The M.E.N.D.O.Z.A. System, Part 2: Engage Physically.

In part one, we discussed the demonstrating value step of the textbook D.E.N.N.I.S. that Andres Mendoza is running on Crew supporters.  We learned that Andres demonstrated his value as a potential Crew designated player through a 14-year-long career with eight club teams in Peru, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia, Romania, Mexico, and Turkey; 45 caps for the Peru National Team; and a slew of YouTube videos that were like gold to any thrifty MLS team who might not want to spend a lot of time and airfare flying 5,000 miles to Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey.  We also learned that losing a fan favorite (Jed Zayner) in the process gave Columbus Crew supporters a reason to think this move was 1) costly in terms of valued personnel and team chemistry, 2) perhaps shrewdly implemented to garner trophies in 2010 and beyond, and 3) absolutely had to pay off.  While we did mention the salary cap, we did not discuss the extent to which the Crew valued La Pantera/El Condor in monetary terms.  It turned out that it was a lot more than almost everyone, outside of the front office, had expected.  That’s a crucial part in this discussion, and we’ll get to that in the first N (nurturing dependence).

As a potential designated player, once you’ve demonstrated your value, you are going to want get to know your new digs.  Or, to paraphrase Robert Warzycha, integrate into your team.  Sometimes, a high-paid striker won’t bother with getting to know his teammates or his new city, let alone the fans.  This “integrating” period—some might liken it to a “dating” period—is really just a waste of time and money.  There are plenty of good players out there who can be likable teammates, good citizens, and fan favorites; but, when you are brought on to a team to score goals, you need to score goals.  This is step two, the E in the D.E.N.N.I.S. system; also known as . . .

2. Engage Physically

La Pantera engaged us physically on September 11, 2010, when Columbus returned to the site of the greatest victory in team history, the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, to play the Galaxy in a match-up of the two top teams in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.  Our Crew were in pursuit of an unprecedented third consecutive Shield, and Los Angeles appeared to be the primary rival standing in our way.  A 0-2 loss at home to the Gals on May 29 had added to the concern many Crew supporters were feeling about a string of feeble offensive showings against the strong teams of the West, and a 0-2 loss to Real Salt Lake on August 14 had only intensified the worry.  A strong showing against LA was needed to ease those concerns: not only to boost Supporters' Shield hopes, but also to let us know that the team could compete with the elite. 

That night did not go as we’d hoped.  The Galaxy dominated the Crew, going up 2-0 at halftime and adding a third goal in the 55th minute.  However, there was a positive that would give hope to Columbus supporters: yes, Andres Mendoza.  He and Emilio Renteria came on in the 63rd minute for Steven Lenhart and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, respectively.  We were certainly seeing the future of the Crew attack with this pairing (if only there had been the foresight and creativity to have allowed this forward pairing to play with Schelotto more, rather than pairing GBS again and again and again with Lenhart; but that’s a can of worms to open another time) and it paid off in the 85th minute. Andy Iro took advantage of a complacent Galaxy corps, made an aggressive pass deep into their defensive ranks, and Mendoza expertly scored from 15 yards out with the outside of his left foot.  That, it could be said, was the first moment where Mendoza, shall we say, touched us in a meaningful way: in the waning minutes of a west coast blowout at 1AM EDT.

And it wouldn’t be long, just ten days, until he did it again.  But before that, a week after the loss to LA, at home against the Seattle Sounders, another strong Western Conference side, the Crew were blitzed off the pitch for the worst home loss in recent memory, 0-4.  Mendoza was a late-game substitution, again with Emilio Renteria, and for a few brief moments at the end of the match there were some dangerous trips for the Columbus offense with a few impressive link-ups and attacking creativity out front.  Though they yielded no goals, there was a glimpse of what could possibly be in store.  Three days later, in a CONCACAF Champions League match against Santos Laguna, at 0-0 and time running out on an important 3 points in group play, Mendoza scored an 87th minute winner.  

It was a strange goal, with an attempted pass to Jason Garey being blocked back to Mendoza, who settled the ball down 25 yards out, took five or six chop steps to get the ball on (say it with me now) his left foot, and sent a low roller through the keeper and inside the right post.  It was the kind of odd goal that makes a Columbus supporter think, “Maybe this guy is the perfect guy to play with our perfect guy (you know, Guillermo).”  Mendoza's goal against Santos had a hint of one of the qualities that make Guillermo Barros Schelotto the greatest player in Columbus Crew history: his alchemist's ability to make something out of nothing, to preternaturally transform the misplayed ball into the perfect opportunity, to salvage the briefest spark of possibility and through force of genius and talent convince it to explode.  Maybe, with the two of them starting, working, and attacking together, the opportunity that was missed to win the US Open Cup in Seattle in October (when, again, holding Mendoza until the 78th minute left too much firepower on the bench for too long) would not be missed in the 2010 MLS Cup playoffs.

And we saw one such moment before the playoffs began.  In the final match of the regular season against Philadelphia, with Columbus playing perhaps its most effective attacking soccer of the season with a 2-0 lead over a depleted expansion team in the 79th minute, Schelotto pounced on Stefani Miglioranzi at midfield and dispossessed him.  Guillermo pressed the attack to the 18, pulling both retreating defenders to him, Mendoza clearing space on the left.  Attempting to split the defenders to the right to give Mendoza more space for a pass that was surely coming, the ball was deflected and rolled easily to La Pantera who took it immediately with his left and sent it past Chris Seitz for the goal.

Thus ended the 2010 regular season.  A painfully abrupt end to the 2010 MLS Cup playoffs waited for Columbus.  Suffice it to say, the Crew seemed again to approach the playoffs with a bit of the draw-on-the-road, win-at-home strategy that many Crew supporters have come to know and be frustrated by in the regular season.  There was more attack-minded play in the early going of the first leg at Colorado in 2010 than there had been in the first leg at Real Salt Lake in the 2009 playoffs, or in the US Open Cup final in Seattle; but Lenhart was, again, the tip of a slightly unbalanced spear, and Guillermo and Mendoza were never on the pitch together.  The Crew returned home down 0-1 on aggregate.

The return leg in Columbus was different from the beginning.  Being down a goal on aggregate took thinking out of the equation, and, buoyed by Nordecke support, Mendoza, Guillermo, Eddie Gaven, and Robbie Rogers attacked the Colorado back four with enthusiasm.  Within the first 4 minutes, the 4 of them produced two quality chances, including this terrific attack culminating in Gaven ripping a terrific shot past Matt Pickens that inexplicably stayed out of goal.  Watch that play and notice where the gold shirts are and how they got there.  It's really not possible to have your forwards and wings in a better goal-scoring position than in that example.  And one of those players is Andres Mendoza.  He has made the right run, he has put himself in the model position for a rebound.  It's the goal-poacher doing exactly what he should do, and he has put in the work to get into the position to do it.  Only a fluke bounce off the post kept the ball from being a goal by Gaven, or a slam dunk by La Pantera.  One minute later, Emmanuel Ekpo freed up Mendoza with a tremendous pass that led to a near miss that was so close that those of us in the Nordecke erupted in cheers, because from our angle we were dead-certain La Pantera had found the back of the net.  The replay shows that Drew Moor pulled Mendoza's right arm and went through him to disturb his shot at the last possible moment.  It was a good defensive play, though penalty kicks have been awarded for less in this league before and since.  Nevertheless, La Pantera was doing the work that a designated player does in a match of that magnitude.  He was working well with Guillermo, and his positioning and touch (with his left foot, always with the left foot) was significantly better than Lenhart at that stage of his career.  

But the season ended that day, and so did the unprecedented Era of Champions in Columbus Crew Stadium.  Guillermo, Frankie Hejduk, Gino Padula, Duncan Oughton, Brian Carroll, Lenhart, and Jason Garey would be sent away, and more would be lost to the idiotic program of MLS expansion drafts (I'm just flinging around open cans of worms now).  The Crew brain trust, having been engaged physically over and over again by Andres Mendoza, had already decided that he was worth a designated player salary and could lead a team of untested rookies, wingers with redundant skill sets, and defensive midfielders to goals.  Throw in the fact that entrenched leaders in the front office apparently had a critical view of positive locker room chemistry* and there was really no other choice for centerpiece of the 2011 Columbus Crew.  In this new world of uncertainty, Crew supporters turned to the remaining familiar faces left in the aftermath of the Black November Purge.  We were going to have to depend on Andres Mendoza, and the coming designated player tag only served to nurture that dependence.

Next time, The M.E.N.D.O.Z.A. System, Part 3: Nurturing Dependence.

*Referring to Brian Bliss's comment to Craig Merz, “Our locker room in general is relatively friendly, sometimes too friendly for my liking...." Bliss's comment still hasn't been adequately deconstructed and accounted for, although Patrick Guldan of did get him to sketch out his vision of a proper locker room dynamic in this interview.  It's still hard to be sure if Bliss was suggesting that there was a kind of malignant friendliness amongst a team that had, arguably, the best three-season run by a team in league history.  One wonders how things are different this season.