The scintillating form of Guillermo Barros Schelotto the past two months has vaulted the Crew midfielder into the rarified air of those serious MVP candidates, yet with him likely to sit out this week's game against Toronto FC at BMO Field, his coach and his teammates get a rare chance to show what they can do without him.
It's about time Sigi Schmid rated more mention among the Coach of the Year frontrunners, and Crew management seriously pondered how it can secure him to a long-term deal.
Openings have closed in Dallas and Los Angeles, but there will be others, including a couple of expansion teams with high expectations, both internally and from their fan bases.
Columbus missed the playoffs in 2007 with a 9-11-10 record, its third straight failure to qualify for the postseason. It had finished last in the Eastern Conference in 2005 and 2006, and rising to sixth in a seven-team conference last year didn't count for much, as the team underneath was expansion Toronto FC.
But in 2007, Schmid landed Schelotto, Brad Evans and Robbie Rogers as he continued a makeover he'd started when he took over nearly three years ago, in October of 2005.
Last year, Evans played four games as a rookie out of UC Irvine. This year, he has four goals in 21 games. Rogers has cooled off after a torrid start yet the Crew is still winning.
During the winter, Schmid added a fleet of players who have contributed at different points of the season. A torn ACL in June sidelined midfielder Adam Moffat, but Emmanuel Ekpo has brutalized MLS opponents in his few appearances and in August he played for Nigeria's team that took silver at the Olympic Games.
Midfield anchor Brian Carroll, formerly of D.C. United, has played every minute. Gino Padula has had his own injury issues while battling for the left-back slot, rookie Steven Lenhart (Azuza Pacific?) came off the bench twice to score important goals and has three in just eight games (two starts), and monstrous (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) Liverpool-born defender Andy Iro is pushing Chad Marshall and Danny O'Rourke for a starting spot.
In August, Schmid wrested the rights to Pat Noonan away from the Revs to add yet another attacking element as well as considerable experience.
Schmid refuses to compare the Crew's talent with that of the Revs and points out, as New England counterpart Steve Nicol knows all too well, MLS is about the playoffs, first and foremost.
"If you are peaking when the playoffs start, anything can happen," he says. "That's what we're gearing up for. I know that's what Stevie is doing in New England, and what Dominic [Kinnear] is doing in Houston."
Those are two more candidates for Coach of the Year, along with Denis Hamlett in Chicago and Frank Yallop in San Jose. Yet Schmid has taken the best pieces of a poor situation, shrewdly added a few components, and forged a team that is strong in goal, good in the back, deep and potent in midfield, and capable up front.
He's managed a big-time foreign player in Schelotto, mixed youth with experience, revived the fortunes and confidence of Marshall, drafted wisely, and traded smartly. If Schelotto doesn't train very hard or Frankie Hejduk tries too hard, Schmid can handle it.
The Crew looks good for the long term as well as the next few months. Crew management might be wise to initiate long-term contract talks as soon as possible. A Coach of the Year award, not to mention a league title, would surely ratchet up Schmid's value and allure to an ambitious ownership group in Seattle, or a team that might decide to chart a new course, such as Chivas USA.
There's a great story unfolding in Columbus, but it's not all about Schelotto.