Sirk's Notebook: North of the border edition

Pipa the Postman, Oughton wearing strange colors and a hawk guarding BMO Field

Dominic Oduro

Photo Credit: 
USA Today Sports

The 2013 Columbus Crew have succeeded at winning games on the road. They have also succeeded at beating bad teams. Playing in Toronto was right in their wheelhouse.

In Venn diagram form, Saturday’s match looked like this:

 
Source: Notebook Bureau of Hastily-Made Diagrams

True to form, behind yet another Dominic Oduro strike, the Crew defeated Toronto FC, 1-0. That game was Venn-tastic. Columbus now has three times as many road wins as home wins, while the Hapless Hosers fell to 1-16-8 in their last 25 regular season games.

DOM STRIKES AGAIN

Knowing that a win means 25% off of Papa John’s pizza, Dominic Oduro put the Crew ahead 1-0 in the 42nd minute. The goal was the result of a sublime 40-yard pass from the center line by Federico Higuain. Pipa’s pass split the defense and found Oduro in stride to the left of the goal. With his very first touch, Oduro hit the bouncing ball with the outside of his right foot and into the far side netting.

“First of all, that was a great ball by Higuain and to make that eye contact,” Oduro said. “I just tried to hold my run and then he played a beautiful ball. The goalie tried to narrow the angle, but that was my target the whole time and I placed the ball right there.”

The goal was important for the Crew, as it snapped a 267-minute scoreless streak. Also, Higuain had hit the post twice earlier in the game, so Oduro’s goal shook off any potential feelings of being snakebitten.

“That goal was so big because it was a relief for us, but then it also puts them on their heels so that they’re chasing the game,” said Justin Meram, who earned his first start of the season.  

The goal was Oduro’s team-leading fifth of the campaign, putting him two ahead of Josh Williams.

“He got another one on me,” said Williams. “I’m happy for Dom. It was a good finish. But he’s running away from me with the Golden Boot. I don’t like that. I’m going to need to get one back here soon.”

Oduro laughed at the very concept of a Golden Boot race with Williams.

“There’s no way he is coming close to me,” Oduro declared.

PIPA THE POSTMAN

Earlier in the half, it looked like Higuain was well on his way to winning himself a game of three-bar, the old game where players try to demonstrate their accuracy by hitting each post and the crossbar in as few attempts as possible. In the 18th minute, Higuain unleashed a ferocious dipping volley from 25 yards that smacked off the crossbar. Another yard back and he would have had a goal. And then in the 32nd minute, he collected a feed from Oduro and pinged one off the inside of the left post. The rebound went harmlessly across the goalmouth. He never did hit that right post.

Higuain’s postgame comment about the near-misses was absolutely Guille-esque: “They were good plays and I feel sorry that they didn’t get in, but the posts play for Toronto.”

GEHRIG LIKES TORONTO

Last March, Eric Gehrig made a last-minute emergency start in Toronto and was pretty much the best player on the field. This year, he found out much further in advance that he would be starting for the injured Chad Marshall, but for the second year in a row he was at the center of defense in a 1-0 shutout win at BMO Field.

“I like this building,” Gehrig said. “I wouldn’t say I walk in and I’m instantly comfortable, but we had a good reserve game here two years ago, and last year we had a first team game and a reserve game and won both of those, and then today we won again. So far, so good. Hopefully in my career this will continue.”

Gehrig hadn’t even been in the 18 in previous weeks, but his coach and teammates were not surprised by his performance in the shutout victory.

“Since this was his first game, I think he was a little bit shaky in the beginning, but I think as he played more and in the second half he did very well,” said Crew coach Robert Warzycha.

“A (bleeping) beast,” was the unprompted, walk-by review offered by Meram.

“He’s all heart,” goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum said. “You know the kid’s going to step in and do the job. He fits in where you can play him at so many different positions, as long as those positions are left centerback or right centerback. I just thank God this year he figured out his hair. It looks good short. I don’t know if you saw the pictures from the Portland game last year. Pretty ugly.”

Gehrig’s retort will remain off the record.

BARSON’S DEBUT

Every year, I look forward to the moment when any of the Crew’s young players makes his MLS debut. There just something special about that moment when a lifetime of hard work and dreaming about becoming a professional finally crosses over into reality. No matter what happens from there, the player is 100% official. He is in the record books forevermore.

On Saturday, Homegrown Player Chad Barson made the leap into the record book. He entered the game in the 84th minute, then helped preserve the Crew’s 1-0 lead until the final whistle.

“We put him in a spot at the end of the game and nothing happened, so it was good,” said Warzycha. “Maybe Chad wasn’t even thinking he would play today, but that is the game. We needed him and he did a very good job.”

“It was definitely exciting,” Barson said. “It just shows that you always have to be ready. You never know what’s going to happen in a game. A guy could go down in the first minute and you have to step in. You have to be sure to always have the same approach and to be ready to help the team out.”

While numerous people were excited to see Barson step on the field and make his professional debut, Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum was not among them. That’s because he hadn’t even noticed.

“I didn’t even know he came on the field,” Gruenebaum said. “I’m dead serious. I’m organizing a long throw or something, and I’m like, ‘Cha—what the? Chad?’ I had no clue that he came on the field.”

Gruenebaum liked what he saw once he finally saw Barson out there.

“He’s a solid player,” the goalkeeper said. “It was hectic. Things are always hectic at the end, but Chad is always going to battle, whether it’s 10 minutes or 90. He’s got a bright future.”

[For more on Barson’s debut and Wil Trapp’s tantalizing almost-debut, here’s a link to my article on Fox Sports Ohio: LINK ]

PIPA DO PREACH

After back-to-back home shutout losses for the Black & Gold, team captain Federico Higuain felt it was time to address the team. At last Tuesday’s practice, Higuain attempted to move the team past the disappointing homestand and to rally his teammates for Toronto week.

“Those results were disappointing, especially at home,” said Josh Williams. “This week was intense at training. We had a meeting and Pipa stepped up as our leader and set the tone. Practice was intense and everyone was positive. We kept preaching teamwork and playing together. Play together, win together, and lose together. If you play together, more times than not you will win together.

“It was exactly what we needed,” Williams continued. “We needed some kind of spark. Someone needed to do something and Pipa had perfect timing. He did what a good captain does. He brought us together and lit into us a little bit and basically said that we need to start playing as a team. He had some good things to say. A lot of it should stay with the team. That was basically the point of emphasis, though— playing as a team. It was awesome. It was exactly what we needed.”

Higuian shrugged off any praise for his inspirational speech.

“It was nothing special,” the captain said. “Just everybody is committed with the team so that we can play a role in the playoffs, which is important for the team.”

KIWI FC

Saturday’s game marked an unimaginable milestone. For the first time since being drafted in 2001, Duncan Oughton was not rooting for the Crew to win a match. It was Oughton’s first game as an assistant coach with Toronto, where he joined his longtime friend and New Zealand teammate Ryan Nelsen, who is in his first year at the helm of TFC.

One of the most touching moments of the afternoon was so quick and subtle that I would have missed it had I not been standing on the Crew’s sideline when Toronto came out for warmups. As Oughton walked onto the field in his black TFC training gear, he raised his flattened hand to his forehead and offered a quick salute toward the Crew as they went through their paces on the other end of the field. It was a classy show of respect toward his friends on the field and the team and city to which he had devoted a third of his life.

And then it was down to business. Now a member of TFC, the ever-competitive Oughton wanted to beat the Crew.

“12-and-a-half-years,” Oughton said. “It’s weird, but it is what it is. The Crew won and the result went poorly today.”

For the first team match, Nelsen had Oughton take the bird’s eye view from a booth on press row. Not only did it afford Oughton a different vantage point, but it also made his first Crew encounter less awkward.

“To be honest, it probably would have been weird if I was on the bench,” the Kiwi said. “Ryan told me to go upstairs and evaluate the game from up there and then come back in at halftime. That was good because it would have been weird, sitting on the bench and looking over. Even in the reserve game, it was weird sitting on the bench and looking over at Ricky and smiling and laughing at him because we were kicking his (butt).”

Oughton said this within earshot of Crew assistant coach Ricardo Iribarren, who coaches the Crew’s reserve team. Toronto won the reserve game by a 3-1 score.

As for adjusting to life in Toronto, Oughton said he’s had no time to think about it. He is living in a hotel and has hit the ground running, spending almost all of his waking hours learning his new club.

“It’s been a whirlwind of a week, getting in and trying to get up to speed,” he said. “Obviously, there are a lot changes happening here and the team’s still evolving. It’s been exciting and it’s been tiring. Obviously the result today doesn’t make it any easier, but now we get back to work.”

To go from a city and a club where he was a mainstay and knew seemingly everybody, Oughton is suddenly in a situation where he’s the new guy who knows virtually nobody. The Kiwi looks forward to getting to know them all.

“It’s not just the players and the coaches,” he said. “There’s the staff, because they’re in every day, and then the chef and all the workers who are such nice and accommodating people. You feel bad if you don’t remember all their names. My memory’s (crap), but I’m doing my best.”

With that first inevitably surreal Crew encounter out of the way, Oughton is looking forward to furthering his coaching career in Toronto. The organization has made a good first impression on him.

“The people here are really nice,” he said. “They’re all really helpful and the facilities are great. It’s been good. There are more sheep in Toronto than there are in Columbus.”

(Crew team operations man Tucker Walther held open a two-page magazine photo featuring dozens of sheep as Duncan and I were talking right then, so that’s where that last comment came from.)

GEHRIG VS. DUNCS

After the victory, Eric Gehrig talked about facing Oughton as an opposing coach.

“I saw him chirping on twitter,” Gehrig playfully said. “I don’t even know what he was thinking. You think he’d know by now what happens when Columbus comes to town. He tweeted something about being excited for his first game and to get three points against his first club. Well, we’ll just have to ask him how that went for him. He should have learned by now.”

But as expected, upon the conclusion of TFC’s reserve game victory, Gehrig and Oughton were all hugs and smiles.


Photo by Steve Sirk

Even an association with Toronto FC can’t make the Kiwi unlovable.

FOOD QUESTION

“Does this look kosher to you?” – Andy Gruenebaum, as the Hebrew Hammer unwrapped a mini Hershey Crackel candy bar.

THE HAWK

Late in the reserve game, I looked down and saw this….


Photo by Steve Sirk

Yes, that’s a hawk. Say hello to Bitchy!


Photo by Steve Sirk

Bitchy is a Harris hawk who scares the bejeebers out of the seagulls that attempt to overtake BMO Field. She wouldn’t actually attack or eat a seagull, but the gulls are too stupid to know any better. Even when there are hundreds of gulls.

“One hawk will do it when there’s people around too,” said Andrew, who is Bitchy’s keeper. “She stands on top of the grandstand there. They see her as a natural predator and they don’t know that she’s not going to come after them. She’s tied to a post here.”

Once the stadium emptied out after the first game, the reserve game devolved into a Hitchcockian nightmare of aggressive gulls swooping into the stands for leftover popcorn. For the few people remaining in attendance, getting pooped on by the swooping, screeching flock overhead was a constant threat. And then suddenly they were gone. Andrew had brought Bitchy back out to scare them all away, which is when I first noticed her.

Bitchy has worked at BMO Field since it opened in 2007, making her the only reliable success in TFC history. But she’s not a Toronto native.

