SI Latino's pick: MLS MVP Schelotto
Guillermo Barros Schelotto is SI Latino's pick for the 2008 Sportsman of the Year
Argentine playmaker led MLS in assists and guided Columbus Crew to title match
Schelotto is an idol in Buenos Aires, where he played for super-club Boca Juniors
Reprinted from SI Latino
The dinner guests at the Boca Juniors steakhouse in Queens, N.Y., look menacingly at Walter Coni, the owner of the restaurant that honors Argentina's most famous soccer club. The walls are covered with autographed pictures of Diego Maradona, Carlos Tévez, Martín Palermo and the team's 12th man, La Doce.
But tonight some 30 people have come to see, in flesh and blood, the biggest Xeneize idol: Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who won 15 championships during his decade with Boca, from 1997 to 2007. The clock has struck midnight, and still there's no sign of the player nicknamed El Mellizo (the Twin), who's in town wrapping up the Columbus Crew's regular season against the New York Red Bulls.
"He's here!" Coni suddenly yells. "Everybody to the front of the room, turn up the music!"
Sure enough, the Most Valuable Player of the '08 MLS season walks in, along with a TV reporter doing a story for an Argentine sports channel. Tough-looking men, entire families and even waiters wave blue-and-gold balloons, umbrellas and jester hats.
Despite being tired from 90 minutes of soccer and the hour-long ride from the Meadowlands, Barros Schelotto wears a genuine, if cautious, smile as he shakes hands with the dinner crowd. Somebody starts banging on a drum, the Boca anthem blares from the speakers, and all of a sudden this quaint Queens joint feels like the stands of Boca's fabled Buenos Aires stadium, La Bombonera.
The reporter takes advantage of the carnival-like atmosphere to begin his stand-up next to Guillermo, but the cameraperson wants a retake of the whole scene. "Stop the music!" Coni yells. The guest of honor is asked to leave the restaurant and come back in again. Now Guille cracks up.
Except for keeping tabs with its national team members in Europe, Argentina is an inward-looking country when it comes to soccer. But the media and the masses have taken an interest in Barros Schelotto's MLS career for two reasons: He has a cult following among Boca fans, and he's on a tear with the Crew, which won the 2008 Supporters' Shield, for the best regular-season record, and will play its first-ever MLS Cup final on Sunday, against the Red Bulls.
Three days before the big game, the league announced that Barros Schelotto was chosen as the '08 MVP, edging out Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Cuauhtémoc Blanco of the Chicago Fire. In 27 regular-season games the Argentine playmaker scored seven goals and dished off a league-best 19 assists, to which he added another three assists in as many playoff games. That's why he is also SI Latino's Sportsman of the Year.
"The numbers are part of an MVP award, but the other factor is that you're helping your team win something," says the Crew's Sigi Schmid, the MLS Coach of the Year. "Guillermo has been instrumental in us winning our division and the Supporters' Shield. And nobody in the league has put up these numbers for assists in a long time."
Since arriving in Columbus last season Barros Schelotto has transformed the on-field mentality of a young squad that hadn't made the playoffs since '04. "The team generally played very well, and that made everything easier," he says. "Maybe I'm the leader on the pitch, managing the offense, showing the way."
And an effective general he is: The Crew had the second best offense in MLS this season. El Mellizo's laser-like passes, combined with his uncanny field vision, allowed him to feed striker Alejandro Moreno and to exploit the pace of Robbie Rogers and the tenacity of Eddie Gaven on the flanks. His superb positioning and shooting inside the area also turned him into the team's second-highest goal scorer. In a league known for its physical play, Barros Schelotto stood above the rest as a cerebral player.
"As time goes by and you enter your last years as a footballer," says Barros Schelotto, 35, "you have to think quicker because you lose some legs."
In today's hyper-charged sports media environment, there's another trait that sets Guille apart. He has achieved that rare unfiltered bond with fans. The Argentine immigrants who fill the Queens steakhouse tonight leave with proud smiles after getting a jersey or ball signed by their hero and having their picture taken with him.
"They identify with my style of play," Barros Schelotto says. Meanwhile, his followers in Ohio settle for much less. "They ask me my last name -- to confirm that it's me -- shake my hand and that's it," says Guille, recalling a gentleman who approached him at a supermarket and struggled, as most Americans do, with his surname.