Guillermo Barros Schelotto adds flair to MLS
Here we go again.
That was the general reaction of soccer pundits when Guillermo Barros Schelotto signed with the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer on April 19, 2007.
Schelotto had spent the previous 16 years playing in his native Argentina, first with hometown club Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata, and later with Boca Juniors.
Nicknamed El Mellizo, the twin, Schelotto began his career with his twin brother, Gustavo, for Gimnasia before moving on to Boca where he became a star, scoring more than 60 goals and helping the Buenos Aires outfit win 16 domestic and international titles from 1996-2007.
But when he signed with Columbus, he was 33 years old and believed to be well past his prime. Critics said he could no longer cut it in his homeland, and Schelotto, like so many foreign stars before him, was coming to the U.S. to end his career by simply going through the motions while collecting a hefty paycheque.
Schelotto, however, had other ideas.
In his second season in MLS, Schelotto, now 35, led Columbus to a league-best 17-7-6 record and 57 points in the 2008 regular season, scoring seven goals and recording a league-leading 19 assists en route to being named the league's MVP.
"My teammates and coach had a lot to do with it. They made the transition much faster, a transition that could have been very difficult," Schelotto said after winning the award. "They understood that I don't understand English and that I had another style of play.
"And I realized that I had to change things to be able to adapt quickly as well."
The Buenos Aires native capped off an amazing season last Sunday when he led the Crew to a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls in the MLS Cup final — he set up all three goals and was named the game's MVP.
"Individually, it was the most complete performance I've seen since David Beckham's one-man show for England against Greece in a crucial World Cup qualifier in 2001," said CBC Sports soccer commentator Nigel Reed.
His statistics during the season were, indeed, impressive, but it was Schelotto's inventive and creative play that helped the Crew win the Eastern Conference title and their first league championship in franchise history. Columbus missed the playoffs last year with a 9-11-10 record and the team last qualified for the post-season in 2004.
Crew win MLS Cup
Without Schelotto pulling the creative strings as the architect of the attack, there's little doubt that Columbus would have struggled to make it into the playoffs this year, let alone win the league championship.
CBC Sports soccer analyst Jason de Vos described Schelotto as someone who "had a bigger impact on the success of his team than any other player in the league" this season.
"His numbers are impressive … but it is his overall play that speaks most about his influence for the Crew. He goes wherever he has to go to get on the ball, and he is the focal point of the Columbus attack," said de Vos, a former captain of the Canadian national team.
"His vision and passing is superb, and he does it while being a marked man. Other teams know he is the danger man, yet no one has managed to shut him down on a consistent basis."
Prior to the start of the 2008 season, MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis told CBCSports.ca that the league's "primary goal this year is to elevate the level and standard of play on the field."
South American flair
Schelotto did his part, thrilling fans and bamboozling opposing defenders with his deft touch and visionary passing ability.
"He has enabled North American soccer fans to witness his talent and see for themselves why the sport is often referred to as the 'beautiful game.' He can do things with a football most players can only dream about," said Reed.
His success hasn't gone unnoticed back home, either. Schelotto's exploits in MLS were regularly chronicled in Argentine newspapers during the season, and Columbus's games were broadcast live on television in Argentina.
MLS has its fingers crossed that other high-profile Argentines and players from across South America, having noticed how Schelotto revitalized his career since joining the league, will take a chance and consider a move to the U.S. in the near future.
Forget about winning the league MVP award — inspiring other South American stars to come to the U.S. would be Schelotto's single greatest accomplishment in MLS.