Ethan Finlay CLBvORL
Crew SC Communications / Duffy

Sirk’s Notebook: Lion tamer edition

Attending any sporting contest is inherently a gamble. A fun and exciting and usually enjoyable gamble, and one that every sports fan loves to make, but it’s a gamble nonetheless. It’s unscripted entertainment, so you’re liable to see anything on any given night.

The home team may win or lose. The game may be tense and close or it may be a blowout. You may see several spectacular plays you will never forget or it may be a humdrum affair. The weather may be too hot or too cold. A clumsy, unapologetic person in the row above you might spill an entire 32-ounce soft drink down your back about 30 seconds before Paul O’Neill hits a grand slam against your Cleveland Indians in the 1997 American League playoffs. The list goes on.

There are so many variables. But every time you buy a ticket to a sporting event and walk through the gate, there is always the alluring sense of possibility.

And that’s what makes nights like Saturday, April 18, 2015, at MAPFRE Stadium so fun. Everything fell into place. It was a beautiful spring evening. The crowd was loud. The hometown Columbus Crew SC not only defeated visiting Orlando, 3-0, but did so with three spectacularly entertaining goals. Basically, unless you drove 17 hours from Orlando or were momentarily on the receiving end of a reckless red-card scissor tackle, it was a perfect night.

So let’s look at some of the fun that occurred when The Yellow Soccer Team became The Purple People Beaters.

 

Pipa Magic

Orlando may be home to the Magic Kingdom, but Saturday night the magic was Pipa’s and his kingdom was MAPFRE Stadium. 

In the 32nd minute he put Crew SC up 1-0 with a calm display of heel-flick wizardry. After a wayward non-clearance into the channel by the Orlando defense, Ethan Finlay tracked down the loose ball and one-timed a low cross toward Higuain’s near-post run. Pipa then let the ball roll through his own legs before using a flick of his heel to redirect the ball into the side netting at the far post.

“The ball just kinda squeaked out to me and I jumped on it,” said Finlay. “You always have to be aware. Pipa made a nice near-post run, so I hit it hard toward the near post and he just showed the skill that he has. You’re trying to put it into a good area and you know a guy like that can do something special. He showed that he can do it. I’ve seen him do it in training before, so I have full confidence in those positions that he can make something happen.”

Did he ever. A man who is no stranger to sick finishes, Justin Meram admitted to being envious of Higuain’s ruthlessly calm display of tricky skill.

“I’m pretty jealous, to be honest,” Meram said. “I want to do that. I just want to be waiting for the ball to come to me in that spot to see if I can do it. That was pretty special. It’s almost like you don’t even get surprised anymore. It’s just like, ‘Oh, that’s Pipa doing magical [stuff] again.’ Excuse my language, but there’s no other way to describe it. It’s just like, ‘That’s Pipa. Let’s go celebrate. And then we can watch the highlights over and over again later tonight.’”

 

Kei and Justin Team Up on a Goal

After a red card to Orlando’s Rafael Ramos in the 34th minute, Crew SC pressed hard in the second half to blow the game open. They succeeded. The second goal came in the 55th minute when Kei Kamara refused to give up on a ball in the Orlando box. Lions midfielder Cristian Higuita intercepted a Finlay cross, then attempted to dribble the ball out of his own box. Kamara rushed up from behind and poked the ball back to the feet of Meram, near the edge of the 18. Meram gave a hesitation move, then pushed the ball forward and uncorked a close-range blast into the upper reaches of the net. With that much power, the only placement required was “on-goal” and “not directly into the torso of Orlando goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts.” (I’m assuming had the shot hit a limb, the limb would have detached and gone into the goal, along with the ball. The torso probably would have slowed down the ball enough that a trailing defender would have been able to clear the ball off the goal line after it plopped out of Ricketts’ back.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, power versus placement.

“Donovan Ricketts is a pretty big goalie,” Meram said. “If you try placement from that close, he’s probably going to get a finger on it.”

