Sirk's Notebook Blissful Debut Edition

Steve Sirk chronicles Brian Bliss' first match as Interim Head Coach

Brian Bliss

Photo Credit: 
USA Today Sports Images

Four days after losing to 10-man Seattle, the Columbus Crew defeated 11-man Houston. In between, the club parted ways with 5th-year head coach and 18th-year Crew legend Robert Warzycha, replacing him on an interim basis with Technical Director Brian Bliss. The win added to a series of Blissy firsts. In his first game as a Crew player, Columbus defeated D.C. United 4-0 in the club’s inaugural game on April 13, 1996. In his first game as the team’s Technical Director, the Crew defeated Toronto FC, 2-0, to open the 2008 season. And now, in his first game as coach, Bliss got another 2-0 victory. That means Bliss is 3-0-0 with 8 goals for and zero goals against in his first game at a new position in the Crew organization. With just about every game being a must-win if the Crew have any hope of making the playoffs, perhaps they should give Bliss a new job before every game from here on out.

Anyway, on to some notes, quotes, and various events from Wednesday’s game…

FINLEY FINDS THE NET

After surviving three Houston breakaways in the first 11 minutes (more on that later), the Crew took a 1-0 in the opening moments of the second half. Ryan Finley scored his first professional goal in the 47th minute, and it was the very embodiment of Bliss’s desire to get up the field quickly. Bernardo won a second ball near midfield and dropped it off to Tony Tchani, who then advance the ball and gave it Finley. The rookie laid if off to Berardo Anor, and the Venezuelan lofted a pass to Justin Meram, who came streaming in from the left side. Meram then played the ball across the goal mouth to Finley, who popped it into the roof of the net.

I was late getting to Finley after the game, and I mentioned he had probably told the story of his goal three or four times already.

“I don’t mind talking about it,” he assured me.

Yeah, probably not. So let’s do this. Again.

“Justin played a great ball across,” he said. “Justin had a really good game tonight. He played it across and I was lucky enough to finish it off. If felt great and it’s something I will remember for the rest of my life.”

What then followed was a sprint to the Nordecke and something like a Lambeau Leap, except not as leap-y. After a partial hop and some climbing, Finley was dragged into the Nordecke.

“It’s not exactly planned for a Lambeau Leap over there, but I was just happy not to get any beer poured on me,” Finley said. “That’s all I could smell when I got over there. But honestly, the fans have been great all season and they deserved that. They deserved to have the team come out and play the way we did tonight and get three points.”

TCHANI TCHUCKS ASIDE MOFFAT

In the build-up to Finley’s goal, Tchani sent Houston’s Adam Moffat to the turf with a well-timed bump. It was two big boys banging in the middle of the field. It wasn’t so much that Moffat bounced off of Tchani as Tchani saw to it that Moffat wouldn’t take the ball away.

“I was just waiting for him because I knew if I took one more touch and he would be there and he might slide tackle,” Tchani explained. “So I checked for him and let him get close and then got him out of my way and then got the ball to Ryan Finley.”

Moffat felt the “got him out of my way” part was probably a foul.

“I’ll have to see it again,” said the Massive Champion who hails from Scotland. “I thought I got a hip check a little bit from Tony Tchani, but I didn’t see it after that. I was on the ground, my hip was too sore. I don’t know exactly what happened there, I didn’t see the rest of the play. I thought the ref could have called that, but sometimes the decisions don’t go your way and maybe it wasn’t (a hip check.) That’s my biased opinion. It’s disappointing to lose that goal so early in the second half. Goals change games and that changed that one.”

The fact that Tchani could bump off a tough customer like Moffat came as no surprise to Meram.

“You don’t want to mess with Tony in training,” Meram said. “That’s all I’ve got to say.”

THE PENALTY

In the 50th minute, Dominic Oduro drew a penalty kick. Finley and Oduro each made a claim for the PK honors, but it was Finley who stepped to the spot. Just three minutes after scoring his first MLS goal, the rookie tried to double his pleasure. Instead, Houston’s Tally Hall saved Finley’s low, hard drive right up the middle. Going up the middle like that, it usually requires elevation or a change of pace. Finley struck it hard and low, so Hall didn’t really have a chance to fully launch off to one side.

