The MLS Cup-winning Columbus Crew resembled the best teams of the decade in many ways, but, Goal.com’s Kyle McCarthy wonders, should the 2008 season go down in the annals of league history as one of the best ever?
I can't think of a regime change that ever started in Columbus.
Maybe a pack of unruly Ohio State fans created a groundswell to nudge John Cooper out the door after two lackluster seasons at the turn of the millennium because he couldn't win a national championship or beat Michigan. But there certainly isn't one particular event in memory to suggest Ohio's capital city ever fostered revolutionary actions.
Until now. Columbus confounded everyone's expectations to lift MLS Cup this season, and in doing so, have caused quite a ruckus.
During a campaign that should be remembered more for its storylines than for its level of play, Columbus' ability to break through the Houston-New England playoff stranglehold stands out as a watershed.
Lauding the demise of the Dynamo-Revolution axis of success isn't a slight against either of the fallen playoff heroes (or anti-heroes). Over the past few years Houston and New England compiled coherent strategies, admirable groups of primarily domestic players who stuck around longer than perhaps they should have, and exemplary coaching staffs.
In a league predicated on the single entity and parity, both clubs managed to upset the general tendency of ebb and flow to maintain a place at or near the top of the league for half a decade. With a more balanced schedule next season, the descent may just prove a temporary blip.
Over the past few seasons, many teams around the league have tried to replicate the model of success the Revs and the Orange followed, but no club can point to anything more than a futile attempt. A few -- like Chicago and Colorado -- rose and fell depending on the season, finding the right blend for a short stretch and slinking back to the pack.
D.C. United went in an entirely different direction by trying to import half of South America. Two Supporters' Shields, two early playoff exits and a failed playoff charge this season suggest the strategy didn't reap the necessary dividends.
Meanwhile, Crew head coach Sigi Schmid constructed his team much like those assembled in Houston and New England: solid goalkeeper, miserly and uncompromising defenders, flying wingers, two-way midfielders and a rugged striker to lead the line. For better or worse, the most successful teams in the league have proven difficult to beat, and Columbus accomplished that as well.
Schmid and his Crew varied its formula in one important respect. Whereas the Houston and New England vintage models keyed on a target striker (Brian Ching, Taylor Twellman) and a defensive midfielder (Ricardo Clark, Shalrie Joseph), the Crew's version relied on an aging and sometimes frail playmaker (Guillermo Barros Schelotto) to propel the team forward. Schmid's Crew incorporated an offensive verve that may have been missing from previous versions. Not that the original model ended up on the scrap heap as the attacking nous came cloaked inside a 4-5-1 formation that appeared more defensive in theory than in practice.
Two mitigating factors might impact the Crew's place amongst the hierarchy of champions and great teams. No team benefited from scheduling more than the Crew; other key challengers picked up additional fixtures in SuperLiga and the CONCACAF Champions League while Columbus was able to focus primarily on the league. There is also the nagging feeling that the Crew, with Schmid apparently headed to Seattle, Barros Schelotto wrangling with the club over salary and Chad Marshall flirting with a move to Europe, may not last at the top.
Columbus's success masked a relatively humdrum campaign on the field and a particularly exciting season off it. If you're not a Columbus fan, chances are you won't remember this season particularly fondly.
Aside from the Crew, which placed itself amongst the top ten teams in league history with its double, there were three intermittently good teams that ran the gamut between not-so-good and brilliant at different points during the season (Houston, New England and Chicago), one team that was decent when it wasn't fighting a host of crippling injuries (Chivas USA), one overachieving team that deserved its playoff berth (Real Salt Lake), one team that took us on a wild playoff ride after a wretched regular season (New York) and a bunch of other teams that won't be remembered even by their own supporters.
Although the overall quality of play may have dropped slightly (particularly on the defensive side of the ball), the multitude of stories coming from the season more than made up for any lingering mediocrity. In no particular order and bearing no particular warranty of comprehensiveness, those story lines include the following:
- The brutal schedule that impacted Houston, New England, D.C. United and Chivas USA and hampered their playoff chances.
- The hapless Los Angeles defense and the leadership change it caused.
- The first performance enhancing drug scandal and how it sparked the Red Bulls.
- Landon Donovan hitting everyone over the head and reminding them of his ample talents with a 20-goal season.
- The seemingly interminable saga leading to Brian McBride's return and the sad denouement leading to Claudio Reyna's retirement.
- Jozy Altidore earning the league $10 million with his transfer to Villarreal and Mo Edu earning the league far less for his move to Rangers.
- Juan Pablo Angel breaking new ground the first Designated Player to reach MLS Cup.
- Two teams out of 14 posting winning records on the road – and those two clubs combined to win two more games than they lost on the road.
- The cult of Kenny Cooper.
- The rejuvenation of Edson Buddle, Jon Busch, and Conor Casey.
- The salvation of Santino Quaranta.
- David Beckham's continued involvement with England and the return of off-season loans it has caused.
Even amongst the multitude of compelling story lines, the Crew and its rise from playoff also-ran to MLS Cup champion stands out.
That shouldn't be a surprise. In historical annals, regime change always does.
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.