Having won its first MLS championship, now comes the hard part for the Columbus Crew.
Tough as it is getting to the top -- remember this is a team that won the Supporters' Shield in 2004 before fizzling in the playoffs and hadn't been back to the postseason since - any coach and any player in any sport will tell you staying up there is a true test of championship mettle.
"Everybody's always out gunning for you in every game," Landon Donovan said about his time in San Jose, the 2001 champion that lost in the 2002 playoffs and rebounded to win in 2003. "Everybody wants to knock off the champs so they bring their 'A' game."
The Crew's ownership, Hunt Sports Group, is engaged in discussions regarding the contracts of double MVP (regular season and MLS Cup) Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Coach of the Year Sigi Schmid. Columbus holds an option on Schelotto's contract but doesn't have enough salary to retain him without utilizing the Designated Player option, and Schmid - who is Seattle's first choice to coach the expansion team when it begins play next year - will be free and clear by the end of the week.
This year, Columbus used allocation money it received for missing the 2007 playoffs and acquired in trades to bump up Schelotto's compensation ($250,000 in base salary, $375,000 guaranteed, with a total value of more than $600,000) from the $150,000 base he was paid last year.
But it won't receive that money this year, so to keep Schelotto - even at his current price -- without stumping up DP money it must accumulate allocation money in trades with other teams or with its portion of a player sale, which could be defender Chad Marshall. Even so, there are benchmarks by which a portion of a player's compensation must count against the cap, which is one reason a DP counts $400,000 no matter how much his contract is worth. The Crew, for example, if it somehow acquired a lot of allocation money, could not charge $50,000 against the cap on a $650,000 contract.
In the case of Schmid, according to sources, he earned about $175,000 - not counting bonuses, which should be considerable - this year, and has rejected an offer of approximately $300,000. That's a sizable bump, but with Seattle apparently willing to pay a lot more, Schmid may feel somewhat undervalued. Prices for coaches have also escalated around the league.
Since Schmid signed up in Columbus three years ago, Juan Carlos Osorio jumped ship in Chicago to nearly double his salary (in the range of $400,000) with the Red Bulls, and HSG is paying - again, according to a source -- coach Schellas Hyndman, who came to MLS after three decades in college soccer, more than it is currently paying Schmid.
Both in New York and in Los Angeles, Bruce Arenamakes far more than any other coach, yet in LA he's also been asked to repair and rebuild a sinking, burning shipwreck. Houston pays Dominic Kinnear, a two-time MLS Cup winner, much more than Schmid.
In the jubilant Crew locker room Sunday night, players buzzed a few teammates with hair clippers yet saved their "A" game for Schmid, dumping three huge Gatorade buckets of cold water over his head and spraying him unmercifully with champagne. He charged into a crowd of observers and journalists to find refuge in the coaches' room, only to bellow, 'Who locked the f------ door?!"
Once the mayhem had subsided, somewhat, he assembled his team, wiped the water and champagne from his hair and eyes with towels, then proclaimed, "No practice tomorrow." A mighty cheer answered him.
Six years ago, Columbus won its first title by beating the Galaxy, 1-0, in the U.S. Open Cup at Crew Stadium. On the losing side that night was Schmid, who had won his first MLS Cup just four days earlier at Gillette Stadium, when Carlos Ruiz scored in overtime to down the Revs, 1-0.
As Schmid changed clothes in the coaches' room - someone had arrived with a key - outside the door Clark Hunt talked about the 2002 Open Cup, and what it meant to him and his father, the late Lamar Hunt. "I've got that ring on right here," he said, displaying his right hand. "We had a great team that year and so did the Galaxy, and we were fortunate to catch them on a short week after they'd beaten the Revolution.
"What made it really special was that my dad was there. That was probably the last championship game he attended. In total he won something like 13 during his life and that was the last one, but we had a great time that night. And the party's going to be sensational tonight."
If the party is to continue, the frugal economics of Hunt Sports Group may have to be stretched.