In the tunnel, as the heavy-footed departure of the disappointed crowd rumbled above us, Dante Washington walked up to me and asked, “So which game was worse for you, THAT game or THIS one?”
The word “that” was said with a nod toward my Ohio University cap, as earlier that day my Bobcats lost 43-7 to the Ohio State Buckeyes in college football. The word “this” obviously applied to the Crew’s 4-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders. Both games were effectively over by halftime. The Bobcats trailed 34-0 and the Crew were down 3-0. It was hardly a banner day for my teams.
“THIS one,” I said after fraction of a second. After all, only one of the two blowouts on the day left me blindsided and bewildered. Putting aside the coulda-shoulda-woulda near-upset of 2008, OU is supposed to get trounced on the road by a football factory like Ohio State. That is why they were 30.5-point underdogs heading into the game.
But the Crew losing by four goals? At home? Those dark days were supposed to be well behind us. That score line is soooooo 2005.
Well, at least it was until the Crew put a fresh coat of paint on it. But still, it was one of the strangest blowouts I can remember. The Crew dominated the majority of the first half. That’s the very same half that saw them fall behind 3-0.
The half basically broke down like this:
Good Seattle pressure, resulting in a corner kick. The Crew’s inability to clear led to a Seattle goal by Blaise Nkufo.
The Crew were completely in control of the game. Emmanual Ekpo was a human blob of mercury as he was impossible to pin down on the right side of the Crew’s attack. You know how in cartoons, they will show ski tracks going around either side of a tree trunk? I became convinced that Emmanuel Ekpo could actually do that. Seattle’s defenders probably agreed. But as has been the case all year for Ekpo in league play, his razzle dazzle had no effect on the score sheet as the Crew did not convert on a single chance.
Seattle counterattacked against a discombobulated Crew defense to take a 2-0 lead on Nkufo’s second of the night. Then they counterattacked again and earned a penalty to take 3-0 lead into the locker room.
And that’s that. Three dangerous forays turned into three goals for Seattle, while a solid half hour of threatening play resulted in just one first half shot on goal for the Crew. The Sounders would cap the night with a late goal, Nkufo’s third of the night, to finish off the 4-0 rout.
“We were very efficient tonight in our finishing,” said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid. “I don't think the difference between the two teams is four goals, even though that was the score tonight.”
The scoreboard often lies in soccer. But in other ways, it doesn’t lie. For all of the artistry, possession, pressure, and other elements of the sport, games are ultimately won and lost in front of the two goalmouths.
“They punished us,” said Crew defender Danny O’Rourke. “They finished their chances. We kept the ball well, but we just couldn’t put it in the back of the net. That was the difference, and it showed. Four to nothing. It’s (a butt)-kicking.”
GOALS, GOALS, GOALS
Designated Player Blaise Nkufo went scoreless in his first seven competitive matches with the Sounders. He made up for lost time with a hat trick against the Crew. Nkufo battled to bang home a rebound goal in the 4th minute, perfectly slotted a low shot into the side netting in the 39th minute, and then capped the night with a one-timer into the upper corner of the net in the 75th minute.
“He's the all time leading scoring in FC Twente's history in Holland, and they put a statue of him outside of the stadium,” Schmid said. “You don't do that unless you do a good job scoring goals.”
Schmid thinks the annihilation of Nkufo’s scoreless drought bodes well for the World Cup vet, just as it would for any striker.
“Anytime a goalscorer scores, it's huge,” he said. “They sometimes measure their games by different standards than we do. I, as a coach, say, ‘Hey, you're still helping us, you're still doing this, you're still doing that’, but in his mind, he's not scoring goals, so he's not going to be happy. So for him, I think getting the three goals tonight was very important for his confidence, and just his own self-value.”
Seattle’s lone non-Nkufo goal came courtesy of a Nathan Sturgis penalty kick in the 42nd minute. Seattle earned the penalty when Sanna Nyassi beat Danny O’Rourke on a give and go, causing O’Rourke to make an ill-fated grab from behind.
“I wanted to get tight on Nyassi because they were working the ball around well,” the always-accountable O’Rourke explained. “I got tight at the wrong time, then I turned the wrong way, and when you play against a quick guy like that, you have to stay stride for stride with him. Since I turned the wrong way, he got a step on me, so I tried to tug him a little bit just to throw him a little off balance when he shot against Will, but then he went down.”
THE LOCKER ROOM
As one might expect, the Crew locker room was not a happy place. Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer glumly answered questions while methodically running a razor blade along his wrists.
Hmm. I should probably take a moment to clarify that he was using some sharp-edged tool to cut through all of the athletic tape on his wrists.
Anyway, Hesmer disputed the notion that this might be a “forget it and move on” type of game.
“You get tired of saying that,” he said, surely referencing recent losses at LA and Salt Lake, both of which may have originally fallen into that category. “We’ve got to right the ship, that’s for sure. It just doesn’t feel good right now. I don’t know exactly what it is, but we’re in a funk, and we need to find a way to get some results.
“The problem is that they got an early goal,” Hesmer continued. “They could have had a couple in the first three minutes. That can’t happen. At home, we need to be the ones setting the tone. We need to put our stamp on the game. We need to be the one making them uncomfortable. Whatever it is with us not being ready right off the bat, it needs to change.”
Danny O’Rourke has used athletic amnesia to his great benefit throughout his career, so his response to the 4-0 loss came as no shock.
“I’m over it already,” he said. “Once the final whistles blows, it’s out of mind and I’m focused on (the Champions League game) Tuesday. The best thing a professional can have is a short memory. Hopefully everyone goes home, has a good night’s sleep, and then we can prepare for Tuesday.”
Brian Carroll seemed to split the difference between Hesmer and O’Rourke. In the space of a week, the Crew suddenly found themselves six points adrift in the race for the Brian Carroll Trophy (aka Supporters’ Shield), and Carroll was clearly agitated. The normally mild-mannered Carroll mild-mannerdly peppered his mild manneredness with a few uncharacteristically un-mild and un-mannered word choices.
“I think any time you get overconfident, or any time you get away from doing the little things that help teams win, it’s good to get (a butt)-whupping and learn from it.” Carroll said. “We can learn from it, or we can drop our heads and just be like, ‘(FUUUDGE)’, and never learn from it. We need to regroup, take a deep look at ourselves and be critical of ourselves, but we also need to keep our chin up. We’ve got five more games to go, and we need to use that time to get results and get our killer instinct back.”
(NOTE: To paraphrase some dialogue from A Christmas Story, “Only he didn’t say fudge. He said THE word, the big one, the queen mother of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word!”)
Carroll clarified that he doesn’t think the Crew have been overconfident.
“I don’t think tonight was overconfidence on our end,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve been steamrolling anyone lately. We’ve been good over the course of the season, but we need to get better as a group. There’s no pointing fingers. We all need to look in the mirror. We need to play better as a team and everyone needs to take care of their part of the field.”
THANKS FOR STAYING
After both teams had cleared the field, a few Crew players lingered behind. Hesmer and Frankie Hejduk made a slow procession down the length of the west stands, signing autographs, shaking hands, and interacting with their disappointed fans. And although I didn’t see it, words has spread that Carroll did likewise in the Nordecke.
Hejduk, who also gave his jersey to one lucky fan, felt that the fans deserved some love.
“They came out on their Saturday night and wanted to see a good game, and for them to stick around and support us through that was pretty awesome,” he said. “We lost 4-0. I wanted to show some love to them because they stood behind us until the end.”
“That was a thank you and an apology,” Hesmer said. “This was the worst loss I have ever been a part of in my MLS career, so it meant a lot to see the fans stick around and still support us. We weren’t our best and they still gave their best and tried to pick us up. It means a lot, so like I said, that was both a thank you and an apology.”
Later that night, I mentioned all this to Crew president Mark McCullers as we chatted in the tunnel.
“I’m glad to hear that,” McCullers said. “I think this team has a lot of character. To take a four-nil drubbing and then still have the guts and the character to thank the people for coming out, I think that says a lot about those guys and the make-up of our team.”
One has to imagine that McCullers appreciated any bit of positive fan interaction after such a game. The Crew invited fans to come silence the Sounders, but it as the Sounders who did the silencing. The 4-0 loss happened in front of the Crew’s second largest crowd of the season (17,144), so from the business side, perhaps the match was an opportunity squandered. In a strange quirk, the Crew are 0-2-1 this season in home games that have surpassed 16,500 fans in attendance. They have been outscored 6-0 in the process. That’s not exactly how the bean counters would draw it up. Nor the players, of course.
OPEN CUP, SCHMOPEN CUP
The lopsided game occurred a mere two-plus weeks before the same two teams will square off in the U.S. Open Cup final at Qwest Field on October 5th. Players from both locker rooms seemed to shrug off the impending showdown, instead focusing on more immediate goals.
“I’m not even thinking about that,” said O’Rourke. “We’ve got Santos on Tuesday, and that’s all I can concentrate on. We’ve got a chance to go out there on Tuesday and right our wrongs, and that’s what I am thinking about.”
“I’m not worried about that,” said Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller. “I am more focused on what this means for our playoff position. We’ve got five more league games to put us in the playoffs, which is most important right now, and then we’ve got a tough Champions League game on Wednesday against Monterrey, so that cup final seems way off.”
Schmid said that despite Saturday’s score line, his team will be taking nothing for granted when the Crew and Sounders meet again for the Open Cup championship.
“I know the team in that (Crew) locker room is not going to be happy with the result today,” he said. “There's too much pride and there's too much quality in that team. There's no way we're going into that Open Cup final thinking ‘Okay, that's going to happen again.’ We know we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and be prepared to work.”
MR. NUMBERS NERD: SINGLE SHELLACKING EDITION
In their last two league outings—last week’s 3-1 loss at Los Angeles and Saturday’s 4-0 loss vs. Seattle— the Crew have managed to produce some unflattering numbers. The results sent me scrambling to the record book, and sure enough, these defeats are of historic Crew sucktitude.
The 4-0 loss tied the Crew record for margin of defeat. It’s the 8th time it’s happened. He’s a yucky list of the Crew’s four-goal losses in league play…
6/30/96: Lost 4-0 vs. MetroStars
3/18/00: Lost 5-1 at Tampa Bay
5/12/01: Lost 4-0 at Dallas
5/14/05: Lost 4-0 vs. Kansas City
5/31/06: Lost 5-1 at D.C. United
8/12/06: Lost 4-0 at Kansas City
5/19/07: Lost 4-0 at New York
9/18/10: Lost 4-0 vs. Seattle
MR. NUMBERS NERD: MULTIPLE SHELLACKINGS EDITION
Saturday marked only the third time that the Crew have lost back-to-back league games by a combined total of at least six goals, and fell one goal short of the all-time Crew record.
Worst Goal Differential in Back-to-Back Defeats:
Minus-7: Lost 4-0 vs. NY on 6/30/96, then lost 4-1 at TB on 7/4/96
Minus-6: Lost 3-1 at DC on 5/7/05, then lost 4-0 vs. KC on 5/14/05
Minus-6: Lost 3-1 at LA on 9/11/10, then lost 4-0 vs. SEA on 9/18/10
The Crew have also coughed up seven goals in the last two league games. That defensive lapse is in a 6-way tie for 3rd place in the Crew’s back-to-back sieve list. The record is nine goals allowed in two games, set in that ever-so-zany inaugural MLS season.
Most Goals Allowed in Back-To-Back Games:
9 goals: Lost 5-2 at DC on 5/15/96, then lost 4-2 vs COL on 5/19/96
8 goals: Lost 4-0 vs NY on 6/30/96, then lost 4-1 at TB on 7/4/96
7 goals: Six times, with the most recent occurrence before this one being the DC/KC 2005 combo referenced in the goal differential list. The Crew also (un)accomplished the feat 2003, 2002, 2000, and 1996.
MR. NUMBERS NERD: BAD HAT TRICK EDITION
On Saturday, Seattle’s Blaise Nkufo became the first visiting player to score a hat trick at Crew Stadium. The Crew had previously allowed a hat trick at home, but LA’s Martin Machon did the deed at the Horseshoe.
All-Time Hat Tricks Against the Crew:
Steve Rammel, 5/15/96 at DC (L, 5-2)
Martin Machon, 5/17/98 vs LA (L, 4-2)
Taylor Twellman, 9/10/05 at NE (L, 3-1)
Robbie Findley, 4/2/09 at RSL (L, 4-1)
Blaise Nkufo, 9/18/10 vs SEA (L, 4-0)
MR. NUMBERS NERD: FIRST-TIMERS EDITION
The Crew have continued to be the butt of a rather puzzling trend…they seem to specialize in giving up goals to players who entered the match with zero career MLS goals. Saturday’s hat-trick produced the first three goals of Blaise Nkufo’s MLS stint, and the penalty kick goal was the first tally of Nathan Sturgis’ MLS career. Of the 27 goals the Crew have conceded all year, 11 have been scored by players who entered the match with no career MLS goals. That’s 41% of all goals conceded.
The numbers are even more jarring at Crew Stadium. In fact, the numbers are inexplicable. At home, nine out of the 11 goals conceded have come to players who entered the match with zero career MLS goals. That’s a mind-blowing 82%!
People With Zero Career MLS Goals Scoring Against the Crew in 2010:
* Zach Boggs, 2 goals on 5/8 vs. NE (W, 3-2)
* Tony Tchani on 5/20 at NY (W, 3-1)
* Michael Stephens on 5/29 vs. LA (L, 2-0)
* Tristan Bowen on 5/29 vs. LA
* Teal Bunbury on 7/14 vs. KC (L, 1-0)
* Carlos Borja on 7/31 at CHV (L, 3-1)
* Blaise Nkufo, 3 goals on 9/18 vs. SEA (L, 4-0)
* Nathan Sturgis on 9/18 vs. SEA
MR. NUMBERS NERD: BAD START EDITION
The Crew are winless in their first four matches against the Sounders. That’s bad, but it’s not a Crew record for futility at the start of a head-to-head relationship. Counting shootouts as draws, the Crew went winless in their first nine encounters (0-6-3) with the Colorado Rapids. The tenth time was the charm for collecting three points, with the Crew finally breaking the streak with a 3-0 victory in Denver on July 4, 1999. (Crew assistant coach Mike Lapper scored the goal of his life in that game.)
Also, the Crew went winless in their first four matchups against the Houston Dynamo. The Crew, however, went 0-1-3 against the Dynamo, so the 0-2-2 start with Seattle wins the tie-breaker because the four-game winless streak against the Sounders has produced one fewer point. So the Crew’s futility against the Sounders is the club’s second-worst start against any opponent.
In another series quirk, the Crew have yet to lose or be shut out in Seattle, but have yet to earn a point or score a goal in Columbus. Weird, huh? Maybe it’s good that Seattle is hosting the U.S. Open Cup final.
MR. NUMBERS NERD: KELLER HEARTS CREW STADIUM EDITION
Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller really, really, really loves Crew Stadium. Saturday’s win improves Keller’s career mark at Crew Stadium to 5-0-2 with just one goal allowed in the seven matches. Keller’s first five appearances came with the U.S. National Team.
“It’s been nice,” Keller said. “Crew Stadium and RFK have been lucky charms for me. Tonight, the team jumped out to a great lead and then I was able to make a couple of saves when needed.”
As for RFK Stadium, with a 1-0 victory on July 15, Keller ran his personal unbeaten streak in the nation’s capital to 12 games. Between the U.S. Nats and the Sounders, he is now 9-0-3 at RFK, allowing only four goals in the 12 matches.
AND ON A HAPPY NOTE…
This Notebook has been full of depressing talk and factoids, so let us end on a happy note. On Monday, September 7, Brian and Katie Carroll welcomed son Aiden Michael into the world. As instructed, mother and baby waited until the day after the Crew’s fantasy football draft before engaging in the miracle of child birth.
“BC made it home from the draft and got about five hours of sleep before it was baby time,” said Hesmer. “His wife did a perfect job. He talked to his kid for three or four months, telling the kid he had to wait until September 7th, and then he was born on September 7th. He’s the perfect son, just like BC. Perfect.”
“He listened to his dad and his mom on when to come,” Carroll said. “He came while I was in town and after the fantasy draft was complete. In all seriousness, he’s amazing. It’s really awesome being a father.”
With newborns come many sleepless nights, but Carroll said Katie has taken care to ensure he gets his much needed rest before games.
“My wife’s been awesome about letting me sleep,” he said. “Obviously, I have to put in the work with changing the diapers and feeding him and stuff, but a couple nights before the game, she’s been letting me sleep like I normally would. She’s been great about that.”
Aiden Carroll is the second member of the Crew’s midfield of the future to be born this year. Emmanuel Ekpo, Jr., was born on June 17th.
Questions? Comments? Think Rufus the Bobcat needs to face off against Brutus the Buckeye in next year’s mascot soccer game at Crew Stadium? Feel free to write at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @stevesirk
Steve Sirk is a contributor to TheCrew.com. His first book, “A Massive Season”, which chronicles the Crew’s 2008 MLS Cup championship campaign, is currently available at the Crew Gear store and Amazon.com. This article was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.