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Nov 23, 2008

Crew's Schelotto provides the magic touch yet again

CARSON, Calif. -- It was the perfect Hollywood ending to a season that couldn't have been scripted any better for Crew maestro Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

In Sunday's grandiose MLS finale, the classy Argentine playmaker set up all three Columbus goals against the New York Red Bulls in a 3-1 win to deliver his club its first league title in its 13-season history. In the process, Schelotto became just the third player to win both the regular-season and MLS Cup MVP awards in the same year, joining Tony Meola (2000) and Carlos Ruiz (2002).

"He's a magic man, that's the only way to explain it," said Crew captain Frankie Hejduk, who netted the contest's final goal off a brilliant Schelotto feed to seal the triumph in the 82nd minute.

"I have no idea how he even saw me running through there," Hejduk said. "He had eyes in the back of the head."

It's been that way all season for the Boca Juniors legend, who led the league with 19 regular-season assists. Schelotto arrived in MLS at the beginning of the 2007 season with a résumé every bit as impressive as higher-profile imports David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco. But unlike the league's two biggest bold-faced names, Schelotto is not a salary-cap-exempt designated player, and he earns a fraction of what the league's two highest-paid performers command annually.

Much of the prematch focus was on the meeting between Schelotto and former Argentine first division rival Juan Pablo Angel, the Red Bulls' star striker. But while Angel, another high-priced DP, had a quiet game, Schelotto more than lived up to the billing.

He kept the Red Bulls off balance all afternoon, delivering the subtle touches and slick distribution he displayed all season. He repeatedly threatened New York on set pieces. But ironically enough, it was Schelotto's dogged defense that created the opener. Thirty minutes in, he dispossessed Dave van den Bergh near midfield and slipped the ball thorough for Alejandro Moreno to slot home past Bulls keeper Danny Cepero.

Early in the second half, his curling, inch-perfect corner set up Chad Marshall's headed winner less than two minutes after John Wolyniec had equalized for New York.

And in the 77th minute, Schelotto nearly put the match out of reach himself, when his wicked 20-yard blast rocketed off Cepero's crossbar. Five minutes later, though, he played that killer ball over the top of the Red Bulls' line for a streaking Hejduk to one-touch home.

"I just made one of my stupid runs forward, like I normally do," Hejduk said. "If there is anyone who can find me with that ball, it's going to be him. Once he got it, I just took off. I mean, what a ball."

The win is sweet for Schelotto for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because Columbus didn't even qualify for the playoffs last season. Making it even more special was the presence of Carlos Bianchi, Schelotto's former coach at Boca, in a Home Depot Center luxury box. The pair had won a haul of trophies together in South America with "Guille" running the show.

"It was great that he was in the stadium," Schelotto said. "I learned Thursday or Friday that he was coming. [Being] together again, somehow I felt we weren't going to lose."

His current coach, Crew boss Sigi Schmid, heaped praise on the slight, shy star in a jubilant postgame locker room.

"Guillermo Barros Schelotto was tremendous," Schmid said. "The thing about great players is how they can change a game. That's what they do, so we've sort of come to expect it. He's been everything we'd hoped for."

There has been some speculation that the double-MVP might not return next season to help the Crew defend their title, although he insists he wants to stay. If he does come back, it will undoubtedly be for well-earned, designated player-type cash.

"I've played with [Carlos] Valderrama, and [Schelotto] is up there with the best [ever] in MLS, for sure," said Hejduk.

As amazing as this ending was, here's hoping for a sequel in 2009.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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