Sirk's Notebook: Late Winner... again

Meram's game winner, Intern Hesmer, Lampson meets Henry and Ale signs his socks

Justin Meram

Photo Credit: 
TheCrew.com

Time-pressed and points-stressed, the Cardiac Crew were sock-blessed as Justin Meram scored an 89th minute winner that lifted Columbus to a 1-0 victory over Chivas USA on Wednesday night. When told by the referee that he had to remove the black rubber Kirk Urso memorial wristband from his arm, Meram tucked the bracelet into his sock and then booted home the winning goal.

“I played a couple minutes already with my wristband on my arm, as I always have it on,” Meram said. “We get a corner kick and the ref looks at me and tells me I have to take it off. I wasn’t going take it off and run to the sidelines, and he kind of knew that, so he told me, like, put it in my sock or something. So I did that and literally a couple minutes later I got free and scored. Kirk was watching over me.”

As has been the case with the Crew over the last month and a half, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

THE GOAL

Meram cleaned up a nice attacking sequence from the Crew. Tony Tchani slotted a diagonal ball that beat three Chivas defenders and found Federico Higuain in stride on the left side of the box. Higuain rolled a one-time pass across the six yard box, finding the foot of a sliding Jairo Arrieta. Chivas goalie Dan Kennedy made the initial stop, but when the rebound popped into the air, Arrieta launched himself backward from a seated position, propelling the ball away from the goal and into Meram’s path. Meram bounced a left-footed half-volley into the net and ripped off his shirt in celebration.

Arrieta’s second effort and seal-like ball-bopping made for a memorable assist.

“I practiced that,” Arrieta joked through translator Ricardo Iribarren. “It was a good cross from Federico. I got on the end of the ball and tried to score. The goalkeeper made a great save and the ball was there, so I went again to try to score, but luckily the rebound went right to Justin and he made a great finish. I was trying to score. I tried to throw myself to the ball, and luckily Justin was there.”

“He’s a helluva player,” Meram said of Arrieta’s effort. “I was off-balance and just wanted to get the ball on-frame and hit it with pace. Luckily that's what happened and we came away with the win.”

ANOTHER LATE WINNER

Meram’s 89th minute goal means that each of the Crew’s last four game-winning goals have occurred in the 86th minute or later, although it snapped a streak of two consecutive game-winners scored in stoppage time.

“We might have let some people down,” quipped defender Josh Williams. “We scored the game-winner too early.”

On a more serious note, Williams has noticed the team’s confidence soar in those close and late situations.

“With this team, it seems like we’re never out of it,” he said. “I kept looking up at the scoreboard to make sure we still had enough time, and when it got to the 85th minute, I still didn’t feel worried. I just felt like we were going to get one. The beat goes on here. We keep banging late. I don’t care if it comes in the first minute or the 90th minute, as long as we’re winning, I don’t care.”

Meram said the coaches would undoubtedly prefer to not have to sweat out results until the final moments, but that’s how it’s been going of late. One thing is certain— the team has plenty of inspiration to keep fighting until the end. It’s in each player’s head, heart, and, if fate intervenes, socks.

“We’re going to battle hard for 90 minutes,” Meram said. “We have Kirk with us every day, and that’s who we’re playing for this season, and next season, and I will play my career for him.”

CLEAN SHEET

The shutout victory snapped a streak of 10 straight games in which the Crew had conceded a goal. Their last shutout had been a 1-0 victory over D.C. United on July 21. Sure, in the 2012 season, Chivas USA as a team has scored exactly as many goals as San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski has scored all by himself, but in a way, that made keeping the zero even more important. The players were happy to see a goose egg on the board.

“It feels amazing,” Williams said. “Everyone’s been making a big deal out of it, and it’s a big deal to us. Before every game, I make sure to go around and tell everyone we need a clean sheet, so to have it happen at home and to get a late goal like that, it lifts up and gives us the push we need toward the playoffs. Being a defender, the clean she\et means a lot.”

“It was definitely something we talked about and something we wanted to get back to,” said Gruenebaum, who picked up his 8th shutout of the year. “For us, keeping zeroes is the most important thing, and if you get one goal on the other end, that’s all you need. It would have been a shame to waste a shutout on a tie, especially when we needed three points. Justin’s finish was all the more important to us.”

The Crew has been a few different teams over the course of the year, and now with the final roster in place, Gruenebaum would like to see the best of both worlds.

