The late afternoon sun was blazing into our eyes as we pointed our automotive contrivance down the twin ribbons of asphalt. Leaning out the window at 90 miles per hour, I yelled "Good God man, Faster!! We're chasing the sun!!" My partner for this journey into the unknown was non other than Larry 'The Stat Man" Johnson. He just looked at me and laughed, pushing his foot practically through the floorboards as we inched closer to triple digits. The maniacal glee in my eyes masked the trepidation I felt knowing that we were attempting to infiltrate an insidious orange beast, the likes of which are often found only on the "Continent".
We arrived at the prison-like building that is the Beavercreek High School just outside of Dayton, tires squealing with the sideways drift that Larry used to slide us neatly into a parking space. As I sat there trembling and muttering "we can't stop here... it's Dutch country", he reached over, slapped me and said "get it together. You have work to do". I looked at him and realized he was right.
After pouring myself out of the car, we headed into the belly of the beast. Passing a sign proclaiming this to be the "Home of the Battling Beavers", my mood brightened. This can't be all that bad, I thought. Au contraire, mon frere. There was a sea of orange flowing throughout the stands and concession areas. Gathering all of my courage and fortified with a devil may care attitude, I walked in like I owned the place. It was pointless to try and blend in with the garish Hawaiian shirt that I was wearing.
I'm not sure that the Dayton Dutch Lions knew what they were doing when they granted me credentials to this match. The pass that I had gave me free reign within the home of the Battling Beavers. My one saving grace was the nice people of the Midwest. They were positively helpful in guiding me wherever I wanted to go. Maybe, they were trying to lull me into a false sense of security before they lay the smackdown on me. I kept a wary eye on them throughout the evening.
After barely beating these same Dutch Lions (Dayton playing a man down for 76 minutes) at home ten days ago, I would have thought that the Crew would have a chip on their collective shoulder. Playing on an artificial surface that made the ball do funny, fast things would be somewhat of an eye-opener for the boys in Black and Gold (although, they did wear their white kits on this evening). While the Crew opened the scoring in the 7th minute, Dayton answered right back at the 15' mark.
One noticeable difference between these two sides was the way they possessed the ball, not time of possession. While Columbus was content to do what they always do and head the ball into outer space, the Dutch Lions controlled the ball, looked for someone to pass it to, then made the pass. The other noticeable thing was the vocality (it's a new word and you can figure it out) among the players. Dayton players were communicating from top to bottom and side to side. The Crew, on the other hand, were painfully silent. The lone exception was the vocal straining of goalkeeper Matt Lampson trying to be heard 70 miles east on the Scioto Mile. He was THAT loud.
There was also the problem of the Crew playing "handball" in the box. This happened twice in the first half. Both penalty kicks resulted in goals for the Dutch Lions and their large throng of Orange Legion supporters. As a bonus, the orange smoke that overflowed the stands after each Dayton goal did well to keep me hidden. I was in stealth mode, prowling among the enemy.
An interesting development at about the 27' mark was Konrad Warzycha being called for a foul. Innocuous on the surface, this led to Konrad trying to send the ball into orbit to meet the International Space Station. The only thing he connected with was the face of Ben Speas. Surprising many in the crowd of 1,621 was the fact that Speas didn't immediately get up and wipe the field with the carcass of the young Warzycha.
As Justin Meram tried to channel his inner "Pipa" (not well, I might add), the match became a game of back and forth across the pseudo-pitch. With Columbus scoring a second goal before the whistle, the teams trudged off the field with Dayton leading 3-2 at the half. My main observation from the first 45' was one of the Dutch Lions wanting to win this match more so than the Crew did.
Knoshing on some pizza at the half, I realized that these strange beings slathered in all kinds of orange were just as passionate about their team as the supporters of the Black and Gold are. They were vocal and knew how to make the most god-awful racket with the many vuvuzela's that were on hand. It was music to my ears. I started to become more relaxed as it dawned on me that these people were... nice.
The Crew's Finley tied the score at 3-3 in the 61st minute, with their first sub coming on at the 65' mark. The referee started handing out yellow cards in the second half, also. To this point, it had been a relatively foul free match.
At about the one hour mark of the match, the Crew finally seemed to figure out how to play on this field. They began to string together passes that marched up the field, rather than "skying" the ball down the pitch. "In all honesty, I think it was figuring out the field", said Crew goalkeeper Matt Lampson. "It's hard to keep possession on this. I think you're exactly right, we weren't really sure, we got really high and got stretched. They did a really good job of stretching us out in the first half. I think you're right that in the 60th minute we started making some chances. Although, we got really disjointed at spurts in the game."
The Black and Gold went ahead at the 68'mark with an Anor goal. At this point, they seemed to get a bit cocky, which they shouldn't have done. All the Dutch Lions needed was a chance to at least tie the score before the final whistle. Late in the match, they got their chance, knotting it at 4-4 (which would ultimately be the final score). "This was a higher intensity game than any reserve game I've ever played" Lampson said. This was what a soccer match should look like. Yes, mistakes were made. But the intensity level was very high. The main difference between this reserve team and the starting XI? All four goals came from the run of play. They were "open field" goals, as opposed to set piece goals that we've become accustomed to.
With one more meeting between these two clubs (the Crew lead 6-5 on aggregate), the last match in Columbus should be a rock-em, sock-em, fight to the death, blood on the field.... well, it will be one hell of a match, for sure. Matt Lampson closes out the night with this thought. "The better team doesn't always run away with the victory. If you have a high level intensity team work ethic, you can stick with most of the teams you play with. We're good enough to pull away from them, but I can't say that it's going to happen. We're definitely going to be more composed and more comfortable on our own surface. Hopefully, we can really stamp it when we play them again."
With my work finished in the belly of the Orange Legion, we slithered back to our chariot for the trek east. We were short of cigarettes, scotch and sanity as we raced our way out of the suburbs of Dayton. Larry had the pedal held firmly against the floor as he kept up a running dialogue critiquing the clubs play. All the while, my cortex was melting from the play on the field that I had witnessed, knowing that the talent is there to be a contender. The final irony that invaded my cerebral synapses before I passed out was the fact that the Dayton Dutch Lions had outdrew the Crew, 1,621 to 1,302. Gnaw on that little factoid for a bit...