NOTEBOOK EXTRA: MORE BITCHY BITS

“She lives normally in the southwestern United States, so she’d eat lizards, rodents, and stuff like that,” Andrew said. “She’s built for walking on cactus plants. She would live in a hollowed out cactus plant in the desert. They’re not a warm bird at all. You can see that she doesn’t have feathers down to her feet. If this was a Canadian hawk, they are built for the winter.”

But hey, a Harris hawk has to go where the jobs are. Bitchy is most famous for her BMO Field work, but she’s got plenty of other clients.

“She does other places too,” Andrew said. “Factories, buildings, and any other places that need bird control done. Some jobs are to go to a farmer’s field, and it’s not a glorious thing.”

Because, you know, watching (like a hawk!) Toronto FC lose week after week and year after year is the epitome of glory.

RANDOM TORONTO THOUGHTS / PHOTO TIME!
 
* Within my first few minutes of walking around Toronto, I encountered people on bicycles, skateboards, and rollerblades. I told Crew radio broadcaster Neil Sika that I expected to see someone on a pogo stick before we got to dinner. Alas, we did not. Nor did we see anyone on a unicycle.

* If you think Don Cherry is an outsized Canadian personality, wait until you see him on a 39-foot HD television screen inside a two-story bar.


Photo by Steve Sirk

* After dinner on Friday night, a man approached us with a refreshment proposition. “Hey, do you guys want to buy some tallboys? I’ve got two ice-cold tallboys in my backpack. $4 each. I’ll sell ‘em to you at cost.” When we declined, he bemoaned, “Oh, of course. You’d rather drink your $7 beers at the bar.” Upon figuring out that we are American, he then proceeded to talk to us in an overblown New Jersey accent. All in all, a strange encounter.

* Sika, upon taking in this scene: “Look! They’re rescuing Baby Jessica from the well!”


Photo by Steve Sirk

(I realize that joke was probably lost on everyone under 30, but whatever.)

* Seeing as we were in Toronto, it would appear that this restaurant sign was missing an “h” and a question mark.


Photo by Steve Sirk

* I am a big fan of the design of the Canadian fire exit sign. American fire exits need to add a panicky guy racing from the flames, saving himself from imminent immolation.


Photo by Steve Sirk

* I’ve figured out the allure of Toronto for Duncan.


Photo by Steve Sirk

I didn’t really look down the street, but I presume the Wellington Street Entertainment District is chock full of Vegemite sandwich carts, rugby bars, and sheep brothels.

* Crew equipment manager Rusty Wummel wanted to have lunch at Gretzky’s. Being called Gretzky’s, I assumed that the restaurant would feature some sort of reference to Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player who ever lived, Gretzky was so great that his number 99 jersey has been retired across the entire NHL. Surprisingly, despite the name and all of Gretzky’s accomplishments, the restaurant focused on other all-time greats, but not Gretzky.

For example, both doors at the entrance displayed Gordie Howe’s number 9.


Photo by Steve Sirk

And when I got my burger, they had branded a number into the bun. Shockingly, they chose Mario Lemieux’s number 66.


Photo by Steve Sirk

With a name like Gretzky’s, you’d think they’d throw a number 99 in there somewhere. Weird.

* BMO Field contains one of the best views of any stadium I have ever been in. It rivals Pittsburgh’s PNC Park as my favorite stadium view.


Photo by Steve Sirk

Alex Caulfield, the Crew’s Senior Director of Communications, told me that while he loves BMO Field’s view, it is not his favorite in MLS. “Toronto has the best man-made view,” he said, “but the view of the Wasatch Front in Salt Lake is the best view. Those mountains are beautiful.”

Yeah, I should go out there someday.

* And finally….. when you’ve never won a home game against the Columbus Crew, you have to engage in psychological gymnastics in order to delude yourself that you’re playing the Colorado Rapids instead.


Photo by Steve Sirk

Nice try, hosers.

Questions? Comments? Ever bought a $4 tallboy out of a random downtown dude’s backpack? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk