It’s a weird thing about Robert Warzycha. So many players make their mark and then leave – that they remain forever etched in our minds. Upon his retirement as player, Warzycha spent the next 11 years on the Crew’s sideline in some sort of coaching capacity, so there was never that clean break. From 1996-2013, Warzycha was such a prominent face in Crewville that it all started to blend together. Somehow, his playing days seemed like ancient history, whereas the exploits of his contemporaries remained fresher because they were more neatly compartmentalized in our collective memory banks.
Or at least that was my theory. Then Crew fans blew that theory to smithereens by voting Warzycha as one of the five finalists for the Crew’s 2014 Circle of Honor induction.
“Robert was one of those guys who had it all,” said fellow Circle of Honor finalist Brian Maisonneuve.
“Playing in the midfield with Robert, he was a two-way player. He was a hard player, but he was technically so nice on the ball.”
“He was one of the hardest workers,” recalled Mike Clark, another Circle of Honor finalist. “He was always fighting for the ball. He was scrappy. And he was obviously famous for the power behind his free kicks. They called him the Polish Rifle and his shot was as good as anybody’s.”
Warzycha’s free kick prowess was on full display in his very first appearance in a Crew uniform. On June 14, 1996, he rifled a free kick goal against the United States U-23 Men’s National Team in an Olympic tune-up match at Ohio Stadium.
What impressed his Crew teammates even more, however, was what happened on a daily basis off the field. As mentioned in the profile of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, MLS has been hit and miss with big-time foreign signings. This was especially true in 1996, when the League was getting off the ground and was viewed by some as an easy payday.
When the Crew announced the signing of a Polish National Team veteran who had played for Everton of the English Premier League, the players didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a first-class player who would help the team win? Or would it be a guy who would loaf around smoking cigarettes while enjoying a leisurely American vacation courtesy of MLS Tours?
“You never knew what you were going to get,” said Clark. “You’d have some guys with great credentials who would just come over and stand around and soak up a paycheck. When Robert first came to the team, he had all of these great credentials, but not only did he have these great credentials, he backed everything up.”
“I think Robert set the tone,” Maisonneuve said. “For an international player like him to come to MLS was a leap of faith at the time. With Robert, it didn’t matter that he played on all of these big stages. Whenever he showed up at the training ground, no matter where we were training at the time— and there for a while we trained all over the place—but he showed up and played. It didn’t matter if it was an indoor facility or a random park field before Obetz was built, he showed up and trained to the best of his ability. It was amazing what he brought every day. It didn’t matter where he came from. He just showed up and played.”
“From the moment he stepped on the field for the first time, Robert epitomized everything the Crew was about,” said longtime Crew broadcaster Dwight Burgess. “He gave tireless effort. He had a team-first mentality. He was fit, strong and competitive. He never gave less than everything he had to Columbus and the Crew.”
“He was one of those guys who came over and you could tell that everything he accomplished, he earned,” added Clark. “He wasn’t given anything.”
While the coaching credo “how you practice is how you’ll play” is not true in every single instance, it was spot on for Warzycha. He was relentless.
“He was a fantastic soccer player,” Maisonneuve said. “Not many players have played so well on both sides of the ball. He was a playmaker who would get in on tackles and work his tail off defensively. Obviously, when he took a shot, everyone in the whole stadium knew it.”
On the night of March 25, 2000, there is no doubt that the whole stadium knew it when Warzycha took a shot. In the final seconds of stoppage time in the ten-minute sudden-death overtime period, Warzycha cranked a 25-yard free kick over the wall and under the crossbar to give the Crew a dramatic home-opener victory over the San Jose Earthquakes. As the crowd went berserk, Crew Cat carried the Polish Rifle off the field.
"It was the perfect distance for me, and anyone who's been on the team for a while knew I was going to shoot," Warzycha said that night in the first official edition of Sirk’s Notebook.
"Afterwards, Dante Washington said he thought I was going to chip the ball to him and I told him he obviously doesn't know me too well!"
In March of 2010, Warzycha and I took a trip down memory lane on the tenth anniversary of that goal.
“I think that moment stands out because I made everybody in the stadium happy,” Warzycha recalled. “Plus, Crew Cat carried me around, and then I saw the pictures of me and Crew Cat afterwards. We can talk about the important moments…but I think that free kick was the most exciting for the fans to remember.”
