Sirk's Notebook: Cardiac Crew

Stoppage-time winners, Fabulous Federico and 2012 Fantasy Football

What in the name of The Great Guillermo is going on around here? Whether you refer to them as the Cardiac Crew, the Comeback Canaries, the Miraculous Massive, or any other superlative sobriquet, the Columbus Crew are suddenly as electrifying as an army of eels wielding tasers in a toaster-laden bathtub.

On Saturday night, the Crew capped their fourth consecutive victory with their third consecutive comeback featuring their second consecutive stoppage time game-winner, defeating the Montreal Impact, 2-1.

“What happened?” Crew midfielder Eddie Gaven wondered afterward. “Somehow we won the game at the end again. It’s very exciting. That’s the best way to describe it.”

Oh. Then forget I mentioned the taser-wielding eels.

THE COMEBACK BEGINS

Montreal entered the game on a five-game winning streak, and they took the lead in the 73rd minute when Marco Di Vaio delicately chipped a shot over a sliding Andy Gruenebaum. The goal was set up by incisive run by Sanna Nyassa, who shredded the Crew defense on the dribble before dishing the ball off to Felipe Martins, who fed Di Vaio.

Playing their 6th game in 17 days, surely that goal would deflate the exhausted Crew. Heavy legs, burning lungs, and a late deficit would definitely be an unconquerable challenge to a team running on fumes.

Or not.

In the 80th minute, Federico Higuain (who else?) came to the rescue on a set piece. After Justin Meram won a foul on the left flank, Higuain curled his free kick into the box where it found the head of (who else?) Chad Marshall. The Crew’s captain annihilated Meram in his single-minded pursuit of the ball, then buried a header just over Montreal goalkeeper Troy Perkins and just under the crossbar.

“Higuaín hit a good ball as I tried to get away from my man and link near post,” Marshall said. “I think I ran in and I bulldozed over Justin. I didn’t see it until the replay.  But I was able to get my head on it and it went over Perkins. It felt good.”

The goal was nearly identical to the goal that Higuain set up for Josh Williams on Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

“I tried to put the ball on the penalty spot,” Higuain said through assistant coach Ricardo Iribarren. “We work on that, trying to look for Chad. We did it with Josh Williams too, so we are trying to find those guys. They both went there and finished it good.”

FRIENDLY FIRE

Meram and Marshall on their collision…

Meram: “I couldn’t tell you what happened. I thought I was going to get a head on it, and then I got collapsed.”

Marshall: “I’m just looking at the ball there. I didn’t know. I hope his nose is okay.”

THE WINNER

The Crew nearly won the game in stoppage time on a Meram breakaway, but Perkins made the save and the rebound barely eluded Emilio Renteria’s follow-up. Just like in Philadelphia, when Higuain hit the crossbar in stoppage time, it seemed the like the Crew had narrowly missed their chance to claim two additional points in the standings. And then, just like in Philadelphia, they claimed them anyway.

The play started innocently enough with some deft work on the part of Danny O’Rourke. He chased down a bouncing pass in the Crew’s end of the field, and despite pressure on his back, he opted not to kick the ball into touch. Instead, he cut the ball inside and quickly turned upfield, momentarily shaking his pursuer. He then split two Impact players with a quick square pass to Nemanja Vukovic on the sideline. Little could anyone have imagined that O’Rourke’s calm ability to break pressure in his own end would yield such dividends.

Vukovic played a long ball to Higuain, whose first touch flipped the ball past World Cup champion Alessandro Nesta. Higuain spun on Nesta and chased the ball into the left channel, where he then cut back on Nesta and served a cross into the box. Emilio Renteria had been out left, but drifted into the box as Higuain collected the ball. As a result, he was in perfect position to flick Higuain’s cross into the far side of the goal for a 93rd minute game-winning goal. Higuain dropped to his knees and pointed to the sky. Renteria ran to the sideline and danced.

“I was hit a long ball,” said Higuain. “I controlled the ball and I took Nesta. When I looked up, I saw Emilio and Eddie in the box, so I placed the ball there. Of the two, I thought Emilio was in the better position, and then Emilio made a great header and scored a beautiful goal that allowed us to win the game.”

