The Columbus Crew, based in the Midwestern US state of Ohio, had developed an unwanted reputation as lovable losers since their first season in 1996. One of only three of the ten founding Major League Soccer clubs to have never reached an MLS Cup (the one-off game which decides the league's champion), the Crew, though well supported, always seemed to lack something when the big games rolled around.
Head coach Sigi Schmid finally found the missing puzzle piece in former Boca Juniors icon Guillermo Barros Schelotto. When the creative midfielder arrived in Columbus for his first training sessions last season, a few in Schmid's staff had their concerns about Schelotto's lack of effort, small stature and advanced age (35). Schmid, a former US youth coach who won the MLS title in 2002 with LA Galaxy, recalls being asked: "Are you sure about this guy?" "I'm sure," was the big man's terse response.
It was precisely this foresight, and faith in Schelotto's intangible spark, that brought the yellow-clad Crew their first title. On the eve of the MLS Cup final against New York Red Bulls on Sunday, Schelotto, who earned eight caps in a highly competitive No10 position for Argentina, was named MLS Player of the Year with his seven goals and 20 assists, guiding the Crew to the best record in the 'regular season'.
He then steered the side past tough play-off meetings with Kansas City Wizards and Cuauhtemoc Blanco's Chicago Fire. And the little man wasn't done yet. He set up all three goals in an uncommonly open 3-1 MLS Cup win, putting paid to a fairytale run by the Red Bulls, led by Schelotto's old River Plate enemy Juan Pablo Angel.
"He's not the biggest, he's not the fastest and he's not breaking the heart monitor at training, but he has the ability to ratchet up in big games," Schmid said of his star player.
Worst to first
It was an amazing turnaround for a team that had failed to even reach the play-offs in 2007, Schelotto's first season in the States. "This year things worked out better and we reached our objectives,' the Argentinian star said after a rousing performance in the final, where he hit the crossbar. "To win this title is just like winning with Boca or a title anywhere else. They are all special and it means a great deal to me."
"We're very proud of what we were able to accomplish," added Alejandro Moreno, who opened the scoring after an incisive through ball from Schelotto. "This team has grown a lot. We're very proud the Columbus Crew fans and certainly all of the players."
Eddie Gaven, Robbie Rogers, Chad Marshall and Venezuelan international Moreno helped to make 2008 a year to remember for the Crew. Schelotto pulled the strings, but there was a fine supporting cast that picked up the slack and did the dirty work.
Chief among the grafters and water carriers in the Crew this year was Frankie Hejduk. A US international with 81 caps, the long-haired former surfing champion has been with the Crew since 2003, but in that time, and his three years in Tampa Bay (eight years in total), he never managed to hoist a league trophy. That all changed on Sunday in his native LA.
The player, known for his tireless work rate and goofy goal celebrations, capped a brilliant day, claiming the third goal in the 82nd minute. It was the best of the day, as Schelotto's elegant flick picked out the truculent full-back roaring in on goal. Hejduk made no mistake with his head.
"It's unbelievable," Hejduk said."He (Schelotto) has eyes in the back of his head. He's been doing that all year. It was all a bit surreal, and a little bit weird. I didn't even know I had scored!"
It was a year fans will not soon forget. Tenants of the first football-specific stadium in the USA (opened in 1999), the Crew received top-notch support from their fans. Now these fans - long suffering the slings and arrows of the more successful sides in the league - can take heart from one of the finest runs in league history, and one of its best-ever players in the outstanding Schelotto.