Huddle MLS Cup
Corey Betke / Crew SC Communications

Sirk's Notebook: MLS Cup Edition

A memorable season, month, and week culminated in an unforgettable night to forget.

After surrendering two of the most horrific and incalculably bizarre goals in MLS Cup history within the first seven minutes of the game, Columbus Crew SC dropped a 2-1 decision to the Portland Timbers at MAPFRE Stadium, denying Columbus its second MLS Cup title and giving Portland the city’s first major pro sports championship since the 1977 Trail Blazers conquered the NBA.

As lumberjack-looking Oregonians absorbed several pounds of celebratory confetti into their mammoth beards, more than 20,000 hearts bursting with black & gold turned black & blue. The Portland Timbers are a worthy champion, so there was always the very real possibility that the game was going to end that way.

It’s the beginning that will forever remain inconceivable. To see it wasn’t to believe it.

***

“I think you could see a little bit of nerves,” Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter told the assembled media at the postgame press conference. “Steve [Clark] gets hundreds of balls, thousands of balls, played to him during the course of the season and he rarely makes a mistake like that and you have to live with it.”

Two and a half hours earlier, Crew SC had possession off of a goal kick just moments after the opening kickoff. Portland’s Diego Valeri ran at Coulmbus’ Wil Trapp, pressuring him into dumping the ball back to his goalkeeper, Clark. Under Berhalter, Crew SC likes to play out of the back. Clark routinely makes plays with his feet in order to keep possession. Rather than booting the ball up the field for a 50/50 challenge, Clark will try to control the ball and find one of his defenders so Columbus can keep the ball and move it forward. There can certainly be scary moments from time to time, but nothing like what transpired next.

Clark’s first touch failed him. The ball spun off to his left side, somewhat behind him. As he turned to get his left leg in position to boot the ball, Valeri never stopped his relentless run from Trapp to the goalmouth. As Clark swung his left leg, Valeri slid into the ball’s path. One thud was instantly followed by a second thud. After the ball caromed into the Columbus net a mere 27 seconds into the match, there was a third thud, which was the sound of 21,747 jaws simultaneously hitting aluminum bleachers.

“We support him and mistakes are part of the game,” Berhalter said. “The start wasn’t good. The start was certainly not good.”

It was somehow about to get worse.

***

The second goal game just six minutes later and it was a comedy of unfunny errors. The first error was when the assistant referee failed to notice that a Portland pass went a foot or two out of bounds. It wasn’t the “two yards” that Taylor Twellman declared on TV, but it was still plenty obvious. So much so that I took my own eyes off the play and scanned the crowd to soak up the atmosphere. The stadium was so loud during the game that I couldn’t hear referee whistles from the radio location, so I just assumed they called it. (Heck, I couldn’t even hear Dwight Burgess and Neil Sika’s broadcast and they were standing directly in front of me.) When I heard swelling howls of protest from the crowd, I looked down and saw Darlington Nagbe on the dribble, then Nagbe passing it to Lucas Melano, who hit a one-time cross into the box, where Rodney Wallace darted inside of Harrison Afful to head home a goal to make it 2-0.

I had no idea how Portland went from a Columbus throw-in to a counterattack goal so quickly. Then I saw the replay. Tony Tchani casually walked the ball to the sideline with his feet, preparing to take the obvious throw-in, totally oblivious to the fact that the officials had unbelievably blown the call, and therefore not the whistle. That was the second error. The third error was the marking in the box.

It was a disastrous domino effect of nonfeasance. After a memorable playoff run and a full week of electrifying build-up in Central Ohio, MLS Cup appeared to be over as soon as it started. Eager anticipation morphed into a surreal nightmare in about the time it takes to listen to “Comfortably Numb.”

I was uncomfortably so.

***

Kei Kamara put Columbus on the board in the 18th minute on a crazy, sloppy goal off of a goalkeeper spill in front of the Portland net. Like Valeri’s goal in the first minute, it was a score born of luck and determination. Improbably, with 72 minutes left to play, it would be the last shot on goal of the game for Columbus. Portland kept it together in the back in near-flawless fashion. Crew SC had possession but rarely threatened. From an Ohioan’s point of view, the game settled into a “hopeful but not optimistic” kid of vibe. Something good could happen at any moment, yet it didn’t seem likely. Heading into the MLS Cup final, there was a reason Portland was 17-0-3 in all competitions when scoring the first goal.

The Timbers threatened on numerous occasions in the second half, denting the woodwork a few times and also running up against some fine Steve Clark saves. There was a while where I tried to convince myself that all of Portland’s narrow misses were a sign of Timber doom. They would pay for not putting the game away. Somehow, Crew SC would get the benefit of a bounce at the other end and the game would cruelly, suddenly be tied. But it turns out Columbus used up all of its good fortune on the defensive end of the field in the second half.

The tying goal never came.

Nor did the second MLS Cup title in Columbus Crew SC history.

***

Being a Clevelander, I thought once Columbus won MLS Cup in 2008, I was set. Of course, I’d want the Black & Gold to win more titles, and boy oh boy do I ever want one of my Cleveland teams to end my hometown’s legendary championship drought, but no matter what, I’d always have 2008. I’d lived it. Not only that, but I’d lived it up close and personal. No amount of sporting catastrophe can ever take that away from me. 2008 is something I could always go back to.

And that’s true.

But that only goes so far. What surprised me was how much I craved a championship in 2015. I was a nervous wreck in the week leading up to the game. The thing is, once you’ve experienced the ultimate thrill, you want so badly for others to have the same experience. Now I think I understand why dynasty-level teams in various sports seem to add a ring-free veteran to the roster as a rallying point. To know the feeling is to desperately want it for others.

I wanted it for Anthony Precourt, who bought the club in 2013 and revitalized it in a way that I can’t honestly say I saw coming. The support of the community through this playoff run has been astonishing. I wrote about it last time, but it has been amazing and surreal to absorb the enthusiasm from Central Ohio relating to this team. My arrival in Columbus coincided with MLS’ arrival in Columbus. In those 20 years, I haven’t seen anything like this community-wide playoff push.

I wanted it for the front office staff, most of which wasn’t here in 2008. I know how hard they work and I know how much the MLS Cup victory meant to the staff seven years ago, so I wanted it for today’s group.

I wanted it for the fans. There are many fans who may have been too young to appreciate 2008, or who didn’t become fans until afterward. I’ve talked to many of them. I wanted them to know how it feels. And for the fans who were around in 2008, I wanted them to experience it again, because, well, it’s awesome.

I wanted it for the city. I think the pool of community support for Crew SC is much broader than in 2008. I wanted to see what a championship in that climate would feel like #ForColumbus.

Gregg Berhalter, Josh Wolff, Pat Onstad, and Steve Tashjian are no stranger to MLS Cup titles, but I wanted it for them and the entire coaching, technical, and support staff. They have built a fun and exciting team. I wanted that to be rewarded.

And, of course, I wanted it for the players. After all, at its heart, it would be THEIR achievement. I wanted Wil Trapp to experience the thrill of winning an MLS Cup championship on hometown soil for his hometown club. I wanted Federico Higuain to cement his place alongside Guillermo Barros Schelotto as an Argentine maestro who brought an MLS Cup to Columbus. I wanted it for guys like Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, Tony Tchani, Ben Speas, Aaron Schoenfeld, Matt Lampson, and Kevan George, who were with the Black & Gold in 2012 when Kirk Urso passed away. They went through the roughest thing a team can go through; a heartache that transcends sports. Three years later, I wanted them to feel the ultimate triumph while wearing Black & Gold. In two-thousand-FIFTEEN, no less. 

I could go on, but that brings me to the three images I won’t soon forget.

***

As the field was overrun with stage construction, swelling inflatables, and, ultimately, a trophy presentation, Kei Kamara sat on the grass and watched it all unfold. He was spent, physically and emotionally. MLS Cup had narrowly eluded him for the third time. He was traded from Columbus before the 2008 season kicked off and he left Kansas City for England part way through 2013. And now he had a goal, but not a win, in 2015. A refugee from Sierra Leone who had witnessed countless horrors in his youth, Kamara plays and lives with unrivaled joy as an adult. But now he was the last Crew SC player on the field. He sat. And sat. And sat.

As Kamara dejectedly watched the Portland Timbers raise that elusive trophy on his home field, Columbus fans cheered his name. “KEI KA-MAR-A (clap) (clap) (clap-clap-clap)!” They did it over and over again. For several minutes. Heart-shaped chants.

“They have always shown me love,” Kamara said afterward. “It’s not all about that for me. I want to sit out there and I want to know what it feels like to lift up that trophy. That’s why I was sitting out there and those are the things that keep you going and working harder and harder. The fans have been amazing all year and I appreciate them.”

That was indelible image number one.

***

Indelible image number two was in the postgame press conference. Michael Parkhurst sat at the table on the stage as Berhalter mercifully handled most of the speaking duties. Forget the proverbial “thousand-yard stare.” Parkhurst’s glassy eyes were a million miles away. If you didn’t want Columbus to win MLS Cup for Michael Parkhurst, you’re a Timbers fan. It’s impossible to find someone who doesn’t have great things to say about Parkhurst as a person and a teammate. There’s a reason he won the 2015 Kirk Urso Heart Award.

Prior to his stint in Columbus, he had appeared in three consecutive MLS Cups with the New England Revolution from 2005-2007. The Revs lost all three times. In 2014, he was a surprise cut from the U.S. Men’s National Team when the final roster was pared down for the World Cup in Brazil—a shocking extinguishment of a lifelong dream.

Now, a year later, he had captained his Columbus Crew SC to the MLS Cup final at home. At long last, it appeared that his day had hopefully come. I remembered how great it was to talk to Pat Noonan on the field after MLS Cup 2008. Like Parkhurst, Noonan had dropped multiple MLS Cup finals with New England before winning one in Black & Gold. My hope was that Parky would follow in his footsteps. (Columbus: Where Revs Win MLS Cups!)

As Parkhurst sat forlornly on that stage, all I could think was that it’s terrible if nice guys always finish last, but it can be even crueler if they finish second again and again and again and again.

***

The third indelible image is that of Steve Clark standing at his locker, granting interview after interview. He had given up the most infamous goal in MLS Cup history. It’s something that’s going to be replayed for as long as there are MLS Cups. To pretend otherwise would be naïve or an attempted whitewashing. I can’t imagine how it felt to be Steve Clark at the moment when it happened and I couldn’t imagine how it felt to be Steve Clark standing at his locker in the quiet room without the champagne. But there he stood. He didn’t hide in the trainer’s room and leave his teammates to answer for that play. He stood tall and answered every last question.

“I put us in a bad spot.”

“You can’t undo a goal that early so you try to make saves.”

“It’s a very difficult thing for a team when you get put in a hole after one minute. There are no second chances in championship games, so I have to shoulder that.”

“This is completely on me.”

Those are snippets just from the two minutes I was by his locker. He talked for much longer, answering variations of the same questions as each new inquisitor appeared.

While I am probably going to see that play in my mind for the rest of my life—adding it to the nightmare gallery that includes Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Jose Mesa, etc.—for Clark to place the result entirely on his shoulders surely isn’t accurate. There were 89.5 minutes yet to play. This wasn’t a 90th minute blunder that literally decided the game. Besides, for all we know, Clark could have cleared the ball on that play and the game could have ended 7-0 in Portland’s favor. Or the Clark play could have happened, but if the assistant referee calls that out of bounds play six minutes later, the game could have ended up 8-1 Columbus. It’s impossible to unravel all of the possibilities based on a play just 27 seconds into the game. We only know the possibility that actually happened, so it’s easy to whip up an equation that states bad goal + lose by a goal = all Clark’s fault.

We have no way of knowing if that’s actually true. All we know is that the goal happened and Columbus eventually lost. The goal surely didn’t help, but to put the blame for the result entirely on Clark’s shoulders would be unjust.

Clark’s teammates stood by him.

“This isn’t on Steve,” said Justin Meram. “It’s on all of us. He’s a leader. It’s almost the way we play puts him in that position. We love him to death. You saw some of the saves he made today. You have to tip your hat to him. He had a hell of a year.”

As Clark stood at his locker and spoke of his team’s resiliency and character, I couldn’t help but think of how in that very difficult postgame moment, he embodied both.

***

Crew SC was attempting to become the first Ohio team to win a major league title on Ohio soil since the 1964 Cleveland Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the NFL Championship Game. The 1975, 1976, and 1990 Cincinnati Reds all clinched on the road, while Crew SC won MLS Cup 2008 in a neutral site game in Carson, California. (The Indians, Browns, Royals, Bengals, Cavaliers, Barons, and Blue Jackets have combined to win zero-point-zero-zero championships after 1964. It’s been Reds, Crew, or bust.)

On the flip side, the Timbers became the second West Coast team to clinch a major sports title on Ohio property in 2015 alone. They join the Golden State Warriors, who clinched the NBA title this past June at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Previous to the Warriors and Timbers, the 1972 Oakland Athletics clinched the World Series at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.

So that’s three visitor clinchings in Ohio—one in each of the three C’s—since the last Ohio home clinching in 1964.

Bummer.

***

"I have some really mixed emotions right now," said Danny O'Rourke, a Massive Champion who is now with the Timbers organization. We stood in the tunnel as he calmly sipped from a victory beer.

A Worthington native, O'Rourke had dreamed of retiring in black and gold, and said he hopes "Columbus wins a thousand more championships", but on this night, he was part of the opposition. To see his hometown club playing in front of a packed and enthusiastic stadium filled him with great pride, even though he was also happy that it was his guys showering with champagne in the visiting locker room.

And that made him think of 2008, that most Massive of seasons.

"The only thing I would change about 2008," he said, "is that I wish we could have won MLS Cup at home in front of a crowd like this instead of out in California."

Then he caught himself.

"Wait, why would I want to change anything about 2008? It was really special. Plus, if we had won MLS Cup at home in Columbus, I'd probably be dead. I would have partied so much that night that I would have died. So never mind. I'm glad 2008 happened like it did."

As we said our goodbyes, Danny had a few last words.

"If you're gonna put that you talked to me in your article, tell everyone I said, 'Duncan sucks.' Just write something like, 'He had the following message: (Bleep) Duncan. Something like that."

An unsolicited old-time O'Rourke vs. Oughton jab for the Notebook caused a burst of laughter that I didn't think was even possible as I spied elated, champagne-spraying Timbers in my periphery.

***

Danny sure was right about the crowd. Despite getting punched in the gut right out of the gate, it was still a fantastic atmosphere. It did not go unnoticed.

“I think the fans did their job,” Clark said. “Beyond. It was a great atmosphere to play in to say the least. I am really proud to live in this city.”

That last sentence is a sentiment shared by many. On MLS Cup Eve, as I waited to record my segment on the Massive Report Podcast, I chatted with Crew SC fan Nate Beckman. I told him how I had been advising anyone and everyone to soak up as much of MLS Cup week as they can. You never know when it will happen again. Columbus could host it again next year. Or never again in my lifetime. Nate agreed and said something that stuck with me. He said, “Even if we lose tomorrow, this week still happened. I mean, look around this place!”

I did. It was jam-packed and it was wall-to-wall Black & Gold. There was so much excitement for Crew SC, and that excitement went well beyond the walls of Land Grant Brewing Company on Saturday night. The national soccer spotlight shined brightly on Columbus. League employees, visiting media, and traveling fans had many laudatory things to say about our city as a host. It seemed I spent much of the weekend engaged in conversations with MLS folks and out of town writers about Crew SC’s surge in the local consciousness. And all of this came about after a fun regular season capped by a 5-0 demolition of D.C. United, then a back-from-the-dead series against Montreal, and a nine-second goal to set the tone for the elimination of the Supporters’ Shield champion New York Red Bulls.

Even though Crew SC ultimately came up short, it was a wild ride. Like Nate said, no matter what the result in MLS Cup, all this happened. All this good stuff actually happened.

“I’m proud of Columbus,” added Berhalter. “I think Columbus put on an excellent show and I think the atmosphere was amazing. I’ve played in U.S. vs. Mexico games before and this is right up there with an intense atmosphere. I’m sorry to the people of Columbus that we couldn’t bring them a championship. We couldn’t bring them that trophy, but they deserve it. The support we have gotten over the last month has been amazing. So I thank the people. I thank the city for getting behind us.”

***

Berhalter and his players vowed that Crew SC will be back. There are many reasons for optimism of course, but it’s also a daunting task. The math is daunting at least. Only two teams can make it to MLS Cup in any given year, and only one can win it. Not only that, two of the playoff rounds are designed to virtually eliminate any trace of home-field advantage. (Although that would be a boon, not a hindrance, if you are the lower seed.)

Heck, to understand how little margin there is between fun and done come playoff time, let’s look at the two finalists. While much will be made of the blown out of bounds call in MLS Cup, Crew SC saw their season imperiled in each of the previous rounds due to missed calls. First came the offside goal scored by Dilly Duka in the second leg against Montreal. That was the goal that had Crew SC just 13 minutes from elimination before they came back to win the game and the series. Then, in the dying seconds of the second leg against New York, Bradley Wright-Phillips hit the post on a header that would have tied the series and forced extra time. He was well offside on the play, but the assistant referee missed the call. That time, fortune smiled on Crew SC with a favorable bounce off the post. It’s crazy to think that each playoff round featured a missed call that could have potentially ended Crew SC’s season. First, what would have been the series-winner for Montreal, then what nearly forced extra time against New York, and then what helped create the deciding goal in the MLS Cup loss. I don’t point this out as any sort of conspiracy, as that is not my intent or assertion at all. It’s just crazy what can happen in the playoffs. A blown call or a random bounce can make or break your championship dreams.

As for Portland, speaking of random bounces, they were a fraction of a partial millimeter away from being eliminated at home during the knockout round against Kansas City. The penalty kick that would have won the match for KC during the shootout hit the left post, rolled along the goal line, hit the right post, and then caromed across the front of the goal but in front of the original post. The Timbers went on to win the shootout against KC, eliminate Vancouver and Dallas, and then win MLS Cup in Columbus. And absolutely NONE of it would have happened had that KC penalty kick hit the goalpost just one atom to the right.

And these were the teams that actually MADE it to the final. The rest were not so fortunate. Every season is littered with good teams—legitimate contenders—who don’t get there, much less win it. This year alone, New York, Dallas, Vancouver, Montreal, and others felt they had a legitimate shot at lifting the trophy. They had really good seasons and the talent to make it happen. New England was the defending Eastern Conference champion. The star-studded LA Galaxy were the defending MLS Cup champions. Kansas City is the current U.S. Open Cup champion. Seattle is a perennial MLS Cup contender and they have yet to make it to the big game even so much as one measly time.

And this happens year after year. It’s true in every sport. The Atlanta Braves won 14 consecutive division titles and were always among the very best teams in baseball, featuring a starting pitching rotation that included three Hall of Famers. In that time, they made it to the World Series just five times and won it only once. (Against my Cleveland Indians, naturally.) In the 18 seasons of the Stockton-Malone era, the Utah Jazz were perennial contenders and made the playoffs each year. In all that time, they only made it to the NBA Finals twice, losing both times. And so on. Winning a championship is hard. That’s why being so close hurts so much. It’s infinitely more painful to be left at the altar than to be shot down on a first date.

“It was a successful season, but it wasn’t the ultimate success,” noted Justin Meram.

Out of curiosity—part genuine, part morbid—I went through all of the major American pro leagues in Major League Soccer’s lifetime to see how many times a team lost in the championship round one year and returned the next, or more importantly, won it all the next.

Of the 88 championship round losers since the spring of 1996 that have completed a follow-up season as of this writing, 13 of them have returned the following year. That’s 14.8%. Seven of them completed the leap from runner-up to champion. That’s 8.0%,

Those numbers are slightly better in MLS. Five of the 18 runners-up made it back to MLS Cup the following year. That’s 27.8%. Two have won it, for 11.1%.

Here are the seven American pro teams in Major League Soccer’s lifetime that the 2016 edition of Columbus Crew SC hopes to emulate in their almost-riches-to-riches turnarounds:

  • 1999 D.C. United
  • 2002 LA Galaxy
  • 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins
  • 2009 LA Lakers
  • 2012 Miami Heat
  • 2014 San Antonio Spurs
  • 2015 Kansas City Royals

“(The 2015 Crew SC season) was a really positive step for me and for this group,” said Ethan Finlay, “but we still have unfinished business.”

Those last two words happen to be the season-long motto of the 2015 Kanas City Royals.

They are on the list.

Daunting be damned, no matter how it ends up, there’s a lot to look forward to in 2016.

Questions? Comments? Hoping, like me, that the Wine & Gold and Black & Gold both add their names to the list in 2016? Feel free to write at sirk65@yahoo.com or via Twitter @stevesirk.


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