“Federico got the ball and beat the outside back,” said Renteria, also using Iribarren Translation Services, Inc. “When I saw that move, I saw that nobody was in the box, so I went there knowing that Federico would put the ball in that space because he is a great player. He made a great cross. I ran in front of the defender and flicked the ball, and I got lucky. It went in and we got the three points.”

Renteria felt that it would be unjust to merely focus on his finish.

“It’s not the work of one person,” he said. “The team has been working really hard with these too many games in a row. I scored the goal from a great assist by Federico, but it was also important that Chad scored the tying goal, which allowed us to go for the next one. Everybody works really hard to get prepared to get the three points, and that is important.”

SO, REALLY, WHAT THE HECK?

Having played so many games in so few days, the end of the match is when the Crew should be dragging themselves around the field, if they can even move at all. They should be hanging on by a thread in the waning moments, but they have scored the game-winning goal in the 86th, 95th, and 93rd minutes. It makes absolutely no friggin’ sense whatsoever.

“It can be ironic,” said Higuain, “but we don’t like giving up the first goal like we have in the past couple of games. We never give up. We always believe in the team. We work hard. Even with all of these games in a row, we are able to turn things around. It’s the confidence that we have. The coaching staff is giving us a lot of information and a lot of confidence. Also, the players are starting to believe that we can win games. We never stop fighting and we never start giving up. Luckily, we have been able to win games because of the hard work that that we put in during the game.”

“I think we have been playing until the last minute,” said head coach Robert Warzycha. “Like I said, we showed character, playing for the fans, for the club and for ourselves. I think everybody is working hard. You’re not going to be rewarded every time for the hard work, but the guys understand each other and it was just great.”

“Maybe we are playing better as a team,” said midfielder Milovan Mirosevic, “but the feeling of tiredness, of course it is there. It’s hard to warm up, it’s hard to start the game, and in the last 15 minutes it was very difficult to start running and to keep playing. Fortunately, we continue running and we didn’t stop until the end again and we scored two goals when we were supposed to be tired.”

Gruenebaum suggested that the results are feeding on themselves.

“Winning does that,” he said. “Winning helps because you don’t feel as drained. It would be nice to win a 3-0 victory where you know toward the end of the game you’re going to win. That would be nice. We’d take that. But we’ll take the wins as they come.”

Meram thinks that the squad’s depth has been helpful.

“I think we brought some fresh legs off the bench,” he said, “and you saw it tonight with Emilio and Cole (Grossman.) The coaching staff has handled this pretty good in terms of giving certain guys rest when they need it, and we haven’t been training too hard, going light, and they’ve been preparing us just the way we need to be.”

Gruenebaum also hypothesized that the key may be some sort of west coast water pollution.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m not going to fight it, that’s for sure,” said Gruenebaum. “We have a little bit of San Jose going on right now. Whatever they’ve been drinking got into our water supply. It’s unexplainable. I’m just going to roll with it.” (The San Jose Earthquakes have set an MLS record with seven game-tying or game-winning goals in stoppage time this year.)

If it’s not water pollution, is it that the players are too tired to realize that they are tired?

“That’s where I am,” said Marshall. “I’m exhausted at the end. I don’t know. It’s just that we’ve had this run of games, and they say when you’re in good form, you want the next game to come as fast as possible, and that’s what’s happening. But yeah, I have no explanation for why we are scoring these goals late. It’s nice, that’s for sure.”

Maybe Danny O’Rourke found the real source of these improbable results in the face of such an unrelentingly congested match schedule.

“Everyone’s just happy because we don’t have to train,” he joked. “The least amount of time we have to go down to Obetz, the better.”

FABULOUS FEDERICO

The two-assist performance clinched Higuain’s second consecutive MLS Player of the Week award. The Crew locker room once again served up plaudits to the newcomer who has taken his new teammates and his new club to heart.

“I’ve already marked him as league MVP,” said Gruenebaum. “It’s over. The MVP race is over.”

