MLS: Columbus Crew

A visitor to Columbus Crew Stadium might have felt out of place, perhaps more familiar with experiences at other MLS stadiums.

A Latino virtuoso on the field reminiscent of Marco Etcheverry or Mauricio Cienfuegos or Carlos Valderrama? A raucous, rowdy crowd typical at RFK Stadium or BMO Field?

No, this was central Ohio in early September, 2008, and a crowd of 16,918 fans roared as a dynamic Argentine in his mid-30s personally destroyed perennial MLS Cup participant New England with a goal and two assists in a 4-0 thrashing.

What in the name of Adrian Paz is going on here?

"Obviously, you can tell I'm very proud of my team," said Coach Sigi Schmid of a 13-6-4 record good enough for the Eastern Conference lead in mid-September. "Am I going to say we're the toast of the town and the best team ever? No, I'm not going to say that, but I think we can start talking about and thinking about that we want to win the league now.

"We want to win the Eastern Conference. It's not so much the playoffs, we've got a chance to do a little bit more, maybe we want to grab onto that thing called the Supporters' Shield."

Guillermo Barros Schelotto's two assists raised his season total to 18 and maintained his chances of topping the league's all-time seasonal mark of 26 set by Valderrama in 2000. No other player, including the Revs' Steve Ralston, has logged more than 19 in a single season.

"He's been great," says Schmid of Schelotto. "He understands the league, he understands he's not going to get every call. He understands it's a physical game, but he's a great game player. There's an aura that comes over him, it's almost like someone turns on a switch when he steps on the field to play games. That's an important ingredient for us and helps us win games."

Last year, his first in MLS, Schelotto drifted out of some games, squabbled incessantly with officials, and swapped brilliant moments with petulant ones. His totals of five goals and 11 assists were respectable, nothing more.

This season, Schmid has brokered an arrangement: Schelotto can take it easy at training if he cranks up the energy and focus come kickoff. He's also formed a bond with Argentine left back Gino Padula.

"His training is still different," says Schmid, diplomatically. "The thing is, when I asked Guillermo to work or I need certain things from him, he does them."

And what he does has seldom been seen since the days of Etcheverry or Valderrama: balls driven unerringly 40 or 50 yards across the field, or slid through defenders with just the right weight and pace, or swung or swerved precisely on set plays. Yet he's also increased the physical commitment and work rate: in a 2-1 home victory over Dallas, he won a ball in the air and knocked it down to set up Brian Carroll for the tying goal.

"The thing that I say about him is there's no one better in the league at the weight of the pass of a ball," says Frankie Hejduk, still the main motor of MLS among right backs. "You notice it in practice, being with him every day. There's no one that does it better since I've been in the league.

"The closest guys, maybe, Valderrama or Etcheverry. He's right up there with them for sure. The weight of the pass is just incredible. If I had that, I'd be playing in Milan, dude."

Schelotto is been especially adept at balls played down the flanks and into the channels for wide midfielders Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers as well as the forwards and outside backs.

"It's pretty amazing how he can keep the ball in tight spaces and find a way to spring some people out wide, especially," says Carroll. "When we have players like Eddie and Robbie out wide, it's good to have someone who can turn a defender and spring it with a through ball."

(For the record, Uruguayan midfielder Adrian Paz played the inaugural 1996 MLS season in Columbus, scoring eight goals and logging 10 assists. Colombian John Wilmar Perez set the previous team record of 15 assists in 2001.)

"Every day it's better, but it's very different with Argentina," says Schelotto, who left Boca Juniors after 11 seasons to try something new. "But I like the soccer, I like the city, I like the people, I am very good here.

"Boca is the better life in Argentina and it is very beautiful playing for Boca, but life in Buenos Aires is crazy. Here I am relaxed, take it easy."

Subplots abound in the tale of Crew 2008. Chad Marshall has overcome concussions – he played only 12 games last year — and confidence crises to revive memories of his strong performances in his first two (2004 and 2005) seasons.

Opponents used to enjoy playing on a smooth surface in front of rather quiet crowds. The Crew set its team record of 11 home wins in a season at Ohio Stadium in 1997 and matched that mark in 1998. By beating New England as rowdiness reigned, Columbus improved its home record to 8-2-2, one of the top marks in MLS.

No Columbus player has ever won the MVP Award and the Crew has never won MLS Cup. Might both droughts end in November?

(This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.) 

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