The Columbus Crew's 2009 home schedule ended as it had begun, with a disappointing home result and a title celebration. The Crew lost, 1-0, to the New England Revolution, then celebrated their second consecutive Supporters' Shield title with the fans in front of the Nordecke.
Conflicted is an appropriate adjective for describing the postgame scene. Whereas last year's Shield celebration came moments after the Crew drove a stake through D.C. United's heart, this year's celebration came moments after the Crew failed to end New England's season. Losing is kind of a party pooper.
That said, the loss did not diminish the magnitude of the Crew's accomplishment. Of the four previous Shield / MLS Cup double winners, none had added another Shield or MLS Cup on either side of their double-winning season. The 2009 Crew have managed to repeat as Shield winners, and still have MLS Cup to play for. The unprecedented accomplishment is all the more impressive considering that the Crew underwent a coaching change, played a congested schedule due to international competition, had a bull's-eye on their back all season long, plus gave the league a quarter-season head start thanks to a seven-game winless streak to start the year. There were many potential excuses for failure, but Crew coach Robert Warzycha molded this team into his own, and the players responded with a gritty season-long march to the top of the standings. Last year's Shield felt like a coronation. This year's Shield felt like an achievement.
And believe me, the players know what an achievement it is. The Shield has been growing in stature with each passing year, and that has never been more true now that there is a group stage qualification spot tied directly to the prize. But even if the Shield does not get as much publicity and notoriety as MLS Cup, it means a lot to the guys in the Crew's locker room.
"This is a 30-game season," said Crew goalkeeper William Hesmer, who missed Sunday's game with the flu. "It's a long, long season. It's grueling. If you throw in the Champions League, we've put a lot of our efforts into that too. If you ask any player in this league, I think they will take the most pride in winning the Supporters' Shield."
Hesmer feels that the Crew's methodical approach and tight-knit locker room were the keys to overcoming adversity to win the Shield in 2009.
"It's important to take it one week at a time," he said. "If you get too far ahead of yourself, or if you get caught up in looking at the points standings all the time, you'll get yourself into trouble. We could have easily done that at the beginning of the year and said, 'Wow, look at this hole we're in', but we believed in ourselves, we believed in our talent, and most importantly, we believed in each other as people. We know everybody in this locker room is after the same goals."
In terms of goals, the Crew have checked off the 2009 Supporters' Shield and advancement to the knockout stage of the 2009-10 CONCACAF Champions League. As the fans in the Nordecke reminded the team once again during the Supporters' Shield ceremony, "We're not done yet." Up next on the goal checklist is the defense of the MLS Cup title.
SCHOENI TAKES THE FIELD
There's really not much to write about the game. The Crew were playing for pride while the Revs were playing for their lives. Nothing much happened until the 79th minute, when Jeff Larentowicz blasted a direct free kick into the roof of the net from 22 yards for the only goal of the game.
The only truly interesting story to me, from a Crew perspective, was that back-up goalkeeper Kenny Schoeni made his first career start when it was determined during warm-ups that a flu-ridden William Hesmer was too weak to play.
I am a sucker for moments like this. I always love it when a behind-the-scenes guy finally gets a chance to see the field for the very first time. In Schoeni's case, goalkeeper is the least forgiving position when it comes to back-up status. There's only one spot on the field, and teams can't tactically alter that number by playing a two or three goalkeeper formation.
So a guy like Kenny Schoeni works his butt off in training for all of 2008, knowing full well that the Crew have it pretty good with William Hesmer and Andy Gruenebaum. Yet he works hard day in and day out, just in case. He sticks around after training when other guys need extra shooting or crossing practice. He does all of the little things that indirectly help a team, knowing it's unlikely that he will see the field with the first team, barring injury.
There's a lot of honor in that, so it always makes me happy when a guy like that makes his first appearance. It legitimizes all of the hard work behind the scenes. It makes it official. It will be a line in the record book forever. Kevin Burns and Schoeni, two Massive Champions who never saw the field in 2008, got to make their MLS debuts in 2009. And that's awesome as far as I am concerned.
Schoeni thought it was pretty cool too. "It's nice," he said, "because while you train with the guys every day, it's still just practice. Getting a game makes it more real. You feel like you are contributing directly to the team."
Due to the smaller rosters in 2009, Schoeni was waived and spent the summer with Miami FC in USL-1. He rejoined the Crew in September when Gruenebaum went down with a hip injury, and his USL experience helped him prepare for his big night in Columbus.
"This year I played in games for Miami, and I played in Portland in front of 13,000 fans there, so it wasn't that big of a deal. I was excited. I felt prepared. I felt ready for it, and I was happy to have a chance."
Sadly, Schoeni lost his shutout on Larentowicz's cannon blast. The ball was hit right at Schoeni, but over his head. It was past him before he could move.
"It was a very well-struck shot," Schoeni said. "He hit it clean and he hit it hard. I feel like if I had been a little more to the left I would have had a cleaner look and would have been able to react, so that's what I fault myself for. I lost the ball for a fraction of a second, and that's all it took. He hit it well."
That's the diplomatic answer, and since I'm not a goalkeeper, maybe he's right. But to my eyes, had Schoeni possessed the reaction time to make that save, he could have quit the Crew and gone on the carnival tour, catching bullets with his teeth.
Watching from the sidelines, Hesmer thought that Schoeni acquitted himself well in his MLS debut.
"I think Kenny did fantastic," Hesmer said. "I think he was confident and took care of the things he needed to take care of. I don't think anybody faults him for the goal. It was a really, really, really, really crushed shot. I think he did a good job. He has all the tools, and with more game time, I think he will be a really good goalkeeper in this league."
THE BC SHIELD
With yet another Supporters' Shield in hand, I asked Crew midfielder Brian Carroll if they should just rename the thing the BC Shield since he has been on the winning team for four years running.
"My wife told me that this week," he said. "I laughed. I didn't believe her at first. I don't remember that happening. I guess that's because I'm not thinking about it and I'm going out there and working hard every day. If you try to improve week in and week out, crazy stuff like that will happen."
The four consecutive Shield wins is by far a record, and the fourth total Shield has lifted Carroll into a tie with former teammate Jaime Moreno, who won Shields with D.C. United in 1997, 1999, 2006, and 2007. Carroll is not alone in joining Jaime Moreno at the top of the heap; he brought along current teammates Frankie Hejduk (Tampa Bay 1996, Columbus 2004, 2008, 2009) and Alejandro Moreno (Los Angeles 2002, San Jose 2005, Columbus 2008, 2009.)
While it's no four-year streak like BC's, it is also worth noting that Danny O'Rourke has won the Shield in 3 of his 5 years in the league, also winning it as a rookie with San Jose in 2005.
Meanwhile, since logic dictates that no current teammates can overtake him while he's an active member of the team, Duncan Oughton remains the most-titled player in Crew history, having collected five (and counting) domestic titles. Chad Marshall and Frankie Hejduk are right behind with four, but unlike them, Oughton also played for the 2002 U.S. Open Cup champions.
And Robert Warzycha had also been directly involved with all five titles, but in three separate capacities. He played for the 2002 U.S. Open Cup champions, was an assistant coach for the 2004 Supporters' Shield winners and 2008 Shield / MLS Cup double winners, and now is the head coach of the 2009 Supporters' Shield winners, with the 2009 MLS Cup yet to play for.
Speaking of trophies and awards, let's make an abrupt transition and move on to some fun stories from the Crew's 2009 Awards Ceremony and Casino Night on Monday...
Steven Lenhart provided an unexpected jolt to the proceedings when he collected the first award of the night for Humanitarian of the Year. Rather than walking up the ramp to the stage, the fro-haired forward leaped up from his seat and launched himself up onto the stage like a gymnastically-inclined, wig-wearing kangaroo. Before the gasps and giggles from his daring entrance had subsided, the Big Nasty proceeded to bring down the house with some goofy dance moves. Then he collected his award and hopped back down to his seat, never coming within 20 feet of the podium.
Later in the evening, when Lenhart shared the Fans' Choice Award with Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the Argentine earned a big laugh when he glanced at Lenhart and pointed to the stage's entrance ramp.
"I was so bummed," Lenhart said later on. "What I wanted to do was pick up Guillermo and put him on the stage, then I was going to jump up again."