“He’s a fantastic player,” said Renteria. “He’s got great vision and great quality. For the forwards, we know his vision allows us to make the runs because he can assist us and put us in a situation to score. He’s a great addition.”

“He brings a lot of energy on the field and, as I’ve said before, he has that class and is capable of changing the game at any moment,” said Marshall. “You saw it tonight, two beautiful services, and we get out with three points. He’s been huge for us.”

“As you can see, Higuian’s pretty class,” said O’Rourke. “So was Emilio’s finish. He came in and worked hard. Arrieta was playing on a bum leg and he worked really hard too. We have some creativity up front. They’re guys who work hard. There’s no problem with us defending a lot as long as when we win it, we create something. I think we have that now.”

“A guy like Federico brings belief because he takes over games,” Gruenebaum added. “It’s been a real pleasure to watch him. Hopefully he continues to do that because the sky’s the limit once a team gets hot at the right time.”

The Crew’s growing confidence and sudden climb up the table is making believers in the locker room.

“Don’t count us out of it,” said Meram. “With Higuain, anything can happen.”

MR. NUMBERS NERD: ROAD STOPPAGE-TIME WINNERS EDITION

Eddie Gaven’s stoppage time winner in Philadelphia last Wednesday sent me and Matt Bernhardt scouring through our media guides. With additional support from Tucker Walther, Marco Rosa, and Rick Lawes, I can report that Gaven’s goal was the fourth tie-breaking, stoppage time, road match game-winner in Crew history. Here is the list:

6/12/2002: Edson Buddle, 101+, at New England. (2-1, OT)
9/8/2004: Tony Sanneh, 91+, at San Jose. (1-0)
4/22/2006: Kyle Martino, 96+, at Los Angeles. (1-0)
8/29/2012: Eddie Gaven, 95+, at Philadelphia. (2-1)

Robbie Rogers also scored a stoppage-time game-winner for the Crew at RFK Stadium on October 20, 2007, but it didn’t break a tie. Robbie’s goal gave the Crew a 3-1 lead, but then retroactively became the game-winner when D.C. converted a penalty kick on the final play of the game. That’s not what I was looking for. I was looking for a goal that turned one point into three points the moment the ball hit the net. At the time, Robbie’s was an insurance goal.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: HOME STOPPAGE-TIME WINNERS EDITION

Three days after Gaven’s stoppage-time winner in Philly, Renteria bagged the seventh home-game stoppage-time game-winner in Crew history. Here is the list:

3/25/2000: Robert Warzycha, 101+, vs. San Jose. (2-1, OT)
8/18/2004: Kyle Martino, 91+, vs. Kansas City. (2-1)
7/20/2005: Jamal Sutton, 92+, vs. MetroStars. (1-0)
7/25/2009: Jason Garey, 93+, vs. Toronto. (3-2)
 9/13/2009: Eddie Gaven, 91+, vs. Houston. (2-1)
5/8/2010: Robbie Rogers, 91+, vs. New England. (3-2)
9/1/2012: Emilio Renteria, 93+, vs. Montreal. (2-1)

Some other stoppage-time winner notes:

* As one might expect, Wednesday and Saturday marked the first time that the Crew scored stoppage-time winners in consecutive games.

* The Crew have accomplished the feat twice in the same season on only two other occasions: 2004 and 2009. They narrowly won the Supporters’ Shield both years, so those goals were literally trophy-winners.

* Gaven joins Kyle Martino as the only players in Crew history to score two stoppage-time tie-breaking game-winners in a Crew career. Each did it once at home and once on the road.

* This is the 13th season with stoppage time, and the Crew have broken a tie with a stoppage-time winner in eight of those seasons. They didn’t in 2001, 2003, 2007, 2008, and 2011. In retrospect, due to all of the great comebacks they had that year, it seems mind-boggling that 2008 didn’t have one.
 
