Sirk's Notebook: Fire extinguisher edition
An eight-game winless streak. The Chicago Fire. With a 2-0 victory on Saturday night, the Columbus Crew extinguished two terrible blights that have irritated all of Crewmanity.
Notes, quotes and weirdness from a wonderful night at Crew Stadium…
What’s a guy to do for an encore after winning the MLS Player of the Week Award for a two-goal, one-assist performance in Portland? And after being the subject of a Columbus Dispatch profile on game day morning that featured glowing comments from Crew royalty Brian McBride, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and Frankie Hejduk?
For Federico Higuain, the answer was to put the game away early by delivering two Crew goals via wonderfully-weighted passes behind the Chicago defense.
The Crew took the lead in the 10th minute when Higuain split four defenders to hit Ethan Finlay in stride. Making his first start of the season, Finlay converted his breakaway opportunity by dribbling around Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson and then hitting the far side netting from the tightest of angles near the end line.
“I’m the type of player who likes to check in and then get behind,” Finlay said. “When you have a world-class player like Pipa who can measure a ball to the inch, it’s fantastic. I made a slight movement and saw that Cochrane was going to be out of position so I just went. Pipa, being the player that he is, saw it and he could have played that ball with his eyes closed. It was so perfect. Honestly, when I first took my touch, I thought it was going to be a tough angle. I haven’t seen the replay to know if I should have gone inside on (Johnson), but when he came out I knew I was definitely going to round him. It was a good touch and an even better finish.”
In the 25th minute, Higuain played another perfect pass that allowed Jairo Arrieta to muscle past Patrick Ianni for yet another breakaway. Arrieta put the ball through Johnson’s legs to double the Crew’s advantage. It was the dagger that effectively ended the game.
The Fire were left to lament Pipa’s wizardry.
“He’s pretty close to the best in the League,” said Fire coach Frank Yallop. “He sees the game well. He sees the game how it should be looked at.”
“Higuain is a class player,” Johnson said. “He’s been doing it all season. We’ve got to do a better job of being aware of the kind of things he likes to do. He’s a crafty player; very good on the ball. It’s not any surprise to us that Higuain is capable of threading those passes and putting himself in those spots. It’s just up to us to deal with those things better.”
Running out a back line featuring precisely zero opening day defensive starters, the Crew posted their first shutout since the season opener. The back line of Chad Barson, Tyson Wahl, Eric Gehrig and regular midfielder Hector Jimenez played a big role in blanking the Fire.
“Chicago hasn’t been shut-out yet this season,” said Crew Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. “I think that speaks for itself. The guys did it with determination. Guys like Eric, Tyson, Hector...I mean, I thought Chad Barson was great as well with his defensive responsibilities.”
With three World Cup related absences from the starting lineup, Gehrig said the back line knew what was at stake.
“There is pressure,” he said. “We hadn’t won in two months, they’re a high-scoring team and we were missing our regulars in the back. There’s going to be pressure and you’re going to feel pressure, but these are the opportunities you have to take and run with. The guys did a good job. I don’t mean just the back four, but Steve and the rest of the team too. It’s a good win.”
Although he didn’t have to make his usual dazzling array of flashy saves, Berhalter was impressed with goalkeeper Steve Clark’s performance.
“Steve Clark was very secure today,” Berhalter said. “On crosses, he didn’t give up any rebounds today and that’s what you want from a goalkeeper.”
From Clark’s point of view, the shutout was the result of both process and performance.
“A lot of the guys stepped in and the back line played fantastic,” he said. “We did the little things really well, and when you do that, you get shutouts.”
For a stretch, the defense had no margin for error when the team wasn’t scoring goals. In Portland, the team scored goals, but also leaked goals. Finally, the mix was just right.
“It’s a long season and there are ebbs and flows,” Clark said. “Right now, we’ve got a lot of goals going, which is great. It was important to get the shutout so that we know that we can do it. It’s been a while for us, but for me and my game, it’s about the process. I need to make sure that my mentality is right every single minute of the game, and if you give up a goal, you do, and if you don’t, that’s great. So we continue on.”
There was hardly a soul in Crewville who expected Michael Parkhurst to be in uniform for this match. The Crew’s captain had been named to the USA’s provisional 30-man roster for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The roster wasn’t required to be trimmed to 23 until June 2, and many expected Parkhurst to be on the plane to Brazil.
The cuts came early, and in a week where the stunning exclusion of Landon Donovan made all the headlines, Parkhurst had to face down the reality that his likely last shot at realizing his dream of playing in the World Cup had been extinguished. Playing in the World Cup is the dream of every soccer player, so to come so tantalizingly close had to be difficult, especially when many thought the odds were in his favor.
After receiving the news, Parkhurst tweeted that he had no regrets because he knew he gave his best and made it as hard as possible for the coaches, but the reality is that it hurt. He wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. Nobody in their right mind would have criticized Parkhurst if he sat out the weekend to regroup mentally, but he wanted to play. Berhalter put him in the 18, but didn’t want to risk injury with a start considering Parkhurst’s training schedule and red-eye, cross-country flight.
Apart from the unfortunate fact that the situation even existed in the first place, the events could not have lined up more beautifully. The reconfigured backline was pitching a shutout, Parkhurst was not put an undue risk for 90 minutes, and then he got to sub on in the 87th minute. That’s when it happened. The fans greeted Parkhurst with a standing ovation, then the whole stadium—from the Nordecke to the club seats to the nosebleeds—began chanting “MICH-AEL PARK-HURST!” It was the high-decibel equivalent of 15,290 hugs.
“I think the fans were spectacular to give him that ovation and really cheer him on,” Berhalter said. “He’s been through a lot these last couple of days and it’s nice for him to feel that everyone supports him. It’s the team, the fans and the community supports him.”
The moment wasn’t lost on Parkhurst’s Crew teammates.
“He deserves all of that,” said Josh Williams. “I hope he knows what we think of him as a person and a player. He’s an even better person than player, and that’s saying a lot. We’re all in shock. I even told him I thought he was a 100% lock, so when the news came out, we were all shocked. We feel bad for him, but he handled it like the professional that he is when he came back. It was good to see the fans recognize that and give him the ovation that he got.”
“From the second he got here, I could see that Michael is a first-class person,” Gehrig added. “He’s obviously an exceptional player too. It’s been that way since we first signed him and that hasn’t changed. Obviously, we feel for him, and we saw tonight that the fans feel for him, so I’m sure he appreciated that.”
“It was a really nice ovation when I came on the field and I heard everybody,” Parkhurst said. “I was really appreciative of that and the support that everyone has given me here.”
For Parkhurst, getting back to work with the Crew is the best way to move past his personal disappointment.
“You have to bounce back and be professional,” he said. “Now my whole purpose is the Crew.”
Naturally, Parkhurst was the first major target of the postgame media scrum. As goalkeeper Steve Clark walked to his locker, he marveled at the dozen or so reporters crammed around Parkhurst, noting aloud that the defender only played six minutes, yet was still the focus of the media’s attention.
Parkhust laughed and briefly interrupted his interview to offer Clark the following aside: “It was a solid six, though, Steve.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone associated with the Crew in any capacity who isn’t delighted by Ethan Finlay’s recent goal scoring emergence. From his coaches and teammates to the front office, they will describe him as a joy to work with.
In his rookie year, not only did he have to learn the professional game, but he also had to face the sudden and tragic passing of his longtime friend and teammate Kirk Urso. (Upon scoring on Saturday, Finlay raced to the Nordecke and made a 1-5 signal with his hands, honoring Urso, who wore number 15 with the Crew.)
In his second year, Finlay tore it up in preseason and in reserve games, but the goal scoring did not translate to the first-team level. In July, he had a surefire first goal miraculously tipped over the bar by Portland’s Donovan Ricketts. Alas, he went into his second offseason with the O’Rourke-ian total of zero goals.
Now in his third year, the goals are coming. In a bit of karmic retribution, Finlay scored his first career goal against Ricketts in Portland, when his shot to the far post picked up a deflection and caromed inside the near post. Finlay was finally on the scoresheet and he and Ricketts were even. Then on Saturday, Finlay scored his second MLS goal in as many weeks. This time he dribbled around the goalkeeper and buried a shot from an extremely tight angle. It was a goal that exuded confidence.
“He was excellent,” Berhalter said of Finlay’s performance. “This game isn’t something that comes out of the blue. If we look at what he’s been doing these last couple of weeks, he’s been leading up to this. I’m most happy with the fact that he was a guy that isn’t a starter, he works his way to the 18, he works his way to the starting lineup, then he performs like this. You can see the progression and he makes other guys believe there’s a chance. He makes other guys believe that if they work hard and train hard that they will get an opportunity.”
Teammate Eric Gehrig said Finlay’s movement up the ranks and recent success is well deserved.
“He’s one of those guys who puts his head down and works every day,” Gehrig said. “Obviously everyone wants to play and it’s not easy to work that hard every day if you’re not playing, but Ethan’s one of those guys who brings it every day, has a good attitude and works his butt off. I’m a big fan of hard work and I think that stuff pays off, and you’re seeing that now with Ethan. He’s finding some confidence and making some great decisions in front of the goal. He’s getting rewarded and it’s nice to see.”
As for Finlay himself, he’s happy to be contributing and describes scoring goals for the first team as an unbelievable feeling, but he still sees plenty of room for improvement.
“I had a pretty good game, but I still personally think it could have been better,” he said. “I had a couple where I wasn’t sharp enough playing the ball to Arrieta. There were some plays where we could have taken the pressure off the defense by putting a couple more away.”
As the teams took the field, the following poem wrote itself inside my brain…
Chicago is red
Yellow’s the Crew
Wait, what the (bleep)?
Why’s this white vs. blue?
Well, I at least understand why the Crew broke from tradition. Since the game was dubbed Military Appreciation Night, the Crew wore their white jerseys because it enabled them to add camouflage numbers. The Crew auctioned off the special jerseys, raising over $11,000 for USO of Central & Southern Ohio and Fisher House of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Barring a jersey clash or a charitable endeavor, the Fire have no good reason to wear blue. Ever.
Cleveland sports fans are abuzz after a series of recent draft-related success on the North Coast. First, the Browns used one of their two first-round selections to acquire quarterback Johnny Manziel, aka Johnny Football. Then the Cleveland Cavaliers, despite having just a 1.7% chance, managed to win the number one pick in the NBA’s draft lottery. As a Northeast Ohioan, is Josh Williams pumped or what?
“How can you not be?” Williams said. “Is there a draft for the Lake Erie Monsters? I’d be excited for that. We’re on a roll.”
Yes, Josh is so psyched up that he is now conceptualizing minor league hockey drafts. It’s an exciting time in Cleveland.
“Not much good has happened for the city since LeBron left, so there has to be a buzz, right?” he said. “I haven’t been up there, but it’s a good time to be a Cleveland sports fan, which is rare.”
Speaking of LeBron, he can opt out of his Miami Heat contract at the end of the season. Since Williams is from the Akron area, I wondered if he’d had some words with LeBron about coming home to the Cavaliers.
“There’s a few whispers,” Williams said. “I’m trying to send a few things through the grapevine. Whether they’ll reach him or not is another thing. I mean, he’s got to be contemplating it, right? It’s at least got to be a serious thought, whether it actually happens or not. Man, my head would explode.”
Johnny Football, the number one NBA pick, and LeBron’s return … apparently such a confluence of good fortune would be too much for Williams’ skull to contain.
“My head would explode,” he reaffirmed. “I don’t know if I could handle all that.”
In other Northeast Ohio news, the Crew will play their first Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match at FirstEnergy Stadium on the campus of the University of Akron. The game will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 17, against the Indy Eleven.
Not only will the game be a rare proximal experience for existing Crew fans in the Cleveland-Akron area, but the club also hopes that it serves as an introduction to other potential fans in the state’s largest media market.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to expand our brand into other areas of Ohio,” Berhalter said. “We’re Columbus’ team, and Ohio’s team, and we’re proud of that. It gives us a chance to play in another market and reach another fanbase.”
Even more special, three of the Crew’s Homegrown Players have ties to the Akron Zips program: Wil Trapp, Chad Barson, and Ben Speas, won an NCAA title with the Zips before transferring to North Carolina and winning another national championship with the Tar Heels. The Crew also has two Akron-area natives in Speas (Stow) and Josh Williams (Copley.)
“That’s something that I never thought I’d be able to experience professionally, to play that close to where I grew up.” Williams said. “I used to go to Akron games as a kid and I got to play there once with Cleveland State, but to now be able to go back and play on that field as a member of the Columbus Crew in front of my hometown would be incredible. Hopefully a lot of the hometown fans will come out and support us and we can pack that place.”
In a pre-game text conversation, Director of Team Operations Tucker Walther made a prediction. He declared that Ethan Finlay would score a goal that night for the Crew. Ten minutes into the game, Tucker was proven correct, eliciting a text response of “You are the man.”
After the game, Tucker was so proud that his faith in Finlay was rewarded that he silenced all doubters by showing people proof of his prescience. So to prove it to the world, here’s a clip of the screenshot from Tucker’s phone:
Well done, Tuck! Now if only Frankie also made some sort of weird pregame prediction sort of thing that came true…
Prior to kickoff, Frankie Hejduk took to the concourse imploring fans to send positive vibes down onto the field. With the Crew mired in an eight-game winless streak, Hejduk felt the good vibes, coupled with the team’s hard work, would put the Crew in the win column. Hejduk then told me that he gave Higuain a lucky rabbit’s foot to get the good vibes flowing.
That’s the thing about Frankie. When he tells you something like that, you get caught in that weird limbo where you don’t know if he’s serious or not. On one hand, he probably didn’t mean it literally. On the other hand, it’s Frankie. One could easily imagine him handing Pipa a rabbit’s foot and saying. “Rabbit foot, bro! Good vibes, dude!”
After Higuain delivered a pair of picture-perfect assists, I circled back to the Dude to find out more about the lucky rabbit’s foot. I was hoping it was real, so that’s how I approached the subject.
“No, no, I was kidding about that,” Hejduk said. “That would have been cool if I would have, though. Duncan (Oughton) and I used to always talk about guys having a rabbit’s foot stuck up their butt. There are certain players who had that success and we’d say we need some of our players to have this. Pipa subliminally heard me say it. It was a bit of a white lie, but it worked. The vibes went out and the rabbit smelled something and then he came and was here. It worked.”
After that explanation, I’m still not entirely sure what happened in Frankie’s world, but he’s right about the most important thing… it worked. Well done, Dude.
Questions? Comments? Have anything about your future that you want me to ask Tucker and Frankie? Feel free to write at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @stevesirk.