By: Casey Ward
Beleaguered by three tracking defenders, Eddie Gaven dribbles from his own half with long, loping strides, his eyes surveying the field, until he reaches the top of the 18-yard box, at which point he deftly cuts the ball across his body, forcing the foremost defender into an ungainly pivot, then drives a low shot into the bottom left corner of the goal. He celebrates by dropping his chin onto his chest, in exhaustion or embarrassment at his own achievement, completing a terse sign of the cross, and quickly turning to a teammate to redirect the spotlight and share the accomplishment with the other Crew players. The goal and subsequent display of humility and selflessness encapsulate Gaven as a soccer player. Infrequently lauded by the media or fans, he seems unfazed by the indifference, happy to contribute to his team’s success while club and country teammates Chad Marshall and Robbie Rogers receive accolades. Those journalists that do discuss Gaven ironically point to the 23 year-old’s veteran status, implying that like politicians, ugly buildings and whores, soccer players get respectable if they last long enough. Such a focus unfairly and mistakenly leaves at the periphery his technical skills and intelligence.
Beginning his seven-year career in Major League Soccer with the New York MetroStars in 2003 until transferred to the Columbus Crew in 2006, Gaven has tallied 15,000 minutes, 36 goals and 26 assists. An average of a little over five goals a season might convince some that his salary and this recognition are undeserved. But a player’s worth cannot be determined by a stat sheet, especially a versatile midfielder’s. Such a player has less prominent qualities noticed by too few fans and pundits. As Robert Warzycha, the coach of the Columbus Crew, explains, “his endurance is unbelievable. He can run forever. He’s always active. He’s got a good first touch and he just works, works, works. That’s what you need.” While more goals and assists may be desired, a commitment to possession and defense should be seen as equally important; the swift counter-attack goal may be attractive, but it is hardly a foundation on which to build a team.
Photo from fOTOGLIF
While Gaven is regarded as one of the most reliable (i.e. unexciting and unmemorable) players in the league, it is interesting to recall that his career began on such a profoundly bizarre and memorable note. Exploiting a loophole in the substitution rule, then MetroStars coach Bob Bradley subbed in Eddie Gaven, for only his second-ever appearance, as the fourth substitute, reserved exclusively for goalkeepers. Wearing Tim Howard’s ‘keeper gloves for less than a minute, Gaven soon moved to midfield as Howard resumed his role between the posts. With mere seconds left in overtime, Gaven scored the winning goal against D.C. United, thereby lodging himself in the annals of obscure sports curiosities. His time with the MetroStars never matched this moment of otherworldliness (and, admittedly, coaching acumen), but it already began to showcase the assets he would refine at Columbus: his stamina, his ball control, and his ability to draw fouls from slower defenders.
This last quality, perhaps more than any other, has contributed to the Columbus Crew’s success over the past two seasons. While Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s 33 assists as a member of the Black and Gold have rightfully earned him MLS MVP honors, many of those passes came from dead-ball situations in optimal areas of the field following fouls on Eddie Gaven. Gaven averages over 53 fouls drawn per season. For seven years he has driven hard at league fullbacks, intelligent and intuitive enough to wait until that moment they lunge for the ball before poking it away and allowing contact, yet they continue to give up freekicks from the Argentine maestro. A claim could be made that the partnership between Schelotto and Gaven has been even more fruitful than that of Schelotto and Marshall. That it is less apparent, in highlight reels and game summaries, makes it no less effective. The game-tying goal against the Chicago Fire in the 2008 Eastern Conference final was headed in, as all Crew fans know, by Marshall from a Schelotto freekick. Forgotten was the initial run by Gaven down the flank that brought about the goal-scoring opportunity. Though the connection is not always difficult to see. Arguably the most important goal in Crew history, which came later in the same match and which secured the Crew’s first-ever trip the MLS Cup, came at the boot of Eddie Gaven via a headed Schelotto assist.
In 2009, Gaven and Schelotto again combined to form the most consistent pair of players on the Crew. Without Schelotto’s willingness to test goalkeepers and Gaven’s willingness to fill whatever role was required to win after injuries depleted the squad, the Crew could not have secured the Supporter’s Shield for the second consecutive season. His malleability and coachability, for lack of a better term, makes Gaven an asset for the Crew and for the US team. They are two essential reasons why Gaven has won the Coach’s Award during these, the most successful years in Crew history.
Another call-up to the senior squad will not be forthcoming before the 2010 World Cup, despite his superlative performance in a recent friendly against El Salvador. He lacks Rogers’ pace and flashiness, not to mention his eagerness to rocket the ball into the crowd from 35m, a quality peculiarly admired by Bob Bradley (see son, Michael). However, when a new coaching staff begins to reassess the US talent pool after South Africa, I have a word of caution that defenders and coaches alike would do well to heed: ignore him at your own peril.
Casey Ward has an MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State University. A new contributor to 90:00 magazine, he can be contacted at email@example.com