EDITOR'S NOTE: Quotes from this story were derived from a feature as part of the Club's 10-year MLS Cup anniversary celebration in 2018.
In 2008, the Columbus Crew finished 17-7-6 (57 pts.) in the regular season and went on to become the first team since 2002 to win MLS Cup and the Supporters' Shield, doing so with three Best XI players, the League's MVP, and the League's Defender of the Year.
But a year earlier, the Club couldn't eclipse a .500 winning percentage, finishing 9-11-10 overall -- good for sixth place -- while winning just as many games in 2006 and 2007 combined as they did in 2008.
So, what unfolded that helped pave the way for an MLS Cup run?
"Heading into the season there was some quiet confidence," said longtime broadcaster Dwight Burgess, who announced his retirement from Black & Gold coverage prior to the start of the 2020 season.
"They had broken down some walls; [Head Coach Sigi Schmid] had a different way of doing things than what had been done, but overall I think they went into the season believing they were on the right track and would be perhaps the most competitive team they had been in several years."
Of course, it all depended on the signing of Guillermo Barros Schelotto in 2007.
"There was just something different about the way he played," said Neil Sika, the Club's TV play-by-play announcer who has been covering the Crew since 2004. "You know a winner when you see one."
In short, it was the superstar that fit the system.
From back to front, all the pieces created a well-balanced team that could spread teams thin while League MVP Schelotto could work his magic in the middle.
The make-up between the Crew's outside backs in Gino Padula and Frankie Hejduk, centerback Chad Marshall, wingers Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers, central midfielders Schelotto and Brian Carroll, and Alejandro Moreno up top was often described as atypical, but in the end, there was something about that confluence that was simply magical and undeniably massive.
At the start of the year, the Crew won six of its first seven games. Following that, a stretch of four winless matches proceeded, but things turned around going into summer and the aforementioned 'quiet confidence' began to show itself.
"We felt as we got into the summer that we were seeing something potentially special evolving. It was just that assembling of pieces and finally they started to look like a comfortable fit," Burgess said.
The obvious sign came on September 6, 2008, when the Crew hosted the New England Revolution at Crew Stadium. At that point, New England had been to three straight MLS Cups and four in the last six seasons, but that did not prevent Columbus from, as Sika put it, shellacking the Revs 4-0 as Barros led the charge with two assists and a goal.
"The ultimate sign that this was a championship-caliber team was that New England was the class of the league for three, four years heading into 2008, they had been to a couple MLS Cups, and they come to Columbus and they got shellacked, four to nothing," Sika recalled. "Schelotto played like a guy you knew was going to take this group somewhere."
Schelotto ended up finishing the regular season with 19(!) assists as 14 different Crew players scored that year. The Crew only lost three times in the final 23 matches of 2008, including the playoffs, while scoring at least three goals on nine separate occasions.
As November approached, the heads finally started to turn, said Burgess.
"Having to get through their primary Eastern Conference rival at that time – Chicago – and doing it against Brian McBride added to it, so there was a real hype for that and the fact that Chad Marshall would get a goal off a corner by beating Brian McBride in the air was sort of an exclamation point on that transition," Burgess said.
After advancing over Kansas City in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Crew defeated Chicago 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals to go on and face a Red Bulls team who defeated the Crew two out of three times during the regular season, including a 3-1 loss at New York on Oct. 18.
What mattered come the postseason, Burgess said, was the Crew's ability to move on from mistakes and ride the confidence that earned them the first-place playoff seeding.
"When you got into the postseason, you could see there was a level of confidence," he said. "They weren’t just destroying opponents, but every little mistake that happened was just dismissed and they went on to the next thing."
On Nov. 23, 2008, Schmid's three-year plan came to fruition and the sum of the Crew's parts surrounded a bona fide superstar in Schelotto, who took the opportunity to cement his and the team's legacy.
"Those are the games that are set for the best players to make the biggest impact and I think we saw that all throughout the playoffs with Schelotto," Sika said. "He was dynamite in every single game they played in the postseason and the culmination of that was MLS Cup."
"He just saw things faster than everyone else," Burgess add. "So confident. Sublime first-touch. Just a guy who knew what was going to happen before it did. If professional players were two steps ahead, then he was at least three steps ahead."
The Crew's final goal to seal the Cup was the epitome of not only Schelotto's class, but how every position on that field fed into something greater that season.
"Everyone who was watching the game, 2-1 lead late on, you got the sense that they were going to finish the job," said Sika, who was alluding to Hejduk's header from Schelotto to go up 3-1.
"Well it was quintessential Frankie, isn’t it? He had no business being there. You’re thinking you are up a goal, and the way Sigi runs things, now you’re really settling in and you’re just running out the clock, so why he was even up there in the first place, I don’t think even Frankie knew," Burgess said.
As Sika simply put it, "who better than the captain to finish off a season?"