The late afternoon optimism was on full display as I wandered through the various tailgates in the vastness outside of Crew Stadium. The beverages were flowing as the supporters posed for pictures with the MLS Supporters Shield, which had made its way to Columbus. Revelry and rivalry were in the air. Games of cornhole were being played, as good-natured taunting between the rival supporters flew back and forth across the parking lots. Hope was in the air as surely as the fireworks would be at the conclusion of this contest.
The jovial mood reached all the way to the front office of the Black and Gold. Crew President and General Manager Mark McCullers tweeted prior to the match, "@ChicagoFire Big crowd tonight for a big match. Some unfinished business for #Crew96 with #cf97 from my view. Let's make some noise!" Giddiness permeated the very fabric of the concrete and steel structure. I had said just last week that if they can string two wins together and get at least a point on the road next week versus Sporting KC, I might be convinced that they are turning around their season.
My thoughts on the direction of this club have been pretty clear for all to see. They have the skill to compete with any club on any given day. What they are in dire need of is polishing. Have the wins come in spite of the coaching, and not because of the coaching style? (For reference on this, see last weeks novella, And Now, The End Is Here...)
On a night when the Black and Gold honored the men and women who serve in the military of our great nation, 19,624 people filled the stands to see if their boys could make it two in a row. With Columbus getting off to a jackrabbit start, the one known as "Pipa" notched his fifth goal of the season, from the penalty spot. In the immediate aftermath, Higuain and Jairo Arrieta were urging the supporters on with their arms raised as if to say "make more noise", knowing they would need all the help they could get.
The short passes were connecting for the Crew as they attacked Chicago, although they fell back into a more defensive posture prior to the half. As they headed to their dressing rooms, I went outside and looked to the sky as two parachutists, one carrying the American flag, floated gently onto the pitch of Crew Stadium. the mood among the supporters was still upbeat, hoping the club could come out just as strong in the second half.
As play resumed, an all too familiar occurrence unfolded before the eyes of the faithful. Chicago scored two goals in quick succession to take the lead. The Crew had defensive breakdowns, with Chad Barson being exploited on more than one occasion. Paradoxically, Federico Higuain thought they weren't that good in the first half. "The first half, I don't think we played that well", he said to me. "The second half, we played much better. It's hard to explain right now. We're doing things well. We're bringing it on the pitch. But, luck just isn't going our way. We're not finishing our chances."
Intrigued about his thought process, I asked him if every game, from this point forward, was a must win game. "That's what we aim for, but you have to take into consideration that there are two teams on the field. They both have aspirations of winning. But, it's been hard for us to keep a consistent level across two or three games that would allow us to join that playoff qualifying group." Gracias, Pipa.
With Chicago making all of their substitutions by the 70' mark, they were poised to finish on a strong note. Conversely, Robert Warzycha stood at the end of the Crew bench, seemingly indecisive about when to make a move. He kept us hanging on in rapt fascination, until the 81' mark, when Aaron Schoenfeld entered the match. This was a full 27 minutes after Chicago scored their second goal to take the lead.
When asked about this, Warzycha calmly said, "We had the momentum at that time. We created a number of chances, so I didn't want to change that." I sat back and waited to see where he was going to go with this. "You have to take one player off the field, so obviously you don't want to take a forward because we want to score a goal." If there's one thing about a Robert Warzycha answer, they are never very direct. "You don't want to take Arrieta or Oduro because they are on the field and they can score at any time. Arrieta was very busy on that side, and Oduro has scored seven goals, so I didn't want to take him off." And now, my friends, we have reached the finale. "The team was creating chances and I didn't want to change."
That seems to be a recurring theme with Robert Warzycha. He doesn't want to change, and consequently waits too long to make a meaningful decision that could affect the outcome of the match. I understand loyalty. He has been the loyal foot soldier for the Columbus Crew since they came into existence. I get that. But, at the end of the day, this is a business. The business of sports is about winning. Bold statements were made at the beginning of the season about winning the MLS Cup this year. As we enter the dog days of summer, those words ring somewhat hollow. It is time for the organization to thank Robert Warzycha for his years of service to the Columbus Crew and move on. The time to be bold is now. As the saying goes, Who Dares, Wins.
The enduring image post-match (and after the fireworks) was of Mark McCullers walking through the tunnel from the pitch, alone, with a look of resignation on his face. I'm sure that he heard the chants from the ardent supporters in the Nordecke calling for the sacking of the coach, yet again. I'm also sure that he knows that the fans are getting more restless with each passing day. He's a smart guy. If I were asked for advice (rest assured that I won't be), I would say to him, "L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace."