The Polish Rifle

By
From the August 2010 edition

It’s the story former Columbus Crew coach Greg Andrulis tells whenever he’s asked to give a speech or needs to remind his players at George Mason University what it takes to be a successful soccer player.

His tale begins a long time ago when a Polish soccer prince—a former member of the national team—came to Central Ohio and the Columbus Crew.

It was instantly obvious that Robert Warzycha was a consummate professional. His boots were always polished to a shiny sheen, his shirt tucked in just right. And he worked harder than anyone else, during games and in practice. He demanded a lot from his teammates—and even more from himself—then went out and scored goals on laser-beam free kicks or beat defenders and got the ball to the open man in front of the net. “He brought a level of professionalism to our locker room a lot of our young, American players had never seen before,” Andrulis says.

After five stellar seasons, age and injuries finally caught up with Warzycha, and he spent the final two seasons (2001 and 2002) of his playing career riding the bench.

“It was a Monday and we had a game on Thursday in Chicago,” Andrulis says. “We had some injuries and I told Robert he was going to start and to make sure he was ready.” This last part was about as necessary as telling the sun to come up.

Warzycha stayed after practice the next few days, taking free kick after free kick. Ten kicks, 20, 40, 50 . . . and still he kept drilling the ball at the net, wearing out the goalkeeper and his coach.

“I never left practice before the last player left and I finally told him it was time to go,” Andrulis says. “He said, ‘Not yet.’ ”

Sixty kicks, 80, 100.

“Finally Robert looked at me and said, ‘Now it’s time to go.’ ”

Skip ahead to the game in Chicago, and you already may have guessed how this story ends. “It’s the fourth minute and we get a free kick,” Andrulis says. “He takes the kick and rips it into the upper corner of the net.”

Warzycha remembers each of the 19 goals he scored for the Crew. When you hit it just right, when the ball appears to have been shot out of a cannon and dips and swerves into the corner of the net, “It doesn’t even feel like you even hit the ball,” says the player nicknamed the Polish Rifle.

Warzycha, 46, is now the coach of the Crew, having replaced Sigi Schmid after he led the team to the 2008 Major League Soccer championship and then bolted to the Seattle Sounders.

An assistant under Andrulis and Schmid, the Polish Rifle was the obvious choice to take over, says Crew president and general manager Mark McCullers. “He played at the highest level and has a brilliant soccer mind. He had credibility with our players and could make them even better.”

In his second season as coach, Warzycha is trying to continue the Crew’s winning ways—and instill his work ethic and preferred brand of skillful, possession-oriented, short-pass style of play on a talented, deep team poised to make another run at a league championship. This was Schmid’s style as well, but Warzycha wants his team to take it to an even higher level. “This is the best way to play and this way takes courage,” Warzycha says. “You can’t be afraid of playing the ball on the ground; you have to trust us this is the best way.”

His first season wasn’t without tribulations and even a little controversy. The Crew got off to a tough start that had some wondering if Warzycha was the right man for the job. And questions were raised when, in the team’s playoff opener, Warzycha benched star player Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Then the club had an early post-season exit. Not the best way to end your first season as a rookie coach.

Warzycha’s road to Columbus and the Crew began in a small Polish village during Communist rule. His father, Andrzej, was a veterinarian, and his mother, Bozena, a teacher. They were the equivalent of an American middle class family, and the young Rifle led a good life.

Even then he practiced his free kicks. “I would always be banging the ball off the side of the house or shooting at the goal nearby,” he says. “But I only had one ball, so after each kick I had to fetch it and shoot again. I was always working hard; no one had to motivate me.”

His big break came during his mandatory, two-year stint in the Polish Army, when he played for Warta Sieradz, a third division team based in the town where he was stationed. There was an open tournament that included the country’s top first and second division teams and Warta Sieradz almost beat Polonia Bytom of the second division. Warzycha scored two goals in the game.

“I got a pass before midfield and I was already running when I got it,” he says. “I had so much speed I went by one defender, the second one tried to tackle me, but didn’t get me and I beat the third one and used my left foot to beat the goalie.”

If there had been the Polish equivalent of ESPN back then, this would have been No. 1 on the top 10 plays of the day. His second goal was a 35-yard laser beam off a free kick.

He eventually played with Górnik Zabrze, the dominant team in Poland’s first division, from 1987 to 1991. “We were so confident and it was difficult for us to lose a game,” Warzycha says. “We knew we could score.” The team played then the way the Crew coach wants his team to play now.

Warzycha was a member of the Polish National Team from 1987 to 1993 and played for Everton of England’s Premier League from 1991 to 1994 before going to Hungary. The Warzycha family—Robert and Eliza, and their three young children, Konrad, Bartosz and Olivia—came to Columbus in 1996. “I signed a four-year contract and after that we would go back to Poland,” Warzycha says, adding he bought a plot of land and started to build his dream house in his native country, where he planned to coach after his playing days.

Four years turned into seven with the Crew, the last as a player/assistant coach, and then he became a full-time assistant under Andrulis and then Schmid. Warzycha sold the house in Poland and bought one in Dublin. “You never know how things will turn out,” says Warzycha, a naturalized American citizen. The biggest problem is finding Polish food in Central Ohio. “But I have home cooking here,” he says of Eliza, and he’s developed a fondness for Mexican cuisine.

Konrad plays soccer at Ohio State, Bartosz, a cancer survivor, plays at Marshall University, and Olivia is a 2010 graduate of Dublin Jerome High School and will attend Ohio State. Warzycha spends a lot of time at home on the sofa—with Ricky, a Chihuahua—watching soccer games.

Even as a player, his future as a coach was apparent. “He would work extra with some of the guys, helping them understand the game,” says Duncan Oughton, the only remaining member of the Crew who played with Warzycha. “He had the credentials as a player and was driven to win.” He says Warzycha the player always wanted the ball. “And when I wouldn’t pass it to him, he’d always ask me later why not,” he says.

Andrulis relied on Warzycha as a role model for his younger players. “You could see his experience was above and beyond anyone else’s and to have someone like him as a right-hand man was invaluable.”

The new coach’s experience and patience were tested early in the 2009 season, as the defending-champion Crew opened the MLS season with two losses and five ties. The team played well, but couldn’t find the back of the net. “I wasn’t worried. I knew it was a matter of time because I had good players,” Warzycha says. “I was trying to be calm, I didn’t change the lineup and tried to give them confidence and I knew sooner or later we would start winning.”

The team roared back to finish the season 13-7-10 and win its second straight Supporters’ Shield, which is given to the team that collects the most regular-season points.

The Crew was playing the way their coach wanted them to perform. “This is a better way for me to play,” says the skillful Schelotto. “Some coaches want to play in the air, with long passes; this is not so good for me. And it is not so good [for the fans]. If they see the ball flying down the field all the time, with no connecting passes, they will say, ‘What am I doing here?’ and maybe they will go to a basketball game.”

Another run to a championship seemed possible, but then came the two-game playoff series with Real Salt Lake and the benching of the league’s reigning MVP. “At the beginning of the season, we lost 4-1 [to Real Salt Lake] and [Schelotto] didn’t get any calls; I wanted to try a new formation up front,” Warzycha says, adding his star player had struggled during the latter part of the season.

The game was a defensive battle until host Real Salt Lake scored in the closing minutes for a 1-0 win. With Schelotto back on the field for the second game, in Columbus, the Crew still lost 3-2 despite two goals from its star player. Real Salt Lake went on to win the MLS championship.

Did Warzycha overthink things? Perhaps, he admits, then says hindsight isn’t always as clear as some fans would like it to be. “It is difficult to say whether it was a mistake,” the coach says. “But if we have to go again to that game, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Schelotto says he accepted Warzycha’s choice to bench him. “I have no problem with the decision,” he says. “He’s the boss, he’s the coach and it’s OK if I go on the bench and I need to be positive for the guys.”

Despite the disappointing end to the season, Warzycha hasn’t changed his coaching style and remains a calm, but intense coach who generally refrains from yelling. “Robert leads by example,” McCullers says of Warzycha. “He doesn’t have to scream and shout to get the player’s attention. He’s a good teacher, a good communicator.”

Players who don’t listen often find themselves on the bench, and playing time is the carrot Warzycha uses to get players to work harder and improve. “Sometimes it works,” he says of yelling, adding, “Poland is a screaming country, the coaches, the players, a lot of screaming. But I said I don’t want to be that kind of coach. I talk to the players with respect; I think they can play better that way . . . the dream for every coach is to have a team you don’t have to yell at, that they pick everything up.”

The Crew is “very close” to reaching this goal, Warzycha says, adding “the best thing about this team is we have good people [setting the tone] in the locker room.”

This is the tone Warzycha helped set as a player—and now as the coach of the team he has been with for 15 years, an amazingly long tenure considering the tenuous nature of professional sports.

Which brings us back to Andrulis and the moral of his story. “What this story says to me is there are never any shortcuts,” he says. “And that’s what I respect about Robert. He realized long ago that talent isn’t enough and you have to be passionate and the consummate professional on and off the field.”

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.