“You have to tip your cap to Tally Hall,” Finley said. “He’s a great goalie and he already covers like three fourths of the net. I thought I struck it well. A little higher and it’s in. He made a good save. I wish I could have it back, but what are you gonna do?”

It was Bliss who made the call for Finley to take the penalty.

“I take responsibility for it,” he said. “It was my call. Can I replay that and say ‘Dom can you take it?’ I can’t do that anymore, but we were resilient enough to come back and get that second goal afterwards.”

Bliss later elaborated on the decision.

“I know Dom wanted it too,” he said. “The way I saw it, Finley just scored his first goal a couple minutes ago, he’s fired up, he’s feeling good about himself, and his confidence is sky high. That’s why I picked him. I thought he was feeling it. It didn’t work out, but I chose to go with the hot hand.”

MARSHALL ALMOST SCORES

After the missed penalty, the Crew continued to press for that crucial second goal. In the 57th minute, Chad Marshall appeared to score on a vintage corner kick header, but it was cleared off the line by Kofi Sarkodie.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever score another goal,” he said. “It would have been cool. I was tracking it to the far post, but of course, some really athletic guy heads it out. That’s life.”

MERAM DOUBLES THE LEAD

The Crew finally got that vital second goal in the 74th minute. It started with a long diagonal floor pass from Tony Tchani to Ethan Finlay. Once in the box, Finlay laid it off for Dominic Oduro, who cut a diagonal ball back toward the penalty spot. Ryan Finley tried to shoot, but mostly whiffed, although he got a slight touch that directed the ball to Meram. Once in control of the ball, Meram went to his left and unleashed a low drive through traffic and into the far side netting.

“Right place, right time,” Meram said. “I was going to my right probably the whole game, so it was time to change it up and go to my left. I feel good shooting the ball with my left. Fortunately it went in and didn’t hit a foot this time.”

Both goals were the result of the Crew quickly advancing the ball up the field. So were some near misses, like Meram’s shot off the crossbar and the shot by Oduro that was cleared off the line. That’s the type of attacking play that Bliss wanted to see.

“I was pleased with it,” he said. “We went to goal quickly on three or four occasions, Justin couldn’t buy a goal until he finally did get the one, and those were all off of plays that happened, bang-bang-bang type of stuff, rather than some long methodical drawn out build up. And I’ve said it to these guys from day one—it’s a phrase of mine and they’re going to hear it again—it’s a running man’s game, and these guys ran tonight. They ran and they ran and that’s why they won the game.”

GEHRIG’S REBOUND

Making his first start since June 5, Eric Gehrig had an 11-minute nightmare to open the game. In the very first minute, Chad Marshall lost a header and then, as the last defender, Gehrig lost a second-ball challenge with Houston forward Will Bruin. Bruin dribbled around Crew goalkeeper Matt Lampson and rolled the ball toward the empty net, where it was cleared away at the last second by a rapidly recovering Chad Barson. In the third minute, Gehrig was beaten on a flighted ball over the top, but Bruin’s second breakaway resulted in a shot fired left of the goal. In the 11th minute, Bruin spun around Gehrig for this third breakaway of the game. That time, he pulled his shot wide of the right post.

The Dynamo could have been up 3-0, and Gehrig was the beaten man on all three plays. It was difficult to watch for Gehrig’s sake, like watching a gymnast fall off of the balance beam three times and then still having to complete the routine as if nothing had happened. After all, there were 79 minutes yet to play.

The difference between the gymnast and Gehrig is that the gymnast would have no chance of winning after falling down three times. The Crew, on the other hand, were still level. Gehrig had caused a few anxious moments, but no absolutely damage on the scoreboard.