Meram insisted it wasn’t so much the finish that created the goal, but rather the play that set it up. As a man who has worked hard to become a two-way player, he was the beneficiary of the defensive work of another offense-oriented player.

“I have to give a lot of credit to Kei for not giving up on that play,” he said. “It was all his hard individual work to win the ball back. I got in and kind of faked it and froze them for a second, then I had a little window and just let it fly. I was fortunate that it went in the back of the net.”

Kamara shrugged off any kudos for the play.

“Pressing, you know?” he said. “That’s our style. We can’t let other teams play the ball out of the back like we play the ball out of the back, so we have to press them. Justin was really good to be alert and to be ready for it. Great finish.”

 

Kei and Justin Team Up on a Dance

After Meram’s goal, he and Kamara debuted a dance routine.

“We practiced the dance before the game, saying one of us would score,” Kamara said. “Then he got it, so it’s good.”

Meram elaborated on the hastily concocted origin of the celebration dance, as well as the performance of dance interloper Waylon Francis, who joined at the very end of the celebration.

“There was some music playing in the locker room and Kei was dancing to it,” Meram explained. “I said I wanted to learn it, and he said, ‘Okay, if one of us scores tonight, we’ll do the dance.’ It took a little bit of practicing before the match, but I think I was in sync with Kei. Waylon… he’s going to have to learn. He was there at the end and we’re going to have to calm him down a little bit.”

 

Kei Scores Off More Pipa Magic

Just five minutes after the dance party, Kamara got a goal of his own thanks to a Schelotto-like, eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head pass into space played by Higuain. Kamara ran on to the bouncing ball and used the outside of his right foot to lift it over the charging Ricketts. The ball took one bounce on its way into the gaping net.

“Once again,” Meram said, “you have Pipa playing a left-footed ball—a no-looker—from about 40 yards out. You’re just like, ‘Oh, there he is doing it again. It’s just Pipa being Pipa.’ Give credit to Kei too. It was bouncing, which made it easier to get it over Ricketts, but you have to have a perfect touch so that it doesn’t bounce over the goal. It was wonderful placement and he did really well with it.”

“Pipa’s just a different class of player,” Kamara added. “Having him on the field is good and he’s really fun to play with.”


Ramos Sees Red

Orlando defender Rafael Ramos was ejected in the 34th minute for a reckless scissor tackle on Crew SC left back Waylon Francis. Ramos appeared frustrated by a non-call seconds earlier, then went in on Francis. Players from both teams were vocal about the play, which ultimately ended with a red card for Ramos and a yellow card for Crew SC’s Hernan Grana, who was one of the players who ran up to Ramos to share some thoughts on the matter.

“It was a dangerous play,” said Kamara. “It’s a FIFA rule everywhere. Usually, players got to be smarter because when something happens before, he goes right away [with] retaliation to a play that just happened five or ten seconds before. That was definitely a red card and he knew it.”

“I think the player was frustrated,” said Columbus captain Michael Parkhurst. “He thought there was a foul right before that, and when that happens, you get a little heated. From where I was, it looked bad. It is what it is.”

As the captain, Parkhurst did his best to corral the Black & Gold protest mob.

“We were all frustrated with it,” he said. “It seemed like [the ref] was going to go yellow with it, and we all thought it was a red, so it got a little bit heated, but it was important that we let the ref talk to the assistant and get things sorted out. We ended up getting one yellow out of it, but thankfully it wasn’t more.”

As he made his way off the field, Ramos walked right through the Columbus bench, which wasn’t necessarily the most prudent decision in the wake of the tackle. Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter said the exiled Lion’s route was a non-issue.

“The boy’s a good player,” Berhalter said of Ramos. “He’s a really good player. It was a careless challenge. I’m sure he’d like to have it back right now, but I don’t think he went in to really harm the player. It was just a bad tackle. I had no problem with him walking in front of our bench.”

 

Nada For Kaka

For the first time in his new MLS career, Kaka, a former FIFA World Player of the Year, was held without a single shot, much less a shot on goal. The red card obviously helped, as Kaka was left stranded while Columbus played high-pressure defense and possession-oriented offense, but it wasn’t a numbers game alone.

