Sirk's Notebook: Guardians against the Galaxy edition

TheCrew.com's Steve Sirk looks back on the Crew's 4-1 win

Justin Meram

Photo Credit: 
USA Today Sports Images

After announcing a new President of Business Operations, the Columbus Crew took care of business on the field, defeating the LA Galaxy 4-1. And then after that fireworks display during the game, the Crew put on a fireworks display after the game.

Saturday night was that level of perfect. It doesn’t get much more fun than that.

“It was a back and forth game, but it was the type of soccer game I bet the fans appreciated,” said Crew Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. “It is when you have two teams just going after it and just trying to play. There were 11 fouls called the whole game. It wasn’t an aggressive game that we were just trying to foul each other and stop time. Both teams wanted to play and you have to credit the guys on the field for that.”

Even in defeat, LA Galaxy boss Bruce Arena agreed that it was a fun game in concept, even if not on the scoreboard.

“I kind of liked the game that I saw,” Arena said. “I thought it was a game that was perfectly suited for our team, but we came up short.”

Way short.

MERAM SPIN-O-RAMA

The Crew took the lead in the 23rd minute when Tony Tchani beat Juninho to a 50-50 ball, dribbled around Juninho, then played the ball forward to Justin Meram. As Juninho tracked back on defense, Meram turned himself in a small circle, like a dog prepping to lie down, as Juninho chased him in a circle, like a dog chasing after the soccer ball. Then Meram hit the doggone ball like he’s known to do when a right-footed curler and the upper corner of the net are at his disposal.

“It felt good,” Meram said. “If Tony Tchani doesn’t win that ball by shielding off two guys before giving it to me….there is credit to everybody. I just ended up having it at the last moment, and finishing my chance

Despite the brilliant strike, the spin move got a lot of attention.

“It is a thing I have adapted,” Meram explained. “You have seen over and over in games that I do it a lot. I picked it up as a way for me to free myself to get that shot off that I love. I have had four goals this year of that nature.”

MERAM’S SLICKNESS, FINLAY’S FINISH

The Crew doubled their advantage in the 33rd minute when Federico Higuain dummied a pass from Wil Trapp to let it flow through to Meram. As Meram drove toward the top of the penalty area, he dished a deft little pass to his left into the Galaxy box, directly into the path of Ethan Finlay, who made a smart diagonal run through traffic. Finlay turned and fired a left-footed laser off the bottom of the crossbar and in.

“Justin was attracting a lot of attention after scoring that first goal,” Finlay said. “I just made a diagonal run behind Omar [Gonzalez.] Justin laid a great ball off, and I’ve been working on my finishing all week. To hit my first one on goal and into the upper corner was pretty special.”

FINLAY ALSO PAYS IT FORWARD

Just as Meram set up a goal following his own score, Finlay did the same in the 75th minute. With the Crew leading 2-1, Finlay cut across the top of the box, drawing three defenders. He then dished the ball off to Ben Speas, who took a forward touch and buried a low shot to the far post to put the Crew in control. Speas had entered the game just a minute earlier.

“Last two weeks, with Justin scoring last week and Ben this week, it’s been some tremendous bench play for guys coming in and making a difference,” Finlay said. “(I was) just running across the top of the box to make the defense shift, then (Speas) taking one touch to his left and hitting it low…it’s great. If we can get that kind of bench play, it’s going to go far.”

Like other substitutes who have exceled this year, Speas cited the inspiration from Berhalter and the coaching staff.

“He has confidence in us,” Speas said. “That helps you as a player. He told me, ‘You’re going to have a chance on the counter and put it away.’ Fortunately enough, I got the ball from Ethan and was able to put it in the back of the net.”

BIG WIN

The Crew would add a fourth goal in the 84th minute when Giancarlo Gonzalez hammered home a header off of a Federico Higuain corner kick. It was the first time the Crew put up a four-spot in 2014 and it was the first time the Galaxy, the best defensive team in MLS, had allowed more than two goals in a game this year.

“I think it was eleven guys, even beyond, fourteen guys, that had really solid games for us,” Finlay said. “I thought Waylon Francis was great. Wil [Trapp] and Tony [Tchani] covered so much ground tonight. Absolutely fantastic stuff from them. Then, obviously, there were four different goal scorers tonight. You can’t ask for much more. It was a tremendous performance from everyone all around.”

“Today, things were clicking,” Speas said. “We got an early-ish goal and I think that really helps us as a team with our confidence. Whenever we can get that and get up, it will set us up to do well and that’s what happened today.”

Berhalter appreciated the win, but chose to view it in the context of the stretch run.

“It’s big, but we have to stay grounded,” he said. “We have 10 games left and it is almost like every game is a playoff game. It’s a lot of Eastern Conference teams and the table is tight. It is going to be interesting. I think this game is a great opening game for the next 10 games.”

BUSINESS AND SOCCER AND VICE VERSA

When introducing Andy Loughnane as the Crew’s new President of Business Operations at a 5:30 press conference, Crew Chairman Anthony Precourt referred to Loughnane and Berhalter as the organization’s bookends.

“Our philosophy—our formula for success—is that good soccer is going to lead to good business, and good business is going to lead to good soccer,” Precourt said.

Right on cue, with a sellout crowd of 20,729 on hand and a 4-1 victory in the books, Saturday night was the formula for success writ large. If you’re Precourt, you dream of 17+ such nights every season.

Obviously, a four-goal outburst in front of a sellout is an extreme example, but that’s the beauty of coming to the stadium. You never know what you’re going to see. On Saturday night, the Crew combined a crowd of 20,000 and a four-goal performance for only the second time in Crew Stadium’s history. That’s how special it was. The previous instance occurred on September 1, 2001, when the Crew beat New England by the same 4-1 score in front of 20,272 fans. The goal scorers in that game were Brian Maisonneuve, Jeff Cunningham (twice), and Robert Warzycha. The feat was also accomplished once at Ohio Stadium in the very first game in club history, a 4-0 win over D.C. United on April 13, 1996. The goal scorers in that game, played before a crowd of 25,266, were an own goal (Thor Lee), Brian McBride (twice), and Sneaky Pete Marino.

Also of note, after going nearly five years without combining three points and a crowd of 20,000, the Crew have now accomplished the feat twice in the span of just four weeks. Columbus defeated Montreal, 2-1, in front of 21,112 Crew Stadium patrons on July 19.

“It’s what we are looking for each week,” Berhalter said. “We want to have a hot ticket that the fans want to come to and that they are proud of the team from Columbus and that they are proud of their team. We are working hard for that I think it starts with the type of soccer we play. I talk to a lot of fans and they are enthusiastic about it. They say that it is identifiable and they are pleased with that.”

“There were a ton of fans,” Speas added. “It was fun to see and a great atmosphere. It was a fun night to be here.”

LANDON HONOR-VAN

I don’t know exactly when the American custom of honoring select retiring sports legends in visiting cities began, but the first one that I remember growing up was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In city after city, Kareem’s final season was one pregame ceremony after another, whereupon teams would bestow him with gifts like, I don’t know, bifocal sports goggles or a ten-foot-long recliner or whatever, and then the crowd would give him a big ovation. When I was a kid, this made perfect sense to me. As one of the greatest basketball players in history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar delighted millions in the movie “Airplane!” He deserved every honor he received in every arena across the country.

Even as an adult, I totally understand that some athletes are so beloved and so important that these farewell tours are totally justified. I mean, who didn’t love and respect Cal Ripken, Jr.?

The summer of 2014 has seen a much ballyhooed farewell tour for Derek Jeter, which hasn’t sat as well with me. I mean, he’s unquestionably a Hall of Fame player, but he plays for the New York Yankees, meaning I have no interest in celebrating him. Also, if he had played for any other team apart from the Yankees, the ceremonial farewell tour would not exist, just as it doesn’t exist for most Hall of Famers. So it’s double-yucky to me. 

When the Crew announced their plans to honor Landon Donovan prior to Saturday’s game, some die-hard Crew fans took the same approach that I take to Derek Jeter. I totally get not wanting to honor another team’s player before the game, especially when that player had nothing to do with the Crew. That’s an entirely defensible position. But I fell on the other side of the divide. Like the majority, I thought the ceremony was deserving.

Landon Donovan means more to MLS and soccer in America than Derek Jeter ever could for baseball. (I’m not knocking Jeter, but one would be hard-pressed to argue the fact.) Donovan is both Major League Soccer’s and the U.S. Men’s National Team’s all-time leading scorer. He was the legitimate face of MLS when MLS most-needed a legitimate face. In the 2010 World Cup, he scored one of the most widely and wildly celebrated goals in American soccer history.

This leads me to a point that could never apply to Kareem or Cal or Jeter—Landon Donovan may never have played for the Crew, but part of him still legitimately belongs to all of America in a way that those other athletes never could. Because of the U.S. Men’s National Team, we’ve all cheered for Landon Donovan as one of our own. In fact, in Columbus, we’ve done it many times at Crew Stadium. As a result, the celebration felt right to me. It obviously felt right to Gregg Berhalter, Frankie Hejduk, and Anthony Precourt, who served as the Crew’s on-field delegation for the ceremony, which was conceived by Berhalter.

As part of the pregame tribute, the Crew showed a highlight video featuring some of Donovan’s most memorable Crew Stadium moments, including his goal in MLS Cup 2001 and a bunch of Dos A Cero scenes from the USA’s quadrennial Crew Stadium crushing of arch-rival Mexico. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Precourt, Berhalter, and Hejduk presented Donovan with a framed photo of him celebrating his final international goal, accompanied by a piece of the north Crew Stadium net into which he scored it, putting the “Dos” in “Dos A Cero, Part Quatro.” Although not publicly revealed, I would also like to think that the picture frame was built with a secret compartment containing a vial of Mexican soccer player tears.

As the ceremony concluded, Donovan wiped away tears of his own and acknowledged the hearty applause of the crowd by reciprocating in kind. It was a great moment. Then the Crew crushed the Galaxy, 4-1. All in all, it couldn’t have gone any better for soccer fans in Columbus. They honored a national soccer hero, then cheered their local soccer heroes to a lopsided triumph.

In his postgame press conference, Donovan spoke about the pregame honors.

"It was incredible,” he said. “I don't know how many of you were here when [Crew Stadium] was first built, but this became the home of soccer [in America] for many years. I have memories here for the U-17 national team, many games with the national teams as well as with the Quakes and the Galaxy against the Crew. I can't imagine another stadium that I've played in more throughout the league. I have a lot of very good memories here and I was very appreciative of them doing that. They certainly didn't have to and I certainly have a lot of respect for the Gregg and the Crew organization."

Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena also appreciated the sentiment behind the gesture.

“I think it is very nice,” Arena said. “Landon has had a great career and to be recognized in these markets we go into, it is tremendous. Hopefully the results don’t all end up like they did tonight, but It was a tremendous gesture on behalf of the Crew. We are very grateful for that.”

When asked if the ceremony was distracting to his team, Arena switched back to the bemused deadpan sarcasm that is his trademark.

“It certainly looked distracting tonight,” he said. “I would blame the entire game on the pregame ceremony.”

See! It was a perfect plan all along!

FINLAY AND SPEAS ON THE HONORS

The Crew’s players seemed to enjoy Donovan’s honor as well.

“It was fantastic,” Finlay said. “He’s one of the, if not the greatest men’s soccer player in the history of America. It was absolutely fantastic. It was absolutely deserved. For him to get a standing ovation from these fans, he’s done a lot of this city in terms of the national team and in terms of MLS. He’s an incredible player and an incredible guy. It was a pleasure to get to play against him.”

“Incredible,” added Speas. “All of the things that he’s done for the sport, he’s a legend. I thought it was nice. I’m happy that we were able to push it aside and get a result.”

DONOVAN: THE FIRST AND LAST TIMES

Landon Donovan first played in Crew Stadium on May 22, 1999, just one week after it opened. He was a member of the U.S. Men’s U-17 National Team that blanked El Salvador, 4-0, that afternoon to clinch a spot in the 1999 U-17 World Cup. That team featured many stars-to-be, including DaMarcus Beasley, who had a goal and two assists, Oguchi Onyewu, who scored two goals, and Kyle Beckerman, who assisted on Donovan’s 87th minute tally.

After scoring his goal, Donovan had lifted his jersey to reveal a t-shirt dedicated to his grandfather, who had recently passed away. Donovan and I chatted briefly on the sideline after the final whistle. I asked about the shirt and he told me about his grandfather. “I know he was watching today,” he said.

Here is a photo I snapped of 17-year-old Donovan’s first postgame exit from the Crew Stadium field (right)…

Fast forward to last weekend, and now I’m 40 instead of 24, and Donovan is 32 instead of 17, and there was no sideline conversation between us, but even in my old age, I remembered that first Crew Stadium appearance 15 years ago. As I saw Donovan leave the Crew Stadium field for the final time as a player—

barring a trade to Chivas USA or something—I thought to record his exit as a bookend to that earlier photo.

Here is an admittedly uneventful video of Landon Donovan leaving the Crew Stadium field for the last time…

So that’s totally random, but there are Donovan’s first and last exits from the Crew Stadium playing field.

MORE SARCASTIC BRUCE

A reporter asked Arena about young Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes extending his goalscoring streak to four consecutive games. A query about an individual accomplishment in the wake of a 4-1 drubbing elicited vintage deadpan Arena.

“Yeah, we’re going to have a party back at the hotel, we’re so elated.”

I would totally buy a “Best of Bruce” DVD featuring years and years of similar press conference moments.

WELCOME ABOARD ANDY LOUGHNANE

I knew nothing of the Crew’s new President of Business Operations Andy Loughnane until learning a little about his bio moments before his introductory press conference. Let’s see… he’s a Miami Redhawk, so he’s already a sworn enemy of a proud Ohio Bobcat like myself. What else…Detroit Red Wings? Hate them. Detroit Pistons? Ditto. Ahh, the Columbus Blue Jackets. So he does indeed have experience with something I like, so that’s something to build upon.

After I conducted that thorough 13-second career analysis, it was time for Loughnane’s formal introduction and the various chats that followed. As if it weren’t already obvious, I am not at all qualified to comment on Loughnane’s business qualifications, but I did find him to be a friendly and engaging person, which seems like it would be an important part of his new position. He definitely thinks so.

“I will spend a large portion of my time, once I get settled in, on enhancing relationships,” he said. “That’s our supporters, that’s our fans, that’s our corporate partners, business partners, and political partners. I’m going to try to wear myself out.

“I am going to focus on strengthening relationships in this market, which I ultimately need to do through building trust with the community. We’re not going to demand trust; we’re going to earn trust. That’s a mindset that I faithfully believe, but even moreso in Columbus, that’s exceptionally important. This market’s DNA is very different from many others. We have to earn trust, not demand it.”

Saturday’s announcement was the biggest moment in Loughnane’s career, but his previous career pinnacle also occurred in Central Ohio.

“Up until today, the highlight of my career was being in Columbus and opening the Columbus Blue Jackets,” he said. “There are a few things you want to accomplish if you work in professional sports, at least in my mind. One is that you want to be a part of a team that wins championships. Luckily, I was able to check that box when I worked for the Detroit Red Wings and they won two Stanley Cups. You want to be able to open a new franchise. The expansion era, outside of MLS, is largely over. But one of the things you’d want to do is work for an expansion franchise and open a new building. When I worked for the Blue Jackets, I was able to check off boxes two and three. Up until today, that was far and away the highlight of my career.”

Loughnane is excited to have a leadership role in the new era’s re-launch of Crew soccer, where he hopes to increase the club’s relevance in Ohio. (And, of course, to re-check that championship box.) He had attended Crew and D.C. United games when living in Columbus and Washington, respectively, so he’s not a total soccer novice.

“My soccer knowledge and soccer enthusiasm will grow each and every day, and I start as fan both authentically and organically,” he said. “But this is a business and they’ve hired me to operate a business first.”

To his credit, Loughnane didn’t oversell his soccer fandom, although he enjoyed his nights out at Crew Stadium during his Blue Jackets days.

“I was here as a casual fan,” he said. “I wasn’t wearing any team gear and didn’t have any skin in the game. I will tell you that I remember the stadium looking very different. I remember meeting Jamey Rootes, who was the president of the Crew at that time, meeting him just through professional courtesy. The stadium has definitely evolved since those days. That scoreboard is beautiful.”

It would look even more beautiful four hours later.

A 4-1 win. A sellout crowd. Job-warming gifts don’t get much better than that.

Questions? Comments? Think it’s awesome that #TIFOSWEAT’s “Guardians Against the Galaxy” display listed a “Massive High Score” in Space Invaders and then the Crew went out against the Galaxy and posted a Massive high score? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk