Sirk's Notebook: UnSporktacular Edition
The Columbus Crew’s playoff journey came to a spork in the road on Saturday night, then went in the wrong direction with a 1-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City. Closing out a season sweep of the Crew, Sporting Kansas City won all three games by a combined score of 7-2. Furthermore, they have been the only team to figure out the Brian Bliss-led Crew. Columbus is 4-2-0 under the interim coach, but both losses have come to Sporting.
The good news is that the Crew doesn’t have to play Kansas City any more during the season. The bad news is that this loss may have ultimately stuck a spork in the Crew’s playoff chances. But we don’t know that for sure, just like we don’t yet know how many fork-related idioms I am going to convert into spork-related idioms before this Notebook is through.
While I try to think of more, let’s get to the game…
Kansas City scored the only goal of the game in the 17th minute, and it wasn’t without a mountain of awkward controversy. Crew defenders Tyson Wahl and Agustin Viana challenged KC’s Ike Opara for a header in the box. Opara collided with Wahl, who subsequently knocked heads with Viana, who fell to the ground. As the Sporks retained possession of the ball and cycled it out to the left wing for another crossing attempt, Viana remained on the ground. Graham Zusi’s cross found Opara wide open in the general area of the prostrate Viana, and his near-post header squeaked between the pole and Crew goalkeeper Matt Lampson.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know what was going on on the back side” Lampson, said. “I looked over there to make sure everybody was marked up, and everybody was marked up, and then when they played the ball back in, I looked over and Opara was already heading the ball into the goal. I’m going to have to look at it on film.”
“On the first ball, I challenged with Opara and Viana was behind me and we hit heads,” Wahl said. “And then after they made their runs again I shifted over because there was another man open that was more dangerous in the middle. My man Opara was on the far post with our man down on the ground.”
For Viana, it was a scary moment from which he thankfully emerged unscathed.
“I feel a collision on my head,” he said. “At that moment I was scared about the collision. I think at that moment it was evident that the ref must see the play because he was watching the ball. I think maybe my instinct was that he was going to stop the game, but when I realized, it was in our goal and it was a goal.
“If he doesn’t see the collision, okay, but he saw that there was a collision between two players,” Viana continued. “In that moment, you must protect the health of the players. If you don’t see, it’s okay, but if you see the collision, I thought that it was scary and he was going to stop the play. Now it’s okay and I have no problem, but at that moment it was scary.”
It was a strange situation with so many conflicting subplots. On one hand, with all of the emphasis on head safety, a potential head injury needs to be taken seriously by both the player and the referee. On the other hand, soccer is a sport that is notorious for using the appearance of an injury as an advantage. If the referee were to blow the play dead every single time a defender went down in the box, it wouldn’t be long before any promising attack in the box involving an aerial challenge would be thwarted by a head injury stoppage. The referee has to decide in an instant whether he should fairly stop the game for a serious injury or if he would be unjustly denying the attacking team a good scoring chance. Absent blood or an immediate multi-player panic on the field, it’s a tough decision to make in the heat of the moment. The referee must go by the type of collision and the apparent condition of the player, then use his best judgment.
The whole collision was a no-win situation for Viana, the referee, or anyone not associated with the Sporks. In retrospect, it was a game-winning situation for them. But that’s only because the play didn’t get blown dead and they scored. Had the ref blown his whistle, the situation would have been reversed, as we now know what a game-saver it would have been for the Crew,
“I don’t know if I could fault a team if they did it against us,” Opara said, giving the Kansas City perspective on the play. “He was out of a dangerous area. I don’t think the ball was near him when he was on the ground and I’m not even sure Zusi knew he was on the ground before he crossed the ball in. It was just one of those that we won. I’m not sure how, it just kind of dribbled out and we somehow got to the second ball and we recycled our runs and just put in a good ball. It was tough, because I saw the goalie coming and I saw the post and I knew I had to hit the ball. I knew something may have happened but it was just one of those you’ve got to lay yourself out and whatever happens happens and luckily I scored without any implications of the post or a goalie collision.”
Giving up an early goal is rarely a recipe for success, especially to the best defensive team in the league. Once they went up a goal, Kansas City hacked, badgered, and bothered the Crew in the middle of the field—they sporked out 19 fouls (that got called)—and set up an impenetrable wall on the back end. The Crew mustered only one shot on goal for the night. In many ways, it felt like the Seattle game, where a good opponent got the early goal and then locked it down. (Unlike Seattle, Kansas City still had all 11 men, making it even harder for the Crew to break them down.) Further hobbled by a hip injury to playmaker Federico Higuain, Columbus was reduced to set piece opportunities and one great chip pass from Ben Speas that got knocked away just as Ryan Finley was about to shoot.
“You’ve got to give them respect,” said the Crew’s leading scorer, Dominic Oduro. “They are a good team. They defended really well. We kept possession, but you know how it is in games like that where they get the early goal. They try to play good defense and they did exactly that.”
“They obviously did a great job with their game plan,” said Crew defender Chad Barson. “They just wanted to keep their block of eight and make us try to break them down. They’re a very talented team defensively and offensively, so it was very difficult for us to break down their numbers. They did a good job executing their game plan.”
“We had some good opportunities off set pieces, and then we had that one good ball that Ben chipped over their back four,” Finley said. “I got my chest on it and then they got there in the nick of time. I thought we were dangerous in getting corners and free kicks near the top of the box, but it just wasn’t our night.”
The game suffered another notable head collision in the 58th minute when Barson and KC’s Matt Besler knocked noggins. In terms of stopping the game, this one was a no-doubter since Besler had a river of blood running down his face. (After getting his head wrapped, he would return to the game.) You can see the carnage here:
“I hope that he’s okay,” Barson said afterward while sporting a bruised lump on the upper outside corner of his left eye. “I know that he got cut open, but he came back into the game, so hopefully he’ll be fine. It was just one of those plays where we were both battling for it and I came away a little luckier. I’ve got a little shiner, but hopefully he’s okay. I know he’s going away for national team duty, so I’d hate to be the one that kept him from going to represent our country.”
In addition to reviewing the goal, Lampson plans on doing a lot of other film study from Saturday’s game.
“I’m going to have a lot to look at on film,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to look at. I don’t think I played my best game, particularly distribution from my feet. I misplayed a few balls, which is atypical of the type of goalkeeping that I do. There was also a bouncing ball in the box that I should have come for. Other than that, I did my best, but unfortunately I didn’t come up with the big save to keep us in it.”
The Crew’s playoff chances took a huge hit. Combined with the game results involving the other challengers, it was pretty much the worst weekend imaginable, playoff-wise. The Crew are now in a position where they need two victories and an awful lot of help or a 1-0-1 mark and a virtually impossible level of help. Amazingly, the Crew could still finish as high as third place in the Eastern Conference, but on the flip side, they could already be eliminated before they next take the field in league play. If the Crew’s bye week sees a win or a tie by Houston, plus wins by Montreal and Philadelphia, the playoff chase is over. Otherwise, there could be much to play for on October 19 in New England.
Whether or not the playoffs are a factor in their home-and-home with the Revolution, the Crew want to finish the season strong.
“We know we need help somewhere along the line, but we have to help ourselves,” said Bliss. “If we get six points, I’m not even sure that does it. But we have to play like we’re still in it and keep going at it. We have to show improvement as a group for that set of eight games.”
“We have to take care of our end of the business,” Oduro said. “We need to get six points, and then hopefully the other teams will help us out a little bit. That’s all we can ask for. We need to get our six points and then say a little prayer that the other results will go our way.”
“I’m sure all of us will be watching to see how other teams do this weekend, but it comes down to us playing up to our potential each and every game,” Barson said. “That’s all we can ask for. We need to get six points and then hope all of the other pieces fall into place.”
“We’re professionals here,” said Finley. “Every time you step on the field, you want to win and play well. Even if we don’t make the playoffs, we want to set ourselves up for next year. We’ve won four of these last six games, and we want to continue to build on that for the final two games. I think it would be a huge confidence booster. Hopefully we can still sneak into the playoffs, but if not, we can still use these remaining games as a stepping stone for next year.”
“We have to win both games,” Lampson said. “We can only control what we can control. We need to win both games and see where that takes us. Either way, if we end the season on a high note with the streak we’ve been on since Blissy took over, I think that’s something to be proud of and a sign of things to come and what we can accomplish. If we can win these next two games, we can be proud of what we accomplished, no matter where it takes us.”
I know this section of the Notebook will mostly appeal to a specific subset of Crew fans, so I thank the rest of you for accepting my nerdy indulgence. Back on Sunday, September 28, I experienced my ultimate sports trifecta. For the first time in history, my far and away three favorite sports teams—the Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and Columbus Crew—all won a game on the same day. It was the ninth time that all three teams played on the same day.
“I’m surprised the whole state didn’t burn down or something,” Crew defender and fellow Northeast Ohioan Josh Williams remarked when I told him that the Crew’s 4-2 win at Dallas clinched the first-ever Crew/Tribe/Browns trifecta. “The only thing I have to say about that is that it’s not a very good stat. I would say that I’m kind of embarrassed by that, but the good news is that we broke the curse. It’s a disappointing stat, but we broke the curse, so now I feel like our teams should win all the time.”
Over the years, the Crew have been the far more successful team, so it’s surprising that the soccer team has twice been the only thing impeding the trifecta. But on September 28th, with the Tribe already a 5-1 victor over the Twins and the Browns already a 17-6 winner over the Bengals, the Crew rose to the occasion and clinched the trifecta with a 4-2 win at Dallas.
Here’s a look at the nine instances. For Crew fans whose in-state allegiances run toward the river rather than the lake, I can tell you that the Reds, Bengals, and Crew have played on the same date eight times, and have yet to pull off the trifecta. Maybe the 9th time will be the charm for you too.