“Mama mia!” Bliss said when asked about his reaction to the opening minutes of the game. “I probably said worse on the sideline, but you get the gist. But Chad Barson knocked it off the line, right? And then I think they had another chance similar to that one two, three, four minutes later. I think we dodged a bullet; the guy pulled it wide. Those were big plays—big non-plays on their part—and it kept us in the game.”

Sometimes it’s folly to extrapolate an athlete’s performance into personal virtue, but in this case, the shoe fits. Anyone who has spent any time around Gehrig can tell you that he’s a positive guy who will bust his butt to do whatever he can to make the team better. He strives to lift his teammates’ spirits and build their confidence. Yet here he was having an absolute shocker that could have mentally destroyed him or his teammates. But what happened instead is that he got some support, kept a positive attitude, and then played a terrific 79 minutes to close out the game. After those first 11 minutes, such resiliency is astounding, and it turned the whole frightful episode into an unfortunate-yet-revealing demonstration of the guy’s character.

“It was his first game in a while, so I’m sure that adrenaline was flowing and he had some butterflies,” Marshall said. “After that, he composed himself, which is a testament to him. He was a beast after those first ten minutes.”

“For 80 minutes, he pulled himself together,” Bliss said. “He was good for the remaining part of that first half and he was very good in the second half. Credit to him that he didn’t cave. It could have cost us, but it didn’t. He dodged the bullet and he was stronger for it. I said before the game, ‘We can’t change the past, but we can influence what happens today.’ It carries on to other levels. You can only influence the next play.”

That was exactly the message that Marshall conveyed to Gehrig on the field, when the picker-upper desperately needed a pick-me-up.

“I was just trying to give him some encouragement,” Marshall said. “You know, just, ‘Hey. Next play. Nothing happened, so let’s just focus on the next one.’”

Gehrig, as expected, was unflinchingly forthright while standing at his locker.

“Listen, I’m better than that,” he said. “Whether it was confidence or whether it was nerves, I don’t know, but I acknowledge those first ten minutes weren’t good enough. Thank God I settled down. Maybe it’s about tweaking something in my pregame routine. Whatever it is, it’s my job to do it so I can do a better job from the start.”

FLYING FINLAY

Making his first start since May of 2012, Ethan Finlay was, in a word, relentless. He matched up with Dynamo speedster Corey Ashe until they both ran themselves ragged. Ashe subbed out in the 63rd minute. Finlay came off in the 81st.

“I’ll tell you what, Ethan Finlay, that kid did everything we asked of him tonight,” Bliss said.

“We gave him an assignment. We said, ‘You better occupy Corey Ashe. If he runs forward, you run with him. If we have the ball, you take him on a run.’ He occupied him, and then Ashe had to come out of the game. Ethan was everywhere. The energy level was tremendous. He did exactly what we asked him to do. He made some plays too, but the energy level on Ashe is what we were looking for.”

Finlay deflected talk of his own hustle, saying he was just one of many.

“It was a great team performance today,” he said. “You saw that hustle right from the first minute with Barson’s save off of the line. Those types of plays, whether they got in because of our mistake or a good combination, those types of hustle plays make a difference in the end. I think Barson made a lot of hustle plays. The whole back line did. So did the guys in the midfield and the guy up top. You saw the tremendous pressure we put on them, which created some chances. That’s the type of intensity that we have to bring to every game for the rest of the season. We need to play that high tempo and we need to play physical.”

TCHANI & CHAD

Bliss had positive words for the play of Tony Tchani and Chad Marshall. Tchani was an emergency 39th minute substitute when Wil Trapp tweaked his knee, and Marshall anchored the back line in the shutout.

“I haven’t seen [Tchani] play like that in a Crew uniform since I’ve been here, since he’s been here,” Bliss said. “Refreshing, dominant, needed, and applauded. And by the way, Chad Marshall, if [Jurgen] Klinsmann is listening, I’d put Chad up against any of the center backs on the National Team with that kind of a performance. Now Chad has to bring it like that week to week, but I’ll tell you what, those other guys who play in the back don’t have much on Chad if he plays like he does.”