MR. NUMBERS NERD: STOPPAGE-TIME EQUALIZERS EDITION

Since we’re all so focused on stoppage-time excitement, I figured I’d mention that there have only been three stoppage-time game-tying goals in Crew regular season history. Here’s the list:

5/8/2004: Ross Paule, 91+, at D.C. United. (1-1)
10/16/2010: William Hesmer, 92+, at Toronto. (2-2)
6/4/2011: Rich Balchan, 92+, at New York. (1-1)

Of course, in the playoffs, Steven Lenhart scored at 92+ to give the Crew a 1-1 draw at Kansas City on November 1, 2008. The Crew took the momentum home, defeated Kansas City in the second leg, and then beat Chicago and New York to win MLS Cup.

FANTASY FOOTBALL: THE NICE LEAGUE

We’ll start this year’s Notebook fantasy football coverage by clarifying that there are two fantasy football leagues in the Crew locker room. One is cut-throat, while the other is what I will call the nice league. It’s place where nice guys like Ethan Finlay, Aaron Horton, and Eddie Gaven, to name just three, can have fun playing fantasy football without the merciless mockery of Danny O’Rourke haunting their dreams every night.

The nice league is run by Andy Gruenebaum.

“What happened was, the initial league that we’ve been in for so long, not everyone can partake,” said Gruenebaum. “There were still people that wanted to play, so I decided to take on commissioner duties for that league and give everyone a chance to play. It’s a fun little league, and one has nothing to do with the other.”

Gbaum said the atmosphere is totally different than the main league.

“That one is more serious,” he said, “and there’s more ‘Skittles’ involved, and obviously there’s more trash-talk involved.”

Still, I can’t help but feel for these nice guys playing in the nice league. According to certain members of the locker room, every competition that Gruenebaum runs is fixed for his own financial gain. The Hebrew Hammer insists he will gain financially from the nice league, but that it will be legit.

“I try to win,” he said, “so I will take their money at the end.”

FANTASY FOOTBALL: IT’S ON

The ruthless league brings back seven participants: Cole Grossman, Chad Marshall, Danny O’Rourke, William Hesmer, Andy Gruenebaum, head athletic trainer and perennial league laughingstock Dave Lagow, and defending champion Eric Gehrig. The eighth slot, held last year by Tommy Heinemann, has been reclaimed by former league member, San Diego Charger Superfan, and all around totally stoked dude Frankie Hejduk.

“The kid is back!” said O’Rourke. “Look out, everyone! Those San Diego Chargers are moving up the draft board!”

For anyone who hasn’t been around over the years, I should preface the annual fantasy football coverage by stating that while the trash talk can sometimes be brutal, one should not mistake fantasy football ruthlessness for real-world animus. Fantasy football is its own separate world.

For example, I made the mistake of dragging Chad Marshall out of the real world and into the fantasy football world after Saturday night’s game. In the real world. the Crew just won in dramatic fashion. In the fantasy football world, I asked him if he was ready to avenge his 2011 championship loss to Eric Gehrig.

“Why do you have to bring that up?” Marshall said. “I’m on a good note right now, and then you have to bring up THAT guy. I guess if I had to say anything, it would be that I hope that Gehrig doesn’t win a game.”

So Marshall wants Gehrig to be the Cleveland Browns of fantasy football?

“No, because the Browns win occasionally,” Marshall said. “I want him to be the 2008 Detroit Lions. The year that the Lions didn’t win a game, that’s what I want Eric to be. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.”

FANTASY FOOTBALL: DANNY & DAVE

As past fantasy football coverage has shown, O’Rourke’s compulsion to win at everything extends beyond the soccer field. Fantasy football is near the top of that very long list. It seems that this year, in addition to the usual trash talk, Danny is even willing to falsify medical records and commit cranial assault in order to gain a competitive edge. The following is an actual conversation that took place with head athletic trainer Dave Lagow in the middle of my interview with Danny. Dave's weary-but-firm resistance to all of Danny's ideas amused me greatly. And his "I don't disagree" was in that placating,
I'm-not-going-argue-with-you-but-here's-why-it's-a-bad-idea sense.

DO: “Dave, I need a doctor’s note for tomorrow saying that if I make any bad picks in the fantasy draft, it’s because I have a concussion.”

