By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008
CARSON, Calif., Nov. 23 -- The Columbus Crew boasted the best record in the regular season, which, in most soccer leagues around the world, would have been sufficient to be crowned champion. But because MLS employs a playoff system, the Crew was confronted with another month of matches to shed 12 years of near irrelevancy both at home and in the growing league.
On Sunday afternoon, as the players in yellow-and-black uniforms buzzed around sold-out Home Depot Center like a swarm of bumblebees, the Crew validated its marvelous season with a 3-1 MLS Cup victory over the New York Red Bulls.
"Throughout the whole season, we were the best team," veteran defender Frankie Hejduk said. "We were the team to beat. Would you have said that before the season? I don't think so. We were a bit of a surprise in that regard, but throughout the year you saw it coming together that, 'Wow, this team is actually pretty good.' No one was really believing it except us."
The season culminated with Argentine forward Guillermo Barros Schelotto orchestrating the attack with a cup-record three assists, with Chad Marshall, MLS's defender of the year, scoring the go-ahead goal 87 seconds after New York had tied the game early in the second half, and with Hejduk punctuating the victory in the 82nd minute with a rare goal.
Columbus won it with Coach Sigi Schmid, a former UCLA coach who guided Los Angeles to the 2002 championship and was fired by the Carson-based Galaxy two years later -- a fact that he made sure to point out in stinging fashion during his postgame news conference.
"It is a very emotional moment for me winning the game here in L.A. in front of family and fans and, quite honest, in the town where I was fired," he said.
Though the Crew did claim a consolation prize six years ago, winning the U.S. Open Cup, it never found a way to beat D.C. United in the playoffs in MLS's early years and, from 2005 through 2007, failed to make the playoffs amid dwindling interest at home. This year, though, with a blend of veterans such as Schelotto and Hejduk and emerging stars like Marshall and Robbie Rogers, Columbus finished with the most points in the regular season before cruising through the playoffs.
The Crew is the first team since Schmid's 2002 Galaxy squad to win both the Supporters' Shield (most points) and MLS Cup.
Schelotto was the league's most valuable player and Sunday was the game's MVP. He did it in front of his former coach at fabled Argentine club Boca Juniors, Carlos Bianchi. "Together again," Schelotto said, "and somehow I felt we couldn't lose."
Schelotto, the league's assists leader in both the regular season (19) and playoffs (six), set up the first goal in the 31st minute on a seemingly innocent sequence in front of the Columbus bench. As New York's Dave van den Bergh seemed to wait for the ball to roll out of play, Schelotto took the initiative and delivered a pass into Alejandro Moreno's path on the right flank. Moreno dodged Diego Jimenez and, as he entered the penalty area, lashed an angled shot into the far corner.
With Schelotto, there was a purpose to every pass and a sense of danger each time he took possession. "He has got the presence and the vision to know where Alejandro was and to react and play quickly," Schmid said. "It's those decisive moments that turn games and decide games."
Columbus's lead belied New York's superior play in the first half. "We were the better team with the better chances. We should have been up," Coach Juan Carlos Osorio said.
New York, which was the lowest seed in the playoffs and upset Houston and Real Salt Lake to reach the final, drew even six minutes after halftime when John Wolyniec stabbed Dane Richards's entry pass past goalkeeper Will Hesmer. But the Crew answered quickly after New York conceded a corner kick.
"There was no pressure on the ball and we just kick it out," Osorio said. "I was very, very upset."
Schelotto served the corner kick to the on-rushing Marshall for a powerful header.
"We were on a high from tying the game," Wolyniec said. "It's tough to come back mentally" after yielding another goal.
After drilling a 25-yarder off the crossbar, Schelotto lifted a breathtaking chip over the defense to set up Hejduk for an eight-yard header and his second goal of the year.
"He is a magic man," Hejduk said. "The goal I scored, I had no idea how he saw me running through there. I just made one of my stupid runs forward like I normally do hoping to get the ball. If there is anybody who can find me with that ball, it is him. What a ball."