“I think early on, we weren’t conceding many goals and we weren’t scoring many goals,” he said. “Then we had a stretch where we were scoring goals and conceding too many. Hopefully now we can get on an even keel where we are that sharp, strong defensive squad that we know we can be, with a potent offense on the other side as well. I think that is going to be the key for this playoff run.

“Having said that,” he added, “it would be nice to go into the second half with a 3-0 lead.”

GOOD PLAYS GONE BAD

Sometimes it is fun to look at the sequence of events that leads up to a goal, especially when a good play eventually backfires.  In this instance, the epoch was a play that Chivas defender Danny Califf made on his own end line. He barely saved a ball from going out for a corner kick, which prompted howls of protest from the crowd. Alas, the ruling on the field was that at least one molecule of the ball was still on the white line, so the flag stayed down and play continued.

“That’s a BIG play right there,” said Chivas USA color analyst Allen Hopkins on the California broadcast. Nobody could have known at that precise moment, but Hopkins was right for all the wrong reasons.
 
Califf played the ball to a teammate on the right sideline, and Chad Marshall won the subsequent long pass in the center circle, getting wiped out in the process by Jose Correa. (Since the ball went to Tony Tchani, the referee played advantage and issued a yellow card to Correa after the goal.) As Marshall lay on the turf behind the play, Tchani dribbled around one defender and then had an attempted through ball to Arrieta blocked. The rebound came right back to Tchani, who then dribbled to his left and found Higuain on the left side. Higuain quickly played the ball back to Tchani in the center. Tchani turned to move the ball to the right side of the field, but immediately ran into a wall of two Chivas defenders, so he spun back around, and then saw the perfect diagonal passing lane for Higuain’s run, which started the actual goal sequence.

“I was trying to go toward the goal and it was kind of crowded,” Tchani said, recapping the endeavor. “I looked to my left and I saw Federico. When I played him the ball, I opened myself to sit back. Two guys were on him, so he gave me the ball back. I saw a guy coming from my right, so I thought, ‘I have to go back to where I came from.’ I just kind of cut back, and when I cut back, I saw Federico behind the guy, so I played a through ball. I just expected Federico to be there to cross it.”

And it never would have happened if Danny Califf didn’t ever-so-barely keep that ball in play. Soccer can be a cruel game. Califf made a fantastic hustle play to prevent a dangerous corner kick opportunity, and then 24 seconds later, as an indirect result of that, the game-winning goal zipped right past his head.

MR. NUMBERS NERD: OFFSIDE EDITION

Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch has been diligently trumpeting Jairo Arrieta’s ascension to the pinnacle of the league’s offside chart. Whistled four times on Wednesday, Arrieta now has 38 offside violations in 13 games. Dwayne DeRosario and Alvaro Saborio are two behind with 36, but they have played in 26 and 28 games, respectively.

But here’s an even more amazing stat. In just 13 games, Arrieta is within two flags of equaling Jeff Cunningham’s single-season Crew record of 40 offside violations, set in 2002. Even more astonishing, Arrieta is 31.4% of the way to Cunningham’s all-time Crew career record of 121 offside calls, despite making just 6.4% of Cunningham’s career Crew appearances. (13 appearances vs. 203.)

On the bright side, Arrieta doesn’t waste chances with lazy offside violations, where he lollygags behind the play and gets caught in transition. Arrieta’s offside calls are almost always the aggressive kind, where the timing of a run is off by a split second. It’s part of his high-pressure attacking style, which has proven successful thus far. Still, he wants to reduce that number to make his attacks even more effective.

“I need to do a better job,” he said, “I need the confidence to not be so desperate to get there, and that’s the reason I am so offside so much. I am going to keep working on it. I’ve only played 13 games in this league, so I am still learning the league. I am working on it. The calls are being made and I need to improve my runs.”

A CHAT WITH LAMPSON

On Saturday night against the Red Bulls, Matt Lampson replaced Gruenebaum in goal after the Hebrew Hammer hammered his face off of the goalpost. Lampson later surrendered an incredible goal to Thierry Henry, who sent a high, bending corner kick that dipped down at the last second, hit the top of the far post, and caromed into the goal.  After the final whistle, in a perfect example of the good humor and self-deprecating deadpan that is his trademark, Lampson personally asked Henry why he made him “look like an idiot.”

As he walked off the field on Wednesday, Lampson came over and said that he undoubtedly generated a lot of material for the Notebook with his New York escapade, and, naturally, I was quite excited to pick Lampson’s brain about the matter. Here is our conversation…

SS: “So Andy smashes his face into the goalpost…”

ML: “On purpose, I might add. He did it on purpose.”

SS: “So that you would unexpectedly have to go into the game cold for the second time this year?”

ML: “That’s exactly why he did it.”

SS: “Okay, but here’s my theory. Gbaum smashes his face into the goalpost, and then I see a new goalie coming in. But I look, and I’m like, ‘Who the (bleep) is this guy? He has no beard!’ So I think the lack of beard got you. Eddie Gaven didn’t shave his beard, and he did not allow any corner kick goals in New York.”

ML: “Okay, a few things. First, I’m trying to get some sponsorship dollars from Barbasol. Unfortunately, they haven’t contacted me yet, and I don’t think that they will. Second of all, I kind of feel like…are you familiar with Sampson and Delilah in the Bible? He cuts his hair and loses all of his power. Possible. I really won’t know until I get thrown in again. I think that’s what happened though. I lost power when I shaved my pseudo-beard. It wasn’t really as full as I’d like it to be, but that’s another topic all together.”

SS: “So the beard theory is possible.”

ML: “I got scored on by the same type of goal that eight-year-olds get scored on. It’s like, ‘Yeah, they’re not tall enough to make that save, so it happens.’ But on a professional level, I’ve never really seen that before. Granted, it was against one of the best players in the world, and he hit it pretty much as perfectly as you could, but he still made me look like a jackass. I’m in great company though, because Andy has had way more embarrassing things happen to him.”  [New York goalie Danny Cepero (in)famously scored an 80-yard turf-bounce goal against Gruenebaum in 2008.]

SS: “Yeah, at least Henry isn’t a goalie.”

ML: “Henry’s not a goalie, and at least it was on our half of the field.”

SS: “You seem to be handling it in stride.”

ML: “I haven’t turned on the TV or gone on the interweb for, like, a week, because I don’t want to see or hear someone telling me how terrible I am. Unfortunately, I have people coming to me all the time in person and telling me how terrible I am. And Danny mentions every day that, allegedly—I haven’t turned on the TV—but allegedly, I was the number one top play on Sportscenter, but obviously for the wrong reasons. I’ve had about 20 other people tell me that too, so that’s great. I’m just going with the punches. I don’t even care at this point. I’m over it, but then people keep coming up to me—people like you—you keep bringing it up. But I’m past it. I’m making strides in training. I take about 10 or 20 reps of the exact same shot. Nobody hits it quite as good, but I still make sure they don’t go in the goal.”  

THE HAMMER OFFERS INSULTS / SUPPORT

Upon learning that Lampson claimed that Gruenebaum intentionally face-butted the goalpost so that Lampson would have to go in cold, the Hebrew Hammer expressed disappointed astonishment.

“Lampson’s also not the brightest kid that you or I have ever met,” he said. “That makes zero sense for me to do that on purpose. Think about how ridiculous that statement is. It just goes to show that Matt has a lot to learn. He’s a young kid who doesn’t really say the brightest things.”

But Gruenebaum was steadfast in support of Lampson, reiterating that it was a unique and improbably magnificent goal.

“It sounds bad if a goalie gives up a goal on a corner kick, but if you see it, you realize that it wasn’t a terrible goal to give up,” Gruenebaum said. “It was a class finish, and I don’t think (Henry) could do it again if he tried 50 more times. But it happened, and you move on. We can laugh about it, like the thing that happened with me. It’s one of those things where it takes a few days to get over it, but if you’re not mentally strong, you’re not going to make it at this level. I know Matt is mentally strong.”

A GOALKEEPER’S BEST FRIEND?

It is often said that the goalpost is the goalkeeper’s best friend. After Gruenebaum smashed his face off the goalpost last Saturday in New York, that could be up for debate. Lampson certainly thinks so.

“That’s an oxymoron, and it’s an urban legend, really,” Lampson said. “It’s not that we appreciate it when the ball hits the post, because most of the time when it hits the post, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, well, at least it didn’t go in.’ I mean, the posts and the crossbar really have no personality. They’re inanimate objects, so they can’t really be friends to begin with.”

But despite the visible damage that still exists on his face from his goalpost encounter, Gruenebaum still believes that he and goalposts are on good terms, continuing a historically good  29-year friendship.

“The post is my friend, trying to help me out so I can get a nose job,” Gruenebaum said. “I can make my nose smaller, and while I’m at it, I can get this thing in my chin filled in (with the leftover nose parts.) So that IS being a friend and looking out for me.”

INTERN WILLIAM

It turns out that Jardy and I were each working on a story about William Hesmer’s internship with local wealth management firm Budros, Ruhlin & Roe. Adam’s went public first, and you can read his story over at the Columbus Dispatch.

Although I was beaten to the punch, it would seem pointless to exile some of the source material to The Eternal Purgatory of Scooped Stories. Adam and I were both drawn to this story for the same reason—it’s the story of an intensely driven individual always seeking to get better, including life after athletics.

It’s all too common to read about a high-profile ex-athlete totally adrift after the applause and adulation have faded, the fortune has been squandered, and his life’s vocation has been rendered purposeless by the inevitability of physical decline. MLS players don’t live in the same isolated bubble of B.S. that houses many top athletes. For the short span that is an athlete’s career, many MLS players now do well for themselves in a real world sense, but they are they are still real world people with real world concerns. Very few are potentially set for life when they retire.

For many professional athletes, life after athletics is a concern for another day. For Hesmer, the natural downtime that comes with being a professional athlete was an ideal incubator for the next phase of his life.

“This internship came about because I was sick of wasting so much time during the day outside of soccer,” he said. “As you know, I have to always be busy doing something or improving and growing or I start to become unhappy. As you know firsthand from after winning the MLS Cup in 2008, I have a hard time staying in the moment, and for whatever reason, I always find myself trying to see around the next corner.”

On that sunny Sunday afternoon in Carson, California, Hesmer and I spoke on the field as everyone celebrated the Crew’s MLS Cup triumph. I was astounded to hear him tell me, with confetti in the air, the SoCal Nordecke rocking, teammates whooping it up, and a big shiny trophy being passed all around us, that he was a little bit sad. He knew that life marches on and that the special magic of that specific Massive Season could never be recaptured due to the inevitability of change. But that’s the thing with Hesmer—he knows he has to adapt to the inevitability of change, and as he approached 30, it led him to his internship.

“I sought out the best way possible to make as smooth of a transition as possible after soccer,” he said. “I met with a professor at Ohio State about potentially enrolling in the part-time MBA program.  With my soccer schedule, we realized that it would not work, so we discussed my interests. I told him that I enjoy finance and asset management, and would like to use those avenues to serve others. He set me up with an interview at BRR with John Schuman. John and I met with no intentions of me working at the firm, but simply as an opportunity to discuss the business with someone local. John told me during the meeting that they have an intern program that is geared for college kids, and I told him that I would love to do anything, anyway, anyhow, to be more immersed in the business. So I became a 29-year-old intern!”  

When he started his internship in March of 2011, Hesmer was entrenched as the Crew’s starting goalkeeper. Firm ground rules had to be established. The Crew came first, and he would help at BRR as time would allow, which usually meant in the post-practice afternoons when he was in town.

“At any point, if there was ever anything-- appearances, autographs, interviews, board meetings, union responsibilities, sleep, meetings, travel, food, rest, or anything else that conflicted with my ability to perform at my best on the field, then the Crew and my teammates always came first.  The people that I work for at BRR understood this going into it and they have been incredible in letting me come and go on my own schedule. They really are not only a collection of super smart individuals, but an incredibly kind group who have taken a ton of time to teach me the business.  I could go on and on about how awesome everyone in our office is.”

In his first six months, during the 2011 season, Hesmer was an office utility player with no obligations. When he could spare time to be in the office, he would help anyone with whatever work needed to be done. He’d show up, offer assistance, and walk out of the door with a completely clean slate until he could help out again

During the offseason, he was assigned to help a team that is responsible for comprehensive financial planning and wealth management for mostly high net-worth individuals. After  microfracture hip surgery sidelined him for the 2012 season, he joined a three-person team that has given him more work and responsibilities relating to the main pillars of comprehensive wealth management: estate, insurance, tax, retirement, and investment planning. Hesmer rehabs his hip for three hours every day, then spends the other five hours of his work day at the office.

 “It's been a lot of fun and has helped to keep me sane while being away from the field,” he said. “So far, so good.”
 

