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Nov 21, 2008

Schelotto the driving force behind the Crew

CARSON, Calif. -- There was a time in MLS when a virtual bystander could be awarded an official assist by shouting "Man on!" as a teammate prepared to put an effort toward goal.

Well, that's not exactly true -- but it's not far off. Suffice it to say, the standards have changed since those early days of the liberal assist award in MLS.

That's what helps make Guillermo Barros Schelotto's total this year, 19, so impressive.

While Schelotto's final assist tally fell well short of Carlos Valderrama's MLS season record of 26 back in 2000, the Crew playmaker did register the most since Steve Ralston helped on 19 goals in 2002 -- also before a league-mandated strengthening of the criteria.

In the intervening years, the league leaders in that category have averaged 14 assists. So, clearly, no one can quarrel over Schelotto's graceful gift of service this year.

The league recognized Schelotto's tremendous 2008 campaign by naming him MVP on Thursday, an honor the scruffy and slightly stubby attacker downplayed.

"It's very important, but more important is the game Sunday," Schelotto said after training Friday at the Home Depot Center. "The award, they gave it to me, but it's for the team."

MLS Cup final
Nov. 23
New York vs. Columbus
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)

Obviously, it's not just the raw numbers that make Columbus' wily Argentine playmaker an indomitable force and such a critical element in Columbus' determined march through the 2008 MLS season. Columbus wouldn't be in the MLS Cup final right now without Schelotto's 35-year-old legs, which still clearly have much to offer.

Schelotto had the same skill and same winner's attitude when he arrived last year. But the team around him wasn't as complete. Plus, manager Sigi Schmid had yet to figure out the best way to use Schelotto, often deploying him as a free-floating winger in a 4-3-3, or as an attacking midfielder in a 4-4-2.

This year, the Crew mastermind hit upon the right formula. With Brian Carroll and another young central midfielder -- Adam Moffat early in the season, then Brad Evans for most of the duration -- performing the midfield legwork, Schelotto drifted behind striker Alejandro Moreno.

He's harder for defenses to locate there, floating at one minute to combine with Moreno, then moving to the wings to work with Eddie Gaven or Robbie Rogers as they move forward in support along the flanks.

With the body of work more complete around him, the man known around Columbus simply as Guille (say it like "GEE-schay") was happier on the field and in the locker room.

"He's more comfortable with the team," defender Danny O'Rourke said of Schelotto. "I think he wasn't accustomed to losing last year. None of us were, but him in particular. This year, with the team we put together, he's more comfortable. He's more happy. He's a fun guy in the locker room. He's got great stories."

Part of his comfort level comes from a better command of the language. Schelotto has worked hard on his English skills, with his language workbooks as frequent companions (although he still feels more comfortable interacting with the media in Spanish).

Schelotto joined Columbus early last year after a decade with storied Boca Juniors in Argentina. There the predominant rival was River Plate, where Red Bulls forward Juan Pablo Angel once prowled in search of goals.

Schelotto says he knew Angel only professionally back then, just like now, and has only sporadic memories of facing the Red Bulls' standout striker in one of South America's most storied rivalries.

Teammates and managers around Schelotto say he has scarcely mentioned the Boca-River Plate angle. He's focused, just like everyone else at the Home Depot Center this weekend, on Sunday's nationally televised contest of complete opposites. One team -- the small-market overachievers who knew about success all year, or the big-market perennial underachievers who backed into the playoffs -- will claim its first MLS Cup.

"I think they are both very competitive individuals," Schmid said. "I don't think Guillermo is trying to win it for Boca, and I don't think Angel is trying to win it for River. But I think they are both guys who want to win games, and that's what they've brought to each team. … I think now it's all about Columbus and New York for them."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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