Injured Hesmer is a fan of Crew’s Gruenebaum

Prior to the 2012 season, Columbus Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum was probably most famous, or infamous, for allowing an 80-yard turf-bounce goal to New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Danny Cepero in 2008. Four years later, the Hebrew Hammer’s eye-popping play in the Crew net has earned the longtime backup national attention and a slew of new admirers. But none of those hopping aboard the G-baum bandwagon could be prouder than the man who was supposed to have his job.
William Hesmer, who has backstopped the Crew to an MLS Cup title and has re-written the club’s record book since arriving in 2007, sprained his ankle on the first day of training camp, then underwent season-ending microfracture surgery on his right hip. As a result, the Crew’s goalkeeping reigns have been handed to Gruenebaum, his friend and partner for the past six seasons. Like everyone in Crewville, Hesmer has enjoyed the show.
“I’m a fan,” he said of Gruenebaum. “I just enjoy watching the guy.”  
Gruenebaum’s performances have certainly passed the eye test, as his acrobatic and daring play has tilted several results the Crew’s way. Quantitatively, among full-time goalkeepers, Gruenebaum ranks second in the league in saves (70) and save percentage (76.9%), is tied for second in goals-against average (1.05), and is tied for fifth with seven shutouts.  Despite these gaudy numbers and a highlight reel full of improbable saves, all-star status did something that the ball has rarely done—it eluded Gruenebaum’s grasp. Gruenebaum has taken the high road, but Hesmer did not hesitate to express disappointment on his teammate’s behalf.
“I’m not surprised, because that’s the way things go,” Hesmer said. “I don’t think the Crew gets enough credit in the grand scheme of things. We’re never on national TV, so nobody sees our players. I called him to tell him how bummed I was that he didn’t get named to the all-star team and how much of a joke it was. When Andy says, ‘This means nothing to me and I just want to win,’ he means it. He knows he’s deserving of it. He knows where his numbers stand. He knows what he’s done for the organization. He’s won so many points for us this year that he doesn’t need that validation.”
Alas, that validation is precisely why so many close to the Crew were pulling for Gruenebaum’s selection. Hesmer’s accomplishments speak for themselves, but Gruenebaum has graciously lived in Hesmer’s shadow, being the consummate teammate. Gruenebaum is not without his own successes, however. In 2010, head coach Robert Warzycha entrusted the Crew’s U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League hopes to the Kansas City native. He responded by backstopping the team all the way to the Open Cup final and a 4-2-0 record to advance out of the CCL group stage. Nevertheless, he could not supplant the steady Hesmer from the regular starting role. Instead of moping, he focused on helping Hesmer be the best he could be. His selflessness didn’t go unnoticed.
“As goalkeepers, we know that only one guy is going to play,” Hesmer said. “What’s hard and rare to find is a guy that will always do what’s best for the team, and will always be supportive of the other guy and treat him as a true teammate, versus your opposition or your enemy. Andy has never, ever treated me like that.”
Earlier this year, Gruenebaum told me that the one key to making their goalkeeping relationship work, regardless of who is playing, is, “Don’t be an ass.” Hesmer laughed when told of Gruenebaum’s distillation of their cooperative dynamic.
“He’s right because it’s completely out of your hands,” Hesmer said, noting that it is ultimately the coach’s decision who plays. “All you can do is enjoy your time. Being the backup isn’t an easy thing to do every day, especially when I had down times. Maybe I had a bad moment, and Andy knows that he’s been working his ass off and that maybe he can do better. It’s tough, but he never goes into slander mode, and it’s never ‘I’m going to be in a bad mood today.’ It’s always, ‘Hey, let’s talk about it. What can we do better? How can we train better?’ He was never once pouty, or saying, ‘I should be playing.’”
Hesmer, who is more studious and analytical by nature—attributes that can run amok during times of struggle—said that the affable and good-humored Gruenebaum could always lift his sprits with a few self-deprecating jokes.
“He’s always good for a, ‘Hey, it could be worse,” Hesmer said. “It’s always something lighthearted that would put the joke on himself. I gave up those six goals in Seattle last year, and he’ll say something like, ‘Hey, it could be worse. You could have given up a goal to Cepero.’”
Crew veterans have long maintained that the club has had the best goalkeeping tandem in the league. Gruenebaum’s 2012 performance lends ample evidence to that claim. Both goalkeepers insist that they have learned from the strengths of the other, making each of them better. Gruenebaum has learned from Hesmer’s ability to read the game and to organize a defense, those unflashy traits that generate team results. Hesmer has raved about Gruenebaum’s shot-stopping ability, which taught Hesmer how to be better in tight spaces and in one-on-one situations. 
This year, Hesmer feels that his biggest contribution to Gruenebaum’s game is his own absence. When this elicited a laugh, he clarified that he wasn’t knocking himself.
“I mean that my presence isn’t there, so he’s the guy,” Hesmer said. “There’s no doubt about it, so he has that confidence, and he has to give the guys in front of him that confidence. I think even more so, he benefitted from (captain) Chad (Marshall) being out. With all of those veteran guys out, now he was the voice that guys had to lean on. He was one of the most experienced guys. I think that gave him a lot of confidence in finding his voice and finding his presence, but also performing. He took that team through some tough games and got them some points.”
Gruenebaum is unquestionably the man for now, but Hesmer is progressing well in his rehab. The hip surgery was a real eye-opener, and not just in a soccer sense. Since having the procedure, Hesmer has regained the ability to do simple tasks, such as sit down for more than ten minutes without aching, or sleep through the night without repeatedly waking up in pain.
“I feel healthier than I ever felt in my whole life,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much pain I had been dealing with since 2009.”
Unlike injured players who are rehabbing, suffering setbacks, worrying about their spot in the lineup, and trying to find a way back as soon as possible, Hesmer has found peace in his season-ending injury. He rehabs for three hours a day while looking forward to the future.
“I’m out,” he said. “I’m not rushing to get ready. I’m not trying to get into a game. I’m going to be ready for 2013. There’s no doubt about it.”
He quickly corrected himself, stating that although he fully expects to be able to play in 2013, there could be hypothetical long-term considerations that he doesn’t yet know about.
“I think if I go back and the doctor says, ‘You’re completely good to play for the next few years, but then you’re going to need a hip replacement if you keep playing,’ then I might think about things differently.”  
That’s a decision for another day. And the Crew could be facing a big decision of their own next year. A healthy Hesmer would mean that the club would either have to relegate their most accomplished goalkeeper to the bench after years of successful starting, or return their breakout star of 2012 to the bench despite proving that he is one of the best goalkeepers in the league. (And that’s not even mentioning up-and-coming homegrown goalkeeper Matt Lampson, who has fit right in with his veteran mentors.)
It’s a situation that could cause a rift on many squads, but after six years together, Gruenebaum has joked that he and Hesmer have it written into their contracts that they have to be on the same team. And thanks to their “don’t be an ass” philosophy, they can always count on each other’s mutual support, no matter what the future holds.
The Crew have been fortunate to have a goalkeeping tandem with so much ability, and they are even more fortunate to have a goalkeeping tandem with so much compatibility.