OBETZ, Ohio – When asked if he was one of the best strikers in MLS, the answer given by Columbus Crew forward Andrés Mendoza wasn’t as important as the laugh that came with it.
“Other people have to say that; I just think about playing,” he said with a smile, something Crew fans and even his teammates rarely seem to see from the Peruvian.
Mendoza’s 13 goals, including two on Oct. 15 in a 3-0 win against New England, place him fourth in the race for the Golden Boot behind San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski and Dwayne De Rosario of D.C. United (15 each), and New York’s Thierry Henry (14).
“I’m not thinking about that,” Mendoza said through a translator. “I want to help the team win. I’m thankful we made the playoffs and that I could help.”
Putting the team first is a trait few would have associated with Mendoza back on June 8, when he took a penalty kick vs. Real Salt Lake many felt should have gone to Jeff Cunningham, who was set to tie the all-time MLS goal mark of 133.
A defiant Mendoza not only took the shot and scored but made gestures to the coaches and Crew fans afterward and didn’t stay on the bench when later subbed.
Perceived as moody and withdrawn from the team, he didn’t help himself the next day when he left Crew Stadium after practice wearing a T-shirt that read “Cold Mother------” on the front – except there were no hyphens.
By then, it looked like management had had enough of its Designated Player.
“I don’t think we were going to part with him,” technical director Brian Bliss said, “but we thought probably from June until probably this part of the season, we were going to be dealing with this for the next five months.”
Instead, coach Robert Warzycha had several talks with his player and Bliss held conversations with Mendoza’s agent to tell him his client’s behavior and attitude were unacceptable. That was the turning point and Mendoza, while still not one to linger after practice or hang out with his teammates, has produced on the field and been a bit more engaging off it.
“He’s quiet,” defender Sebastián Miranda said. “He doesn’t speak too much. He tries to let his speaking be on the field.”
Mendoza acknowledged his change.
“I worked harder for the team and got to 100 percent form, which is the level I always wanted to be at,” he said. “My family helped. I just had a little girl two months ago.”
He honors Nadeijda and another young daughter, Anouchka, after his goals by sucking his thumb like a pacifier – or in the case at New England, using a real pacifier.
There’s been a lot of thumb-sucking, as Mendoza is tied for the league lead in game winners (five) and multiple-goal games (four).
Ironically, his low point enabled him to eventually win over his teammates. He fractured his left wrist vs. RSL in that June match, but refused to miss the ensuing games and played with a cast.
“Any time a guy plays through an injury he always earns more respect from his teammates no matter who it is,” goalkeeper William Hesmer said. “You see a guy with a cast who just broke his wrist and it’s easy to say, ‘I can’t play. I’m hurt.’
“He showed his desire to be on the field and help us win. We can keep demanding more of him as a teammate, but he’s doing what he’s paid to do and that’s score goals.”