Sirk's Notebook: Tail End of the Season

TheCrew.com's Steve Sirk documents the final match of 2013

Josh Williams

Photo Credit: 
USA Today Sports Images

Now in its 14th season, Sirk’s Notebook is an independently-written feature that often focuses on the irreverent side of the Crew experience. A local fixture, it has appeared on TheCrew.com from 2000-2003 and 2008-present. Any opinions expressed in Sirk’s Notebook are not necessarily the views of the Columbus Crew organization. Especially when he makes fun of other teams.

A week before the season finale, the Columbus Crew and New England Revolution played a 3-2 thriller in Foxborough that Crew midfielder Wil Trapp described as “100 miles per hour.” On Sunday, the Crew and Revs spent a lot of time in rush hour traffic, rubbernecking at various collisions that slowed the flow to a bumper to bumper logjam. New England emerged victorious, 1-0, and clinched a berth in the 2013 MLS Cup playoffs.

“The game was very sporadic, choppy, in terms of the flow,” said Crew interim coach Brian Bliss. “There was no rhythm. Between guys getting injured, guys laying down on the field, them doing what they needed to do in terms of eating up the clock, there was no rhythm to the game unfortunately. That’s just the way it was. It was their game plan and it worked and I can’t fault them for that.”

The Crew came in to the game hoping to turn the season-ending home-and-home with the Revs into a case of mutually assured destruction. New England eliminated the Crew the previous weekend, and Columbus could have done likewise to the Revs with a win or a tie. It didn’t happen.

“After losing to them last week, we didn’t want them to get in on our backs,” Trapp said. “It was a pride thing, so today we came out and we worked hard, but sometimes working hard isn’t going to win you the game. You also need to score goals, but that didn’t happen today.”

THE GOAL

New England scored the only goal of the game in the 28th minute. Juan Agudelo posted up Tyson Wahl at the edge of the 18-yard box and then back-heeled the ball through Wahl’s legs to hit Lee Nguyen in stride as he raced into the box. Agudelo then spun off of Wahl to receive the return pass. His quick shot perfectly split a diving Andy Gruenebaum and a sliding Josh Williams.

“It was a little bit of a breakdown and then a couple of passes,” Gruenebaum said. “[Nguyen] could have shot, but he laid it back off. I tried to get across and I didn’t get there and I think Josh dove into me. It just wasn’t going to happen.”

SECOND HALF

If you asked me to sum up the second half in 30 words, those words would be as follows:

Cross, clear, cross, clear, injury stoppage, cross, clear, injury stoppage, cross, clear, cross, clear, cross clear, cross, clear, injury stoppage, cross, clear, cross, clear, injury stoppage, cross, clear, cross clear, final whistle.

Bliss said the monotonous second half routine was out of necessity, not design.

“I’m not a big fan of everything being old school, end line, whip in the box,” he said. “That’s not how I like to see the game played, but at the end, that’s what they were giving us and we had to go with that. I like to move the ball and play it through combinations, but it was very compacted in the middle of the field, it was tough to get a combination off, to get in behind them, and that’s what we had to resort to. I’m not saying it’s the best way to play, but that moment we have to take what’s given to us, and the flanks were there to be taken.”

Bliss hoped that the Crew’s size advantage may have come into play, but it did not. Trapp agreed that the second half was a frustrating exercise in pumping balls in and waiting to get a bounce in the congested New England penalty area.

“When you’re down a goal, you have to push numbers forward and hope for something to fall,” Trapp said. “We went to three in the back, which was a smart move, but we couldn’t generate enough and we couldn’t finish. It’s frustrating, but that’s how you have to go about it to get the goal back.”

The weekend before, the Crew were twice able to erase one-goal deficits at New England. On Sunday, not so much.

“It always comes down to what you can get done in the last 30 (yards) or the final third,” Bliss said. “Last week, we were quicker, sharper, more active, I guess, but today, as much as we were in their end, in terms of the possession and crossed balls, we weren’t as sharp and weren’t as alert and we came up short.”

GRUENEBAM RETURNS / WILL HE?

Andy Gruenebaum returned to the starting lineup for the first time since July 27. A shoulder injury initially sidelined him and then Bliss was reluctant to tinker with the success the team was having under Matt Lampson. In the season finale, Gruenebaum got a chance to do his thing.

“I felt good,” he said. “Obviously the result sucked, but it was fun to be out there.”

Gruenebaum is now out of contract, so there is a possibility that it could have been his last game for Columbus, but the Hebrew Hammer is hopeful that he will be with the Crew for years to come.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We’ve never wavered in the fact that we consider Columbus home. It’s an unbelievable place to play, with great fans. We’ve made no secret of our love for Columbus, so whatever will be will be, but hopefully it will all work out.”

It will be a strange contract negotiation. After years of serving as the backup, Gruenebaum had a break-out year as the starter in 2012, but his injury in 2013 allowed his understudy, Lampson, a chance to shine. With next year's coaching situation still unclear, it’s impossible to know which goalkeeper would have the upper hand for 2014. That train of thought might have an impact on the contract negotiations, but on the playing field, this predicament of having two starting-caliber goalkeepers for one spot would be nothing new for Gruenebaum. He worked under those conditions for years with William Hesmer. Like his previous relationship with Hesmer, Gruenebaum said he has forged a friendship with Lampson based on mutually-supportive competition.

“You’re competing, but you have to have a working relationship because it makes things that much more pleasant in training,” Gruenebaum said. “I’ve been in situations where not a word is spoken, and it’s not ideal. At the end of the day, only one of us can play, but it doesn’t mean that you have to hold some sort of grudge. You just have to keep working and hope that you can show that you should be the number one and can hold the position. We both obviously want to play, and contractually, it’s obviously a weird situation at the moment, but I can’t worry about that. I’ve got to just put my head down and work and get back to the weight room and just get after it.”

Gruenebaum has been impressed by Lampson’s professional growth, as evidenced by his string of late-season performances.

“I think this league is all about confidence, and when you play games, that’s how you get it,” he said. “He’s been getting games and he’s confident. It’s not always going to be roses and there’s always going to be adversity, but at the same time, you’re definitely seeing confidence in him. You want to see him grow and you want to see him do well, but obviously we’re competing, so that means I have to put my head down and work even harder to do my thing, and then whatever the coaches decide, I’m always going to be helpful and be a good teammate. That’s the way I was raised and that’s what I know. Matt and I have a good relationship where we can compete and be friends as well.”

With the dismissal of goalkeeping coach Scoop Stanisic over Labor Day weekend, Gruenebaum used his injury downtime to serve as the de facto goalkeeping coach, working with Lampson, Dan Withrow, and league pool goalkeeper Brad Stuver. Gruenebaum had fun with it, but he isn’t ready to jump professions just yet.

“I enjoy the coaching aspect, but I’ve got years left in the legs and I want to play for a couple years before I even think about that,” he said. “But it was fun. You need that. That’s part of the environment. If you have good coaching and you have a good training session day in and day out, that’s what goalkeeping is. At the end of the day, that’s what you need. You never want to see anybody lose their job, but I’d like to think I stepped in and did a pretty good job.”

Speaking of which…

MR. NUMBERS NERD: BLISS EDITION

The playoffs were all but an impossibility when Bliss took over, and now we know in hindsight that it would have taken seven wins in eight games to catapult the Crew into playoff position. The fact that the Crew strung the drama along until the penultimate game was a feat unto itself.

In his postgame comments, Bliss was asked about his results. “You always want to win more games than you lose,” he said. “Four and four maybe gets you into the playoffs if you go .500 all year.”

The Crew averaged 1.5 points per game under Bliss. That rate would have been good enough for the playoffs and could have put the Crew as high as third in the conference, depending on tie-breakers.

Back when Bliss was first hired, Larry Johnson from Massive Report and I discussed how interesting it would be to see how much improvement Bliss could wrangle out of a team that been struggling all summer. Across many different metrics, it turns out that the results were substantial.

Points per game: +33.9% (1.50 vs. 1.12)

Goals scored per game: +45.5% (1.63 vs. 1.12)

Goals allowed per game: -2.2% (1.38 vs. 1.35)

Goal differential: +0.48 goals per game. (+0.25 vs. -0.23)

So the team saw a major bump in points per game, while scoring significantly more goals and allowing almost negligibly more goals, resulting in a net turnaround of almost half of a goal per game. The Crew’s +0.25 goal differential per game under Bliss translates to +8.5 over the course of a full season. Only six MLS teams bettered that mark, and they were the top three finishers in each conference.

To give these statistical turnarounds a little more context, consider that the Crew faced significantly more difficult opposition in the final eight games than they did in the first 26 games. Seven of the eight games were against teams with winning records. The league had three comically inept punching bags this season, and all six of the Crew’s games against D.C. United, Toronto FC, and Chivas USA were in the books before Bliss took the helm. The Crew took 15 points out of those six games (2.50 per game) and scored 12 goals while surrendering just three.

If you remove the patsies, a group from which the Crew were three minutes away from sweeping all 18 points, the Crew’s numbers look like this from the other 20 pre-Bliss games:

Points per game: 0.70 (3-12-5, for 14 points)

Goals per game: 0.85

Goals allowed per game: 1.60

Goal differential per game: -0.75

Some might say that excluding the patsies is just fiddling with numbers because Bliss didn’t face Supporters’ Shield-winning New York or Western Conference topping Portland, for example. But here’s the thing—it makes for an almost perfect comparison. Using a weighted average of opponents points per game, Bliss faced opponents who averaged 1.51 points per game in 2013, whereas that mark was 1.35 before Bliss. That means Bliss faced competition that was 11.9% tougher, so the improvements under his tenure should take that into account. Facing 11.9% tougher competition, the team increased points per game by 33.9%, and so on. If we remove the six patsy games, the weighted opponents points per game is 1.54 pre-Bliss, nearly identical to the 1.51 Bliss faced.

So this is how Bliss shakes out against the 20 non-patsy games prior to his appointment:

Points per game: +114.3% (1.5 vs. 0.7)

Goals per game: +91.8% (1.63 vs. 0.85)

Goals allowed per game: +13.80% (1.38 vs. 1.60)

Goal differential: +1.15 goals per game (+0.25 vs. -0.90)

With the patsies removed, the Crew astronomically improved on every single metric based on a weighted non-patsy opposition that was only 1.95% easier. And even if you consider the smaller sample size, the Crew already attained one more victory in eight non-patsy games under Bliss than they had in the previous 20 non-patsy games.

And all of these results were obtained with only three healthy games from the team’s MVP, Federico Higuain. Bliss went 3-1-0 with Higuain in the lineup, and 1-3-0 without Pipa. (And the loss with Higuain was the game in which he was limited by his injury.)

I’m not privy to the interview process or the grand designs and all of that stuff, so I don’t know where Bliss rightfully stands compared to the other candidates. But if coaching is a results based business, I’d say that Bliss put up some good results and enormous improvements under difficult circumstances.

Was it enough to earn a permanent appointment to the head coaching position? If the stated timetable holds up, we should find out in the next few weeks. The Crew are determined to be thorough in their coaching search, so if Bliss does get the job, it won’t be a knee-jerk interim-to-permanent appointment. He will have to be deemed the best of the available candidates. That process is still ongoing, so now we wait.

While we’re all waiting, Bliss was asked to assess his chances.

“I can’t determine that,” he said. “I know what I did, I know how I view the game, I know how I feel the game should be played, I know what needs to happen in training every day in order to get to that result, I still believe in those methods, those views of the game, and I’ll leave that to the others who are making the decision whether that is good enough to make a cultural change and an impact in that area. That’s not for me to determine. I’d say I’m biased. I think I got us on the right track, but that’s for others to determine.”

The players said they definitely felt the culture change of which Bliss spoke.

“I think that obviously the last few results haven’t been ideal,” said Andy Gruenebaum, “and we all know this is a results-based business, but at the same time, the culture has changed in terms of everybody’s mentality.”

“We fought our heart out for Brian,” Josh Williams said. “I hope he knows that. He came in and gave us energy. We said we wanted to fight for him, and unfortunately we came out on the wrong end towards the end of the year. Going into the offseason, it is an uneasy feeling because nobody knows what is going to happen. I think it was important that we left it on the field, and showed everyone coming in that we fought our hearts out.”

SKATER DUDE

One would think that the safest assumption in the world is that Frankie couldn’t possibly be any more Frankie than he has already proven to be during his tenure as the Crew’s brand ambassador. As it turns out, that is not the case, On Sunday, Frankie Hejduk took himself to new levels of Frankie-ness by skateboarding around Crew Stadium while waving a big Crew flag and pumping up the crowd.

“There’s a first for everything,” Hejduk said. “We have the first soccer-specific stadium, so why not have the first stadium that has a brand ambassador skateboarding around with Crew flags?”

So, wait…now Frankie is the first soccer-specific skateboarder?

“Exactly!”

It turns out that the skateboarding scheme had practical origins that go beyond Frankie being Frankie, although he then took it to the appropriate level of Frankie-ness.

“It came about because I often have to go from one side of the stadium to the other, and sometimes it takes me 30-45 minutes, depending on the day,” he explained, “It can take a long time depending on seeing people, signing autographs, taking pictures, and all of that stuff. I love doing that and I can’t say no. Whatever they want. This is our family, dude, so if a member of your family asks you to take a photo, you want to stop and take it. But I also have a job to do, sometimes, every now and then. To get to where I need to be at a specific time on game day can be difficult. I came up with the idea that riding my skateboard would get me around the stadium quicker. It was originally thought of as a way to cruise around to where I need to be, but then I thought, ‘Why not carry a flag around and support the team, dude?’ That’s how it evolved. I think you’re going to see it many more times in the future. I think we’re a club that does the first of a lot of things, so this was the first time we had a brand ambassador cruising around the stadium on a skateboard with a Crew flag.”

If Frankie weren’t real, I don’t know that I could make him up.

WHAT A MEMORABLE YEAR

An ownership change, a coaching change; a scoreboard fire; Higuain’s ridiculous chip-shot goals in back to back weeks; everything about Dominic Oduro (speed, goals, pizza, hair, twitter, etc); a starting lineup featuring six Ohioans; terrible season-ending injuries to Eddie Gaven and Glauber; those wins over first-place teams; those drubbings of terrible teams except for that back-breaking late-game loss in Toronto; Gruenebaum’s preposterous save in D.C. against Dwayne De Rosario; the emergence of longtime academy wunderkind Wil Trapp and fellow academy product Chad Barson; the inexplicable troubles while playing 11v10; first career goals for Ben Speas, Ryan Finley, and Aaron Schoenfeld; the summer swoon; the songwriting of Sloan & the Keepers; the lightning delay vs. Seattle; the departure of Duncan Oughton to Toronto; Dos A Cero, Part Tres, and the #TifoSweat “HOME” banner; Eric Gehrig winning the Kirk Urso Heart Award; the search for Kyle Hyland’s tooth;  the crowds returning to Crew Stadium; the trip to Medieval Times that started it all…   

Even though the Crew missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, 2013 was certainly a memorable year. I had fun bumbling around like I always do in an effort to give all of you something (hopefully) fun to read. I can only do so much, so a lot of the credit, as always, has to go to the players, coaches, team staff, and front office staff, who year after year assist me in doing whatever it is that I do. Especially the players. None of this happens without their willingness to open up, share their insights and personalities, and patiently respond to poorly-formed and un-thought-out questions, both face-to-face and via emails/calls/texts. For the 14th season in a row, “Sirk’s Notebook” has been the beneficiary of a great locker room.

Also, a special shout out to Crew communications gurus Alex Caulfield and Tim Miller. Like the players heading into 2014, I also faced the uncertainty of a changing of the guard heading into 2013. Luckily for me, Alex and Tim continued to trust me with my longstanding yet unorthodox role, and they were a great help whenever I had questions or needed assistance with anything. I also learned quite a lot from them this year, as they have provided a fresh perspective to their positions. It’s been a pleasure.

And, of course, thanks to you for reading. You haven’t heard the last of me for 2013. I should probably take this opportunity to remind everyone that my second book—“Kirk Urso: Forever Massive”—should be available before the end of the year. It’s gone a little slower than I anticipated when I first started the project last fall, but that’s because I keep getting more awesome stuff to put in it. This past week alone will result in two new pieces even though I was “done writing” a couple of weeks ago. The book is going to clock in just north of 300 pages and will feature the thoughts and memories of Kirk’s 2012 Crew teammates, coaches, and staff. They all did a great job capturing the friendly, determined, and funny spirit that made Kirk such a beloved member of the team. The book will also be chock full of photos and artwork, with well over 100 images in all. Kirk’s family made many special contributions as well, bringing us all even closer to Kirk. Working on this book has been an illuminating labor of love, and all proceeds will go to the Kirk Urso Memorial Fund. I hope you will check it out, not only to raise money for a great cause, but also to better understand, as I now do, why Kirk Urso and his legacy remain such a vital part of the Columbus Crew.

Until then, it’s playoff time. The Crew aren’t in it, but then again, neither are Chicago, Toronto, or D.C. United. At least we’ve all got that going for us. Misery loves company, and what perfectly miserable company it is.

We can now look forward to the first full season of the Anthony Precourt era. Let the countdown to Crewsmas begin!

Questions? Comments? Know if I jumped the gun and we’re still in stoppage time? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk