Now entering his seventh year as the radio play-by-play announcer for Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, Neil Sika has also spent the past nine years providing coverage of numerous NCAA Division I athletics.
Additionally, he has worked several national and regional events on television (Big Ten Network, STO, TWC) and radio (Monarch Sports).
Buckeyes, Blue Jackets and more
For the last time as a member of the Black & Gold, Duncan Oughton met the warm embrace of the Nordecke as the Crew played on behind him against the Colorado Rapids Saturday night. With fellow club legend and best friend Frankie Hejduk by his side, Columbus' favorite Kiwi said goodbye to the fans that have grown to love him as their fellow Crewvillian after pouring his heart and soul into the organization over the past 12 years.
It's a mutual love that began just after Oughton was drafted by the Crew as the 10th overall pick in the 2001 Major League Soccer SuperDraft out of Cal State-Fullerton. His first responsibility as an employee of the Black & Gold was to make a player appearance at Crew Stadium's first turn hosting a USA vs. Mexico World Cup Qualifier, just weeks following the draft.
"From that point in time, I fell in love with the stadium," Oughton recalls. "The atmosphere was cool. From then, I fell in love with the fans, the people, the town.
He continues, "The other day I was just sitting at the top of the stadium, just looking down over the field and thinking of how many good memories I've had on that field, off the field, on trips with the players -- and even Obetz too. I'll even miss Obetz."
Those memories include playing a role in all five of the Crew's five trophies, most notably playing all 90 minutes in the 2002 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final at Crew Stadium to secure the club's first piece of silverware and scoring to help draw the Colorado Rapids in October 2004 to clinch the MLS Supporters' Shield that year.
But above the trophies, Oughton is most proud of being himself. In the rollercoaster that is a career in professional soccer the Kiwi has stuck to his guns for better or for worse, earning the respect of everyone who has come to know him during his time with the Crew.
"Going through all the ups and downs and at the end of the day, just being me is what I'm most proud of," he says. "I feel like I've been true to myself all the way through. Whether it was good, bad or indifferent, I feel like I did as much as I could my way under the Crew brand. I'm proud of that. I don't think it went to my head as a player. I don't think it changed me as a person. I'm pretty proud of that. I think my parents did a good job of bringing me up."
Now, with his playing days far behind him, the 35-year-old Oughton shifts his focus to a new challenge. No longer will he juggle the roles of Assistant Coach, Assistant Technical Director, broadcast analyst, radio show host and co-Brand Ambassador, instead he will concentrate on helping players improve their game alongside good friend and fellow New Zealand native Ryan Nelsen at Toronto FC.
Oughton's passion for coaching began when he sat out the 2005 season recovering from a career-threatening knee injury. While sidelined, Oughton saw a different side of the game. He knew his athleticism would never be the same, but Oughton admits he had become a smarter player as result of his time as a spectator. The Kiwi returned to the field in August of the 2006 season, captaining the Crew to its first win in 13 matches in a 1-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls.
"I think I learned a lot when I was injured, watching the game," he says. "I think that in the long run, that's actually helped me grow as a coach. Sitting back and seeing things that I would've liked to do on the field, and what I would've done. I had to be smarter and better at doing that stuff because when I came back I obviously was not as fast as I was. I think it helped me a lot.
Spending the past two seasons following his retirement from playing in the broadcast booth has helped Oughton develop yet another perspective of soccer, but his deepest passion has remained on the field. Oughton has helped teach and develop young players in the team's day-to-day training sessions while wearing a number of other different hats for the Crew. Though he proved to be a lovable personality as a color commentator alongside Dwight Burgess on regional TV broadcasts, Oughton couldn't resist the temptation of joining Nelsen's staff in Toronto.
"Broadcasting was great and one day maybe I'll go back to to the broadcast side because I do enjoy it," he explains. "It's talking about soccer. As a coach, I talk about soccer everyday as well. I think I'm doing that on the field as well with a lot of other challenges that the broadcast doesn't give me. It's going to be challenging.
"I was a player my whole life before retiring. It's all I ever wanted to do. It was my dream. Just to be out on the field and in a place where I think I can influence people and I can make people better or I can help players either individually or as a group, it's what I enjoy doing. It's fun."
Knowing the Kiwis' history, Oughton's friends teased him about a possible move when Nelsen was named Head Coach of the Reds in January. After all, the New Zealanders' friendship and camaraderie is something that dates back to Oughton's first call-up with the All Whites when the two were roommates. Oughton reveals, however, that the invitation to join Toronto FC was a fairly recent occurrence.
"Obviously, a lot of other people said stuff like 'Oh you're going to Toronto, aren't you?' Even guys on the team were like 'When are you leaving for Toronto?' " He says. "It was never really a question when I talked to him and he was still learning more about the League, even though he already knows a lot considering he'd been away for so long. He asked me about certain players and we talked about stuff but it was never like 'Hey, you're coming to Toronto. I want you to come to Toronto.'
"When it did happen, it was a weird feeling."
For the first time in 12 years, Oughton will wake up Monday morning and not drive to Crew Stadium or the team's training facility in Obetz. Instead, the Kiwi will fill out new employment papers, receive a plenty of Toronto FC gear to replace his Columbus Black & Gold and begin a new journey alongside a friend.
Oughton's time in Columbus has come to a close, but the Black & Gold will always claim a massive piece of the Kiwi's heart.
"This is the team I started with, my first professional team," he explains. "They gave me the shot. It's the team I spent my whole career playing at. The fans have been outstanding. The guys I've come across on the field as teammates with the Crew, they've been amazing and they're friends for life. This club has given me so much. It's a part of who I am. The Columbus Crew is in my blood."
Oughton's heart has poured out beyond the field and broadcast booth in his past 12 years in Columbus. He's always been a fan favorite, never shying away from a pint with members of the Hudson Street Hooligans after a match. But moreover, the Kiwi has been an ambassador for the club with his compassion for others in the Columbus community and within the Crew organization.
When rookie midfielder Kirk Urso passed away last summer, Oughton took it upon himself to help make Mike and Sandy Urso's life as comfortable as possible in the days following their son's untimely death. Being the person he is, Oughton didn't think twice. The Kiwi was by Urso's parents' side around the clock in the days following the tragedy, assisting them with every need they had while in Columbus.
"I think anyone put in my situation would've done that for the Urso family," he says. "They're such good people. [Kirk] was such a great guy and his death was such a big loss for this club and obviously for his family. I still think about them every day."
Oughton has also been a familiar face in the Crew's community outreach. He most recently spearheaded the club's 2013 "Massive Makeover" project to provide a new fitness room at the Ronald McDonald House of Columbus.
"I guess I think it as it's what should be done, and a lot of the [community] stuff doesn't get done as much as it should," he explains. "To me it's a no-brainer, it's stuff that should be done.
"The Ronald McDonald House is a great organization that helps so many families, people all over the world. People come from all over the world to go to that place. We should be represented in there because we should want to help people."
Columbus and the Crew family will surely miss their beloved Kiwi as he leaves the organization after having spent a third of his life bleeding Black & Gold. And while it will certainly be strange for most seeing Oughton in red on Saturday when the Crew clashes with Toronto FC at BMO Field (5:00 P.M. ET / FOX Sports Ohio), the Kiwi will now be considered a rival for the 270 minutes each year that the Black & Gold and the Reds meet.
"Obviously people think it's a weird move, but it is what it is," he says. "Now I'm going to put some Toronto in my blood and make the best of it. Obviously, I'll always have a piece of the Crew in my heart, but now it's time to beat the Crew.
"It's weird to say, but it has to be done."
Despite executing Robert Warzycha's gameplan almost perfectly, it was Tim Cahill's looping header over Andy Gruenebaum that was the difference in the Crew's 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls on Saturday afternoon. The Australian midfielder's tally came off a rebound from a tremendous Gruenebaum save to deny Jonny Steele, just eight minutes after Red Bull goalkeeper Luis Robles saved a Federico Higuaín penalty.
Robles' save was the turning point in a match that the Crew had previously been dominant.
"Unfortunately, I couldn't kick the way I'm used to," Higuaín said through a translator after the match. "I couldn't convert. I had the opportunity to convert that into a goal, and just couldn't this time. I'm very sad after the situation that could've given the Crew the win. All that's left after that is to keep working, try to keep improving."
"The penalty changed everything," Head Coach Robert Warzycha added. "If we scored that penalty, we would probably win the game."
The Black & Gold out-shot New York 15-7 on the afternoon. Despite 10 opportunities from set pieces (five corner kicks, five free kicks), the Crew was unable to find the back of the net. Both Warzycha and Chad Marshall complimented the Red Bull backline for its defense on restarts.
"I think New York did a good job of defending [set pieces]," Warzycha explained. "I don't think anything was missing. I think Pipa was serving a pretty good ball. I'm sure they watched video and they knew what we are capable of doing. It seems like they put their head on the ball every single time. They defended well."
Added Marshall: "It's just tough. They're a good team in the air too. They've got some big guys just like us."
Despite the Crew's success of scoring five goals from set pieces so far in 2013, the Black & Gold would like to see better performance from the run of play-- especially after controlling possession for most of the match on Saturday.
"I thought for the most part we controlled the tempo of the game," Marshall said. "We just haven't really been able to really break anything down from the run of play and get opportunities. I think we need that. We can't always rely on set pieces even though we are good at those."
"I feel like we definitely put them under pressure, which was something we were trying to do going into the game," midfielder Eddie Gaven echoed. "We didn't give them too much time or space to play. It just needs to be a little bit better when we get that ball into the final third.
"That last pass, last shot just wasn't always there."
After Red Bull forward Thierry Henry torched the Crew for four goals and two assists in two meetings in 2012, the Black & Gold made it a priority to limit the Frenchman's chances on Saturday. Marshall, Gláuber and Danny O'Rourke brought a physical aggressiveness to defending Henry, frustrating the superstar in the process. Henry was unable to muster a single shot on Saturday against the Crew.
"[Henry] is a good player, obviously. He had his way with us last year, so we wanted to be physical with him and limit his touches," Marshall explained. "I thought we did a good job of keeping guys around him.
"They're a good offensive team and they didn't really have anything on us."
Added Warzycha: "[Henry] is a good player -- so whatever you do, you have to stop him from scoring the goals. [The Crew defense] did a good job on Henry today. I don't think I remember him having too much success, to be honest."
ONE MORE FOR THE HOMESTAND
Next weekend, the Crew will close a three-match homestand as the Black & Gold host the Colorado Rapids before heading back on the road for matches in Toronto and New York. The Crew would like nothing more than to finish the stretch with a win against the Rapids, especially after Saturday's disappointment against the Red Bulls.
"Definitely after a loss, you always want to put that game in the past," Gaven said. "Learn from it and move on. Having a game at home next weekend will hopefully give us the opportunity to do that. Hopefully we can get back on track and get three points."
Atop the MLS Eastern Conference standings, four teams lead the table on 17 points following wins from the New York Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City, and the Houston Dynamo and a Montreal Impact draw against the San Jose Earthquakes. The Crew remains in fifth-place, tied on 12 points with the Philadelphia Union. The Black & Gold have allowed six fewer goals than the Union, resulting in a higher standing.
Here is how the conference looks after the first 10 weeks of the 2013 MLS Season.
1. New York Red Bulls - 17 pts. - Week Ten: 1-0 Win at Columbus Crew
It was ugly, but the Red Bulls earned three points on the road thanks to Tim Cahill's poached goal and an outstanding performance from goalkeeper Luis Robles. New York hosts the Montreal Impact in a midweek clash on Wednesday before heading to New England on Saturday.
2. Sporting Kansas City - 17 pts. - Week Ten: 4-0 Win vs. Chivas USA
Sporting unloaded for four goals against a visiting Chivas USA side, thanks in-part to a 54th minute Dan Kennedy red card when the game was as 1-0. Argentine Designated Player Claudio Bieler netted a brace, while Graham Zusi and C.J. Sapong added two more. Up next, Sporting hosts Seattle Sounders FC on Wednesday before traveling to Houston on Sunday.
3. Houston Dynamo - 17 pts. - Week Ten: 1-0 Win at LA Galaxy
Andrew Driver's second half tally was the difference in Sunday's MLS Cup re-match as the Dynamo stole three points at the Home Depot Center. Houston travels to RFK Stadium to face D.C. United on Wednesday. The Dynamo will put its 36-match home-unbeaten on the line against Sporting Kansas City on Sunday.
4. Montreal Impact - 17 pts. - Week Ten: 1-1 Draw at San Jose Earthquakes
It seemed the Impact were sure to take three points on the road in San Jose, but a late Sam Cronin equalizer left Montreal with just a point on Saturday. The Impact travels to New York for a bout with the Red Bulls on Wednesday before hosting Real Salt Lake at Stade Saputo on Saturday afternoon.
5. Columbus Crew - 12 pts. - Week Ten: 1-0 Loss vs. New York Red Bulls
Despite a dominant performance, the Black & Gold were unable to find the net against the Red Bulls at Crew Stadium. Columbus will look to rebound against the Colorado Rapids on Saturday at home.
6. Philadelphia Union - 12 pts. - Week Ten: 2-2 Draw vs. Seattle Sounders FC
Danny Cruz scored twice in a minute span to seemingly lead the Union to a home win at PPL Park, but Mauro Rosales' 64th minute equalizer for Seattle left Philadelphia with a lone point on Saturday afternoon. The Union travels to Chicago to face the Fire on Saturday.
7. New England Revolution - 9 pts. - Week Ten: 0-0 Draw at Portland Timbers FC
Bobby Shuttleworth came up huge for the Revolution on the road, making nine saves Thursday against Portland Timbers FC. If Jay Heaps' attack can start finding the net, New England will be a force to be reckoned with in the East as his team has only allowed six goals in eight matches. The Revs host Real Salt Lake on Wednesday and the New York Red Bulls on Saturday at Gillette Stadium.
8. Chicago Fire - 7 pts. - Week Ten: Idle
The Fire had the week off after falling in Montreal last week. Chicago hosts the Philadelphia Union on Saturday at Toyota Park.
9. Toronto FC - 7 pts. - Week Ten: 1-0 Loss at Colorado Rapids
A botched Logan Emory clearance set up Edson Buddle's late winner for Colorado on Saturday, dooming the Reds. Toronto FC travels to San Jose for a Wednesday tilt with the Earthquakes this week before hosting the Crew on May 18 at BMO Field.
10. D.C. United - 4 pts. - Week Ten: Idle
United had the week off to get things right after losing its last five matches. The Black-and-Red host Houston on Wednesday before traveling to Dallas on Saturday.