On stage to collect his second award, Lenhart did stop at the podium, but rather than deliver a speech, he led the crowd in a group exhortation. "Guillermo has a dance move!" he informed the crowd. "Do you want to see it?" The crowd went crazy, but Guille only offered a shy wave before exiting the stage.
"Guillermo has this awesome dance move," Lenhart later said. "He does a scarecrow. When we were walking off the stage, I said, 'Dude, why didn't you dance?' and he said, 'Only in private. Not for everybody.' So disappointing, dude. You should see him. It's awesome. He's so funny."
Jason Garey won the award for Crew Goal of the Year, and he capped it with Crew Speech of the Night. Garey won the award for finishing off a brilliant team play against Real Salt Lake on July 18. Garey dropped the ball to Duncan Oughton, who played the ball forward to Steven Lenhart, who back heeled the ball into the path of Garey's subsequent run. Garey then capped it off with a left-footed strike into the net.
As part of his acceptance speech, Garey said, "Thanks to Duncan and to Steve. With great passing like that, it was so easy that even Andy Iro could have scored."
When the laughter died down, Garey added, "No he couldn't."
Adam Moffat won the Ohio Health Comeback Player of the Year Award. However, he was under the weather and was unable to attend the ceremony. The irony was not lost on many in the building. Besides, he may be plotting a big comeback from the sniffles this weekend.
While Moffat could not be there in person, he did send me some words of acceptance via email. "Ye, it was good to win the award the other day," he wrote. "Obviously it isn't an award you really ever dream of getting, unless you dream of being out for over a year."
Duncan Oughton thought they skimped on Moffat's portion of the evening.
"I was surprised they only had one comeback award for Moffat," Oughton said. "It seems to me that based on the number of times he has injured himself, there should have been three or four awards for him."
On a related note, goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum hopped around the awards ceremony on crutches thanks to his season-ending hip surgery. I remarked to him that it was a good campaign strategy for winning next year's Comeback Player of the Year Award. The Hammer disagreed.
"Moffat is going to win it again next year," he said.
I pointed out that they doubled up and used both Moffat's 2008 knee blowout and his 2009 hamstring strain while presenting this year's award, so that should clear the way for Gruenebaum's comeback next year.
"Yeah, but it's Moffat," Gruenebaum countered. "The guy is always blowing out or straining something, and then he comes back from it. I don't have a chance as long as Moffat is here. What's a guy gotta do to catch a break, right?"
Moffat was of two minds about the Hebrew Hammer's 2010 candidacy.
"I'm disappointed they merged my (2008 and 2009) injuries together," he wrote. "They are two different seasons, so it would have been good to take the title two years in a row. Then maybe they would rename it the Adam Moffat Award. I definitely think G-baum is the front-runner (front-limper) for this award next year. He will be getting my vote."
The final award of the night was handed to the Crew's 2009 Most Valuable Player, Danny O'Rourke. In some ways, it was a startling choice. Defenders and defensive midfielders are rarely looked at as MVP material unless they are national team caliber or the club struggled mightily and couldn't justify anyone else. It's not a flashy position that draws lots of attention, and there are certainly no gaudy stats to make the selection of someone like O'Rourke a no-brainer. So in that sense, the announcement of O'Rourke's name came as a shock...even to the man himself.
"I had no idea this was coming," he said later in the evening. 'They called my name and I couldn't believe it, especially with all the great players we have on our team. I wasn't expecting it at all, so it's not like I had a speech ready. I didn't know what to say when I got up there."
Naturally, his teammates also had fun with announcement. Duncan Oughton was especially perplexed.
"What do the letters MVP stand for?" the Kiwi asked me.
"Most Valuable Player," I replied.
"Yes," he said, "it was always my understanding that MVP means Most Valuable Player, but I suddenly became confused when Danny won. When they first said 'Danny O'Rourke', I thought that the letters MVP must stand for something else. I thought maybe it was the Most Violent Person award, and they were going to give him a set of golden boxing gloves."
Like all good humor, Duncan's joking around is built upon a kernel of truth. I have found Danny to be one of the most interesting players to cover over the past few years for a number of reasons. Obviously, he can be a funny guy and likes to talk trash about his teammates, but he's also intrigued me in a soccer sense. When Danny first came to Columbus, he had the well-earned reputation as a meatheaded mauler. His job as a defensive midfielder was to destroy the opposition's attack by any means necessary, and Danny clearly relished the role. Particularly the physical aspects of the role. He likened himself to a free safety in football, roving the field and looking for a good hit to break up a play.
In 2008, Sigi Schmid decided to convert him to a center back, which is a position that requires significantly more tact than Danny had displayed as a midfielder. The early returns were not good, as O'Rourke found himself whistled for penalty kicks in 3 of the first 5 games. But throughout his travails, it was interesting to hear him talk as he worked his way through it. He never put his head down. He never beat himself up. He always took responsibility and never hid from his failings. In fact, he cracked jokes at his own expense. But most importantly, he kept working at it, determined to get it right. By the second half of the year, O'Rourke had blossomed into a legitimate counterpart to Chad Marshall in the center of the Crew's defense, and the Crew went on to win the 2008 Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup.
In 2009, O'Rourke has been asked to be a little bit of everything, often in the same game. He played his new position at center back. He played his old position at defensive midfield. He played right back when needed. Heck, he even played left back in the Crew's historic 1-0 victory at Saprissa.
The Crew MVP race was a bit strange this year. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the reigning MVP of nearly everything that has an MVP award attached to it, got off to a scorching-hot start, but then cooled off after missing some time with injuries. Chad Marshall followed up his dream 2008 season with an even better one...when he was around. Marshall was undoubtedly the Crew's Most Dominating Player, but due to national team call-ups and a late season knee injury, he was limited to just 18 league games. MVP awards are rarely handed out to guys who played in just 60% of the games.
I don't know how the final voting ended, but if I had to guess, it probably came down to O'Rourke and Eddie Gaven, two versatile and sometimes overlooked cogs in this year's Massive Yellow Machine. Both were available game in and game out, and excelled wherever Warzycha plugged them in on any given day. In a way, they were both the perfect embodiments of this year's team, as their versatility allowed Warzycha to tinker with the lineup any way he wanted as injuries, call-ups, and the day-to-day grind of an overloaded schedule forced a bevy of lineup changes.
Gaven delivered clutch goals, while O'Rourke delivered clutch tackles. Which brings me back to another reason why Danny has been so interesting to me. It appears to me that his time as a central defender has made him a better defensive midfielder. O'Rourke is still not a guy you would want to run into while dribbling a soccer ball through a dark alley. He still has to win at everything, he still works as hard as ever, and he's still prone to a rash challenge now and then, but the restraint that he learned as a center back has made him more efficient at winning balls.
While Danny certainly isn't one to stuff the stat sheet with goals and assists, I did some digging and found it interesting that he is now much less likely to stuff the stat sheet with fouls committed. In his first three years in the league, from 2005-2007, with San Jose, New York, and Columbus, O'Rourke averaged 2.14 fouls per 90 minutes. In 2008 and 2009, O'Rourke has averaged 1.24 fouls per 90 minutes. That's a staggering 42% reduction in his hack rate. There is no visible difference in his effort, and I don't think anyone would argue that Danny is suddenly in the good graces of the refereeing fraternity, so his decreasing foul rate is a testament to his continued growth as a player.
Now that he's been crowned MVP, his teammates offered many laudatory comments, even if they couldn't help themselves with an occasional joke or two at Danny's expense.
"I couldn't be happier for Danny and I'm glad that the Crew did the right thing and gave him the award," said O'Rourke's chief fantasy football rival, goalkeeper William Hesmer. "He's not the flashy, sexy choice that normally goes alongside the MVP award, but he was always there when we needed him most. His versatility and willingness to do whatever it takes to win cannot be matched."
Wow. That was very nice.
"Of course, I would say none of this to his face," Hesmer continued. "I always tell him that he's the worst player in NCAA history to ever win the Hermann Trophy, and now I'm adding that he's also the worst player to ever be named team MVP."
Ah, that's more like it.
After making his Most Violent Person crack, Oughton cited O'Rourke's versatility and internal fire as reasons that he was a worthy recipient of the MVP award.
"He's a very competitive person," Oughton said. "He turns 50/50 balls into 60/40 balls because he has that extra push, extra drive, and extra oomph. When you see someone working hard like that from minute one to minute 94 or whatever, it inspires everyone else to work that much harder.
"No matter where you put him, he makes all of his tackles and he has bailed us out of trouble so many times," Oughton continued. "He's been a great team player. He's been shifted around a lot, and he does it without complaining or getting frustrated. His flexibility has been a huge part of the team's success as it has enabled us to use many different lineups."
Fellow midfielder Adam Moffat also chimed in. "Very well done to Danny," he said. "A guy like him who has played in numerous positions the last few years is always a boost to a team. It's hard to get the MVP award unless you really have the goal and assist stats to back it up, but his competitiveness has shown in every game that he has played, and that goes through the team."
Not quite satisfied with his complimentary comments, Moffat tacked on one last thought.
"Also, the fact that he hasn't given away 17 penalties this year has helped his case."
O'Rourke commented that it's not every day that a guy with no goals in his career wins an MVP award. This led Oughton and I to ponder how close Danny is to being the MLS leader for most games amongst field players with no career goals.
Thanks to the always-helpful Peter Hirdt at Elias Sports Bureau, we now know that Danny ranks 5th all-time in games played by scoreless field players.
1. Brandon Prideaux 252
2. Chris Leitch 167
3. Rusty Pierce 155
4. Chris Wingert 140
5. Danny O'Rourke 122
One can't help but laugh at the fact that numbers 2-5 all played for the Crew at one point, and that numbers 2 and 5 are actually FROM Columbus. It must be something in the water.
Danny's not even half way to Prideaux's mark, and assuming 30-game seasons, he would not even be in position to break that record until 2014. A lot can happen between now and then. Sometimes a goal happens totally by accident with the benefit of good luck. Ask Gino Padula. I mean, Jason Garey ripped on Andy Iro's finishing prowess, but even Iro has a pair of goals in his two-year career. And Duncan freakin' Oughton has scored on a freakin' bicycle kick. Somehow, some way, the ball is going to have to bounce Danny's way at some point. Right?
Moffat thinks that O'Rourke's versatility will be of help.
"Who knows, maybe in the years to come Danny will become a forward," Moffat said. "He has done everything else. Then he can get that elusive goal."
MR. NUMBERS NERD: WHERE THE GOALS WENT EDITION
We all know that the Crew didn't exactly build up a head of steam for the postseason. They scored only one league goal in the month of October, and that was Gino Padula's half-field fluke created by goalkeeper-defender miscommunication. In the end, the Crew finished with 41 goals, down nine from last year's 50.
Over at the stat-a-licious Climbing the Ladder blog (http://usasoccer.blogspot.com), they collected the goal breakdowns from the MLS game guides and compiled them into easy-to-compare charts. Two things struck me as odd about the Crew's nine-goal decrease from 2008 to 2009.
First, the nine-goal decrease exactly mirrors the Crew's decrease in goals scored from open play. The sum of goals from crosses, corners, rebounds, free kicks, penalties, etc, was consistent, but the Crew scored only 15 goals from open play in 2009, compared to 24 in 2008. Last year, only Los Angeles, Salt Lake and Chivas USA scored more goals than the Crew in open play. This year, only New England, Kansas City and San Jose scored fewer.
Second, the nine-goal decrease exactly mirrors the decrease in goals the Crew scored from outside of the penalty area. In 2008, with help of on-target bombardiers like Adam Moffat, Brad Evans, and Robbie Rogers, the Crew finished third in the league with 11 goals scored from outside the penalty area. In 2009, they finished dead last in the league with just two- Chad Marshall's free kick in Colorado and Padula's fluke goal in New England. That's it.
These two numbers seem to go hand in hand. After all, the threat of long-range scoring forces the defense to step out, which in turn creates avenues to exploit in open play. If O'Rourke could make his first goal be a 25-yard bomb, it might go a long way toward opening up the Crew's offense.
MR. NUMBERS NERD: STANDINGS-CONGESTION EDITION
The 2009 season was unquestionably the wildest in Major League Soccer's 14 seasons. Every game mattered right down to the final match, and calculating the playoff permutations in the final weeks was a mathematical exercise worthy of a Nobel Prize or a script treatment for one of those Oscar-gunning savant films that Hollywood churns out every so often.
At the top of the standings, six teams finished grouped together within four points of one another. How incredibly rare is that? Well...from 1996-2008, only a grand total of eight teams in 13 season finished within four points of the Supporters' Shield winner, and there were never more than two in any one season. In 2009, FIVE teams nipped at Columbus' heels from four points or closer. Amazing.
Also of note, in 2009, only nine points separate the top playoff team (Columbus, 49) from the final playoff contestant (Real Salt Lake, 40). The nine-point spread across the entire 2009 playoff field is by far the smallest spread in MLS history. The previous record-low spread was 14 points, set in 2000 and equaled in 2002.
Tying both the top of the table and the playoff spread together, there were two occasions where the gap between the Supporters' Shield winner and runner-up equaled or surpassed the entire playoff spread in 2009. In 1996, Shield winner Tampa Bay finished nine points better than runner-up Los Angeles. And then in 1998, Shield winner Los Angeles finished 10 points better than runner-up D.C. United.
FANTASY FOOTBALL UPDATE
The Crew's fantasy football season has hit the midpoint. The big news is that Hesmer defeated O'Rourke in the Will-Danny SuperClassico, which dashed O'Rourke's hopes of a perfect season. ("Danny's team is not that good," Hesmer said. "How they were 6-0 I will never know.") I have also learned that Alejandro Moreno shattered Andy Gruenebaum's scoring record, when Ale put up 195 points in one week.
I now turn it over to guest fantasy football analyst Jason Garey, with a look at how the league is shaping up:
"Danny O'Rourke is in the lead at 6-1, and there is a logjam for second with Andy G., Frankie, Will, B.C., and myself at 4-3," Garey said. "Chad is 3-4, while Noonan, Ale, and Cory are in serious danger of not making the playoffs with 2-5 records.
"Obviously, Danny being at number one is an anomaly, so that will change," he continued. "He benefitted from playing the worst teams at the beginning of the season, and now his shocker is about to begin. Poor Cory Elenio left 70 fantasy points on the bench by not starting Carson Palmer and Ricky Williams, so he deserved to lose to me this past week. Poor Noonan's fantasy effort has gone down the drain just like Colorado's playoff hopes, and Alejandro tries to win with just Tom Brady, but one guy can't make up for his lack of quality throughout the rest of his team. Will 'Self-Proclaimed Fantasy Guru' Hesmer claims to have a team so good that he doesn't know who to start, but if that's the case, he should be better than 4-3. It should be reminiscent of this year's Columbus Crew, where anyone could start and play their role. Mr. Marshall, at 3-4, could go either way. With some good performances he jumps right back into the playoff hunt, but he's running up against me this week, so his late season push will have to start next week."
DOC DID WHAT TO DAVE'S TIE?
Locker room smack talk is not limited to the players. After Sunday's game, I was party to a ridiculous conversation in which team administrator Tucker Walther and team physician Dr. J had set their sights on Crew PR guy Dave Stephany's neck tie. Apparently, the knot was not tied to their satisfaction.
After a few jokes, Dr. J reached out and fiddled the knot in Stephany's tie.
"There, that's better," Dr. J said. "All I need to do was invaginate it a little bit."
Um, huh? What was that?
Dr. J looked at me and grinned. "Sounds dirty, doesn't it?"
Having never heard that word before, I asked what it meant.
"It means to push in and make an impression," he explained, which makes sense given the root word. "When a player scores a goal and they say he put a bulge in the old onion bag, they could look at it the other way and say that the player invaginated the old onion bag."
Ooh, that sounds even dirtier. I will suggest that to Dwight and Neil for their TV and radio broadcasts.
Anyway, once the invagination of Stephany's tie was complete, he asked how he looked.
"You actually look like a professional," Tucker retorted.
"Well, it at least looks like you've worn a tie before," said Dr. J.
"Right," added Tucker. "Now your tie doesn't look like you're waiting tables at TGI Friday's."
I personally did not notice a single difference between Dave's tie pre- and post-invagination, but then again, I do not possess the inscrutable fashion eye of those famed sartorial savants, Tucker and Dr. J.
Steve Sirk is a contributor to TheCrew.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs. Sirk's first book, "A Massive Season: Sirk's Notebook Chronicles the 2008 Columbus Crew" is now available. Please visit www.sirkbook.com for more information. Questions? Comments? Know more words that sound dirty but really aren't? Feel free to write at firstname.lastname@example.org