1.) SEPTEMBER 12, 1999 (0-3-0)
MetroStars 2, Crew 1
Pittsburgh 41, Browns 0
@Chicago 4, Indians 3
Note: The Crew listlessly lost to one of the worst teams in MLS history. And just in case that wasn’t embarrassing enough, at the final whistle, my girlfriend and I raced up I-71 to witness the Browns’ return to the NFL. What a day we had!
2.) SEPTEMBER 26, 1999 (2-1-0)
Crew 2, Miami 1
@Baltimore 17, Browns 10
Indians 11, @Toronto 7
Note: The Browns blew this trifecta with a surprisingly close loss in Baltimore. The Crew beat the Fusion on a pair of Brian McBride goals.
3.) OCTOBER 3, 1999 (0-3-0)
@Miami 4, Crew 1
New England 19, Browns 7
Toronto 9, Indians 2
Note: Yikes. I was at that Browns game, which was by far the best of the bunch that day, which isn’t saying much,
4.) OCTOBER 10, 1999 (0-3-0)
Chicago 3, Crew 2 (shootout)
@Boston 23, Indians 7 (playoffs)
Cincinnati 18, Browns 17
Note: Yikes times infinity. The Crew built a 2-0 second half lead against the hated Fire, then blew it and lost in a shootout. I remember Jeff Cunningham celebrating his goal by pretending to toss buckets of water on the Fire’s visiting fans, which were situated in what is now the Nordecke. After the game, I asked Cunningham about the celebration and he said, “I just wanted to throw some water on their stupid fans.” Classic Cunningham. Meanwhile, the Indians suffered the Boston Massacre in game four of their five-game playoff series with the Red Sox. The Tribe would lose the decisive game five the next night, blowing a 2-0 series lead. And the Browns lost on a last-minute drive authored by none other than Akili Smith, providing the only highlight of his career. What a day.
5.) SEPTEMBER 22, 2002 (2-1-0)
@Chicago 2, Crew 1
Browns 31, at Tennessee 28 (OT)
Indians 6, @Kansas City 5
Note: The Browns erased a 14-point fourth quarter deficit and Omar Vizquel’s 9th inning homer iced a win for the Tribe, but this potential trifecta was ruined when Piotr Nowak and Ante Razov scored second half goals to beat the Crew and clinch a playoff berth for the Fire. Yuck.
6.) SEPTEMBER 30, 2007 (2-1-0)
Los Angeles 2, Crew 1
Browns 27, Baltimore 13
Indians 4, @Kansas City 2
Note: Five years later, a second consecutive trifecta thwarted by the soccer team. Alejandro Moreno gave the Crew a lead in the 2nd minute, but Troy Roberts answered in 13th and then Kyle Martino netted the game-winner in just the 16th minute, defeating the team for which he won Rookie of the Year in 2002.
7.) SEPTEMBER 13, 2009 (1-2-0)
Crew 2, Houston 1
Minnesota 34, Browns 20
Kansas City 7, Indians 0
Note: In a reverse of the previous two instances, the Crew was the only team to take care of business, despite all three teams playing at home for the first time. Eddie Gaven’s 89th minute penalty kick downed the Dynamo as the Crew took another step toward winning the 2009 Supporters’ Shield.
8.) SEPTEMBER 20, 2009 (0-2-1)
@Chicago 2, Crew 2 (tie)
@Denver 27, Browns 6
@Oakland 11, CLE 4
Note: A week later, the first all-road triple play didn’t go any better. The Browns and Indians got crushed, but at least the Crew rallied to salvage a draw on a pair of second half goals by the legendary Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
9.) SEPTEMBER 28, 2013 (3-0-0)
Crew 4, @Dallas 2
Browns 17, Cincinnati 6
Indians 5, @Minnesota 1
Note: JACKPOT! The Browns grabbed a share of first-place by defeating their in-state rivals, the Indians clinched a playoff berth on the final day of the season, and the Crew won an end-to-end thriller in Texas. The elusive trifecta was finally achieved, and it was achieved in grand style.
First, full credit to my fellow Ohio Bobcat, Lori Schmidt of 97.1 The Fan, for coming up with the Mohawktober moniker on twitter. Movember is when men grow mustaches for prostate cancer awareness, so Mohawktober is obviously when Dominic Oduro does…THIS….
Yes, after the Ghanaian Frohawk featuring the red, yellow and green of the Ghana flag, and after the Crewhawk featuring the black and gold of the Columbus Crew, Oduro took part in Breast Cancer Awareness Month by coloring his Mohawk bright pink and trimming pink ribbons into the side of his head like football helmet logos.
“I dedicated today to breast cancer awareness, obviously,” Oduro said, as if there were even the slightest possible ambiguity to his hairstyle. “I had to go pink for this moment. I had enough hair left over from the other style that we could make the emblem on the side. It was really positive and it was for the cause of breast cancer, so I hope everybody enjoyed it.”
Questions? Comments? Are you that random dude I saw twice on the concourse whose face made me silently assume that you were Chad Marshall’s brother, only to find out after the game that Chad does not have a brother? Feel free to write at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @stevesirk