There are a lot of traits that defined Warzycha as a player, but the trait that Maisonneuve likes to come back to is consistency.
“You knew what you were going to get every time you stepped onto the field with Robert, and it was going to be very good,” Maisonneuve said. “He was such a great passer of the ball. I know Schelotto was fantastic, obviously, but Robert’s dead balls and corner kicks were deadly. You knew what you were going to get every game and every year. It was the same high quality performance.”
The stats bear that out. For example, Warzycha could be counted on to score either two or three goals like clockwork, which he did in five of his seven MLS seasons. (The outliers were a six goal outburst in 2000 and no goals in his final season as player-Assistant Coach in 2002, during which he saw only 495 minutes of action.)
Even more impressive was how consistent Warzycha was as a facilitator. From 1996-2000, he hit double digits in assists each season, tallying 11, 11, 10, 12 and 13. Those happen to be the only five seasons in which he was a regular player, before age and coaching duties reduced him to a part-time role player for his final two campaigns.
To put that accomplishment in perspective, Warzycha is one of only three men in MLS history to string together five consecutive seasons of double-digit assists, joining Preki (eight straight seasons) and Carlos Valderrama (five straight seasons.)
Even if you take the “consecutive” qualifier out of the equation, Warzycha is still one of only eight players in MLS history to assemble five total seasons of double-digit assists.
Most seasons of 10+ assists:
Six: Landon Donovan*, Carlos Valderrama
Five: Brad Davis*, Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, Steve Ralston, Robert Warzycha
(* = active)
That’s an impressive group of guys. A cynic might suggest that since Warzycha played with a great aerial scorer like Brian McBride, his assist totals were inflated because all he had to do was lob some crosses into the box and let McBride do the rest. The stats, however, tell a different story.
Only 13 of Warzycha’s 61 career assists were on McBride tallies. Two of those were secondary assists, so primary assists to McBride made up only 18 percent of his career assist total. To add some perspective, primary assists to Chad Marshall made up 19.4 percent of Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s assist total with Columbus. The Crew’s two set piece legends made virtually equal use of their dominant aerial targets.
Heck, even if one were to remove every single one of the McBride assists from Warzycha’s resume, he would still be the Crew’s all-time assist leader. That’s crazy. The man could play.
On October 24, 2002, Warzycha made the final playing appearance of his career. With the Crew clinging to a 1-0 lead against the LA Galaxy in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, Crew coach Greg Andrulis was certain of two things:
1. After all of the near-misses in the 1990s, Robert Warzycha deserved to be on the field when the whistle blew for the Crew’s first championship of any kind.
2. Even with Warzycha’s 39-year-old legs, age would not be a factor if he came on as a 90th-minute sub. With the Crew hanging on by a thread while playing down a man, the Crew needed Warzycha’s fight.
What followed couldn’t have been scripted any better. In stoppage time, Galaxy scoring ace Carlos Ruiz hit a shot that Crew goalkeeper Jon Busch saved. The rebound caromed toward future Crew champion Alejandro Moreno, who reached out for an off-balance shot around the recovering Busch. The ball bounced toward the goal, possibly sending the game into overtime, where the rampaging Galaxy could barrage the shorthanded and exhausted Columbus players for 30 more minutes. But then, in his only minute of action in the entire tournament and in the final act of his playing career, Warzycha cleared the shot from the goalmouth to preserve the tenuous lead. Moments later, the Crew owned the first trophy in club history.
If you were to ask Moreno, as many people have over the years, he will tell you that he should have scored.
“A lot has been made of that, but let’s be very honest,” he said on the phone while rehashing the play yet again, 12 years after it happened. “The ball is going goal-bound, but I didn’t hit it cleanly. Busch was coming out so I had to hit it around him. It’s trickling toward the goal. It’s not like it was a sprawling goal-line save. It was an uncomfortable shot for me, but it was one of those where it was the type of goal that I usually score. I give credit to Bobby for being there. Bobby was in position and he cleared it, which I know is important in Columbus Crew history, but to be honest, I should have scored the goal.”
But Moreno didn’t. Warzycha was right where the Crew needed him to be at the precise moment they needed him to be there. A short while later, as he walked off the field for the final time as a player, Robert Warzycha did so with a gold championship medal hanging around his neck.
Playing career encores don’t get any more Massive than that.
Questions? Comments? Any favorite Polish Rifle stories from his playing days? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via twitter @stevesirk