ARGENTINA HAS given us the world's finest grass-fed beef, its most luscious Malbec wines and its most heartachingly gorgeous women (at least that's what Mick Jagger always said), and this year the nation of Evita and the tango bequeathed us another one of its cultural treasures: Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who on Sunday led the Columbus Crew to its first MLS Cup title with a display of passing more sublime than anything the 13-year-old league had seen before in its championship game. ¬∂ The 35-year-old midfielder known as Guille (pronounced GEE-zhay by his adoring countrymen) assisted on all three of the Crew's goals in its 3--1 victory over the New York Red Bulls at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., but what was most remarkable about Barros Schelotto's dominance—he was far and away the best player on the field—was the variety and increasing degree of difficulty of his passes. "Oh, my God, he had eyes on the back of his head," said Columbus defender Frankie Hejduk, who headed home the Crew's final goal off a Promethean chip by Guille over the Red Bulls' back line.
Indeed, it was as if GBS had his own GPS for finding pathways through New York's defense. Columbus took a 1--0 lead in the 31st minute when Guille stole the ball from New York's Dave van den Bergh, wheeled and feather-weighted a 25-yard pass to spring Alejandro Moreno for the goal. Guille's second assist came early in the second half, shortly after New York had tied the game, when he bent a corner kick around a thicket of defenders onto the noggin of hulking defender Chad Marshall, whose near-post run had come at Guille's suggestion after several failed runs to the crowded far post.
But the capper was a flash of the big-game genius that made Barros Schelotto the second-most revered icon behind Diego Maradona to the fans of Boca Juniors, the Buenos Aires superclub that Guille guided to 15 domestic and international championships from 1997 to 2007. In tight space just outside the New York penalty area, Guille spied Hejduk making a run into the box and used his right foot like a Phil Mickelson lob wedge, lofting a delicate pass that Hejduk dinked over the head of onrushing goalkeeper Danny Cepero and into the goal. In a league known for raw athleticism and physical play, Barros Schelotto's performance was an aria on finesse.
Guille's spell-check-suggested nickname—Guile—matches his playing style. "Great players have moments where they turn games," said Crew coach Sigi Schmid. "He's the spice for our meal, the one who's able to give us that bit of flavor, to come up with a little unpredictability at a key moment that unlocks things for you."
Barros Schelotto's path to the pinnacle of MLS wasn't an ordinary one. Unlike many of Argentina's top players who grew up in the country's poverty-stricken villas miserias, Guille was raised in an upper-middle-class family led by his father, Hugo, a doctor, and his mother, Cristina, a schoolteacher. Barros Schelotto's older brother, Pablo, is a surgeon, and his sister, Carolina, is an agronomist. Guille and his twin brother, Gustavo, studied law before giving it up for pro soccer. In '97 the brothers joined Boca at the behest of Maradona, and Guille became a symbol of the club's trophy-filled revival over the next decade, much of it under coach Carlos Bianchi.
By April 2007, though, Guille had fallen out of favor with Boca's management, and he was looking for a new opportunity in the U.S., where he could continue his soccer career while living quietly with his wife, Matilde, and their three young sons. "I was interested in coming to this country, and I'm very happy with the decision," says Guille, who lives 15 minutes from Crew Stadium in the suburb of New Albany. "The security in Columbus is very good in comparison to Argentina, which can be rather dangerous, not just for famous people but for everyone."
By winning the MLS Cup on the home field of the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Crew only highlighted the stunning failures of David Beckham's team, which tied for the league's worst record (8-13-9) and missed the playoffs for the third straight season. On the field, Barros Schelotto did everything that Beckham was supposed to do for the Galaxy, piling up a league-high 19 assists (to Beckham's 10), leading the Crew to MLS's best record (17-7-6) and winning the league MVP award (while Beckham failed even to make the league's Best XI). Despite Beckham's undeniable success in the U.S. as a celebrity and pitchman, it was Guille who was the Man on the pitch, not to mention "the most effective player in this league on set plays," as New York coach Juan Carlos Osorio noted after Sunday's game. (The Galaxy didn't score a goal on Beckham's trademark set pieces in its last 24 games of the season.)
Yet nobody enjoyed more vindication on Sunday than Schmid, who was raised in the Los Angeles area, coached UCLA to three NCAA titles and led the Galaxy to three MLS Cup finals and the 2002 championship—only to be fired in '04 when L.A. was in first place, on the dubious notion that his team wasn't entertaining enough. While the Galaxy has gone through five coaches since Schmid departed, he slowly built a contender in Columbus. "I was hoping my tenure at the Galaxy would be something like Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United or Ars√®ne Wenger at Arsenal," says Schmid, 55, the first coach to lead two franchises to MLS titles. "What hurt the most [about the Galaxy firing] was that we were the highest-scoring team in the league. [Unentertaining soccer] was a moniker that got stuck on me that I felt was unjust."
Entertainment wasn't a concern on Sunday for the Crew, whose three riveting goals wowed a sold-out crowd of 27,000 that included Bianchi, who flew in from Buenos Aires to see Guille win yet another title. About the only thing missing in the end was the vuelta olímpica, the traditional Argentine celebration in which the players run the trophy around the field, often while riding on the shoulders of their own fans, who've been known to tear off the players' uniforms down to their jockstraps. "The people enter the playing field, and sometimes they want your pants," says Guille, who's had plenty of experience in such matters.
On Sunday he settled for a visit to the hard-core Crew fans in the stadium's northeast corner. "Gui-ller-mo! Gui-ller-mo!" they chanted while issuing we're-not-worthy bows to the title-game MVP. Guille kept his uniform on, but as he raised the trophy, his triumphant pose revealed pure naked emotion.
On the field this year, Barros Schelotto DID EVERYTHING for the Crew that Beckham was supposed to do for the Galaxy.
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Photograph by Nick Ut/AP
GOAL ORIENTED Hejduk hoisted the hardware after Barros Schelotto (left, and far right) pulled all the right strings.
[See caption above]
FINAL DAGGER Hejduk, who was in at the birth of MLS, iced the victory with a score off a sublime Barros Schelotto chip.