When the Columbus Crew won the 2008 MLS Supporters Shield (the award given to a club with the highest point total in the regular season) and subsequently their coach Sigi Schmid won the MLS Coach of the Year award, it eloquently summarized the very odd and unusual MLS season.
For starters, the Crew didn’t even make the play-offs in 2007 despite a very liberal – some may say ridiculously high number of teams, then eight out of thirteen – qualifying standard.
Second of all, in the off-season, the Crew made only minor modifications to their roster, with the only significant addition being a journeyman holding midfielder Brian Carroll, obtained via a trade from the expansion San Jose Earthquakes.
Third, given the dismal results in the two previous years, Sigi Schmid’s hold on the job appeared tenuous, as Columbus finished dead last in 2006 and his coaching acumen was constantly questioned by the whatever dwindling fan base the franchise retained.
Former Boca Juniors Legend Schelotto Leads the Crew
Instead, the Crew proved its critics wrong and stormed out of the gate, led on and arguably off the field by an Argentine Guillermo Barros Schelotto. The thirty five year old Boca Juniors legend, with a haircut harking all the way back to the British Invasion of the mid-60’s, became a general on the pitch, presiding and directing over the much younger Crew attackers, a pair of the 21-year old wingers Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven and a veteran center forward Alejandro Moreno. As the result, Columbus scored eleven more goals and improved its goal differential from minus-five to plus-fourteen.
But whereas pre-season expectations of the heartland team were tempered, the opposite was the case on both coasts.
Red Bulls Change Matadors
In New York, an experienced Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio, took over the New York Red Bulls squad that did make the play-offs in 2007 but was knocked out in the first round under the guidance of the recently fired USA national team coach Bruce Arena.
Living off his reputation earned at the 2002 World Cup, Arena was given a fat contract and virtually unlimited, by the American soccer measurements. funds to establish a power house deserving of its hometown in the capital of the world. Never the one to turn down lucrative donations, Arena spent close to $3 million to bring in two free agent stars, an ex Aston Villa and River Plate striker Juan Pablo Angel and a well-traveled ex Manchester City-Sunderland-Rangers-Wolfsburg-Leverkusen midfielder Claudio Reyna. In the league where an entire team was officially operating under a $2.3M budget, Angel and Reyna came under a special exception called the “Designated Player” provision, something colloquially known as the “Beckham Rule”. (Each MLS team was allotted one DP but could trade with another team for the additional second spot)
Armed with a higher payroll than any MLS team at that point, Arena was expected to dominate the league but only managed 43 points (the 2007 Supporter Shield winner DC United had 55 on a much smaller budget) and a plus-2 goal differential.
When the oft-injured Reyna proved to be a colossal bust, NYRB was knocked out of the play-offs by a much more cheaply assembled New England team, managed by an 1980’s Liverpool stalwart Steve Nicol. Under fire for his performance and for the waste of approximately $2.5M on his old University of Virginia player Reyna, Arena’s was the first head that rolled and, for a small compensation, Osorio was brought in from the Chicago Fire.
Juan Carlos leaped an opportunity twice in the span of six months, as he only came to the Fire from Colombia’s Millionarios half-way into 2007. In Chicago, his half-season reign was considered an achievement and New York jumped at a chance to recruit its former assistant.
Sexy Football but Same Results for LA Galaxy
The West Coast was similarly bristling with anticipation. As the MLS propaganda never got tired of saying, in 2007 the LA Galaxy and its owner Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) have indeed managed a major coup – they have signed the most famous footballer in the world, the Posh Boy himself, David Beckham. The only problem was that Becks arrived with a bum ankle and missed a number of crucial games in the final stretch of the 2007 campaign. He was available for the very last contest in Chicago but LA went down by a 1:0 score and the AEG forced out its coach Frank Yallop, who was himself brought in only a year earlier.
(The coaching carousel continued with Yallop going to the San Jose Earthquakes, opening for business that very month).
Under a bombastically fatuous General Manager (Director of Football) Alexi Lalas, another major coup was launched. Seeking “sexy football”, AEG has hired a former two-time World Player of the Year Dutchman Ruud Gullit. Beside once having been a truly great pro, Gullit has managed a number of European clubs such as Chelsea, Newcastle and Feyenoord and was fluent in English.
