CARSON, Calif. -- As Guillermo Barros Schelotto's perfectly struck corner kick zoomed through the California air, there seemed to be little doubt which of the players in the penalty area would find a way to get to it. Chad Marshall raced in like an unstoppable force and blasted home the header that ultimately helped his Columbus Crew lift the MLS Cup trophy in a 3-1 win over the Red Bulls and cap a remarkable comeback for Marshall.
On Sunday night, Marshall sipped champagne as an MLS Cup winner's medal hung around his neck, enjoying the conclusion of a dream season. A year ago at this time, Marshall's career was in jeopardy and his return to the field was uncertain. A series of three concussions in four months forced the Crew to make the tough decision to cut Marshall's season short and raise the very real question of whether his career was in jeopardy of being over at the age of 23.
"When I got the last concussion in practice and went and saw the specialist, there was that concern that I'd have to shut it down for my career," Marshall said. "It was definitely an option, but they did the right thing and shut it down for the season."
"From the team standpoint," said Crew head trainer Jason Mathews, "we decided that the best thing to do was be safe and work with him through the process of recovering, and he took ownership of the process. He worked hard to come back, and when he came back ... didn't show any signs of being tentative."
Rather than be tentative, Marshall made 2008 his breakout season, combining size, strength and skill to become a dominant force in the back. There was little doubt that the time away from the game and uncertainty about his future had rejuvenated and inspired Marshall to make the most of his second chance.
"I think that adversity helped him in a certain way because it made him appreciate the game a lot more," Schmid said. "This year he's grown by leaps and bounds. His leadership on the field has improved. His willingness to handle the ball and have the ball -- his defensive ability has never been in question, and now you can say he's the most dangerous player in the league on set pieces."
"He had some tough moments in the offseason wondering what was going to happen to him and if his career was over," Crew goalkeeper Will Hesmer said. "Thankfully and luckily, he was able to bounce back. He's way too talented a player to have his career end that young, and you have to credit the coaching staff and training staff for spotting it early and taking care of him."
Marshall's complete game was on display on Sunday. He helped contain Red Bulls star striker Juan Pablo Angel and powered home the eventual game-winning goal, his eighth goal of the season (combining the regular season and playoffs).
Marshall's breakout year couldn't have come at a better time for him. He is in the final year of his initial MLS contract and will now be free to test the waters in Europe or push Columbus to offer him a large contract. According to sources close to the situation, European clubs are already expressing interest, and Marshall is looking like a good bet to make a move abroad.
Marshall also has played well enough to push himself into consideration for the U.S. national team -- something he hasn't done since earning four caps in 2005. Given the form that he has shown this year, he looks like a lock for the national team training camp in January and could be in line to become that third defender in the U.S. pecking order behind starters Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra.
"I can't see Bob Bradley overlooking him anymore," Schmid said of Marshall. "He's got to be a guy that gets to play in the national team."
From a career in peril to a career in bloom, Marshall has made the most of his second chance, and both he and the Columbus Crew have a championship trophy as proof.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.