SI Latino's pick: MLS MVP Schelotto
The dinner guests at the Boca Juniors steakhouse in Queens, N.Y., look menacingly at
But tonight some 30 people have come to see, in flesh and blood, the biggest
"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
"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
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
"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.
At Crew Stadium, though, the fans showed no such inhibitions, especially when the season was on the line against the Chicago Fire in the Eastern Conference final last Thursday. About 20,000 yellow-and-black-clad people got up from their seats in the 25th minute of the game, when a shot from outside the box by Barros Schelotto grazed the crossbar, and they never sat down again.
The first half turned into a Latin American playmaking duel between Guille and the Mexican firebrand Blanco. It was Chicago's No. 10 who struck first, hurrying a free-throw while the Crew defense called for a foul; seconds later
Everything changed at the start of the second half, when Guille showed he can bend it like ... Barros Schelotto. His outward-curving cross off a free kick landed on the forehead of
Somehow Barros Schelotto -- whom the Crew very generously lists at 5-8 -- won the leap for the ball (without having to resort to the Hand of God, like his more famous countryman). His head pass to Moreno was redirected by the Venezuelan forward to a cutting Gaven, who slotted in what would become the game-winner. Barros Schelotto was credited with his second assist.
His performance was rewarded by Columbus' 12th man -- composed of the Hudson Street Hooligans, the Crew Union and La Turbina Amarilla -- in the closing minutes of the game, when Barros Schelotto stepped up to take another free kick near the supporters' corner section, the Nordecke. Their chants of "Guillermo!" and their we're-not-worthy bows were gratefully acknowledged by the Crew's No. 7.
"Guillermo likes to play in big games," says Schmid. "When they're on the line, he finds another level. The reason is that mentally he's very determined, very strong."
He began developing that fiery determination at an early age. As a kid in his native city of La Plata, Guillermo had two loyal companions: his twin brother,
Later the twins joined the youth ranks of Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, the Argentine First Division club that their father,
"Just as my studies began, I was moved up to the first team and had to choose," says Guillermo. "I told myself I could always go back to get my degree, and it gave me peace of mind to know that, if things didn't work out in sports, I could do something else."
In the youth system, Guillermo was a classic No. 10, but when he turned 18 and was moved up to the first team, he became a crafty striker who excelled at taking defenders on and scoring key goals. Gustavo, for his part, was a hard-working right midfielder. The twins became a symbol of the Gimnasia squad that made a surprising title run before falling just short in '95 and '96. The Barros Schelotto brothers would not be around much longer, as they caught the attention of Maradona, who was closing out his career with Boca Juniors.
"It was a big gamble," remembers Gustavo, who followed his twin to Buenos Aires. "We were doing great at Gimnasia and were leaving for a club that was coming off several bad seasons. But we had the support of Diego, who pushed for the transfer."
During the next decade with Boca, Guillermo won six Argentine league titles and nine international tournaments, including the prestigious Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental cups. His crosses to his buddy and main target, Palermo, became the most widely known attacking formula in South America, but it was no less effective for that. What earned Guille the lasting love of the Xeneize faithful, however, were his exploits against Boca's main rival, River Plate, in what
That's why it felt as if all of Argentina had stopped dead in its tracks on April 19, 2007, when Guille announced he was leaving for the U.S. By then he had a family to think of, and had fallen out of favor with Boca's coaching staff. "Before having kids, I paid too much attention to soccer," says Guille, now a father of three:
El Mellizo didn't relish the challenge of coming to a league that is still fighting for respect -- and a team looking for its first MLS title -- so much as the tranquility of suburban life in New Albany, Ohio, about a 15-minute ride from Crew Stadium.
"My wife has adapted, she's learning English, and so am I," he says. "Socially it's perfect for us. Nothing bad seems to happen here. In Buenos Aires, you have to know your way around. Here I'm more at peace."
Though he scored five goals and had 11 assists in the 19 games he played in the '07 season, his adjustment to MLS was not seamless. "He needed to get a feel for the league, a feel for the travel," says Schmid. "When he first came, if he made a bad pass in practice, he didn't acknowledge it. Now that he's confident within the team, he'll go, '
"It took some effort to adjust soccer-wise," says Guillermo. "Here they mark you man-to-man to the end. In Argentina players have more freedom."
The league also had a hard time adjusting to him. On May 17, after watching Guille flop a few times and argue a lot with the ref and opposing players, Toronto FC coach
Meanwhile, Gustavo's role as his twin's inseparable sidekick was filled by fellow countryman
Back in Queens, the Boca Juniors steakhouse has closed for the night, but the after-dinner conversation stretches to 3 a.m. as Barros Schelotto, Padula, the TV crew and Coni, the owner, swap tales of their experiences as immigrants. Guillermo remembers the time his car broke down on I-270 and a tow truck came to fix it right away, without charging him a penny. "I would stay my whole life here," he says.
Coni, who still dreams of seeing Guille play once again for Boca, implores, "You mean you don't want to go back?" Everybody looks at Barros Schelotto, but it is Padula -- a defender who roamed the lower divisions of Europe for a decade without any trophy to show for it -- who responds: "Leave him here with us, for once I'd like to win something. Besides, he does a mean barbecue."