Given the glitz and the glamour of the two metropolitan giants, far less attention was being given to the 2007 finalist, the two far less glamorous but two very hardworking squads – Houston Dynamo and the New England Revolution.
Houston was returning most of his line-up, sans a temporarily departed Nate Jaqua (7 goals in 2007) while Revolution’s only name loss was a released veteran forward Pat Noonan.
Once the play on the pitch commenced, however, the expectations weren’t always met.
While Columbus, Chicago and New England got off to a good start in the East, New York tumbled out of the gate. Reyna reverted to his oft-injured self and Angel must have received the same contagion, coming down with all sorts of maladies. Osorio’s juggling of players and line-ups didn’t produce either and New York had a rough going in the spring of 2008. early injuries and the eventual $10M transfer of Josmer Altidore to Spain’s Villarreal was another shock to New York’s system.
In the West, Gullit’s Galaxy began to assert itself a few weeks into the season and became the most exciting team on the field. Unfortunately for LA, the excitement had good and bad components. Its offense was averaging an almost unheard-of three goals per game but its defense was nearly as porous.
Still, a couple of months in, LA was seen in first place, a drastic departure from its previous MLS annuals.
New York was languishing in the standings. Looking at it in their rear-view mirrors were the aforementioned Columbus, Chicago and New England.
Then something snapped in LA. Its offense continued to be scoring reasonably well, but its defense was proving to be incapable of stopping anyone. The team went on a long winless streak. Its players began to rumble about Gullit’s coaching methods and, finally, the damage became irreparable. Gullit was pushed out of the door and replaced by Bruce Arena. So high was the admiration of Arena’s by the AEG’s head Tim Leiweke that Leiweke gushed about the former US gaffer in the most glorious terms possible when appearing on the national telecast shortly after Gullit’s departure.
With the Galz slipped out of the first place by then, they were still very much in the play-off picture, had the season ended at that moment. Arena, of course, was expected to push for the top spot that the Galaxy only recently vacated. For that, he received additional reinforcement in the form of a 34-year old US international winger Eddie Lewis, who had spent the previous season with Derby County of the English Premiership.
Nonetheless, showing repeated ineptitude, Arena coached Galaxy to less than one point per game and, when the 2008 was over, the Galaxy was back to its usual last place, even losing the goal differential to the expansion San Jose.
As noted prior, San Jose’s coach was one Frank Yallop, a former man in charge of the Galaxy.
As, once upon a time, was Sigi Schmid.
Returning to the East Coast : for a while, Osorio’s job seemed in as much jeopardy as of his West Coast counterpart. In New York’s last match at Chicago, Juan Carlos’s club needed a win to insure itself of the last play-off spot in the East but instead his men were hammered 5:2 by the in-form Chicago Fire. Only a last day defeat of the DC United at the hands of the league leaders Columbus Crew pushed the Red Bulls into that last spot. Backing into the play-off didn’t stop calls for Osorio’s firing but he was given a euphemistic chance to prove himself again in the playoffs.
Chicago, New England and Kansas City were three other East Conference contenders.
There were a few more surprises. With the Galaxy self-destruction, the fourth year franchise Real Salt Lake scored on the last minute of its last match and made the knock-out stage for the first time ever.
Without much drama, the two time defending MLS champion Houston topped the West in the points total.
Chivas USA, a team ravaged by injuries throughout the season, still managed to finish a respectable second.
The league was gearing for the MLS Cup and the LA Galaxy, by then having gotten rid of Lalas as well, was gearing for its never ending rebuilding.
Three coaches (Gullit, plus Colorado’s Fernando Clavijo and Dallas’s Steve Morrow) lost their jobs.
Landon Donovan won the scoring title.
Columbus’s Chad Marshall won the Defender of the Year.
Chicago’s Jon Busch won the same award for top Goalkeeper.
The MVP vote is to be announced later with Galaxy’s Landon Donovan, Fire’s Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Crew’s Guillermo Barros Schelotto the three finalists.
The 2008 MLS Season Preview (Liviu Bird)
MLS, LA Galaxy and Ruud Gullit – A Very Long Way from ‘Sexy Football’ (Marco Pantanella)
Youth Football in the US (Dan Leo)