Marshall took the compliment in stride.

“Okay,” he said. After a brief pause, he added, “That’s nice to hear.”

Tchani felt that Bliss gave him and the team the positivity needed to succeed.

“The coach gave us confidence, the way he talked to us,” Tchani said. “It wasn’t easy and the past two trainings were very hard, but he told us to give your personality. He said you are all going to make mistakes, but just make sure they don’t happen again and again and again. It’s confidence. It’s just confidence. I think you will see that most of the guys are confident.”

Gehrig agreed.

“I think we had the mentality that Bliss has instilled in us,” he said. “We had more aggression and more conviction. We had more confidence, and I think that was exhibited in our play tonight.”

With only two days to work with the team, Bliss felt that the team’s mentality was the one thing he could truly impact in that little window.

“I mean, there’s not a lot you can do on the tactical side of things in a short amount of time,” Bliss said. “It’s built up over time. But what I think what Mike [Lapper] and myself were trying to get across was the mentality’s got to change, and you can influence the mentality. You can’t necessarily influence the tactics so much in a short amount of time. I think the guys had the right frame of mind. Very resilient.”

CARRY THE FLAG 

As he walked off the field, a smiling Eric Gehrig proudly carried a black and yellow checkered flag that had been given to him by the Nordecke (Photo by Sam Fahmi). It got knocked out his hands while signing autographs at the entrance to the tunnel, but it was later seen resting against the wall in the Crew’s locker room. Equipment manager Rusty Wummel then packed it up for Obetz, where it will hang inside the team’s practice facility. Gehrig appreciated the gift.

“It’s been a long time between my injury and then being out of favor or whatever, but the fans have always been there for me personally along the way,” he said. “You asked me how I bounced back from those first ten minutes, well, they helped too. I heard them pushing us on and pushing me on.”  

BLISSY’S MEMORABLE MOMENT

When Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch asked Bliss what moment he will remember most about his first game as the Crew’s coach, Bliss responded with a crack about his in-game sideline interview with Fox Sports Ohio sideline reporter Ashleigh Ignelzi.

“Ashleigh’s interview in the 63rd minute was fumblerooskie,” he said. “It wasn’t very good on my end. You can’t watch the game at the same time and try to answer a question. That’s what I’ll remember.”

The best part of the interview was that when Ignelzi sent it back up to the booth, she noted that Bliss was a true professional who spit out his gum before the interview. After a brief pause, color commentator Chris Doran dryly responded, “The things you learn…”

Between Bliss describing it as a “fumblerooski”, Ashleigh adding an amusing detail, and Doran’s pitch-perfect response, that was well done on everyone’s part.

MY MEMORABLE MOMENT

Sometimes it’s the questions you don’t ask. Wednesday’s game marked the first Crew match since June of 1996 in which Robert Warzycha was not an official member of the Crew in either a playing or coaching capacity. In the 81st minute, in his first game as interim coach in the place of Warzycha, Bliss subbed Konrad Warzycha into the game. Konrad is Robert’s son and he wears his father’s number. When the applause came down from the stands, it was an unexpectedly touching moment.

If Bliss made the move simply as a tribute to Robert, it detracts from Konrad’s contribution as a player. If Bliss made a soccer-based decision simply because Konrad was the right player to see out the 2-0 victory, it detracts from the idea of Bliss playing tribute to his friend, teammate, and colleague. The third and likeliest option, of course, is that Konrad was the right player to enter the game and it doubled as a serendipitous tribute to Robert.

But I think some moments shouldn’t be spoiled with questions, so I didn’t ask. For both father and son, I just want to remember that in Brian Bliss’s first game as interim coach following the dismissal of Robert Warzycha after 18 seasons of combined service as a player and a coach, “Warzycha 19” ran onto the field to the cheers of the crowd.

THE ONLY KC MATCH PREVIEW YOU NEED

“It will be nice to go in there and punch the bully in the nose.” – Bliss.

Questions? Comments? Experience Bliss bliss on Wednesday? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk