I was dreaming. It’s the first time I’ve seen something like that, live and in person. Or the first time I’ve seen one of my teammates do it. It was a lot of fun to see. “

The Crew, improbably, had a 3-2 halftime lead. I received the following text from my buddy Flick:

“This is 2008 (stuff) right here. Argies can ball.”

THE PENALTY

After largely dominating the second half, it appeared that the Crew were going to leave points on the table yet again when Julius James got whistled for bringing down New England’s Diego Fagundez. A long pass sailed over both James and Fagundez. James had his arm around Fagundez, but didn’t appear to grab him. Instead, Fagundez fell and clamped onto James’ arm, churned his legs, pushing himself forward into James like a running back trying to pick up extra yardage on his way down. But because of that arm, it didn’t look good and the whistle blew.

“From my perspective, there are a few things that happened,” said James. “I could say that I should have kept my eyes on the ball when it was in the air. I judged the ball and I thought it was already over my head, so I thought I should get back in position. I thought that instead of trying to catch up to the ball, I should catch up to the man, and make sure that I am between him and the goal. I caught up with him, and he took a pretty decent touch, but at the end of the day, I think it was a very bad call. I think it’s a little kid playing, and I haven’t even looked up his poundage or anything, but if you put a little kid up against a bigger guy, even if I touch him with my finger, he is going to move. I didn’t pull him. I don’t think I did anything to cause a penalty. He tried to back me down, so I said, ‘Okay, you are trying to back me down,’ and I backed up and gave him some space, and he just fell down. Soccer is a game of limiting your mistakes. My mistake led to a bad call by the referee.”

Oh, and while Julius didn’t look up Fagundez’s “poundage”, I did. The 17-year-old is listed at 125 pounds. Yes. One-two-five.

Anyway, Lee Nguyen converted the penalty and the Crew could have been deflated. But they weren’t.

“When they tied it 3-3, I didn’t lose faith,” said Duka. “I thought we could score one, and I think my teammates were the same way. We were attacking a lot and had a lot of opportunities, so even though they tied it up, we thought we could go up one.”

JAIRO’S WINNER

It came out of nowhere. Just a run of the mill throw-in at midfield. Three touches later, it was in the net.

Josh Williams threw the ball to Mirosevic, who headed the ball to Tony Tchani. The big fella looped a ball over the New England defense, hitting Arrieta in stride. The birthday boy opened up and rifled the ball inside the right post for the game-winner.

“I asked Josh to play me the ball, but he chose Milo who was wide open in the middle,” Tchani said. “Milo played it to me one time. I kind of checked to see if the defender was close to me so I knew if I could take a touch. When I checked, I saw Arrieta just started running, so I said to myself to put the ball into that space. It happened to be a perfect ball and we scored. It’s easy when the guy just makes those good runs. He’s not a guy who’s really, really fast. He just makes those good runs. That’s all we need.”

“The second goal was a great play by Tony,” said Arrieta. “The goalie was there, and I was lucky to put it in the right spot.”

“Those were great goals,” said Mirosevic of Arrieta’s tallies. “We have found in Jairo the goals that we needed before. He has been very useful for the team. When your forwards are scoring goals, things are working as they should. That means you are doing something good.”

Like winning.

CARDIAC CREW

The two-goal comeback and late game-winner were something new for the Crew this year. The Higuain-Arrieta combo seems to have given the Crew the spark and the confidence that they need down the stretch.

“Those guys are unreal,” said captain Chad Marshall. “In the past, we go down 2-0, and we know we’re lucky if we come back and tie it. Scoring two goals for our team was obviously tough in the past, but with those guys in form, they get us back into a game like that.”

“Great players, man,” said James. “In the MLS, it takes a year for guys to get accustomed to the pace. These guys came right in and impacted the game. I love to see it. Two very great players for the team. I am excited to see where we can go from here.”
 
For their part, Higuain and Arrieta have been quick to downplay such accolades.

“Again, this is not only a personal performance, it is a team performance,” Higuain said through Iribarren. “Jairo and everyone on the team has helped me to blend in and to feel confident on the field. The way Jairo plays, it is not only helping me, but it is helping the team to play well and to create more chances to score.”

“It’s not only the two of us, it’s the whole team,” said Arrieta. “For us to get the goals, the rest of the players have to work hard and put us in position to score. The most important thing is that if we play as a team, we are going to win.”

MORE ON HIGUAIN’S FREE KICKS

After the game, Warzycha joked about free kick practice at training.

“Those ridiculous free kicks…” he said. “I told the guys in the locker room 'I practice almost every day. You can see me doing free kicks with Justin Meram and Emilio (Renteria.) Federico, he's just sitting on the side not doing free kicks with us. Look at today, he went over the there and scores two.' (laughs) I'm like, 'Where the heck did that guy come from?' It's amazing to have talent like this.”

“After the first one, people didn’t expect him to make the second one,” said Tchani. “When he made the second one, I was shocked. I told my teammates on the bench that I don’t even want to see them taking free kicks in training. They’re taking free kicks in training all the time, and Federico never even took one, but be stepped up and scored two. So I don’t want to see anybody take free kicks in training again!”

There was dual authority on the field, but the players went with the hot hand. Err, foot.

“The two players in charge were Milo and myself,” said Higuain. “I felt confident today. In a free kick, the key is to go over the wall, because once it goes over the wall, there’s more of a chance to score. That’s what I tried to do—go over the wall.  It went over and I scored.”

“That was a great decision,” said a smiling Mirosevic. “Those were great free kicks. I’m very happy for him.”

Arrieta also had some thoughts on Higuain’s free kick prowess. He felt so strongly that he bypassed Iribarren’s translation services.

“Good! Good!”

FEDERICO FEELING THE LOVE

Higuain has been feeling the love from Crew fans. The fans chanted “Higuain! Higuain! Higuain!” and some in the Nordecke have already gone so far as to give him their highest honor: The Guillermo Bow.

“It feels great to hear the fans chanting my name,” he said. “In soccer, you play for your teammates and your club, and you try to give something back to the fans. The fans are really good. I am trying to help the team and make the fans happy.”

LAMPSON’S DEBUT

Rookie homegrown goalkeeper Matt Lampson made his MLS debut at the start of the second half when Andy Gruenebaum exited with a back injury. The Hebrew Hammer considered toughing it out, but decided it would be best for the team if he gave way to Lampson.

“We trust Matt enough,” Gruenebaum said, “so I felt comfortable saying it was probably the best decision to sit out and let Matt do his thing.”

Lampson’s only blemish, if it can be called that, was the penalty kick goal. He made two crucial saves in the dying moments to pick up his first career victory between the pipes, earning favorable reviews from his coaches and teammates in the process.

“Obviously, you want to remember your first game,” said Warzycha. “You don't want to make any mistakes. He looks like a pro, like he has a lot of experience, because he went for the ball and made a couple saves. Directing the guys in front of him, I thought he was very good.”

“I’m sure he was excited to get his first game,” said Marshall. “He may have been nervous, but his teammates have great confidence in him. I know I do. He’s a good goalkeeper. He made some crucial saves for us.”

“I think it was a great moment for him and the team,” said Mirosevic. “He behaved like he had been playing for four or five years. It was a very good start of a career for him, for sure.”

“He’s the second team goalkeeper, so guess what?” said James. “He goes against Jairo and Higuain every day. He sees these shots and plays against these guys every day. He’s a good goalkeeper.”

And Lampson also earned praise from someone who is extremely qualified to give it.

“He did good,” said injured goalkeeper William Hesmer. “He looked calm. He looked composed. He made some big saves. It’s good he got scored on so he doesn’t think it’s too easy.”

I don’t think that will be a problem.

LAMPSON ON LAMPSON

So here he was, the son of 17-year season ticket holders, a kid who grew idolizing Mac Cozier and his dreadlocks, finally playing in an MLS game for his hometown team and getting the win in goal. He had to be ecstatic. Especially since all this happened a week after he joked that he doesn’t even do anything. On Saturday, he actually did something.

“What did I really do?” he wondered, dubious of my assertion. “I mean, I got in a game. I did my job. I did what Andy teaches me to do, and I did what Scoop teaches me to do, but not very well since I got scored on.”

Oh, yes. Penalty kick goals reflect so poorly on a goalkeeper.

“Exactly,” he said. “Your save percentage is plummeting.”

Gruenebaum marveled at the tenor of the interview.

“He could have the most positive moment ever and just turn it into a negative,” said Gruenebaum.

Lampson explained his Eeyore-like outlook.

“That’s because Andy brings me down so low,” he said. “Then he claims that it’s so that he can bring me back up even higher later. He’s like Full Metal Jacket.”

Apparently Gruenebaum carries himself like a Marine Corps drill instructor every day in training. Perhaps Lampson’s unorthodox halftime debut was also a sadistic exercise designed by Gruenebaum in order to destroy and rebuild his young protégé.

“I told Andy that I was really upset with him because one of the hardest things to do is to come in cold like that,” Lampson said. “AND, I didn’t even know until about two minutes before the second half started. So I was upset with him. I told him, ‘If you’re going to be hurt during the game, why don’t you tell me beforehand, so I know?’”

Sadly this line of questioning got interrupted because I had to slap Eddie Gaven in the face. More on that later.

Anyway, Lampson ultimately summarized his first career game by saying, “I try to take my triumphs in stride. I don't want anything to go to my head or anything. I think I just did my job today and I think I did pretty well. All things considered, they kept me safe in the back. I'm happy about that. They picked me up when I got scored on. We got the win. That's most important.”

The good news for Lampson is that there will be no halftime surprise on Wednesday night. He knows going in that he will be the starting goalkeeper in Philadelphia.

MORE ON RESILIENCY

A few more quotes on the resiliency of the comeback…

Higuain: “Obviously, going down 2-0 in the first half is a tough situation. It isn’t easy. The important thing is that the team never gave up. We kept working and we kept trying. Sometimes you need some luck to score some goals, and we had that today. But I believe we helped the luck by working hard.”

Mirosevic: “We have to continue building. We made a very good effort today, but nobody likes to receive three goals. To take the positives from this, I think the way we fought when we were down makes you feel or understand that the game is not ended until the referee says. For the confidence, that is great.”

JAMES CRITICAL OF HIMSELF

Julius James was not impressed with his 50-minute stint in relief of the injured Carlos Mendes. Not only did he get whistled for a penalty after making what he felt was his own poor decision on a long ball, but he also came within inches of scoring an own-goal when his headed clearance clanged off of the goalpost. James acknowledged that it wasn’t one of his better efforts.

“It was a high-scoring game and our attack came through for us,” he said. “We need to tighten up in the back. This week, I will take a look at my performance. I would have preferred not to make those mistakes. I am not happy with my performance.”

STADIUM WORKER NOT CRITICAL OF JAMES

As James jogged off the field, sans jersey, a female stadium worker offered this assessment:

“Mmm! You look sexy as (heck) with no shirt on!”

Without breaking stride as he jogged by, and without turning back around, James politely shouted, “Thank you!”  

THE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF AWESOMENESS

After the Crew banged home a trio of fantastic goals in the span of 17 minutes, the concourses buzzed at halftime. 99.99 percent of the buzz consisted of amazement and excitement. Then there was Dan Lolli, of the Crew’s front office. He buzzed about in a work-related panic.

“We only have enough pyro for five goals,” he explained, referring to the post-goal fireworks. “I told Mark (McCullers) now that we have these guys, I’m going to need a bigger budget.”

MR. NUMBERS NERD: INSTANT OFFENSE EDITION

In the span of seven days, with the addition of Higuain, the Crew put up a goal total that surpassed every other entire MONTH of the season. Also, the four goals on Saturday night were surpassed by only one other entire month from March through July.

March: 3 goals.
April: 3 goals.
May: 7 goals.
June: 3 goals.
July: 4 goals.
August 1-15: 1 goal. (On pace for 3 for the month.)
August 19-25: 8 goals.

Wow. Just wow.

NON-BOASTFUL BLISSY

At halftime, I went around to the radio booth specifically to shake the hand of the Crew’s technical director, Brian Bliss, to congratulate him on a job well done. Both Arrieta and Higuain have been immediate game-changers for the Crew since their arrival.

“Ehhhh, you sign these guys, and some of them work out and some of them don’t,” he said.

Wait, what? That’s it? Everyone in the stadium has their jaws on the floor and that’s all Bliss has to say? Some of them work out and some of them don’t?

“Well, it’s true,” he said. “You scout and go after these guys, and you always feel good about bringing them in, but you can never really know for sure until they get here. I was excited about Sergio Herrera too, and that didn’t work out. So you never really know until they’re here.”

Fine. Be that way.

J3 ENTERS THE NICKNAME BUSINESS

Josh Williams had this to say about Arrieta and Higuain:

“The new signings, we need to figure out a nickname for them, ‘The Incredible Duo’ or something like that, because they played incredible tonight and they saved us. Four unreal goals. I don’t even know what to say about that. You shouldn’t be talking to me, you should be talking to them.”

Sitting two lockers over, Gruenebaum muttered the following assessment of Williams’ use of ‘The Incredible Duo’ as placeholder nickname or a nickname suggestion:

‘That was awful. That was a terrible effort. Shockingly bad.”

MR. NUMBERS NERD: POINTS LOST EDITION

If games ended in the 80th minute, the Crew’s record would be 13-7-4 and they would sit in third place in the East. Instead, they are 10-8-6, and trying to surge upward into a playoff spot. Saturday almost became the fifth the time that the Crew dropped points compared to their 80th minute position. Well, they did squander the lead, but they managed to take it back in the end. The Crew have yet to flip an 80th minute score in their favor, so they are a net seven points behind where they could have been. Here are the seven points that the Crew have let slip away in the final 10 minutes:

* April 21. CLB 2-2 HOU (Ching, 81’) [-2]
* May 19. SJ 1-1 CLB (Gordon, 90+’) [-2]
* July 8. MTL 2-1 CLB (Bernier, 89’) [-1]
* August 19. HOU 2-2 CLB (Moffat, 82’) [-2]

If we ditch the 80th minute metric and just go by the impact of the final goal of the game, if scored after the 80th minute, the Crew obviously picked up a huge two points on Saturday. Even though trading goals had no impact on their 80th minute position, the fact remains that Arrieta’s strike grabbed two additional points for the Crew after they had potentially slipped away. So if you look at it that way, they are down five points for the year.

Either way, hanging on against Toronto and then reclaiming the lead against the Revs were two important steps forward for this team as they make their playoff push.

BIRTHDAY BONANZA

For the second time in the same week, the Crew won on a player’s birthday. To celebrate Chad Marshall’s 28th birthday, the Crew beat Toronto 2-1 on Wednesday. Then, to celebrate Jairo Arrieta’s 29th birthday, they beat New England, 4-3.

Up next on the birthday bonanza? Dilly Duka.

“I know mine is when we play New York in New York,” he said of the Crew’s September 15th match at Red Bull Arena, which will mark his 23rd birthday. “It’s on that same day. That’s a good day because my family is out there. I just want three points. That would be a good birthday gift.”

In a soccer sense, it would be hard to top William Hesmer’s birthday gift four years ago. On November 23, 2008, on his 27th birthday, Hesmer lifted the Anschutz Trophy as the Crew won MLS Cup.

ANATOMY OF AN AWFUL INTERVIEW

Sometimes, listening to my so-called interviews is a cringe-worthy experience. I tend to babble and then hope that the players answer a far more interesting question than whatever it was that came out of my mouth. Check out this actual transcript excerpt from my talk with Chad Marshall on Saturday…

SS: “It’s a good week for birthdays, huh?”

CM: “Whose birthday is on Wednesday? If we don’t have someone, we’ll need to sign someone.”

SS:  “So Jairo went and earned his birthday points.”

CM: “What are you saying?”

SS: “Jairo went and earned his birthday three points.”

CM: “Oh really? I only defended for 87 minutes on my birthday.”

SS: “Well, I meant that he got his own game-winner on his birthday.”

CM: “Yeah, he was unbelievable. He and Federico got us back into the game. I don’t know, what are you looking for here? You’re after something.”

SS: “I don’t know either. I’m just babbling.”

Let’s see, I start off with a general comment turned into a question by clever appending “huh” to the end of it. Then I just make a comment, and that comment includes an unintentionally insulting insinuation that Jairo earned his birthday three points on Saturday and, therefore, Chad did not on Wednesday. Chad asked what I was saying, in the sense that he wanted to know what I was getting at, but I follow up by simply repeating what I had just said, again totally blind to my unintentionally poor choice of words. Then Chad answers in a way that completely underscores my thoughtless word choice. Then I explain what I meant by “earned”, followed by Chad offering a sentence or two before flat out asking me what I am looking for, at which point I have no answer.

So there you have it. A brilliant example of my “interviewing skills.” Thankfully, like everyone else in the room, Chad is a good sport in the face of such bumbling.

DANNY AND CARLOS

I had been informed that O’Rourke and Mendes were involved in a debate as to who had played more games without scoring a goal, so I broached the subject to the two of them.

“You need to look it all up and let us know,” said O’Rourke.

I was one step ahead of them. Knowing of their argument, I already had the pertinent stats scribbled down on a piece of paper. Counting Saturday, O’Rourke has appeared in 158 regular season games without scoring a goal. Mendes stands at 156.

“What up!” O’Rourke taunted as he got in Mendes’ face.

But there’s more. I advised them that although neither had scored a goal, O’Rourke had a 9-2 lead in assists.

“It makes sense that he’d have more assists,” said Mendes, alluding to the fact that O’Rourke has primarily been a midfielder while Mendes has been a central defender. This type of thoughtful analysis had no meaning to O’Rourke.

“Hey Eddie, did you hear that?” he shouted at Gaven. “Nine assists!”

He turned back to me, but spoke loud enough for Gaven to hear. “Eddie’s been in this league for 13 years and he doesn’t have nine assists, and he’s an outside midfielder!”

(Inconvenient fact: Currently in his 10th season, Gaven has 33 career assists.)

So in the end, Danny’s scoreless drought is longer and he also has more assists. Apparently, these facts still didn’t make him a winner in The Great O’Rourke-Mendes Goal Drought Debate.

“There are no winners here,” O’Rourke said.

I SLAPPED EDDIE GAVEN IN HIS FACE

I didn’t wake up Saturday morning thinking that I was going to physically assault a Crew player. Nor did I expect that he would deserve it.

As I talked to Lampson, I felt a mighty(ish) swat at my bottled water. Despite a lifetime spent watching the Cleveland Browns drop anything in their hands at the first moment of contact, I somehow managed to keep a grip on the bottle. I turned around to see Eddie Gaven spiking his own bottled water onto the floor in frustration.

Gaven is the team’s foremost practitioner of the fumble game, in which he sneaks up behind unsuspecting targets and knocks their handheld belongings onto the ground. Usually this tactic is successful, for obvious reasons. What I did not realize was that there is a penalty for failure. After spiking his own water bottle, Gaven silently stood before me with his hands held behind his back. I had no idea what was going on.

“You’re supposed to slap him in the face,” Lampson explained.

“Smack him hard,” encouraged Gruenebaum.

 “But who could want to smack Eddie?” I said.

“I would,” Gruenebaum quickly stated.

As a crowd gathered, I decided rules are rules, so I slapped Eddie in the face. I went with placement over power under the theory that Eddie’s beard was surely capable of absorbing any amount of slapping force, whereas if I slapped him hard, I was liable to come down with a debilitating case of beard-burn on my hand.

Gruenebaum couldn’t hide his disappointment.

“I really wish you would have smacked him harder.”

If there is a next time, maybe Andy will let me borrow one of his goalie gloves. Safety first.

THREE POINTS

Captain Ron, the mild-mannered assistant to blustery team ops man Tucker Walther, kindly gave me the honor of sticking the three points on the locker room’s schedule board. After such a memorable night, it truly was an honor to do so, even if it was a little crooked.

Photo by Steve Sirk

AUTOGRAPH ALLEY

As Emilio Renteria prepared to leave the locker room for Autograph Alley, Dilly Duka and Tony Tchani had a warning for him.

“Federico is going to be out there, so you’re going to be there for at least two hours,” Duka said. “There’s going to be at least a thousand people in line to get his autograph.”

“More than that,” said Tchani. “Every single person who was in the stadium tonight is going to be in line!”

“The line is going to wrap around the whole stadium,” Duka said. “You’re going to be there for at least three hours.”

Emilio remained undaunted. He just laughed and smiled, then left to go sign a gazillion autographs.

Although it was nothing like the Autograph Armageddon that Duka and Tchani described, there was another healthy turnout for Autograph Alley. It took about 75 minutes for the fans to snake their way through the line. Afterward, Lampson would describe himself as “signature drunk.” But from Federico at the front of the procession all the way to Julius James at the end, the players and fans shared a lot of smiles on a friendly capper to an amazing night at the stadium.

Photo by Arica Kress

Questions? Comments? Instead of Bend It Like Beckham, should it be Freekick It Like Federico? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk