It would only seem logical to start this piece at the same point in time that Cody Sharrett began his retrospective on Frankie Hejduk—in the 82nd minute of the Crew’s 3-1 triumph in MLS Cup 2008. The Crew’s title-clinching goal was the perfect summation of two club legends. Hejduk’s brilliant, high-energy, devil-may-care dash out of nowhere put him in position to ice the game, but to do so, he needed someone to see the unexpected run and deliver the right pass at that precise moment. Fortunately, the ball was on the foot of Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
After receiving a drop pass from Eddie Gaven, Schelotto took a controlling touch in a crowd of three defenders, saw Hejduk flashing in his periphery, then sent a delicate chip into the box that not only hit Hejduk’s head in stride, but also nestled perfectly in the space beyond the last defender and in front of New York goalkeeper Danny Cepero. Hejduk nodded the ball over Cepero and the Crew’s first MLS Cup title was assured.
“It’s the thing that Guillermo does and the way that he does it,” said Crew teammate Alejandro Moreno, who scored a Schelotto-assisted goal earlier in the title match. “The world seemingly slows down for him and he sees the ball that nobody was looking for. In tight spaces, people tend to rush, but Guillermo slowed down. Everything became clearer for him, whereas for everyone else it would become more hectic. That’s the difference between superstars and the rest of us.”
After winning 16 titles with Argentina’s fabled Boca Juniors, giving him 18 trophies in his career, Schelotto signed with the Crew on April 19, 2007. A new coaching regime at Boca Juniors started curtailing his minutes, so the move to Ohio offered Schelotto a fresh start and a new challenge.
The challenge could not have been much bigger. After years of sterling performances for a storied club, Schelotto joined a Crew team that finished dead last in 2006 and was in the process of winning just one of its first 11 matches in 2007. Sigi Schmid was still working to rebuild the Crew from the ground-up, and in May of 2007, he debuted two vital pieces in his reconstruction effort. After coming on as a sub on May 5 in Kansas City, Schelotto made his first start on May 12 at Crew Stadium. He was joined in that evening’s starting lineup by Moreno, making his Crew debut after being acquired in a trade with Houston two days earlier.
“We came to the Crew at a time when things weren’t going very well and they were pretty much in the middle of a restructuring of the team,” Moreno said. “Sigi had come in and was trying to make his changes and to get his guys on the field. It was a challenging time because I’m not sure that the team had an identity in terms of on the field performance or off the field personality.”
As the season wore on, the Crew began to develop that identity. The team went 8-7-4 over the final 19 matches and missed the MLS Cup Playoffs by just three points. In a pair of season-ending victories, the lineup featured seven of the 11 players who would take the field at the start of the 2008 season. Schelotto put up five goals and 11 assists in just 22 games, earning an MLS Best XI nod.
The best was yet to come.
To understand how Guillermo Barros Schelotto helped lead the Crew to the Promised Land in 2008, it helps to understand a little about the man himself. At the time of his signing, MLS had a checkered history with foreign stars. Some came in and performed brilliantly while others treated their stay as an easy paycheck that wasn’t worth the effort.
There’s the famous story told by Schmid in the locker room after MLS Cup 2008. After watching Schelotto practice for the first time, then-assistant coach Robert Warzycha asked, “Are you sure about this guy?” Warzycha caught some heat from the fans over that anecdote, but it was unfair because that seemed to be the first impression of just about everyone.
When Federico Higuain first arrived in Columbus, teammate Andy Gruenebaum noted how Higuain’s first impression differed from Schelotto’s. “When [Schelotto] first got here, we were like, ‘Are you KIDDING me?’” Gruenebaum said back in 2012. “Guille was one of the worst practice players. When Guille first got here, we didn’t really understand that he was like, ‘I’ll see you guys Saturday.’ And then he’d show up on Saturday and the guy was unreal. He was amazing.”
“Yeah, in practice, he was (crap),” laughed Steven Lenhart, a Crew teammate from 2008-2010. “But at that point in his career, dude, do whatever you want.”
Teammates joke about it now, but in those first few practices in the spring of 2007, history gave them reason for concern. They couldn’t have initially known that Schelotto was saving his 34-year-old legs for 90 minutes of magic on Saturday. They couldn’t have known that he would bleed for the Columbus Crew as if they were Boca Juniors. They couldn’t have known that he was determined to get the most out of his time in America in every respect. All of that would become apparent when the whistle blew for real.
“There’s always that feeling that a guy who comes late in his career may not be willing to do some of the work or the sacrifice for the team,” Moreno said, “because, logically, he had already accomplished just about everything there was to accomplish in his career with Boca Juniors. What else could he be motivated by?
“I think it became very clear that his goal was to make it work in Columbus and that the Columbus Crew were a team that he was proud to be a part of,” continued Moreno. “You don’t win as many championships and important things as he did over the course of his career unless there is something deep within you that pushes you and motivates you.”
“When you were playing, you always felt that he was just as hard a worker as anyone,” Lenhart said. “You felt like he was fighting for time like he was the last player on our team—like he didn’t have a guaranteed spot on the team. Every single game he was committed to bringing the team together through working hard.”
Off the field, Schelotto ingrained himself into the locker room and the American culture. He worked hard at learning English, even carrying a notebook around so he could write down his errors or new pieces of information and learn from them. He studied up on American football so that he could compete in Hejduk’s weekly pick ‘em pool. He touted Columbus’ virtues to out-of-towners who suggested that a bigger American market would be more befitting of his talents. Most importantly, he was just one of the guys.
“I think it is appropriate to point out that Guillermo never behaved like a big-timer,” Moreno said. “He did not come to the team as if to say, ‘It’s me, and then there’s the rest of you.’ He bought in to whatever Sigi was selling and very much became a part of the locker room and part of the dynamic.”
“He also had a lot of confidence in us as a team and as teammates,” Lenhart said. “The thing I like about Guille was that he was never entitled. He didn’t have that ego about him. He wanted to be very present wherever he was at, and he saw having friendships and relationships with his teammates as part of that. I was fortunate to be in his circle and to do some life with him.”
For Lenhart, “doing some life” with Guille meant rooming on the road with Schelotto. Out of all the people on the team, the Argentine star specifically requested that the rookie Third Round SuperDraft pick out of Azusa Pacific be assigned as his roommate.
“I was in so far over my head at that point,” Lenhart said. “It was my first year in the League. I had no idea what I was doing, but suddenly I was rooming with Guille. I remember being so stoked that he treated me like a normal person. He just wanted to be a normal guy. It broke down a lot of barriers and just gave us an opportunity to be buddies. I’m very grateful for that.”
By the end of what had been a previously befuddling rookie season, Lenhart scored an immensely important stoppage-time equalizer in a playoff game at Kansas City and even saw action in the MLS Cup final.
Schelotto’s numbers speak for themselves. In 2008, he recorded seven goals and a club-record 19 assists, which is tied for the second-highest regular-season total in MLS history. That was good enough for MLS Best XI and MVP honors. He followed that up six assists in the playoffs, including three in MLS Cup, earning him the MLS Cup MVP. In 2009 and 2010, he led the team in goals with 12 and nine, respectively. He was designated an MLS All-Star in each of his four seasons. Supporters serenaded him on corner kicks by chanting “Guillermo” while fanning him with “we’re-not-worthy” bows. Columbus Dispatch columnist Michael Arace was seemingly incapable of using Schelotto’s name in print unless preceded by the adjective “incomparable.”
The statistics, acclaim and personal awards tell a story, but it’s still not the full story of Schelotto’s impact. Moreno notes that while Schelotto was not an obviously good defensive player, he was sneaky good at funneling the play into areas that would make the attack predictable for those doing the work behind him. He developed a symbiotic relationship with the midfield, where they worked hard to give him freedom and he in turn worked hard to funnel the opponent’s attack into fortified areas.
“What Guillermo did well, even if he didn’t win a lot of balls, was he was shading the play toward where the pressure should be coming from,” Moreno said. “That made the job easier for Brian Carroll and Brad Evans or Adam Moffat. Those guys deserve a lot of credit because the job they did in behind allowed Guillermo to do what he did offensively.”
Schelotto also coached the young attackers on the field. After a game against New England in 2008, Jason Garey said that Schelotto pulled him aside and told him to start at a certain point, and as soon as the ball went to Schelotto, he should run toward the goal. The very next play, Garey’s “blind” run latched onto Schelotto’s seemingly “blind” pass, resulting in a breakaway goal.
Lenhart was among many teammates who had similar experiences. “It was pretty consistent where he would pull me aside during games and say, ‘Steve, you’re better when you do this.’ And he was clever in the way he spoke. If he wanted me to do something, he was always winking. It was all weird Argentine stuff that was very endearing. I loved playing with him.”
“There’s no question,” Moreno said, “and it’s no coincidence that Robbie Rogers had a great year … or that Eddie Gaven matured as a player with Guillermo playing balls in behind, or that I scored a few goals here and there because Guillermo puts you in a situation where you are more than likely going to be successful if you made the right run.”
And it’s no coincidence that the Columbus Crew reached the highest elevations with Schelotto in the pilot’s seat. The 2008 team is one of only six in MLS history to win the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in the same season. The 2009 team won another Supporters’ Shield, making them the first “League double” winner in MLS history to successfully defend even one of those titles the following season (The 2012 LA Galaxy would become the only other, winning MLS Cup a year after winning the double in 2011). In Schelotto’s final year, the Crew advanced to the 2010 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final, narrowly missing out on a sweep of domestic trophies during his four-year tenure.
Most tellingly, all of this happened after he joined a team that finished dead last the year before he arrived. This wasn’t a case of plugging a star into a successful team that just needed to get over the hump. Schelotto was the rare star who came to MLS and elevated everyone around him—rookies and veterans alike—to new heights and unforeseen successes. The pundits didn’t even pick the Crew to make the playoffs in 2008, much less become one of the greatest teams in MLS history.
“Guillermo was definitely a special talent,” Moreno said. “No question. Looking back over the League, with the Designated Players and all of the big names that have come about, somehow, when the names are brought up, Guillermo is supposedly down on the list when Guillermo should be at the top of the list. If you think about where the Columbus Crew was as a team before he came and where the Columbus Crew went after he came on board, it was a great transformation.
“Now, of course, there was a core group of players that allowed that to happen,” continued Moreno, “but it must be said that in terms of successes for big-timers coming into MLS, Guillermo was more successful than any other name.”
Questions? Comments? Have a favorite Guille memory? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via twitter @stevesirk