CARSON, Calif. -- These moments of beautiful symmetry occur with surprising infrequency in Major League Soccer, an association still in its gangly, teenage years and still prone to subsequent unpredictability.
But here was one such moment of graceful balance Sunday outside Los Angeles, when the league's Most Valuable Player shepherded the best team through the long campaign to a well-deserved MLS Cup title.
Guillermo Barros Schelotto, just three days after collecting the league MVP award, provided three assists in helping the Crew claim their first league title with a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls. By doing so, the Crew scored one for the traditionalists, who enjoy seeing season-long performance rewarded.
Coach Sigi Schmid's Crew had been the season-long Steady Eddy in Major League Soccer's 13th season. In claiming Sunday's final before 27,000 at the Home Depot Center, Columbus became the first team since the Galaxy in 2002 to parlay a Supporters' Shield with an MLS Cup.
On Sunday the Crew withstood an early burst from the flavor-of-the-moment Red Bulls, but they rode Schelotto's exclamation point on his own memorable season. With three more assists Sunday, he finished with 25 in the regular season and playoffs combined.
Schmid also completed a personal career arc, winning his second title in the very backyard of the team that fired him; Los Angeles dismissed Schmid back in 2004 when the Galaxy were sitting pretty in first place.
|MLS Cup champions|
2008 -- Columbus
2007 -- Houston
2006 -- Houston
2005 -- Los Angeles
2004 -- D.C. United
2003 -- San Jose
2002 -- Los Angeles
2001 -- San Jose
2000 -- Kansas City
1999 -- D.C. United
1998 -- Chicago
1997 -- D.C. United
1996 -- D.C. United
Schelotto's afternoon at the Home Depot Center was a variety pack of assists: His first one started -- of all things -- on a moment of nifty defense. From there, his 40-yard pass to Alejandro Moreno was a demonstration in simplicity, a testament to how even the most obvious of passes, executed early, without an instant's hesitation, can turn a match.
His second assist was off a corner kick, helping confirm opinions that Schelotto is the league's best on serving set pieces. And his third was a real beauty, a clever little chip to an onrushing Frankie Hejduk for the game-clincher.
Schelotto became the third player to pair a league MVP crown and a title game MVP honor. The others were Tony Meola in 2000 and Carlos Ruiz in 2002.
Red Bull made a good account Sunday, especially in the first half, which turned surprisingly into one-way traffic for about 20 minutes. Juan Carlos Osorio's side, with a little more to offer in defensive commitment, pressed the Crew. Red Bulls striker extraordinaire Juan Pablo Angel could have made life on the Crew horribly difficult, but he couldn't quite get his body around on Dane Richards' 29th-minute cross. Angel's twisting effort from 12 yards went well high.
Just a couple minutes later, young Red Bulls goalkeeper Danny Cepero finally had that wobbly moment that so many had anticipated during the playoffs. Schelotto pulled the ball off Dave van den Bergh's foot along the sideline, then immediately released Alejandro Moreno along the Crew's right side.
The early ball left Moreno one-on-one with center back Diego Jimenez, who had no support and therefore couldn't aggressively challenge. Jimenez showed Moreno the end line, driving the Crew striker into a less favorable angle. Moreno's shot lacked a little bite but was enough against Cepero, who admitted he needed to be better there.
"If I could have gotten a stronger hand on it, I think I could have kept it out," Cepero said.
Too bad for the Red Bulls, who were troubling the heavily favored Crew in this meeting of MLS Cup debutants. Van den Bergh had provided four inviting crosses before Columbus could manage one. With Angel winning more than his share of balls played long in the air, the Red Bulls were able to press Columbus despite rarely attacking with more than five players.
"I believe we were hard-done in the first half," said New York coach Osorio. "I believe we were the better team, with the better chances."
Hard to argue the point. But it was surely a better game because the Red Bulls didn't get that oh-so-important first goal. Osorio's men surely would have gone into the Red Bulls bunker, reconstituting the formula that worked so well in eliminating Houston and Real Salt Lake en route to Sunday's surprise appearance in Carson.
The Red Bulls were the third team in MLS history with a losing regular-season record to appear in the final. So in a way, Columbus rescued the league from potential ignominy. New York was sometimes OK in the regular season -- but sometimes pretty awful.
Not so with the Crew, a team that topped the league in wins and points and sported the league's best goal differential. By September, it was clear that Columbus was the best thing going in MLS. Late last week, a consensus of voters deemed Schelotto to be the best player.
He had some trouble finding the game early Sunday -- just like his teammates. But Columbus adjusted tactically at the half, pushing the back four up closer to the midfield. Schmid, with his team in the usual 4-4-1-1 setup, had originally asked his men to sit back a bit, forcing the Red Bulls from their defend-and-counter comfort zone.
"We probably dropped off a little too much," Schmid said. "We gave them too much of the game. They did a good job. They did a good job of spreading the game around."
By dropping too deep, the Crew left center midfielders Brad Evans and Brian Carroll with too much field to cover, providing Angel and the Red Bulls midfielders time and space to find van den Bergh's well-considered runs.
Halftime adjustments made, the Crew had a better time of it after intermission.
Not that the Red Bulls didn't have their moments. Dane Richards spent most of his afternoon helping back on Crew flanker Robbie Rogers, who had a quite match. But Richards did have at least one big moment in the attack, scooting past Evans and Gino Padula and feeding a little devil of a ball to the onrushing John Wolyniec for a 51st-minute equalizer.
But just 87 seconds later, Schelotto's corner kick found Chad Marshall, who burst into the thinnest of spaces and was admittedly surprised to see Schelotto's service drop right on his head.
Wolyniec admitted the Crew's quick response to the Red Bulls' goal was crushing.
"We were on a high after scoring our goal, and it's hard to come back from that," Wolyniec said.
Marshall and fellow center back Danny O'Rourke, who had a nice afternoon in enjoying a couple of moments of success against Angel, kept things tight from there, with goalkeeper William Hesmer rarely troubled.
Schelotto nearly sealed up the match when he chipped Cepero from 25 yards, only to see his shot clang off the crossbar.
Later, Moreno worked hard to keep possession near the Red Bulls penalty area. He fed Schelotto, whose swell little chip got past the Red Bulls back line, dropping perfectly for Hejduk. The Crew right back, still venturing forward liberally at age 34, dropped his header over Cepero -- and the Crew celebration was on.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.