Sirk's Notebook: Three by three edition
The 4-1 win over the LA Galaxy was always going to be a tough act to follow for the Columbus Crew. A 3-0 win over the Houston Dynamo accomplished the task. According to Crew Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, the new win actually surpassed the prior win.
“I thought today was better actually,” he said. “It’s easy to get up against an opponent like the Galaxy with the names, the quality and the crowd. Today against Houston, an Eastern Conference opponent, who is on our heels in the table, I thought that this was a very strong performance both defensively and offensively.”
When the debate is which recent three-goal victory is better, you know it’s happy days in Crewville.
In a 3-0 game, it’s sometimes easy to overlook an early play that may have turned the game. In the 18th minute, Wil Trapp committed an uncharacteristic turnover that gave Houston’s Will Bruin a breakaway. With Houston poised to grab an early lead on the road, Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark rushed out to the edge of the box and got a piece of the ball to deflect it high and wide, keeping the game scoreless and setting the stage for the Crew’s three-goal triumph.
“I saw Courtois over at Chelsea and I thought I might get one of those tonight and I’m going to do the same thing,” Clark said. “I just tried to close as much ground as I could and make myself big and I got it off the face.”
Goalies don’t wear gloves on their face. Having a ball rocketed off of one’s face from close range can’t be fun. Was it Clark’s first face save of the season?
“I think I do that a lot in training,” he said, “but I can’t remember if I’ve done it during a game. That’s probably not a good thing.”
Red-hot Justin Meram put the Crew on the board in the 35th minute when he anticipated Houston defender David Horst’s next move near the edge of the box, pounced on Horst’s poor touch, then carved up Horst with a cutback move to his left foot before firing the ball into the roof of the net. After four beautiful right-footed curlers this year, the laser-left was change of pace for Meram.
“I just went on instinct,” Meram said. “I knew he was going to take a touch toward the back side to get away from pressure, so I thought (jumping the play is) either going to work, or it’s not going to work and I’m going to be really out of position. It got to me and I had to bring it to my left because I think people are watching my right foot a little bit and I was fortunate.”
The Crew doubled their lead in the 59th minute on Adam Bedell’s second goal of the season. After Houston flicked a Federico Higuain corner kick to the far left sideline, Meram collected the ball and sent a cross toward the towering 6’7” Bedell, who nodded the ball into the far side netting to make it 2-0. With his recent run of starts, Bedell had been feeling personal pressure to get on the scoresheet again.
“I was telling some of the guys that it wasn’t the flashiest goal I ever scored, but it probably felt the greatest,” he said. “That goal was a weight off my shoulders.”
It wasn’t just a weight off his shoulders; it was a ball off his shoulder. His header hit his shoulder before sailing goalward.
“When you’ve got a guy like Adam, you just have to close your eyes, cross it and hopefully he decides to jump today,” Meram deadpanned, downplaying both his own cross and Bedell’s finish. “I think someone said it went off his shoulder, so I’m not sure how much credit I’m going to give the big guy. But maybe his shoulder is taller than the (defensive) guy, that’s how [darn] big the guy is.”
My favorite part of the game was the fact that Aaron Schoenfeld was at the scorer’s table, ready to sub in for Bedell when Bedell scored. The substitution eventually took place before the ensuing kickoff. It was basically a walk-off goal for Bedell, who delivered a bevy of bruising high-fives upon reaching the Crew bench. Was it the most psyched-up sub-off Berhalter had ever seen?
“It was,” he said. “And I’ll tell you what, if we had gotten the sub in a little earlier, it might have been different. That’s amazing. It really is. If you look at the (Montreal) game, that first corner kick as Aaron is getting subbed on, he had a header that almost scores. So we’re thinking, alright, we’ve got to get this sub in. We didn’t get it in, and then Bedell ends up scoring. It’s amazing.”
And then it looked like Bedell just about fractured Berhalter’s hands with a celebratory double-high-five as he came off the field.
“He almost did,” Berhalter said with a smile. “He was excited. It was a huge goal for him.”
It didn’t’ take Schoenfeld long to get his. In the 64th minute, Ethan Finlay played a through ball to an overlapping Waylon Francis, who whipped a cross into the box that Schoenfeld headed home for his first MLS goal of the season. Schoenfeld tore it up with the Dayton Dutch Lions in USL-PRO, has had a string of solid substitute performances and now has hit paydirt in the goal column.
“It was an unbelievable ball and I just kinda ran through it and it went in,” Schoenfeld said.
Most importantly, his goal fulfilled the Schoenfeld Prophecy. Last week, I asked Ethan Finlay if he had any goalpost tips for Schoenfeld. Finlay’s goal against LA caromed off the underside of the crossbar and went in, whereas Schoenfeld rang the inside of the post and was denied. He was also denied by the post earlier in the year in that aforementioned corner kick play against Montreal, so I thought maybe Finlay had some good luck goalpost tips for The Big Celery.
“I was happy for him that he was pushing for a goal,” Finlay said of Schoenfeld after the LA game. “He played really well tonight. He’s going to get one really soon.”
So not only did Schoenfeld score, he made Ethan Finlay look like a genius.
Whether it’s talking about a three-game homestand or playing eight of the final nine games against the Eastern Conference, it seems that most people view the schedule differently than a coach. Many see a 2-1-0 homestand, whereas a coach sees a 3-2 loss to Toronto, a 4-1 win over LA and a 3-0 victory over Houston.
“Here we go again with grouping the games,” Berhalter said about the three-game homestand as a whole. “You guys love to do that. They’re all individual games. We played the first one and we weren’t happy with it. We made adjustments and talked with the team and said, ‘We’re going out against LA and we’re going to see a different team.’ And we saw that. Today symbolized that it was an opponent that we needed to perform against, since it was an Eastern Conference rival. We came out and we did that. Overall, if you want to talk about the three-game homestand, we’re happy with it because the Toronto game gave us a learning experience and that can be just as valuable as a win sometimes.”
The 3-2 loss to Toronto on August 9 led to a team meeting that appears to be bearing major fruit, if the last two games are anything to go by.
“We were disappointed with the result and with the performances, so we sat down and aired it out,” Berhalter said. “We asked every guy what could you be doing better? How can you be more accountable? I think you’re seeing some of that now.”
Meram agreed that the session was helpful.
“(Gregg) looked everyone in the eye and said, ‘What are you going to do better to help the team?’ We all wrote some things down and everyone is stepping up to what they wrote down. It’s not going to be easy. Like Gregg says, it’s going to be a tough battle so you’re going to have to want it more.”
Berhalter, like the scoreboard and the Crew’s opponents, has seen a difference.
“I think team spirit goes a long way,” he said. “I think that the team spirit has gotten better. The conflicts we had made us stronger. We don’t want to shy away from that. You are going to have conflict throughout the year. It happens. Guys were dissatisfied with other guys and we sat down and cleared the air. I think it made us stronger in the long run. I think this is a closer group today.”
With a 4-1 win against the LA Galaxy and a 3-0 victory over Houston the past two weekends, the Crew won back to back matches by 3+ goals for only the second time in club history. The only other instance occurred in 1999, when Columbus beat Dallas 4-1 on July 24, then trounced Miami 4-0 on August 1. Both games were at Crew Stadium, possibly attended by Wil Trapp, who was a six-year-old Crew fan at the time.
For fun, here are the scoring summaries for those two MLS games in 1999.
JULY 24, 1999: COLUMBUS 4, DALLAS 1
CLB: Ansil Elcock (Jason Farrell, Robert Warzycha) 28
CLB: Jeff Cunningham 42
CLB: Stern John (Jeff Cunningham, Mike Lapper) 50
CLB: Brian West (Brian Maisonneuve) 71
DAL: Ted Eck 90
AUGUST 1, 1999: COLUMBUS 4, MIAMI 0
CLB: Stern John (John DeBrito, Jeff Cunningham) 12
CLB: Brian Maisonneuve 43
CLB: Stern John (Brian West) 83
CLB: Stern John (Brian West, Robert Warzycha) 90
And since it’s also fun to join recent history with ancient history, let’s pair the 2014 games with the 1999 games…
AUGUST 16, 2014: COLUMBUS 4, LA GALAXY 1
CLB: Justin Meram (Tony Tchani) 23
CLB: Ethan Finlay (Justin Meram) 33
LAG: Gyasi Zardes (Dan Gargan, Robbie Keane) 49
CLB: Ben Speas (Ethan Finlay) 75
CLB: Giancarlo Gonzalez (Federico Higuain) 84
AUGUST 23, 2014: COLUMBUS 3, HOUSTON 0
CLB: Justin Meram 35
CLB: Adam Bedell (Justin Meram) 59
CLB: Aaron Schoenfeld (Waylon Francis, Ethan Finlay) 64
One other note….the 1999 streak was actually a three-gamer if you count all competitions. On July 13, the Crew defeated the then third-division Carolina Dynamo, 3-0, with one goal from Ansil Elock, followed by a pair of goals by his younger cousin, Stern John. Assists were provided by Jeff Cunningham, Mike Clark and Robert Warzycha, by order of goal.
With his assist on Aaron Schoenfeld’s goal, Ethan Finlay now has 6 goals and 5 assists on the season, all of which have come from May 17 onward.
Finlay’s first 40 career games: 0 goals, 0 assists.
Finlay’s next 14 career games: 6 goals, 5 assists.
Wowzers. What’s even more fun about it is that Finlay is a mix of goalscorer and creator. If you figure that a guy who bags at least five goals and assists in a season is a dual threat, Finlay, in his most recent 14 games, is now just the fifth Crew player in the last 10.5 seasons to put together a double-nickel. It is only the ninth overall Crew occurrence in that span.
The Crew’s double-nickels from 2004-2014…
* Guillermo Barros Schelotto (2007, 2008, 2010)
* Federico Higuain (2012, 2013, 2014)
* Alejandro Moreno (2007)
* Eddie Gaven (2007)
* Ethan Finlay (2014)
All told, there have been 28 double-nickel seasons by 16 players in Crew history, mostly weighted toward the early part of the club’s history when the Crew fielded offensive powerhouses in a higher-scoring MLS. Brian McBride leads the way with five double-nickel seasons, followed by Jeff Cunningham with four, Schelotto and Higuain with three and Brian West did it twice. The players who achieved the double-nickel once: Adrian Paz, Stern John, Jason Farrell, Dante Washington, Robert Warzycha, John Wilmar Perez, Brian Maisonneuve, Edson Buddle, Moreno, Gaven and now Finlay.
Another breakout player in 2014, Justin Meram, is just one assist away from adding his name to that illustrious list. One more Meram assist would also allow the 2014 Crew to join the 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2007 squads as Crew teams with at least three double-nickel players. (The 2000 and 2001 teams had four!)
I did that little breakdown between Finlay’s first 40 appearances compared to his most recent 14, and it occurred to me that Meram has a similarly interesting breakdown.
Justin Meram, 2011-2013: 5 goals, 4 assists.
Justin Meram, 2014: 5 goals, 4 assists.
Roughly three quarters of the way through the current season, Meram has already matched his exact career totals from his first three seasons combined. That includes back-to-back goal-and-assist games and a three-game goalscoring streak.
“He’s another guy I’m happy for,” Berhalter said of Meram. “He’s been through a lot and we’ve been working hard with him on the mental side of the game and staying focused and believing in himself. He’s quality. You saw that goal that he took. That’s high-level difficulty and he made it look easy. It’s our job to keep working with him and to get that out of him. Confidence plays a huge role in performance and he’s confident now.”
“I’m getting a little bit fitter, which kind of helps my mind out,” Meram said of his recent hot stretch. “I’m being more decisive and I have a little more freedom. You see where I’m getting the ball and I’m back to my old self. I’m playing simple, knowing when to dribble and when not to. Defensively, I still need to get a little bit better.”
With Finlay and Meram having breakout seasons, it gives the Crew options in the attack, both in terms of players that command attention, but also in terms of how they attack.
“They play differently,” Berhalter said. “Justin is a guy who likes to come underneath and Ethan is a guy who likes to get behind. Between the two of them, it’s difficult. Your line’s dropping for Ethan, but then Justin gets the space in front of the line. Then it’s up to us to find them.”
“Ethan was on fire,” Meram said. “Everything he’s been touching is going in. Right now, it seems like anything I’m touching is going into the back of the net. I hope that continues for the next 35 years.”
At a pre-game press conference, Berhalter revealed that defender Giancarlo Gonzalez was on a flight to Italy to finalize a deal with Palermo of Serie A, Italy’s top flight. The deal has since been finalized. Ryan Schwepfinger already has a piece on TheCrew.com about how Berhalter views the Gonzalez sale accelerating the Crew’s vision, so you can read that HERE.
But when it comes to the people side of the business, the comments that stuck to me were Berhalter’s remarks about Gonzalez’s performances after all of the World Cup acclaim.
“When he came back from the World Cup, teams were watching him and they were watching him perform at our level,” Berhalter said. “I think that’s eventually what spurred this sale to get done. He didn’t let up at all after his performance in the World Cup. He carried on with solid performances in MLS, capping it off with a goal against LA in his last game for the club.”
Not only did Gonzalez push through the post-World Cup hype, but he did the same in the face of unrelenting transfer-rumor-mania.
“Another thing that impressed me,” Berhalter said, “is that through all this, he had so many agents calling him every single day, wanting a piece of him, offering this club and that club, but he stayed levelheaded and stayed concentrated on his work here in Columbus. That’s difficult to do. I’ve been there. It’s difficult to remain in the moment, but I think one of his best games was last game. This is when there was a swirl of everything. There was a possibility that he was going to leave last Saturday, and he knew that. But to still be able to go out there and perform says a lot about his ability and the type of guy he is.”
The 4-1 win over LA prompted a few deadpan gems from Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. In what appears to be a trend, the 3-0 win over Houston prompted a few deadpan gems from Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear. This an amusing trend I could get used to. I wasn’t there for this, but this is the entirety of Kinnear’s appearance on the postgame quote sheet….
On his thoughts of his team’s performance:
On what to work on prior to the match against Sporting Kansas City:
“Winning a road game.”
If you haven’t already watched the most recent edition of Off the Post, featuring Crew players discussing their pro wrestling entrance music, I cannot recommend it enough. The Crew have been dominating so much the last two weeks that even their halftime video clips are blowout victories. Matt Lampson, as always, steals the show.
Questions? Comments? Angry or happy that “Baby Baby” is now going to be stuck in your head for the foreseeable future? Feel free to write at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @stevesirk