Sirk's Notebook: Zero edition
They may have entered the match on an 11-game winless streak, but the Chicago Fire finally figured out the secret to preventing the Comeback Crew from coming back. Chicago waited until the 91st minute before scoring the first goal of the game, dooming the Crew to the gloom of a 1-0 home loss.
After three straight dramatic comebacks, the Crew seemed to have lost their fire in their loss to the Fire. It was a strangely tepid and nondescript performance for a team that could have capped a six-point week and pulled within a single point of first place. Unlike the previous two weeks, nobody stepped up and gave the team the lift it needed when it needed it most. The puzzling blandness of the Crew’s performance seemed awfully familiar to me. It was almost as if they had signed THIS guy…
This comparison was largely so I could enjoy Sam Fahmi’s photoshop work. I realize that the “Crew played like LeBron” thing doesn’t truly fit in some ways. First, a mid-season home game against a team that hasn’t won in months is precisely the type of game that LeBron thrives on. It brings out the bully in him. Second, in the previous two games, the Crew delivered clutch plays at the end of big games against top opponents. That’s usually when LeBron goes glassy-eyed and mentally checks out. The Crew had been playing up to good opponents and then played down to a bad opponent, whereas LeBron has been known to do the opposite. So it doesn’t necessarily work. But still, the Crew’s play against the struggling Fire was reminiscent of LeBron’s play in the NBA finals—thoroughly pedestrian and subpar.
The Crew finished with zero shots on goal and zero corner kicks. It was the first time in nine years that the Crew hadn’t mustered one measly shot on goal. It was THAT kind of game. With no offensive thrust whatsoever, the Crew found themselves in the strange predicament of trying to hold on to a scoreless draw against a heated rival that hadn’t won since March 26.
How does that even happen? The players and coaches seemed as baffled as the 13,498 people who witnessed the match.
“If someone should tell us that we were going to lose this game today, we would have said no,” said midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo. “It happens sometimes this way in the game of soccer.”
“I felt we were shaky,” said goalkeeper William Hesmer. “When we won the ball, we didn’t threaten them at all. We didn’t get a shot on goal. Anytime you’re forced to defend for 90 minutes, you’re bound to break down at some point. Too many guys just had off nights. I hope it was just a one off.”
“It’s not the same game we played on Wednesday,” said striker Andres Mendoza through an interpreter. “Maybe we weren’t concentrating. There wasn’t the same electricity that there was in the previous match. Today, we did not play very well. Everybody as a collective did not play very well.”
“I don’t think many people had a good game,” said midfielder Kevin Burns. “It just wasn’t good enough. I don’t think there was one underlying thing. It was just bad passes here, not winning tackles there, not holding the ball…I think it was everybody.”
Nobody pointed fingers. It was a collective recognition of a collective failure.
Just when it looked like the Crew would avoid death by papercuts and escape with a point, Chicago pulled out the dagger. In the 91st minute, Orr Barouch collected a pass from Dominic Oduro on the right side of the Crew box. He turned Crew defender Julius James inside out and rushed between three yellow jerseys before sending a low shot toward the far post.
“The ball came in for a header and went over to Oduro,” said Barrouch. “He dropped it back to me and I was going to take a shot, but [James] tried to block me so I cut in and tried to shoot on target. The keeper saved it and Cristian [Nazarit] was there to finish it.”
Hesmer did well to get down paw aside the first shot, but Nazarit found himself unmarked as the Fire flooded the box in search of the winner. He had an easy tap-in directly in front of the 400 flag-waving Fire fans that had bused in from Chicago.
“They broke through us,” said Hesmer. “We lost a one on one battle. I got almost too strong of a hand on the shot. But anytime you’re absorbing too much pressure like that, you’re bound to give them a good look.”
MR. NUMBERS NERD: CAN’T TOUCH THIS EDITION
The Crew not only failed to unleash a single shot on goal or earn a single corner kick, but they barely so much as advanced the ball to their forwards. Jeff Cunningham had 16 touches in his 73 minutes, while Andres Mendoza had 22 touches in his 90 minutes.
For comparison, here is the number of touches by Crew forwards since switching back to the 4-4-2 on May 21:
5/21 at POR (1-0 loss): 76
5/28 vs. CHV (3-3 draw): 69
6/4 at NY (1-1 draw): 68
6.8 vs. RSL (2-1 win): 71
6/12 vs. CHI (1-0 loss): 38
Like everyone else not dressed in baboon-butt red, Crew coach Robert Warzycha did not like what he saw.
“You can lose three points at home or away, but I'm more disappointed in the way we played,” he said. “We didn't create any offense. We defended for 90 minutes. Chicago was the team that wanted it more. Obviously, we didn't possess the ball. We did not have any offense whatsoever. We didn't do anything that we talked about before the game - we didn't switch the point of attack, we didn't bring the flanks, we didn't have flank play - and when we did, we had bad service. So the combination of that, obviously, you don't score a goal.”
In order to shore up his struggling offense, Warzycha made two seemingly puzzling substitutions. First, he subbed off left winger Justin Meram in favor of holding midfielder Dejan Rusmir. Then he subbed off striker Jeff Cunningham for another holding midfielder, Kevin Burns. Warzycha rejiggered the players on the field, such as sending right back Sebastian Miranda up to the right wing, but these still appeared to be moves designed to salvage a tie. (Which actually sounds good right about now.)
Warzycha said the moves were intended to stop the bleeding in the middle of the field, since the Crew could not control the center of the park.
“We tried to do something tactically that would help the game,” Warzycha explained. “We couldn't possess the ball. We lost the middle of the field, so that was more helping the guys over there to stop chasing the ball more than anything else.”
Due to injuries and call-ups, the Crew’s bench was nearly bereft of attacking options. However, the lone attacking option, 19-year-old Aaron Horton, did not get into the game. As I watched the game slog away, I kept hoping that the kid would make an appearance. The way I saw it, it was nearly a risk free move. If he came in and created a goal, it’s a great story in club history and a genius move. If he came in and was starved for touches to the same extent that starting strikers Mendoza and Cunningham were, which was the infinitely more likely scenario, then it didn’t really matter who was at forward anyway. In that case, they could have pulled Duncan Oughton out of the broadcast booth, put him up top, and told him to pretend it was his Fullerton days for all the difference it would have made.
So my thought was to let the kid run around on his young and fresh legs to see if he could create something out of nothing. He would have had a whole lot of nothing to work with, so why not shake it up? Warzycha, however, felt that such a game was not a good scenario for the youngster, who made his MLS debut in Wednesday’s 2-1 win over Salt Lake.
“I think last game was a little bit different actually, because we were playing well,” Warzycha said. “So if you're playing well and you put on the field a young player, I think he is going to adjust a little bit easier to the game. If you are losing the game and you actually can't pass the ball anyway, I'm not going to put a -year-old on just to see what he is going to do. I have veterans on the bench that I'm going to use first.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a brilliant tactician or a soccer genius of any sort, but even after hearing Warzycha’s explanation, I still found myself wishing he had given Horton a shot. I know it’s easier to say that now that the Crew went on to lose the game, but my clamoring for Horton was a visceral reaction to the team’s tepid performance on the field. To my drooping eyes, this was a game that begged for an unknown quantity that could possibly shatter the status quo for the final 10-15 minutes. Alas, in the end, it was a chance untaken and a funk unshaken in a misbegotten match.
Meanwhile, Warzycha’s theory for his team’s flatness is probably the best of the bunch, unless you are an adherent to the Katie Witham’s Plum-Scented Deodorant Is Bad Luck Theory, as I am. (Fear not, she has vowed never to wear it to Crew Stadium again.) But back to Warzycha’s theory. He suggested that perhaps this long string of stirring comeback attempts had finally caught up to the team. The Crew have now allowed the first goal in seven consecutive matches and have led for only 8 minutes since the start of May.
“I think it was maybe a combination of chasing every single game every time,” he said. “Those five games [actually six, going back to Seattle] we were chasing games because we were losing 1-0, and we were using a lot of fitness because it is physically demanding and mentally demanding. It was the third game in eight days. Maybe it was a combination of everything.”
I’m sure everyone in Crewville would sleep a little easier if they could ever get that elusive first goal.
After the controversy surrounding his taking of Jeff Cunningham’s designated penalty kick on Wednesday, as well as a few unwise postgame comments of about the knowledge of the fan base, Crew striker Andres Mendoza released the following statement Saturday:
“During Wednesday’s match with Real Salt Lake, while caught up in the emotion of trying to help my team win, I made some poor decisions that I regret. For that, I want to apologize to my teammates and coaches, the club and the fans. I am working to adapt to this league and its culture. I understand that there are high expectations of me and I’m a competitive person. With that, I want the responsibility of being the player my team and the fans can count on when we need a goal. I think this team can be successful and believe I can contribute to that success. I pledge to work hard to achieve it and to earn the support of our passionate fans.”
To their credit, the fans shouted his name just as any other player’s during the introductions. And in a perfect world, Mendoza would have assisted on two Jeff Cunningham goals and a scored a goal of his own and celebrated with the fans afterward, but it’s already been established that neither forward saw much of the ball all day. The on-field redemption will have to wait for another game.
Mendoza said that while he did not write the statement in English, he approached the Crew and asked them to pass along his sentiments so that he could start fresh after a tumultuous two weeks.
“People starting talking and saying things, so I wanted to get a statement out there,” he said through an interpreter after Sunday’s game. “It was a little bit of everybody, and people were talking about my attitude when I got subbed out the game before, so it was something I wanted to convey to help clear the air.”
If Mendoza fills that clean slate with tally marks as he helps his teammates win games, all will undoubtedly be forgiven and forgotten.
Mendoza played Sunday’s match with large black cast on his left wrist and forearm. He looked like one of those crabs that have one extra-big claw and one normal claw.
“It didn’t bother me,” he said. “I was still running fine. It’s not hurting.”
Up close, I could see that his cast had been signed some of his teammates, including Dilly Duka, Leandre Griffit, Tommy Heinemann, and Andy Iro. Those were the signatures I could pick out, along with the autographs of equipment man Rusty Wummel and communications manager Marco Rosa.
On a side note, when Andres showed me his cast, he pointed to Griffit’s signature and said, “Francés”, which cracked me up. Even without knowing much Spanish, I know “Francés” is the Spanish word for France, which makes sense since all of the English speakers refer to Griffit by the nickname “Frenchy.” It was amusing to observe that it is true of the Spanish speakers as well.
Danny O’Rourke isn’t quite ready to take the field yet as he recovers from knee surgery, but he is clearly ramping up his mischievous side so that it is full throttle upon his return.
Before the game, sideline reporter Katie Witham skeptically asked Crew PR man Dave Stephany if it was true that O’Rourke was out for the rest of the year. Stephany said that while he wasn’t aware of a specific timetable on O’Rourke’s return from the disabled list, he had heard of no major setbacks that would sideline him for the remainder of the season.
“Darn it!” Katie said in laughing exasperation. “He came by earlier and said, ‘Now it’s 2012 for me.’”
Dave shook his head, and Katie knew she had been had.
“He was smiling when he told me that,” she said, “so I should have known that he was lying!”
A few hours later, I fell victim to the famous fumble game that is a favorite pastime of O’Rourke and Eddie Gaven. They love to swat items out of an unsuspecting victim’s hand so that they fumble it onto the floor.
As I talked to Kevin Burns, Danny O swatted a water bottle out of my hand on his way to the trainer’s room. A minute later, on his way back, he picked up the bottle from its resting place a few feet away. He made apologetic gestures as he placed the bottle back into my hand.
In the split second that I started to return my attention to Burns, Danny forcefully swatted the bottle back out of my hand and then walked out the door. Danny won. Again. It’s what he does.
Questions? Comments? Finding sports fan solace in the fact that the “zero and zero” stat line that the Crew had for shots and corners was exactly the same as LeBron’s 100% true official stat line for points and rebounds in close and late situations in the NBA finals? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via twitter @stevesirk