By Kyle McCarthy
CARSON, Calif. – For one of those rare moments in time, the universe smiled on Columbus.
Only a perverse world order would have anointed New York MLS champions. The Red Bulls played well for less than a handful of games this season and had benefited from graft, luck and flashes of quality during their surprising playoff run.
But those who support the Crew almost expect to snatch failure from the jaws of glory after watching multiple Supporter Shield-winning teams falter far too soon. Precedent suggested it could happen again.
The universe laughed at the league in similar circumstances back in 2005 when a thoroughly mediocre side Los Angeles crept into the playoffs and won MLS Cup. There was something about that moment that felt a little surreal, as if the kid who goofed off in the back of the class earned the nod as valedictorian.
When Frankie Hejduk lifted the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy aloft after a 3-1 victory over the Red Bulls, there was no sense of discord. A sense of well-earned and righteous jubilation reigned instead as the best team in MLS lifted the trophy and gave the Buckeye-mad city its first major professional sports title.
The Crew's first Cup also ended a three-year rebuilding project and capped a dominating yet somewhat unexpected run to the top of the league.
“Our goal heading into the season was to make the playoffs,” Crew head coach Sigi Schmid said in the aftermath. In his subsequent explanation, Schmid noted how that goal evolved towards MLS Cup glory as his team progressed this season.
Not that satisfying that dream proved easy. Not in the least.
For most of the first half, the decided underdogs were decidedly the better side. Columbus enjoyed the run of play in the first five minutes and then appeared to get swept up in the moment, as if memories of failures past had dulled the nerves and locked up their free-flowing football at the most crucial of moments.
New York would have preferred to sit back much like they did against Houston and Real Salt Lake – midfielder Dave van den Bergh contended earlier in the week RSL had so much of the possession in last weekend's Western Conference final merely because New York conceded it – but shifted its game plan to accommodate the change in conditions.
Granted time and space, van den Bergh provided most of the danger down the left hand side, pumping crosses into the box consistently only to see Juan Pablo Angel and John Wolyniec snatch at the opportunities provided. If this final was billed as a matchup between wingers, New York had most of it in the opening stages with Red Bulls fullbacks Chris Leitch and Kevin Goldthwaite marking Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers tightly with Dane Richards tucking back to provide support on Rogers.
Then the sucker punch came after 31 minutes. Van den Bergh quit on a ball that should have rolled out and league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto did not. One sumptuous long-ball later, Alejandro Moreno took advantage of tentative defending by Diego Jimenez and inexperienced goalkeeping by Danny Cepero to fire the Crew ahead.
New York resumed service after the goal, but waited until six minutes into the second stanza to equalize. Wolyniec provided his second goal of the playoffs after a rare Richards foray into the middle of the park caught the Columbus' defense off guard. The Jamaican midfielder seized the space afforded and slid through for Wolyniec to slide home. Perhaps there was hope yet for Osorio's Red Bulls.
Momentum swung back towards the Red Bulls for all of 87 seconds.
Juan Carlos Osorio called Barros Schelotto the best player on the league on set pieces after the match. No complaints about the Argentine's service on a needlessly conceded corner kick by Jimenez, but the marking on Chad Marshall left something much to be desired. The defender didn't even have to jump in order to head home with his marker left undetermined and undistinguished by the shoddy coverage.
With the Red Bulls prattling on after the game about Juan Pablo Angel's “free role” on corner kicks after the game and his unquestioned status as the best aerial player in his side, one has to wonder whether the Colombian was delinquent in his marking duties or simply inattentive to the unquestionable aerial threat Marshall possesses.
Either way, that second goal all but sealed the game for Columbus. There wasn't another comeback left in these Bulls after conceding again so swiftly. Osorio said he couldn't have asked for more than the effort his team gave, yet there was a lingering feeling of what could have been at full time.
“If we had just kept that tie for five or seven minutes, maybe the result would have been different,” Richards said. “We gave up a goal just a minute afterwards. That killed all of the momentum.”
With one eye on glory, Columbus seized the opportunity to thrust in the dagger as New York futilely pushed forward.
Hejduk altered his kamikaze attacking style at Schmid's request to combat van den Bergh. Fewer overlapping runs resulted in the first half, but as the Dutch winger faded from the game in the second half, Hejduk found more room to roam.
One such trademark run exposed acres of space down the right flank. Barros Schelotto sumptuously scooped his chip over the mesmerized Red Bulls defense and Hedjuk floated a header over Cepero and nestled it into the far corner.
“It's unbelievable,” Hejduk said about his Argentine schemer. “He has eyes on the back of his head. He's been doing that all year to different players on the team all year. When I give him the ball, I just take off because I know that if there's anyone that can find me, it's him.”
Barros Schelotto capped a fine season once the final whistle blew by doubling his MVP haul after setting a Cup final record with three assists. It was no less than the Argentine deserved for his contributions on the campaign.
If Barros Schelotto provided most of the impetus and ingenuity for Columbus, Schmid aligned it in a masterful plan to accentuate the team's other positives. By engineering the team's 4-4-1-1 formation to showcase Barros Schelotto, reclaiming Gaven, Marshall and Brian Carroll and nurturing the electric Rogers and the quietly effective Brad Evans, Schmid submitted one of the finest coaching jobs in league history.
All that work culminated in a city Schmid loves dearly and in a stadium where the primary tenant decided he wasn't required any longer because he didn't play attractive football even after he had delivered a first title.
Consider that myth debunked. In front of family and friends – including wife Valerie, who fell ill earlier in the day and took intravenous fluids in order to watch the game she couldn't miss – Schmid enjoyed his vindication by becoming the first coach to win MLS Cup with two different clubs.
“It was sweet to come back to Los Angeles and win it,” Schmid said.
The fairytale ending for Schmid and his Crew may prove just that as the team's two superlative talents may depart for more glamorous pastures instead of defending the team's first title.
The club holds an option on Barros Schelotto's contract – reportedly in the $650,000 range – and doesn't appear inclined to pay him Designated Player money to keep him despite his express wishes to remain in the league for a couple of more years. The team wants to negotiate that number downwards to avoid paying money out of pocket, perhaps the first time in league history where the league MVP's club isn't rushing to seal his signature for the next season given a reasonable option in place.
Schmid's contract ends after 2008 and he hasn't been pleased with contract negotiations to this point. Persistent whispers suggest Schmid may decamp for expansion Seattle, where former player Chris Henderson serves as technical director, the pockets are significantly deeper, the location is closer to his Southern California home and the chance to build a winner like he did with U.C.L.A., the Galaxy and the Crew exists from scratch.
“I hope he re-signs,” Hejduk said. “Me and Sigi go back a long time. I hope they can get it sorted out.”
Both decisions would appear penny wise and pound foolish, but even if both depart, their losses would not take away from the magic of this campaign nor the sweetness of this win.
For Crew fans, the wait for this moment was altogether unbearable. Thirteen years of suffering, anxiety and disappointment could have compounded exponentially with a loss in this game.
There would be no heartache in Columbus this time. Just this once, the universe granted all of its wishes.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and blogs frequently during the week for Goal.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.