Boy, did I ever need the first day of training camp.
I will be the first to admit that I did not take Black November too well. To lose so many Massive Champions in such a short time took an emotional toll. To be stripped of the great Guillermo Barros Schelotto, legendary captain Frankie Hejduk, and Notebook Hall of Famer Duncan Oughton on the SAME day? Brutal. Absolutely brutal. And that’s not even counting everybody’s favorite pirate, Gino Padula. And then the hits kept coming…Jason Garey, Adam Moffat, Brian Carroll, and Steven Lenhart all packed up their championship rings for new environs. Regardless of whether these were good moves or bad moves, it was always going to be hard to see these guys go. There have been slow trickles before, as Brad Evans, Stefani Miglioranzi, Pat Noonan, Alejandro Moreno, and Jed Zayner moved on one by one. But this…this was not a slow trickle. It was a Tsunami of “See Ya!” and I almost let myself drown in it.
This is precisely why I am thoroughly unqualified to run a pro sports organization. My emotions and heart would trump all. Heck, if I ran the Crew, not only would all of those guys listed above still be here, but Dante Washington, Ansil Elcock, and Brian Maisonneuve would still be getting occasional minutes off the bench. And I would have spent the current offseason trying to re-sign Jeff Cunningham.
So I needed the jolt of adrenaline that training camp provides. I needed to see some familiar faces. And I needed to get a look at some new faces. And while it felt strange for the notable absences, it was also encouraging to feel the collective enthusiasm.
I know the Crew have been reticent to label this transition as “rebuilding” or a “new Crew”, but in many ways it is. A young and talented core returns, certainly, but this is still a new chapter. The “original Crew” were led by guys like Brian McBride, Brian Maisonneuve, Robert Warzycha, and Mike Clark. Those players eventually gave way to locker room leaders such as Hejduk, Oughton, and Schelotto. And now it’s time for the next wave of leaders. Even if much of the young and successful core is still the same, it’s still a new Crew. It’s their team now.
It’s not like I am going to stop missing the guys who are gone. My Direct Kick package is going to get a workout this summer as I try to keep tabs on all of the Massive Champions scattered around the league. And while part of me is sad that the group got broken up while still churning out 50 point seasons and reaching finals, part of me has eventually taken solace that I will never witness that relatively intact group of Massive Champions struggling to make the playoffs. Or, heaven forbid, missing them. That three-year stretch from 2008 to 2010 is guaranteed to remain unblemished. 156 points, one MLS Cup, two Supporters’ Shields, and a U.S. Open Cup final appearance. Those departed players will remain forever Massive.
But now that I’ve soaked in the first day of training, I’m excited again. The old guard’s legacy is permanently secured. The young core now has the opportunity to build on its previous success, but now as leaders in their own right. And I’m excited for the simple fact that a new season is right around the corner. The easiest way to shake off the doldrums of November is to soak up the excitement of January in anticipation of February’s action.
So with that, here’s a collection of quips, stories, and comments from the first day of training camp.
Given what I have already written, it should go without saying that it’s been a tough offseason for Crew President & GM Mark McCullers. In a salary cap league, tough decisions have to be made. In this case, McCullers, technical director Brian Bliss, and head coach Robert Warzycha made the tough decisions that they felt were best for the continued success of the club, knowing that the decisions would be both heartbreaking and unpopular. Time will eventually tell whether the Crew’s braintrust made the right choices, but as I tweeted back in November, they certainly didn’t take the easy way out. They had the conviction to do what they honestly felt they had to do, no matter how much I and many others would hate it when the ax fell.
“If you don’t give us credit for anything else, I guess you have to give us credit for having guts,” McCullers said. “The easy path would have been to think about how this might upset the fan base, how it might impact ticket sales, how it might hurt marketing, and all of those things. But above all that, we are committed to winning and doing what we think is necessary to win. I understand people’s frustrations and concerns, but I think that once people get a chance to see this team and to think about the players that are still here, those players are worthy of our support. They really are. And they are going to step up from a leadership standpoint. But this offseason was very tough for all of us and it certainly wasn’t the easy path for us to take.
“I’ve tried to shy away from terms such as ‘rebuilding’ and ‘new era’ because when you come out here and you look at some of the players that we still have on this team, I’m excited. I’m looking forward to this season. Change is tough sometimes, but it can also be very invigorating. That’s where I am right now. I’m very excited.
“I know some fans are on the fence, and there are still some priorities that we have set that we need to accomplish. We need to make the right moves, not just any move. Success in this league is about managing your resources and being smart. I understand the fans’ concerns, but I think as we get closer to the season and the team has a chance to interact with the fans, they will see what we have here. I think the fans will be as excited as I am. At the end of the day, I’m a fan too.”
This offseason, I was asked via twitter who I thought would be captain, as if I am remotely qualified to answer that question. My gut reaction was that it would be William Hesmer or Danny O’Rourke. Hesmer has already demonstrated his leadership as a player rep during the last round of collective bargaining negotiations, where he proved he wasn’t afraid to say what needed to be said for the sake of his guys and to take the arrows that sometimes come with doing so. He just seems like a natural. On the other hand, O’Rourke is a proven winner at every level, a stand-up guy, and a relentless competitor. And while I have been as guilty as anyone in playing up his reputation as a meathead, the truth is that he possesses a thoughtful intellect that would serve him well in such a role. Plus maybe the armband would buy him some much-needed leeway with the officials.
I think my brain is still fixated on those two when it comes to what I traditionally think of as a captain, but in looking around at training, I noticed Chad Marshall chatting up rookies and dishing out hugs. Marshall’s play tends to speak for itself, and while he has typically shied away from the public spotlight, legend has it that he can be a different guy behind closed doors, where his quirky sense of humor shines. He may not be the prototypical rah-rah “public face of the team” captain, but he certainly has a role to play in the molding of this new group. His accomplishments alone demand instant respect.
As I continued to look around, I noticed Robbie Rogers. Despite already appearing to be in mid-season shape, Rogers took it upon himself to do a half-hour of extra running after practice had concluded. I imagine that I wasn’t the only one who noticed.
Rogers himself acknowledged that it was time for him to grow into a leader. “I’m excited to be a leader on this team,” he said. “I’m 23 years old. I’m not a little kid anymore. I am ready to step up.”
And then there’s Eddie Gaven. After interning as a goalkeeper last October, Gaven is now ready to take charge with the intensity of a Marine Corps drill instructor channeling Jon Busch.
“I’m more of the person who likes to lead by example and how I play,” Gaven practically whispered. “I think the guys who are going to do the yelling are going to be Danny and Will.”
Which brings me back around to my original line of thinking in terms of an official captain. But a captain is just one guy. Locker room leadership is rarely so centralized. Frankie Hejduk captained some of the greatest teams in Crew history, but the leadership didn’t fall only to him. Guille had a role. Oughton had a role. Moreno had a role. Hendrickson had a role. Carroll had a role. And so on.
In the end, the man that assumes the role of captain will not be the sole leader. The wearer of the armband will benefit from Hesmer’s forthrightness, O’Rourke’s intensity, Marshall’s presence, Rogers’ work ethic, and Gaven’s actions. And that’s not to mention a guy like Sebastian Miranda, who has captained teams before coming to Columbus.
I’m as curious as anyone to see how this ultimately shakes out, but the raw materials appear to be there.
McCULLERS ADDRESSES TEAM
Mark McCullers addressed the team at the conclusion of the first day of training. I wasn’t close enough to eavesdrop, so McCullers offered a recap.
“Especially for the new guys coming in, I talked a bit about Lamar Hunt,” he explained. “He’s still where a lot of my motivation comes from. I wanted to make sure that they understand the tradition and what this club is about in terms of Lamar’s legacy, and what all of that means to me and what we try to accomplish as a club. I told them that the Hunts have said that these recent Crew clubhouses have been the best clubhouses that they have ever been around, and that’s a pretty bold statement considering they were involved with six Chicago Bulls championships. I said that we have developed a championship clubhouse and a championship atmosphere, and that emanates from the players. And it can also be felt in our stadium with our fans. We’ve had the best record over the last three years and the best home record over the last three years, so I talked about the fans and their relationship with our players. It’s why Crew Stadium is a tough place to come and get three points. It’s very important to us.”
Eddie Gaven felt that it was an appropriate tone-setter for the first day.
“He was just telling everyone what this club is all about,” Gaven said. “He wants to keep the winning mentality that we’ve built on this team. It was a good message. The club is going to expect a lot from us, and they are also going to do everything than can to help us be the best we can be. I think it’s good that he wants to instill that winning mindset in the new players from the very first day.”
ROGERS READY FOR THE CHALLENGE
After a tumultuous offseason for the club, Robbie Rogers is revved up and ready to get things going.
“It’s a very new Crew, and it’s very exciting,” he said. “There’s going to be a chance for a lot of new players to make the team, and for a lot of returning players to step up. It’s a chance for all of us to make new friends and to do something that’s going to be difficult. Whenever you have a new team, it’s going to be difficult, but it’s also a golden opportunity. I’m sure there are a lot of doubters out there who think we can’t do well because we have a lot of new players. We can’t worry about them. I’m excited.”
OFFSEASON ADVENTURES: ANDY GRUENEBAUM
When I first arrived at SuperKick, Andy Gruenebaum waved me back into the weightlifting area. He then proceeded to repeatedly scratch the side of his head in such a way that rolled up his sleeves and constantly flexed his biceps. Despite that, we also managed to talk about his offseason.
“This offseason was the one-year anniversary with my wife,” Gruenebaum said. “She has not divorced me yet, so that’s good. We went to Key West. We saw a lot of interesting people there. It’s a very diverse and open culture there. We had a good time. We did all the things that my wife wanted to do. I like to do them too, so whatever. ‘Happy wife, happy life.’ That’s what I say.”
OFFSEASON ADVENTURES: EDDIE GAVEN
Brace yourself for an Eddie Gaven shocker!
“You know me. I’m a pretty boring guy,” Gaven said. “I actually did a little bit of sledding because we got some snow when I was back home in New Jersey. That’s about it. I read some good books, so that’s exciting, right? I read a couple of books by G.K. Chesterton. He’s my favorite author. That’s about it, man. I kept it pretty low key.”
OFFSEASON ADVENTURES: WILLIAM HESMER
“I was in Columbus almost every day, rehabbing,” Hesmer said. “Two to three hours in the gym every day wasn’t fun. It was mundane stuff, but it’s paying off now. I’m feeling good and trying to push these guys to let me do more. I’m going to be pushing it to be ready for that February 22 game, but it will be a question of quality practice time. Hopefully I’ll be sharp by then and be ready to go.”
In addition to rehab, Hesmer organized his third annual soccer clinic to raise money for the Wesley Shelter of Wilson, which houses battered women and also provides educational and mental health assistance for the women and their children.
“It’s a women’s shelter in my hometown,” Hesmer said. “My mom manages it and runs it. It’s basically in conjunction with the United Way. It’s for battered women and all types of issues with children. If they are on the street, it’s a place that will house them, feed them, and educate them on what’s right and what you don’t have to tolerate. They deal with some rapes and this year my mom even had to deal with some murders, so it’s been a tough year down there. With state and budget cuts, I’m glad that we have been able to raise some money while they are struggling. Domestic abuse is something that’s not in the forefront of the news, but it goes on every day. It’s almost become like it’s just a part of life, but it shouldn’t be. We need a way to get these women and their children back on their feet.”
With the help of friend and former Wake Forest and Crew teammate Brian Carroll, Hesmer prepared the fundraising clinic, only to see the winter weather unexpectedly intervene.
“Me and BC organized a camp and raised a bunch of money, but the camp got canceled,” Hesmer said. “North Carolina got a bunch of snow. On December 18, you maybe expect it to be in the 40s with maybe a chance of rain, but this year there was snow and the fields were frozen over. You can’t hold the attention of a bunch of five and six year olds in those miserable conditions. Hopefully we can reschedule it for the summer if there’s a window in the schedule. Still, thanks to everybody who donated, we were able to raise over $20,000, and we still haven’t even had the auction for all of the gear that guys from around the league donated, so it’s going to be even more.”
OFFSEASON ADVENTURES: ROBBIE ROGERS
Of the guys I talked to, Rogers had the most adventurous offseason of them all.
“The offseason was awesome, but it felt way too long,” he said. “First I went to Brussels to visit with Sacha Kljestan with his brother Gordon. Brussels wasn’t what I expected it to be. It’s a really big city. Sacha lives right in the middle of the city, so my favorite thing was to be able to walk around to all of the shops and restaurants. Old Brussels, kind of like where the main plaza is at, is really sweet. Lots of cool architecture.
“Brussels has a lot of foreigners because it’s the capital of the EU, so they have all kinds of food. They have really good Italian food there, and they had this place that we went to that had the best all you can eat ribs. The ribs had the best sweet and spicy teriyaki sauce. Oh my God, it was amazing. And the baked potatoes there had this butter and curry sauce in the center. It sounds really bad, but it was amazing. I talked to Sacha a couple of days ago and I told him to go over there and eat a baked potato for me.
“I went straight from there to Argentina to visit with Guille. I got to spend some really good time with Guille and his family. The weather down there was gorgeous, so I spent a lot of time chilling at the pool and practicing my Spanish. My Spanish is getting better. Last year, I went down there and didn’t really understand a whole lot, but this year people were saying, ‘Wow, your Spanish is a lot better. You understand a lot more.’ So I’m really proud of that.
“One day we went to Maradona’s assistant’s house for a barbeque, and we all played some soccer. That was so cool to meet Maradona. He was a lot different than I thought he’d be. He was kinda like….I dunno…he was kinda like a mafia dude. I seriously felt like I was hanging out with the mafia. There were all these super gnarly dudes and everyone was smoking cigars. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I need to get out of here.’ It was super cool to meet him, though. I took a picture with him and his assistant is supposed to send it to me, but I haven’t gotten it yet. Maybe one day I’ll get it. I hope so.
“Then I spent the last few weeks in California. It was great to see my family. My brothers and my sisters are all doing well, as are my mom and my dad. I got to hang out at the beach and surf a little bit. I played pick-up soccer with a lot of MLS guys in LA. Jordan Harvey was out there…some guys from Seattle… some Salt Lake guys like Tony Beltran…Landon was out there…just a whole bunch of guys.
“And now I’ve been in Columbus for a few days now. I’ve been helping Steve (Lenhart) pack. He left this morning for LA and then will be on to San Jose. It’s been great to have him as a teammate and a roommate. Steve, if you’re reading this, I’m going to miss you!”
THE CURSE OF ROBBIE ROGERS
The Lenhart trade has unearthed a little known curse. It seems that prolonged proximity to Robbie Rogers, at home or in the locker room, is a one-way ticket out of Columbus.
“Danny Szetela got sold or whatever, Timmy Ward got traded, Brad Evans got picked in the expansion draft, and now Stevie got traded,” Rogers noted. “That’s four roommates gone in four years! And the locker to the left of mine, I can’t even name all of the people. There have probably been about eight different guys who have come and gone from that locker. No, it’s more than that. It’s over ten people that have had that locker to the left of me. It’s worse than living with me. I guess I’m bad luck. Or good luck. I guess it depends what you want. But whatever. It’s kind of strange.”
FANTASY FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP DECIDED
Congratulations to Danny O’Rourke, who finally saw his all-consuming obsession pay dividends in the form of a Crew fantasy football championship. O’Rourke bested 2008 champion and 2009 Supporters’ Shield winner Andy Gruenebaum in final.
Gruenebaum dubbed his team to be “the worst team ever assembled.” Nevertheless, his squad eked into the playoffs, then reeled off upsets of Frankie Hejduk and 2010 Supporters’ Shield winner Jason Garey en route to the final.
“It was not only tragic that G-baum was in the final, but it was tragic that he was even in the playoffs,” said Hesmer. “I think the average points scored over the course of the year was over 1300, and G-baum was at about 1100. He scored by far the fewest points the whole year, but still made the playoffs and went to the final. But that happens. We’ve seen it in real life and we’ve seen it in our fantasy football league. His team was really bad.”
Gruenebaum may have hoped for a low-seeded title run like those of Real Salt Lake in 2009 and the Colorado Rapids in 2010. Instead, his Cinderella dreams were massively crushed by a superior outfit in the final, a la the 2008 New York Red Bulls.
Unlike O’Rourke’s cherished 2008 MLS Cup title, Danny felt a little let down by his 2010 fantasy football title, given the opposition.
“The satisfaction of beating G-baum really wasn’t all that exquisite,” he said. “He didn’t even deserve to be there. It wasn’t the final that I was hoping for. I think my bench beat his whole team. It was more fun beating Will in the semifinals and hearing Will say, ‘If we would have met in the finals, I would have won!’ And really, it’s like, ‘Will, in order to PLAY in the final, you have to actually MAKE it to the final.’ Guess what? He didn’t. Case closed.”
At the other end of the spectrum, head athletic trainer Dave Lagow finished at the bottom of the table in his first year in the league.
“It would be correct to say that I was horrible,” Lagow conceded. “I finished 2-10-1. Chad Marshall was the tie.”
I reminded Lagow that O’Rourke correctly predicted that Lagow would get slaughtered in this highly competitive league.
“Slaughtered is a bit harsh,” Lagow said. “Was it a bad year? Absolutely. Did I finish in last place? Undeniably. But slaughtered is a bit harsh. ‘Humbled’ is a better word. I was humbled.”
O’Rourke hasn’t exactly been shy about his fantasy football title.
“Danny’s been taking his championship to the bank,” said Gruenebaum. “He’s been showing people a picture of his championship check.”
But O’Rourke has reserved his true vindictiveness for Hesmer, his arch-rival and SuperClassico nemesis.
“I am going to spend all of my fantasy football winnings except for Will’s portion of it,” he explained. “I told Will that I am going to put his portion into a savings account or invest it and let it mature for the rest of my life. I want to see how much I will have by the end. Maybe I will be able to buy a car with it. If something fancy comes up, maybe I will spend Will’s money, but for now, the plan is to grow it and always keep him informed of how much it is appreciating. Will’s money might put one of my kids through college someday.”
Hesmer has taken O’Rourke’s needling in stride.
“I hope he follows through with that,” Hesmer said. “I honestly hope Danny does something smart with it instead of something stupid like buying video game controllers.”
THE FUTURE OF FANTASY?
One grossly underreported aspect of Black November is that it has decimated the Crew’s fantasy football league. With Hejduk, Garey, and commissioner Brian Carroll now scattered around MLS, the league is down to five current members: O’Rourke, Hesmer, Gruenebaum, Marshall, and Lagow.
“That’s very disappointing,” O’Rourke said. “I wish the coaching staff and front office would take into consideration the sanctity of our fantasy football league before making all these trades.”
[NOTE: After the laughter subsided, Danny added, “If you use that joke in your story, please make sure they know that I am kidding. I don’t want them to misunderstand and think that I’m serious. I don’t want Will’s money to go toward a fine.”]
Despite the dwindling numbers, it appears that the fantasy football league will carry on.
“Our commissioner is still Brian Carroll,” Gruenebaum said. “He’s trying to do an online thing. I hope it all works out, otherwise I will have to take the reins on it. Guys don’t want to see that. Trust me. Nobody wants to see me do well. I already have everyone against me. It’s tough to be as successful as I always am with all of that collusion going on against me.”
“We’re exploring ways to keep the original fantasy group intact,” Hesmer confirmed, “but there’s one thing that I can guarantee—Gruenebaum will NEVER be the commissioner. EVER. He is the most untrustworthy person that you will ever find on this team.”
First round draft pick Justin Meram has quickly endeared himself to Crew fans by interacting with them via twitter. He has shared his excitement about joining the Crew through both words and photos. The latter included a picture of him wearing his Crew scarf even while in the shower, and another of him sporting an original 1996 Crew jersey that he already had at home.
“The Crew have great fans,” Meram said. “I already feel so welcome here. I’m excited to get this season going. Those Nordecke people are intense, but it’s awesome. The fans are so supportive that I wouldn’t want to leave them behind, so I plan to keep the twitter thing going all year.”
The fact that Meram posed for home pictures in his own old school Crew jersey won him a lot of points with the fans.
“They were the closest team (to his home in Michigan), so I was a fan. I always wanted to scrimmage them when I was in high school. I know some kids who got to do some scrimmages and I was so jealous. So it’s awesome to be wearing black and gold now. Brian Maisonneuve, one of the Indiana coaches, was from Michigan. He was a really good player, so I remember always following him.”
Meram seemed to have survived his first day as a pro just fine.
“It’s just a new pace that you have to adapt to,” he said. “It’s the first day, and there are a lot of veterans around. We’re just little rookies. They haven’t done anything to us yet, but I know I have to keep my eyes open because I’m sure something’s coming.”
ROBBIE’S ONLINE PRESENCE
Rogers also plans to be very interactive online. He is an avid tweeter and is heavily involved with his website, TheRobbieRogers.com, where he often posts short videos that he personally shoots and edits.
“That stuff has been a lot of fun,” Rogers said. “I’ve had twitter for a while, but it was mostly just for my friends. But now I have been getting a lot of positive feedback with the website and especially with twitter. It just gives me a way to connect with people. Not just fans, but people in general. It can even be something like, ‘Hey, I’m in Arizona. What place has good sushi?’ And then you get a million responses. It’s funny. It’s really interesting to me.
“I’ll be doing some giveaways soon. I get all of that free stuff from Nike and I can only use so many Nike shoes, so I am going to give some stuff away to people. And I like doing the videos for the website. It’s fun. I probably think the videos are funnier than anyone else does, but that’s OK. They are so much fun to do. I do the editing and everything. I’ve been learning as I go.”
Rogers also has loftier goals for his website.
“The next big thing I am going to do on my website is promote my friend’s charity in South Africa, and see if I can get some donations. They run an orphanage out there and they do HIV/AIDS clinics to teach people about that. I’ll have more details soon, but if even just a portion of the website visitors donate anything, it can be a good thing. Yeah, it’s a website about being a soccer player or whatever, but there’s so much more important stuff out there. The website can be a way to reach people and form relationships, and that’s probably the most important thing that we can do as athletes. And the website is fun for me and it kills time when I am not training, so it’s the best of all worlds.”
So can we expect some exclusive updates once training camp shifts to Arizona?
“You’ve got to be really careful with that stuff,” he said. “It’s really sensitive when you’re around the team. You can’t really show everything. I will try to focus on stuff that’s more off the field, like getting to know the guys and showing all the sights from the beautiful state of Arizona.”
CLASSIFICATIONS OF CASH
When Shawn Mitchell remarked that the Crew have a pile of cash to work with in terms of rebuilding their roster, McCullers agreed.
“That’s a good description,” McCullers said. “It’s a pile of cash. It’s not a mountain of cash, but it’s not a molehill of cash either.”
McCullers then stressed that the club intends to spend that pile of cash wisely, and that the Crew wouldn’t make a move just for the sake of making a move. He said he would rather wait to make the right move in the summer if the right move isn’t available at the present time.
AND LASTLY, SOME RENTERIA MISCELLANIA
* Director of team operations Tucker Walther and I stared death in the eye as we chatted on the sidelines. During a scrimmage, a player sent a long ball toward the corner where Tucker and I were speaking. Giving chase was muscular Venezuelan Emilio Renteria. Let me tell you, it’s one thing to watch these guys from the stands or the press box. It’s another thing to witness a guy like Emilio Renteria sprinting directly at you with a full head of steam. Before some pee could involuntarily trickle down my leg, I calculated that his angle would cause him to destroy Tucker, not me. And just when I thought Tucker was going to die, the ball rolled out of bounds, causing Renteria to go from full sprint to dead stop in the span of about two or three strides. Again, I cannot stress how amazing (and terrifying) it was to witness this up close and personal.
* Renteria blasted a wicked shot that nearly hit the ceiling, causing staffers to reminisce about Adam Moffat’s wayward rocket that set off the entire SuperKick sprinkler system. The consensus seemed to be that if anyone was going to repeat that fiasco, it was going to be Renteria.
* I noticed that Renteria wasn’t wearing shin guards in the scrimmages, but Tucker told me why. “Look at him!” Tucker said. “His shins are already stronger than shin guards! If you kicked him, his shins would break your foot!”
Questions? Comments? Going to give your sweetheart chocolates and roses for Eight Days ‘Til A Crew Game Day? Feel free to write at email@example.com 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.
Boy, did I ever need the first day of training camp.