“We wanted to make him work defensively,” Berhalter said of the Brazilian legend. “We wanted to keep moving the ball around, knock it around at a high tempo, let him use some of his energy on the defensive end and the impact of that would take away from what he could do on offense. So I think it was that, coupled with the fact that Mohammed [Saeid] and Tony [Tchani] and our center backs really got around him and made it difficult for him to be dangerous in important areas of the field.”

Parkhurst said that defending a player like Kaka starts with awareness.

“Just knowing where he is at all times,” Parkhurst said. “He’s a guy that if he’s got space, he always plays the right pass with the right weight and finds an open teammate. I thought Mo did a great job early on keeping an eye on him. He’s always going to have his moments, but we did a good job of keeping him away from the goal.”

 

Home Sweet Home

The last time the Black & Gold took the field at MAPFRE Stadium, they played their most disappointing game of the year, dropping a 2-1 decision to the New York Red Bulls. After an open weekend, they then had the honor of flying to Vancouver for a Wednesday night game on plastic, followed by another cross-continental flight to New England to play a Saturday afternoon game on plastic. In the NBA, they refer to games like that as a “scheduled loss”, but Crew SC scrapped to a 0-0 draw versus the Revs. Having tied the earlier Vancouver match, 2-2, Crew SC escaped what could have been a lost week with two points in hand.

Berhalter was happy that his team responded well to the rigors of the road trip.

“I think there’s a tendency after a long travel period where the next week is a little sluggish,” he said. “It’s residual fatigue from the travel and I think we did well with that. You saw some guys were fatigued a little, but overall I think that the team did extremely well coming out with a lot of energy.”

After a rough few weeks, not only was a home win good for the soul, but especially a FUN home win.

“It’s good for the team, for sure,” said Parkhurst. “We feel like we’re about to start our normal season. The first five weeks have been really strange for us, between bye weeks and players missing and just a lot of weirdness, so we’re about to get on a normal stretch of weekend games and it’s good to get it started on the right foot, especially with a home game.”

“It’s extremely important to get the morale back,” added Ethan Finlay. “It was a tough trip and tough travel. I’m not going to complain about it because other teams are going to have to go through it, so it’s probably best that we did it early in the season and not later. So to be honest, it is what it is. Two points was the minimum that we wanted to get out of that trip, and we got the minimum. Since we only got the minimum, you need to figure out where you can get the maximum points, and for me, that’s finishing this month with two wins at home and going into the month of May with positive thoughts and positive results.”

“It’s huge,” said Kamara of the fun-filled night at MAPFRE Stadium. “For me, what I said around the locker room is that when we have a perfect day like that and a perfect crowd like that, the best thing we can do is have fun and show them and make them keep coming. For us, if we play in front of a crowd like that, all it can do is help us win games.”

 

Mr. Numbers Nerd: Julia Trapp Anthem Edition

Wil Trapp may have been unavailable to play as he recovers from a concussion, but a Trapp still took the field and helped Crew SC to victory. Julia Trapp, Wil’s sister, once again nailed the Star Spangled Banner and once again the Black & Gold emerged victorious 90 minutes later. Crew SC is now 5-0-0 all-time in regular season MLS play when Julia sings the national anthem.

  • 8/10/13: Columbus 2, New York 0
  • 3/22/14: Columbus 2, Philadelphia 1
  • 8/23/14: Columbus 3, Houston 0
  • 9/20/14: Columbus 1, New England 0
  • 4/18/15: Columbus 3, Orlando 0

So, in addition to five sterling anthems, that’s 5-0-0, with 11 goals scored and just one goal allowed, for a +10 goal differential. That’s great work.

Alas, like her brother and his teammates, Julia tasted a bitter defeat in the playoffs. On Nov. 1, 2014, she had the singing part down, but her good luck faltered as Columbus dropped a 4-2 decision to New England. The 2014 playoffs were a learning experience for everyone. Julia is surely applying last year’s lessons and building up to peak good-luck-charm-ishness should she be needed for the playoffs several months from now. In the meantime, she’s off to a heck of a start in 2015, both vocally and good-luck-ishly.

 

Mr. Numbers Nerd: Expansion Visitors Edition

Orlando was the 10th expansion team to visit MAPFRE Stadium. If you split those 10 expansion visits down the middle, the contrast between the two halves is startling. For a while, MAPFRE Stadium was as hospitable to MLS expansion teams as it is inhospitable to the Mexican National Team. The first five expansion teams to ever visit the place went 3-1-1, with six goals scored and four goals allowed.

May 21, 2005
Columbus 2, Salt Lake 0
Note: The answer is…a Dude-ly Double. Frankie Hejduk scored both goals for the Black & Gold.

October 1, 2005
Chivas USA 1, Columbus 0
Note: Paco Palencia’s 59th minute goal gave the Goats one of their four (four!) victories in all of 2005. They finished 4-22-6. Yikes.

May 26, 2007
Columbus 2, Toronto 2
Note: Andy Herron scored twice in what would be the first of a 12-game unbeaten streak to start the head-to-head series with the Hosers.

June 7, 2008
San Jose 2, Columbus 0
Note: Crew SC outshot the Earthquakes 16-7 and held a 12-5 edge in corner kicks, but lost in one of the low points of the Massive Season. The climb to the MLS Cup title started immediately afterward. The Black & Gold would lose only three more times all year, with zero losses in the playoffs.

October 3, 2009
Seattle 1, Columbus 0
Note: This is the infamous game when Sounders defender Tyrone Marshall, in the immortal words of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, “broke the floor” before Guille missed a game-tying penalty kick attempt. While the Sounders surrounded the referee to complain about the PK call, Marshall was hard at work digging a crater where the penalty spot had existed up until that point. It was an all-time classic bit of gamesmanship that, from an Ohio perspective, was among the first strands woven into the rich and ever-growing tapestry of annoyance that is the Sounders.

At that point in history, MAPFRE Stadium was basically a welcoming gift to MLS expansion teams. And then it suddenly was not. In the next five expansion visits Crew SC went 5-0-0, outscoring those newbie teams 11-2. It’s probably just pent-up revenge for losing players in every single frickin’ expansion draft in MLS history. A club can only take so much.

October 24, 2010
Columbus 3, Philadelphia 1
Note: This game is most famous for William Hesmer breaking his shoulder in the 85th minute after Crew SC had used all three subs, leading to the memorable sight of Eddie Gaven, Emergency Goalkeeper. This was just two weeks after a surprise appearance by William Hesmer, Emergency Goalscorer, in a last-gasp draw in Toronto. [#LOLTFC] Needless to say, it was a topsy-turvy month in Black & Gold history.

April 30, 2011
Columbus 2, Vancouver 1
Note: Emilio Renteria scored two goals for Columbus, the second of which came off a 55-second, 18-pass possession. Before Renteria scored, the following players also touched the ball as part of the sequence, listed by the order of their most recent touch, working backward in time: Dejan Rusmir, Dilly Duka, Eddie Gaven, Sebastian Miranda, Josh Gardner, Kevin Burns, Robbie Rogers and Chad Marshall. That was awesome.

July 23, 2011
Columbus 1, Portland 0
Note: Eddie Gaven scored the game-winner in the 79th minute. I miss Eddie Gaven.

March 24, 2012
Columbus 2, Montreal 0
Note: Milovan Mirosevic and Olman Vargas had the goals and, after making a couple of CONCACAF Champions League appearances in the fall of 2010, Josh Williams finally made his MLS debut as a late sub. (Then he got to celebrate by playing in the reserve game immediately afterward.)

April 18, 2015
Columbus 3, Orlando 0
Note: Um, pretty much see the entire rest of this Notebook if you already need another refresher on some of the details. But you probably don’t. How could you? After all, you’re unlikely to forget perfection, and Saturday night was PERFECT.

Questions? Comments? Know of any astute judges of “mid-to-low table talent?” Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via twitter @stevesirk.

Steve Sirk’s latest 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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