Ethan Finlay
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Sirk's Notebook: Mascot Madness edition

Saturday night was one of Crew Stadium’s greatest annual events—Mascot Soccer Night at Crew Stadium. The Columbus Crew provided both the pregame and postmatch entertainment by beating the Montreal Impact 2-0. Since this is technically the Columbus Crew’s website, I should probably write some stuff about them before getting to the mascots.

ETHAN FINLAY STRIKES FIRST IN THE SECOND

“Finlay” is almost an anagram for “finally.” “Finally” is not a word you would have said about the Crew’s first goal, seeing as it came in the second minute. Ryan Schwepfinger did a really interesting breakdown of the goal, and I love Ryan’s new Film Room articles, so instead of describing the goal, I will wholeheartedly recommend that you check out his breakdown of the game film. Good stuff.

[Waiting while you check that out.]

Okay, now that you’re back, here’s what Finlay had to say about the goal, including more sage advice from Crew Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter.

“We’ve been working on this movement with me kind of opening up my hips and letting the ball come into the space,” Finlay said. “It was a nice, firm pass and I took a good touch. We talked about how (Montreal goalkeeper Evan) Bush has made some mistakes in the past and to test him early. Gregg told me that, and all the guys up top, a couple minutes before we went out on the field. I just took a rip at it and I hit it real clean to the near post. It was a nice finish, but it was a great pass by Wil [Trapp]. That’s a tough ball to put.”

It’s uncanny how often Crew players have been told something by the coaching staff this year, only to have it play out that way. Justin Meram’s game-winning goal in Seattle was prophesized by assistant coach Robert Maaskant. Ben Speas scored on the counter right after entering the game against LA, just as Berhalter said he would. Now Finlay scoring two minutes into the game after Berhalter emphasized testing Bush early. And that’s not even getting into Pat Onstad’s work with goalkeeper Steve Clark on penalty kicks. Or one or two other examples that I fear I may be forgetting.

I’m convinced that Crew’s coaching staff leads all of MLS in ESP. They could dwarf the Giancarlo Gonzalez windfall by opening their own 900 psychic hotline number.

THE PENALTY

The Crew got the chance to double their advantage in the 56th minute. After Federico Higuain quickly played Justin Meram down the left side behind the Montreal defense, Finaly went into “meep meep” roadrunner mode and blew past Impact defender Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare in an effort to get in front of the Montreal goal. Gagnon-Lapare tugged on Finlay’s shirt, bringing him to the ground and resulting in a penalty kick and a yellow card.

Impact coach Frank Klopas quickly was ejected for disputing the play.

“I was just complaining,” Klopas said. “It was very hard for me to understand the PK call they called. I know Jeremy made some contact but the guy is going into the corner and there is no ball played or dangerous collisions in the corner and the guy calls a PK. I’ve never seen a softer PK call in my life.”

Well, Meram was actually in the box and dribbling toward the Montreal goal, assessing his passing options, so he was not in the corner and there was indeed a ball to be played. The tug was just a quick tug, but as Finlay notes, that sort of thing is a point of emphasis with the officials this year.

“The ball squirted to Justin and I saw an opportunity to get to the near post so Aaron [Schoenfeld] could get in behind me,” Finlay said. “I made the run and #28 gave me a tug. They’re calling that this year. Some people might say it was light, but he definitely pulled me down and stopped my run. Pretty easy call for the ref.”

Regardless of whether it was the softest PK call in Frank Klopas’ life or a pretty easy call for the ref, it set the stage for Pipa.

PIPA’S PK

Federico Higuain had missed his last two penalty kicks. He clanged the first one off of the crossbar, and in the New England game, he evoked the Ghost of Sanneh with an easily-saved roller (It’s been a decade and the Crew have won an MLS Cup since then and I’m still not over the first-weakest, first-most-easily-saved south end Columbus penalty kick against the Revolution in Crew Stadium history.)

Anyway, given that Pipa had missed his last two and was just 4-for-7 on the year, pundits began to wonder if it was time for Berhalter to designate a new PK-taker. Perhaps Pipa had developed the yips from the spot, like Chuck Knoblauch trying to make routine throws from second base. (An All-Star and Gold-Glove second baseman with the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees, Knoblauch inexplicably lost the ability to accurately throw the ball to first base. After making three throwing errors in six innings in a game in 2000, he pulled himself from the game and left the stadium while the game was still in progress. He never played second base again. He was converted to an outfielder.)

Granted, Pipa’s PK troubles were a blip of yips, not a season-and-a-half of all-out yips like Knoblauch had experienced, but Pipa’s troubles definitely became a story line. Berhalter was adamant that no changes would be forthcoming. Pipa had the full faith of his coaches and teammates.

So there he was on Saturday night, once again at the spot, all alone, with a chance to nip the yips in their infancy.

He converted.

“To me, there was never doubt,” Berhalter said. “You never lose faith in a guy like Federico. He’s a game-changer. For him, I’m really happy for him because he needs that confidence back from the penalty spot because everyone knows he can do it and everyone has trust in him.”

More importantly, the way he converted has to be a confidence booster. Higuain struck a low, hard shot to his left. Bush guessed correctly and covered almost all of the lower corner. A merely “good” PK could have been saved and would have only added to Higuain’s troubles. Instead, he struck a perfect penalty. The ball zipped into the side netting, just out of Bush’s reach. Not only did Higuain score, but he executed flawlessly against a goalkeeper who did everything right.

“If you look at Di Vaio’s, it was pretty good also,” Berhalter said of the stoppage time PK attempt by Montreal’s star striker, which was saved by Steve Clark. “It was a pretty good penalty and Steve got to it. You can hit a very good penalty and the goalie can guess right and still save it, so I think that gives (Higuain) confidence to focus on the striking and the placement of the ball. He’ll be fine.”

CLARK’S PK SAVE

As mentioned, Clark made a ridiculous diving save on Di Vaio’s stoppage time PK to preserve the shutout. Also as mentioned, Crew coaches have ESP.

“A lot of that stuff and my saves are on Pat [Onstad],” Clark said. “The whole year he has been fantastic. He keeps all of the goalkeepers at such a high level. Matt [Lampson], Brad [Stuver] and Dan [Withrow] are all so good. Pat is giving me this great intel and our goalkeeping unit is so solid. Really, the tip goes to Pat for all of his hard work and keeping us sharp.”

Back in June, Clark made a comically simple save on a stoppage time penalty kick from D.C. United’s Fabian Espindola, preserving a 0-0 draw. Espindola got cute and gently lobbed a shot right down the middle, assuming Clark would dive to either side. Clark mentally committed to holding his ground and even had time to think, “Oh my god, he hit it right at me” before making a save that more closely resembled receiving end of egg toss at a family reunion. At the time, Clark credited that legendary save to Onstad’s intel.

“He’s the Jedi Master, dude,” Clark said. “I can’t give up our secrets, but Pat Onstad does a good job.”

CLARK ROBS, GETS ROBBED

Since the Notebook for the New England game was all about Frankie Hejduk’s induction into the Circle of Honor, I didn’t get a chance to write about Clark’s jaw-dropping save against Charlie Davies late in the Crew’s crucial 1-0 win over the Revs. I figured it was a lock for save of the week. Alas, New York’s Luis Robles won for a fine double save against Seattle. The vote wasn’t even close, with Robles garnering 61% of the vote, while Clark got just 18%.

My problem is that while both saves were great, Clark’s meant exponentially more. The Robles save happened late in the game with the Red Bulls leading 4-1. Clark, meanwhile, had to stare down a breakaway in the final minutes of “six-point” game, with the Crew clinging to a 1-0 lead against a team they are battling for the playoffs. A goal there, and each team gets a point, thereby preventing the Crew from gaining any ground. A save means three points for Columbus and zero points for New England. The ramifications were enormous.

Also, the shot from Davies was just about perfect. Justin Meram could have sued Davies for copyright infringement as the New England forward unleashed a wicked curler that was a Meram Meathook in every way except for the part where Crew fans hoped it would be miraculously saved. When the ball left Davies’ foot, there appeared no way it could be saved. Somehow, between the bend on the shot and the ultra-powerful soccer ball magnets embedded in Clark’s hands, the ball swerved toward his fingertips. He nicked it just enough to tip it around the post.

When I asked Wil Trapp about it later that night, he lit up.

“I don’t know if you saw my reaction, but I think I lost my mind because I could not believe that he saved it. Teammates bale out teammates, and that is why we won the game.”

It truly was remarkable. If soccer had some sort of advanced Win Probability Added stat like in baseball, Clark’s stat line would have seen a healthy bump from that single play. As two Crew points began to evaporate, he condensed them back into tangible form and put them back on the table.

“That's Steve Clark, right there,” Berhalter said after the game that night. “He gets you points. He's done it all year… I don't think there are many goalies in this league that win points for a team like he does. A handful, maybe. Less than a handful.”

Given all that was at stake, there’s no question in my mind that it should have been save of the week. Consider this my belated formal protest of meaningless internet polls.

FINLAY ON SELLOUT CROWDS AND SCOREBOARD WATCHING

A couple more Finlay comments. First, on the influence that another sellout crowd had on the players…

“We’re winning here at home and the fans have been incredible,” he said. “We’ve had huge crowds and energetic crowds, more importantly. We can’t thank them enough. They’re definitely part of that victory, without a doubt.

“I felt it tonight around the 68th minute when I made that long run. We weren’t able to complete it, but when you hear the crowd see the space, it motivates you that extra bit to make that run and beat that guy to the near post. I know other guys would say the same thing—they push you a little farther.”

And then there’s the matter of scoreboard watching. The night before, New England beat Kansas City. That afternoon, Toronto came back to beat Portland. Do the Crew’s players feel the pressure when other results don’t go their way? Do they pay attention to that sort of thing at all?

“We know what’s going on,” Finlay said. “Definitely. But we also know that no matter what the other results are, we need to win games. It’s still going to be tight even if those other teams don’t win. It’s just going to be even tighter if they do. We have to make sure that we’re staying ahead of that, and I think we are. You can even argue that the result with New England wasn’t really bad for us because we have an opportunity to play them, and if we beat them next week, we could be in second because Kanas City has a tough test with D.C. Outside of the top spot, it’s all up for grabs, I think.”

MASCOT SOCCER

As usual, I took in this year’s mascot soccer game accompanied by my good buddy Flick and the nefarious numbers runner known as Zman. We were also joined by longtime Section 107 denizen MarTay. Veteran Notebook readers will recognize all three of these gentleman from past shenanigans.

Before we get to conversational snippets and assorted nonsense, here were the starting lineups.

HOME TEAM:

Crew Cat

Krash (Columbus Clippers)

Lou Seal (Columbus Clippers)

Clawdette Cougar (Columbus State)

Goaldie the Eagle (Columbus Eagles)

Stinger (Columbus Blue Jackets)

AWAY TEAM:

Cozy Cat (Columbia Gas)

Honey Bee (Lifeline of Ohio)

Slice (Papa John’s)

Sub Man (Subway)

Sub Dude (Subway)

BC Rooster (Rooster’s)

Pepe the Penguin (Kroger)

Note that the home team was playing down a mascot. That’s because Brutus Buckeye couldn’t get off of work on Saturday night.

***

Pregame analysis…

Zman: “I need to find a new analysis, because every year I say it comes down to the footwear.”

Flick: “This is a whitewash, and it’s a whitewash because this is exactly what Zman likes—it’s human-ish mascots against non-human-ish mascots.”

MarTay: “I’m interested in the pizza slice. I’ve been watching him before the game and I think he brings energy.”

***

Philosophical Flick…

Flick: “I have a question. Do the birds of a feather all flock together, even if they’re on different teams? Are they going to flock together like little kid soccer?”

Me: “What about Stinger? He’s not a bird, but he has wings.”

Flick: “He doesn’t even have wings.  He just has a tail. And he’s all (messed) up because Ryan Johansen isn’t in camp, so he doesn’t know what to do about anything because that team might struggle without him.”

***

Me: “Do you think Sir CC tried recruiting Kevin Love for this game?”

Flick: “Kevin Love is like an Arsenal fan or something. He was on the Men in Blazers podcast. What’s nice about Sir CC is that this is modern-day CC, not the way he looked the first time he played for Cleveland.”

Me: “How did he look the first time?”

Flick: “CC! Captain Cheeseburger!”

Me: “Ohhhh… CC Sabathia…”

Flick: “Sorry my joke was a little too subtle for you.”

***

Flick: “This is professionals versus food. Who’s going to win that battle...”

Zman: “Professionals have had superior possession, but no goals.”

Flick: “Pepe’s just wandering around aimlessly, like a penguin.”

Me: “What save on Crew Cat by the Rooster!”

Flick: “If you look at your ticket, his outstanding goalkeeping shouldn’t be a surprise because on the back of your ticket, it says you save at Rooster’s.”

***

After Krash, playing the role of goalkeeping parrot for the home team, gave away possession on consecutive throws…

Flick: “Krash has no distribution skills.”

***

Sir CC ran a promising counterattack that was broken up at the last minute by Slice.

Me: “Sir CC on the break like LeBron, but he’s denied by Pizza Slice!”

Flick: “The pizza slice is showing CC who’s his Papa.”

MarTay: “Pizza Slice is undaunted. He’s doing the job at both ends of the field.”

Me: “MarTay called this. MarTay’s pregame scouting report has come to fruition.”

MarTay: “I definitely called out the pizza slice!”

Flick: “Not to get too creepy, but check out the legs on the pizza slice. Pizza Slice is an athlete. Pizza Slice is fast.”

***

The scoreless game changed in the sixth minute. Slice rang the post for the away team, nearly cementing MarTay’s pregame analysis into legend. Then Sir CC picked up the ball, ran the entire length of the field, and threw the ball into the goal to give the home team a 1-0 lead. As a Clevelander, this seemed like foreshadowing for the upcoming Cavaliers season. Thanks to the NBA’s preposterously superstar-slanted officiating, I fully expect LeBron James to be able to run the entire length of the court without dribbling before jamming the ball into the net with two hands.

Commentary after the goal…

Flick: “Only stupid loser Cleveland fans cheered for that.”

MarTay: “Outrage! This is an outrage!”

Me: “Zman just did the LeBron chalk-toss to celebrate! He’s loving it!”

Flick: “Cleveland fans are so needy for something positive in their sports life that they’ll cheer for that. I haven’t been that disgusted with a Cleveland mascot since that other Cavs mascot, Moondog, kicked that little Boba Fett kid twice.” 

(This happened during the 2011 mascot game, when it was mascots versus Star Wars characters. “Was Little Boba Fett wearing a LeBron jersey?” Flick said that night three years ago. “I think it's fair to say that we might be seeing a new carbonite wall hanging at Jabba the Hutt's palace once Little Boba Fett tracks down Moondog.”)

***

Final analysis of the home team’s 1-0 victory on Sir CC’s unassisted, hand-carried, thrown-goal.

MarTay: “Garbage! Outrage! This an outrage! Cards should have been given! Disgusting! There was blatant disregard for rules and regulations, and it disgusts me!”

Flick: “The Browns should hire Sir CC as their newest running back since their running is terrible and he gets away with plays that are cheating and don’t get called.”

Me: “The Browns running game is good this year.”

Flick: “I thought the guy was hurt.”

Me: “Yeah, but the rookies taking his place have been really good.”

Flick: “Do you think I watch the Browns when my team is 3-0 and arguably the best team in football through three weeks? No! I don’t!”

Zman: “My postgame thought as that this was just like the Cavaliers’ trajectory. Just straight to the goal.”

GOOFY GEHRIG

Let’s end this Notebook with two fun Eric Gehrig anecdotes.

Gehrig Goofiness #1: Gehrig is very proud of his German heritage. Imagine his delight when he got to play against U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Jermaine Jones, who was born and raised in Germany and now plays for the New England Revolution. Gehrig had a chance to engage in some in-game banter with Jones during the Crew’s 1-0 victory over the Revs.

“I told him, ‘Sweet goal at the World Cup, but it’s not happening tonight.’ And I said it in German!”

Gehrig Goofiness #2: As he walked off the field following the 2-0 victory over Montreal, Gehrig saw a young fan hold up a sign asking, “Who wants to swap jerseys with me?” Gehrig took off his Crew shirt and gave it to the kid. Mission accomplished, right? Wrong. Gehrig took it to the next level. Not only did he accept the kid’s orange jersey in exchange, but he also managed to squeeze into the skin tight youth-medium shirt to make the jersey swap official.

Incredible. Another fun finish to another fun night at Crew Stadium.

Questions? Comments? Excited to watch Saturday’s final battle of original 1996 logos before #NewCrew is unveiled on Wednesday? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk

Steve Sirk’s new book, “Kirk Urso: Forever Massive”, is available at the Crew Gear store or by ordering online HERE. All proceeds go to the Kirk Urso Memorial Fund for congenital heart defect research.

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