As I wandered among the supporters before the match under sunny, yet chilly skies, I was struck by the hope that was evident for a win against the visiting Rapids and the admiration for the departing (and Columbus' favorite Kiwi) Duncan Oughton. Here was a group that was sure that the aging grounds of Crew Stadium and the power of their fandom would somehow energize "their boys" and secure three points for the home team.
The beer was flowing among the various supporters and families plying their tailgating prowess on the vast expanse in the shadow of the stadium. The mood was an upbeat one. They couldn't lose two in a row, at home, could they? Amid the smell of grills that were fired up and their laughter, it was a very comforting scene. Warm smiles and reunited friendships greeted me at every turn.
"The mood here is not very high right now, getting shutout our last two home games", said Eddie Gaven. "It's not what we wanted. It's that last pass and last shot that just wasn't there. It wasn't clean when we got to the last third of the field."
As I settled in, at midfield the pregame ceremony honoring the departing Duncan Oughton was getting underway. He was flanked by Crew legend Frankie Hejduk and Crew President Mark McCullers. After being presented with a framed jersey and receiving a standing ovation from the crowd, the match started.
With the frenetic pace to start the match, I began to wonder if I was watching race cars zoom back and forth across the pitch. Surely, this pace would reap dividends in the form of three points, I thought. Alas, it was not to be. With the long ball making a comeback to stretch the field, the finishing touches weren't there. The supporters mood quickly degenerated into an infinite melancholy sadness as their club was unable to finish with any quality.
"We can't just sit here and mope about it", Andy Gruenebaum said. "I think that we can be a good attacking team and we showed that a little bit. Our final passes, our final ball was off. We just have to do a better job in key moments in front of both goals."
After Colorado scored the first goal at the eight minute mark, I sat back and waited to see if the Crew would respond in kind. While they created a few good scoring chances, they couldn't seem to get the ball on target. The frustration level was building, to the point that Tony Tchani channeled his inner David Luiz and ripped a shot off from distance that wasn't really that close.
At the half, I wandered along the concourse and listened to the wavering hopes of the supporters. While there wasn't outright dread, there was a palpable trepidation in their voices as they discussed the match to this point. These were the hardcore among the fans, members of the Nordecke. They've seen this movie before and were not afraid to address the possibility of dropping another three points at home.
My walkabout now complete, I tried to concentrate on the game being played out before me. The question that loomed large in my mind? Would Robert Warzycha make a substitution earlier than he usually does to change the complexion of the match? Last week, he waited until the eighty-sixth minute to make his first sub. Surely, he wouldn't wait that long?
"I was thinking of making a change early, but I think we had the momentum", said Warzycha. "We were possessing the ball and winning the ball high on the field."
As the clock ticked towards full-time, I asked myself why he was waiting? They were already chasing the game and an earlier sub might have sparked the players on the pitch. Alas, his first sub came after the Rapids scored their second of the evening. Like the supporters in the stands, I too, had seen this movie. There would be no hero riding in to save the day. The Crew sputtered to full-time, losing 2-nil at home. The dejection was evident all around the stadium. Perhaps befitting to end the evening, the clouds opened after the final whistle and the rains came.
Robert Warzycha said afterwards, "We have to score the goals. It’s the second game where we didn’t and I think we had enough chances to score the goals. I think the intensity was good. So was the attitude and pressure. I think we were very aggressive, but the ball didn’t bounce our way."
As you can guess, when the dressing room was opened to the media, it was a subdued atmosphere. I couldn't immediately wrap my head around a missing piece of the evening. Then, it hit hit me. There was an anger missing from both the players and the head coach. I wondered why they weren't supremely pissed off that they had only earned three points out of a possible nine. They can't be content to play this way in front of their most ardent supporters, could they?
Is this a failure of leadership within the ranks of the players? Is a failure by the coaching staff? Has a malaise and complacency befallen your Black and Gold? There is no swagger to their step right now. I saw a dejected group of guys that, while saying the right things about the loss, can't seem to finish their scoring chances. Second place is the first loser. And, I can't even begin to imagine this squad finishing second right now. Nor can I make sense of the substitutions that are being made. It actually hurts my head to even think about it.
Are they resigned to finishing the season at the mid-table level or lower? I don't think so. But, if they don't do something about finishing their scoring chances by putting the ball in the back of the net, this will be a long, drawn out season. And, that is just plain unacceptable. Have the players, coaches and staff forgotten what their motto of being "America's Hardest Working Team" means? The supporters want to cheer on a winner. Hell, they will cheer the team on if they work hard, even if they lose.
At this point, I don't know what the future holds in store for the Black and Gold. Can they right a foundering ship? Will the Front Office target a finishing goal scorer during the Transfer Window? Can this club, as it is now, string together enough wins to put them back in contention for a Playoff spot? The answers to these questions and more, will become evident over the next few matches. I now need to gobble a handful of ibuprofen before my head explodes into a gooey mess.