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Sirk’s Notebook: Union buster edition

Columbus Crew SC’s 3-0 victory over Orlando on April 18 was a perfect night at MAPFRE Stadium. One week later, they learned that you can’t top perfection. In fact, they learned that perfection is extremely difficult to replicate. For example, the weather was cruddy. However, in terms of the things that the Black & Gold could actually control, it was another MAPFRE PARTAY as Crew SC busted the Philadelphia Union, 4-1.

It’s time to catalog more fun times in Crewville…


Kei on the Board. As Usual.

Crew SC took the lead in the 21st minute on Kei Kamara’s MLS-best fifth goal of the season. Ethan Finlay floated a cross to the far post, where Kamara chested the ball down and blasted a left-footed shot past Union goalkeeper John McCarthy. It was Finlay’s fourth assist of the young season.

“The first one was just good pressure,” Finlay said of Crew SC’s tone-setting tally. “We lost the ball and we re-pressed quickly. They kicked it and Tony [Tchani] headed the ball to me. I picked my head up and I know Kei likes to go to the back post, so I just kinda lofted it up there. He took it off his chest and volleyed it. I was extremely happy because that was extremely important for us to get on the board and to take advantage of those chances. I think last week against Orlando, we didn’t do that maybe, and we didn’t punish them for some of those mistakes, so to do that immediately tonight was extremely important for us.”


Ethan on the Board. At Last.

Ethan Finlay was a breakout star for the Black & Gold in 2014, racking up 11 goals and 7 assists, after totaling zero and zero for in his first two seasons. If those 2014 numbers seem Pipa-esque, well, that’s because Federico Higuain’s stat line for 2014 read 11 goals and 7 assists. Putting up Pipa-equivalent numbers is a heck of a season for any player, much less a guy like Finlay, who didn’t become a regular player until mid-May.

Heading into 2015, the question was could he do it again? You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone disappointed with Finlay’s play in 2015, but I suppose until he hit the back of the net, the question would naturally loom. It looms no more.

In the 32nd minute, Finlay made a run into the box and deftly knocked home a cross from Waylon Francis with a one-time finish. Just like that, his back was monkey-free, at least for any potential simian-seekers out there.

“It felt great,” Finlay said. “Some might call it a relief, but I knew they were coming and it just feels good to get them, getting the first one and the second one out of the way.” (Oh great. SPOILER ALERT. Thanks, Ethan.)

Finlay credited his teammates for making his first goal of the 2015 campaign a reality. It started with Michael Parkhurst’s terrific longball switch to Waylon Francis in the left channel. And then…

“Waylon took the line and Kei made a great run and drew two guys,” Finlay said. “I just snuck right in front of Fabinho and slotted it home. It was a great ball. Waylon’s done a fantastic job at being able to whip those balls in.”


Justin on the Board. Somehow.

When asked about the quality of Crew SC’s goals on the night, captain Michael Parkhurst joked, “Justin got a little lucky on his goal, so we’ll discount that one.”

In the 44th minute, Justin Meram made his own luck with a little bit of that patented Meram magic. Meram won a 50/50 aerial challenge against Maurice Edu along the left sideline after a long pass from Emanuel Pogatetz. Then he made a goal out of nothing. He shredded Edu off the dribble, carried the ball into traffic in the Philadelphia box, then unleashed a slippery shot that hit well-positioned Union goalkeeper John McCarthy in the hand and trickled across the goal line. An unmarked Ethan Finlay ran up and smashed the ball into the net for emphasis, but it was Meram’s goal.

The thing is, it wasn’t supposed to be Meram’s goal.

“My first instinct was to play Ethan or Kei,” he said, “but the ball got behind me a little bit, so I had to bring it to my left and shoot. I don’t think the goalie saw it until the last minute.”

“I thought that was going to be my second one of the night, honestly,” said the wide-open Finlay. “Justin is so good about hitting those across the goal. I haven’t seen the replay, but I think it was a weak hand by the goalie and it just sneaks in there. But that’s what Justin does. He’s got a quick release and good for him. That’s what caught everyone off guard, including the goalie, obviously.”