DL: “No.”

DO: “I need it!”

DL: “No.”

DO: “I need it!”

DL: “I refuse.”

DO: “It’s not going to stop me from headbutting people tomorrow.”

DL: “Do not headbutt anyone at any time.”

DO: “What about Cole?”

DL: “No.”

DO: “Cole deserves it.”

DL: “No.”

DO: “Cole’s a piece of (crap.)”

DL: “I don’t disagree, but headbutting—“

DO: “—Cole has been talking (crap) all week long. Gehrig gets a headbutt too. Sorry, that’s two headbutts.”

DL: “What’s worse, your decision to headbutt people, or the vest that you’re putting on right now?”

DO: “My vest is awesome.”

DL: “I’m pretty sure I had that vest when I was ten. It was part of a suit that my mom made me wear.”

DO: “It’s my barista vest. It helps me make my coffee.”

FANTASY FOOTBALL: DRESSING UP

I missed most of the discussion, but Gruenebaum spoke to O’Rourke about dressing up for the fantasy draft. I think he meant all fancy-like. O’Rourke countered by saying, “I already am dressing up for the fantasy draft. I’m going to dress as a fantasy football champion.”

I took the open shot and said, “Oh, so you’re dressing as Gehrig?”

“Yeah, I’m going to dress as Gehrig,” O’Rourke shot back. “I’m going to shave a hole on the top of my head. That’s on the record! Put that in there! Print that!”

FANTASY FOOTBALL: POST-DRAFT REACTION

Two post-draft reaction emails hit my inbox. Let’s see what O’Rourke and Gehrig had to say.
 
Let’s start with Danny O….

Oh where to begin. Lagow redeemed himself.  Frankie drafted all QBs.  Will was a gracious, yet angry host who should’ve gotten the beatdown from the commish.  Gehrig's still hairless.  Gruenenbaum is the frontrunner for most likely to be kicked out of the league.  I drafted the only two guys I hate more than Cole Grossman.

(At press time, I have not received word on who those two guys were, although as far as I am concerned, the two most loathsome NFL players are Ben Roethlisberger and James “Head Huntin’” Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers, so I’ll take his comment at face value and assume he got Pittsburgh’s QB and defense.)

Gehrig also emailed his take on the proceedings.

I had a much better draft than last year, the year I won the title, in my first ever fantasy football campaign of my career.  That I won. Over Danny, who didn't even make the playoffs. But yes, much better draft. I'm happy with the way it went. Lots of even teams, whereas last year there were a few big guns. Danny didn't dress up as anything. In fact, his performance at the draft was rather pathetic.  And I’m not talking about his drafting, rather his behavior. Guy is a joke. I thought Lagow drafted a nice team and I predict an above the bottom finish. No last place for him this year. Gbaum and Will did well too. Their experience shows.  Frankie was making us laugh the whole time. Dude’s a straight legend. Couple odd picks by him, but I don't think his choices can ever be questioned with the way his career has gone. Chad didn’t seem too high on his draft, but the guy’s a winner. He will make a push. Cole drafted a bunch of players he likes. I hope it turns out well for him. I wish everyone well in their pursuit of a title. Actually, no, I take that back. Who am I kidding? I wish everyone well except Danny. I want nothing but a disaster for that stiff, cranky old man. I will do all I can to repeat, of course, and use my knowledge to prepare my players week in and week out to hopefully win another ring.

Eric Gehrig
Defending fantasy football champ
Egehrig@kissmy(butt)danny.com

EMILIO’S MOP

Let’s finish with something even less important than fantasy football coverage. After scoring the winning goal with his head, I couldn’t help but notice during our interview that Renteria had visible stubble on the top of his noggin. It was a small fraction of a millimeter, which is the Renteria equivalent of Ricardo Iribarren’s flowing locks.

“It was getting too expensive to shave my head every day,” Renteria explained.

Well, in that case, it sounded to me like Renteria could use some Barbasol.

He flashed that big smile of his. “Barbasol, si!”

Questions? Comments? Think they should rename The Upper 90 Club the The 90+ Club? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk