Walsh’s Word: Champions For How Long?

Columbus won their first league championship, but in this fast paced world they cannot pat themselves on the back for too long. Their chances for continued success will be determined this offseason by the ability to re-sign Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Chad Marshall.
Congratulations to the Columbus Crew for winning their first MLS Cup and their second Supporters’ Shield this season, adding two impressive pieces to their trophy case. Also, kudos to New York for finally needing a trophy case for their first real piece of silverware, even if it is a Richie Williams-sized trophy.

But for as successful as 2008 was for both teams, the ability to continue that success next year hinges on the return of several players. Hey, in a society of news cycles shorter than the time it took Alexi Lalas to shotgun a Red Bull, two days is plenty of celebration time for the Crew.

First up, of course, is the expansion draft on Wednesday in which they will likely lose a player to Seattle. Sadly, Frankie Hejduk was protected and will not be heading to the home of Starbucks.

Beyond that, and incredibly more important to their success in 2009, is the future of two players: Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Chad Marshall.

Both are reportedly considering options that would take them away from MLS. Marshall is considering heading across the pond to Europe, while Schelotto may be on his way back to Argentina.

Marshall, who just won MLS Defender of the Year honors and scored in Sunday’s MLS Cup Final, is out of contract and has expressed desires to head to Europe. Schelotto’s future with Columbus is a bit more muddied as the team holds an option, but reportedly do not want to pay him the Designated Player money -- around $650,000 -- that comes with picking the option up.

Losing the best defender and best player in the league would be a huge blow. Like sweeping the leg, their chances in 2009 would seemingly need Mr. Miyagi to ressurect their chances.

Add to that the possibility of seeing Sigi Schmid head to Seattle to link up with former player Chris Henderson, get paid a more respectable salary, and start another rebuilding process would appear to be a death knell. However, Robert Warzycha, the longtime Crew midfielder, would likely move from assistant to head coach and would not be a massive drop-off.

Losing both of their field players would be, though.

The importance of retaining Schelotto and Marshall is not only to defend their Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup trophies. In addition to trying to win those domestic titles again, Columbus will be involved in CONCACAF Champions League next year. And that’s where those two players are desperately needed.

To help teams like Columbus out, it would be wise for MLS to start rewarding the eight clubs involved in international competitions next year. Though the league took a step forward in breaking up the teams involved in the CCL and SuperLiga into two groups of four, they need to give a competitive edge to the octet.

In Europe, teams playing in the UEFA Cup and Champions League have their coffers bolstered by the huge sums of television revenue. While MLS clubs can benefit from winning a tournament -- like the controversial $1 million prize to the winning team in SuperLiga -- teams are unable to increase their salaries as a result.

Instead, allowing a major allocation for qualifying for Champions League and a minor allocation for qualifying for SuperLiga should be considered. Those could be used to bring in a new player or two and bolster the rosters of teams representing the league, rather than suffering another embarrassing Champions League where only one of four teams was truly competitive.

Of course this goes against the parity MLS prefers, so it will never happen, but we can dream, can’t we?

An allocation would aid the penny-pinching Crew in negotiating with Schelotto and Marshall. Or finding a potential replacement. Schelotto is the more important of the pair as, should he return, he would give the Crew much needed experience and composure in international play. While Hejduk and Alejandro Moreno have both played for their international team, the Crew’s midfield is devoid of that familiarity of the faster pace against the best from the rest of North America.

Looking at this year’s international newbies, New England won SuperLiga when they were healthy, but were summarily bounced by Joe Public FC, largely thanks to Steve Ralston’s back injury. Meantime Chivas USA could not advance in either competition due to some injuries, but also because of an inexperienced midfield that could not hold possession.

Even D.C. United, the most experienced MLS side when it comes to international competitions, was rudderless without their talisman Marcelo Gallardo. The Black-and-Red crashed out of the Champions League group stage with just a single point from six games with Gallardo on the shelf.

United also know how difficult it can be adjusting to life after losing a former MVP. Around this time last season D.C. began dismantling the spine of their team, a laudable decision after it was decided they needed to improve internationally. However, Gallardo failed to live up to the billing leaving many to wonder if the team would have been better off holding onto the 2006 MLS MVP, Christian Gomez.

The Crew should heed that warning. Though Columbus is unlikely to go after a bigger name -- and the ensuing bigger contract -- than Schelotto, to lose him would put them in even more dire straights than United was in this year. Of course Pat Noonan deputized well while Schelotto was recuperating from a hamstring injury, but there’s a huge difference between playing Toronto and New England and playing Marathon and Cruz Azul.

Losing Marshall would hurt as well. But not as much. Hejduk will still be around to lend his leadership and Andy Iro was drafted last year as the Crew weren’t sure that Marshall would return after missing over half of 2007 due to concussions. Though replacing defenders isn’t an exact science either, it is an easier task than changing your key cog offensively.

To be successful in 2009 that’s exactly what Columbus needs to avoid having to do.

Pat Walsh covers Major League Soccer for Goal.com. You can reach him at pat.walsh@goal.com.