Ethan on the Board. Again.

After setting up Kamara for the first goal of the evening, the two reversed roles for the nightcap. Kamara turned at midfield and played Finlay into space. That rarely ends well for the opponent. Finlay ran on to the pinpoint pass and calmly slotted a shot inside the left post to finish the scoring in the 73rd minute.

“That was just reading it,” Finlay said of the reciprocal goal connection with Kamara. “I think I’ve just been off on a couple of plays, or guys have just been off on finding me, so when that happened, everything was just perfect. I saw his movement, I saw he was turning and opening his hips up, and I timed my run up perfectly, just as I’ve trained in practice for months. It was a great weighted ball and I picked my head up and just found my spot, so I think after the confidence of the first one, I was so relaxed and I knew it was going in.”

Kamara summed up the goal in one word. And then more words.

“Connection,” he said. “I told Ethan before not to get frustrated because his first one is going to come. When he had the first one, I told him, ‘When it rains, it pours.’ Next minute, he gets the second. He was open and all I had to do was play the ball in front of him.”

The pass was much better than Kamara described it.


Stuffing that Stat Sheet

What has made the last two weeks so much fun is that Crew SC’s offense has come from everywhere. In the 3-0 win over Orlando, all four main attacking players (Higuain, Kamara, Finlay and Meram) registered at least one goal or assist. Against Philadelphia, Columbus held a 3-0 halftime lead and six of the 10 field players were on the scoresheet, with Higuain not being among them. In past years, that would have been unthinkable, but the offense is an omnidirectional threat these days.

“I am most happy with the collective effort of the group,” said Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. “I have been telling people that our style of play needs the guys working together and that is our whole training. Everything is about passing it to each other, then moving together and the collective effort tonight was outstanding. If you look at the scoresheet, our three attacking players get on the board and Pipa probably had, in my eyes, one of his best games of the season without getting on the scoring line. That’s what it’s all about and that’s what this group has been working for. They have been training hard to get to this point. It was a good performance tonight."

Finlay said that having multiple offensive weapons is a key to Crew SC’s success.

“I think we’re a team that no one wants to play when we’re all clicking,” he said. “The other part of that is, when one guy’s not having a great game, you can have three other guys that can really make a huge impact and a huge difference. So when you have that, that’s extremely dangerous throughout the season. We’ll need it. We’ll need it from all types of guys.”

Kamara feels that the attacking quartet’s diverse skillset, adaptable playing styles and on-field results have created the trust necessary for group success.

“We just have to keep respecting each other,” Kamara said. “You have to respect that Pipa can put the ball on the tip of your tongue, so to say, where you want the ball. You have to respect Ethan’s speed, Justin’s dribbling, and, you know, if I have to say for me, it’s my physical ability. If we respect each other, everything will work out for us.”

For two Saturdays in a row, it has unquestionably worked.

“It feels great, but what feels better is how we scored our goals tonight,” Finlay said. “There were some different build-ups, some great movement, moving the ball from one side to the other, through the back and through the middle, and then having a great end product. That’s what it’s all about. I’m really excited about that. It’s great for us going forward.”


Gregg on Pipa

When Columbus scores four goals without Higuain on the stat sheet, it still means he’s doing a lot of things right. After his flashy performance against Orlando, Berhalter made sure to point out that Pipa had another sterling effort against Philadelphia, even without a goal or an assist.

“You guys saw it,” he said to the press. “The control of the game, finding his teammates, dictating the pace of the game. He was very, very good tonight. I think when you look at it, it would have been nice for him to get a goal, but it doesn’t matter when you play that strong. He finds different ways to be effective … I think people take for granted how hard his position is in our system and what we ask him to do. He has probably the most responsibility in our system to make it work and he is doing a great job.”


Way to Go Little Mo

When midfielder Wil Trapp was lost to a concussion injury, those were big shoes to fill. After all, his teammates have nicknamed Trapp “The Chise” because he is rightfully one of the faces of the franchise. The biggest of shoes have been filled by the littlest of dudes. Newcomer Mohamed Saeid, listed at 5’7”, 141 pounds, has filled in admirably for The Chise. Going into the season, losing Trapp for an extended spell would have seemed like a worst-case scenario. That it hasn’t been a team-wide setback is a testament to the small but mighty midfielder from Sweden.

“He is a guy that is fearless,” Berhalter said. “He goes out there and is never afraid to get the ball, no matter what spot it’s in. He has evolved, and how he plays that position is getting better and better every week and that’s because he is learning it more. He has done a good job."

Saeid’s teammates have also been impressed by his quick assimilation. Finlay even gave a tip of the hat to his bosses for unearthing 2015’s emergency Trapp facsimile.

“It shows the dedication that our coaching staff has to go out and get players that can step up and replace a guy who’s extremely important to our team,” Finlay said. “He’s stepped up right away. That’s a difficult role to play. That’s a role that took Wil time to even adjust to, so for him to come over here and to now be with a new team and to adapt to this system is pretty tremendous. It’s a true testament to how hard he works and to his knowledge about the game. We’re really fortunate that he’s been able to step up for us.”


The Quintuple Backflip

When Philadelphia’s Eric Ayuk scored in the 64th minute to bring the Union to within 3-1, he celebrated by doing a lot of backflips. How many backflips? As LeBron James would say, “Not one…not two…not three…not four…”

Five. The answer is five backflips.

Let’s watch it again!

One of the funniest bits about this was something I didn’t notice at the time, but it was helpfully pointed out to me. After doing his best Mary Lou Retton impersonation, Ayuk is seen on camera pointing to the Philadelphia bench. The camera then cuts to Union coach Jim Curtin, who sits there stonefaced. I have no idea if Ayuk was pointing to Curtin, who in that case wasn’t buying the enthusiasm Ayuk was selling, or if Ayuk was pointing to some excited teammates on the bench, who were more receptive. Regardless, the camera cut created a hilarious juxtaposition.

Anyway, there are two schools of thought about Ayuk’s celebration. The first is that it was hardly the situation for such overzealous acrobatics. Down 3-1, that’s when you use your energy to grab the ball out of the back of the net and run it back to the center circle to get play restarted as soon as possible. The other school of thought is that, well, it was awesome. The quintuple backflip was truly an incredible display of athleticism and a lot of fun to watch. Besides, he’s an 18-year-old who scored his first MLS goal. An excess of exuberance is expected.

I found both sides of the coin in the Crew SC locker room. Nobody seemed angry about it, but Ethan Finlay found it curiously bemusing. “It’s interesting doing backflips when you’re down 3-1 away, but you know, good for him.”

Kei Kamara, as one might expect, loved the joy and the enthusiasm.

“I respect that kid,” Kamara said. “I’m glad when people can do stuff like that and make the fans happy. Kids enjoy that stuff, so that was good.  And then Steve pulled one out, so it was good.”

Oh yeah, that was another thing I missed. Surely in tribute to the young man who put one past him, Crew SC goalkeeper Steve Clark did celebratory revenge-cartwheels to the Nordecke before leading the crowd in the “YES!” chant.

Anyway, as someone who is famous for his goal celebrations, I wondered if Kamara had ever considered the quintuple backflip.

“I’ve been thinking about it, but only when I’m at home,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s ever going to come out, you know? I might try it someday, but that would probably be the end of my career.”

Given how vital he has been to the Black & Gold’s attack in 2015, I wholeheartedly endorse the avoidance of career-ending backflip injuries for Kei Kamara.


Mr. Numbers Nerd: Blowout Combo Edition

Last season, with a 4-1 trouncing of the LA Galaxy on August 16 and a 3-0 demolition of the Houston Dynamo on August 23, Crew SC won back-to-back matches by 3+ goals for only the second time in club history. The prior instance occurred 15 years earlier, back in MAPRFRE Stadium’s maiden season.

It did not take 15 years for instance number three to roll around. Coupling the 4-1 win over Philadelphia with the previous week’s 3-0 shutout of Orlando means the Black & Gold accomplished a 3+ goal margin of victory in back-to-back games a mere eight months after the second occurrence!

For the fun of having history side by side by side, here are the scoring summaries for all three blowout combos, all of which took place at MAPFRE Stadium.

The 1999 Blowout Combo

July 24, 1999: Columbus 4, Dallas 1
CLB: Ansil Elcock (Jason Farrell, Robert Warzycha), 28’
CLB: Jeff Cunningham, 42’
CLB: Stern John (Jeff Cunningham, Mike Lapper), 50’
CLB: Brian West (Brian Maisonneuve), 71’
DAL: Ted Eck, 90’

August 1, 1999: Columbus 4, Miami 0
CLB: Stern John (John DeBrito, Jeff Cunningham), 12’
CLB: Brian Maisonneuve, 43’
CLB: Stern John (Brian West), 83’
CLB: Stern John (Brian West, Robert Warzycha), 90’

The 2014 Blowout Combo

August 16, 2014: Columbus 4, LA Galaxy 1
CLB: Justin Meram (Tony Tchani), 23’
CLB: Ethan Finlay (Justin Meram), 33’
LA: Gyasi Zardes (Dan Gargan, Robbie Keane), 49’
CLB: Ben Speas (Ethan Finlay), 75’
CLB: Giancarlo Gonzalez (Federico Higuain), 84’

August 23, 2014: Columbus 3, Houston 0
CLB: Justin Meram, 35’
CLB: Adam Bedell (Justin Meram), 59’
CLB: Aaron Schoenfeld (Waylon Francis, Ethan Finlay), 64’

The 2015 Blowout Combo

April 18, 2015: Columbus 3, Orlando 0
CLB: Federico Higuain (Ethan Finlay), 32’
CLB: Justin Meram (Kei Kamara), 55’
CLB: Kei Kamara (Federico Higuain), 60’

April 25, 2015: Columbus 4, Philadelphia 1
CLB: Kei Kamara (Ethan Finlay, Tony Tchani), 21’
CLB: Ethan Finlay (Waylon Francis), 32’
CLB: Justin Meram (Emanuel Pogatetz), 44’
PHI: Eric Ayuk (C. J. Sapong), 64’
CLB: Ethan Finlay (Kei Kamara), 73’

[Bonus fun fact! The 1999 streak was actually a three-gamer if you count all competitions. On July 13, Crew SC defeated the then third-division Carolina Dynamo, 3-0, at MAPFRE Stadium, with one goal from Ansil Elock, followed by a pair of goals by his younger cousin, Stern John. Assists were provided by Jeff Cunningham, Mike Clark and Robert Warzycha, by order of goal.]


Inside Frankie's Head

I imagine that anyone who has spent more than a few minutes around hyperactive, perpetually-stoked American soccer legend Frankie Hejduk has internally wondered, “What is going through that guy’s head?” On Saturday night, I learned the answer.

During a postgame B.S. session in which Frankie suggested possible sports page headlines for the next morning’s Columbus Dispatch, the ever-excitable Hejduk got whisked away in the white-water rapid that is his stream of consciousness, totally losing track of where he was in terms of what he was saying. He then paused and, by way of explanation, uttered this amazing sentence:

“There’s a whole concert in my head about stuff, guys.”

When Rock on the Range takes over MAPFRE Stadium in May, it will be more than just a hard rock festival. A bird’s eye view of the festival will basically be a living CAT scan of the inner workings of Frankie’s brain.

Rock on, Columbus.

Questions? Comments? Hope a visiting player celebrates bringing his team to within 6-1 by recreating the Triple Lindy from the Rodney Dangerfield cinematic masterpiece Back to School? 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 SC Shop or by ordering online HERE. All proceeds go to the Kirk Urso Memorial Fund for congenital heart defect research.


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