KIWI BROWNS FAN

The Cleveland Browns need all the help that they can get, and their worldwide support network of passionate fans has increased by one New Zealander. At long last, Duncan Oughton has made the conversion to the NFL, and he has rightfully chosen the Cleveland Browns as his team.

“This is my 12th year in Columbus, Ohio,” Oughton said of his nascent interest in America’s most popular sport. “Last year, some of my friends were asking me if I watched football. I’d say, ‘American football? No. Football football? Yes. I watch real football.’ But then they were like, ‘Choose a team. We’ll go to these bars, we’ll support our team, we’ll talk bad to people who don’t support our team,’ and it sounded like kind of a good time.”

Once he decided that American football was for him, he began the task of choosing a team. In the end, loyalty to his friends and his adopted home led him to pledge allegiance to Ohio’s traditional football team.

“A majority of these people, as well as yourself, Sirk, happen to be Browns fans,” he said. “Mario, who used to be Crew Cat, he’s a Browns fan. And Jimmy from Jimmy V’s, his place is a Browns Backer, so that’s great. John and Grant from the Hudson Street Hooligans, they’re Browns guys, and down at Ruby’s they have a little Browns establishment. So between all of those people, and Frankie’s wife being a Bengals fan and me wanting to go against her for yelling at me too many times for doing stupid stuff…yelling in a nice way, I should add…so it was like, well, I could go back to the west coast and pick the Raiders or the Chargers. Or I could have gone outside the box and been the bandwagon fan like Danny O’Rourke, and whoever won the year before, buy that shirt.

“OR….I could pick one of the worst teams in football and just have a good time, and if they ever win something, I can say, ‘Hey, I did that. I made them do that. I helped with that.’ So what better team to choose than the Cleveland Browns? I didn’t want to start with the best team and say, ‘Screw all of you, I’m a fan of the best team.’ I would rather lose by one point each week and have a lot of crap to talk about it on Monday morning. I mean, I know they’ll never play on Monday night, right? I don’t know too much about football, but I think I know this, right? I mean, national TV isn’t kind to places from Ohio…ARE they MLS?”

So did Oughton realize the full consequences of what it means to be a Browns fan before swearing his allegiance?

“I’m educated when it comes to making my choices,” he said, indicating that he is fully aware of the perpetual heartbreak and despair. “See, I look at the bright side of all of it. I can go, I can have a good time, and then it gives us a lot to gripe about on Monday morning. The positive about being a Browns fan is, not only the bonding, obviously, but also that on Monday morning, I don’t have to worry about talking poorly about everything else in my life. I’ll have enough to (complain) about with the Browns, so I won’t really feel too bad.”

Here is a picture of Duncan sporting a brown and orange Cleveland-themed t-shirt on game day before the Browns battled (and, naturally, lost to) their in-state foe, the Cincinnati Bengals.

Duncan says his wardrobe will soon be expanding.

“Homage has a long-sleeve, but I think they are making it into a regular t-shirt soon, and I as soon as they do, I am going to get it,” he said. “It’s an orange shirt, and all it says is, ‘If you ain’t a Cleveland fan, you ain’t (bleep).’ I’m looking forward to wearing that one about town on many a Sunday afternoon.”

ALE’S SOCKS

Meram’s socks stole the headlines, but after the game, there was a silly sock-related incident. Former Crew forward Alejandro Moreno, a popular Massive Champion, took great care to sign autographs and to interact with the Columbus fans. Two of those fans actually requested his game socks. Moreno untied his shoes, peeled off his socks, and signed one apiece for the lucky fans.

That had to be one of the strangest autograph requests, right?

“No, that’s not the weirdest,” Moreno said. “There have been other ones that perhaps I can’t talk about. But of the ones I can talk about, yes. Actually, one time when I was here, I left in my sliders. I was here for the last game of the 2010 season with Philadelphia, and I gave a way my jersey, my shorts, and my socks. It’s great though, because these people remember some of the things I did here, and I truly appreciate it and the relationship that we’ve had. Columbus will always be special to me.”

But seriously, asking for sweaty stinky game socks is pretty weird, right?

Moreno cracked a smile and said, “They ask for it, and I don’t ask questions. I just please people.”

As a wise man once said, do what you do.

Questions? Comments? Have a sweaty, smelly collection of autographed soccer socks that you care to share a picture of? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com