By Greg Lalas
May 12, 2008

There are many sentences that any longtime MLS observer would be surprised to find himself typing -- or even imagining. "Madonna sings national anthem at FC Dallas game" comes to mind. So does "Dema Kovalenko receives Fair Play Award." Or, a personal favorite, "Greg Lalas scores."

But here's an unexpected one that, in retrospect, shouldn't have been: "The Columbus Crew sit atop the Eastern Conference."

Yes, you read that right. The Columbus Crew, the Milwaukee Bucks of Major League Soccer, are sitting in the driver's seat in the East. Not just that, the Crew now have the best record in MLS. Six wins in their first seven matches has seen them race to the front of the pack -- two points ahead of another startling team, Chicago -- and I, for one, am beginning to believe.

The last time the Hardhats (despite universal hatred of the Crew's logo, I like it) led the Eastern Conference was in 2004. Back then, Greg Andrulis was the coach, Edson Buddle was the top scorer, and no one could spell "Szetela."

Since then, it's been a long, depressing slog through mediocrity. The team missed the playoffs in 2005, 2006 and 2007, which might understandably drive any fan into a spiraling, bratwurst-induced depression. Especially when the comfort food only costs a buck at Crew Stadium. Swallow your sadness, bub!

Then the club hired Sigi Schmid as its head coach prior to the 2006 season. Schmid, for all his laidback beach-bum demeanor, is a Midwesterner trapped in a sun-loving German's body. Winner of the 2002 MLS Cup, he was hailed as the Crew's savior.

Like any good coaching savior, he immediately blew up the team, jettisoning the detritus of the Andrulis era (only two players remain from the previous regime) and infusing everyone with a new attitude. Schmid simply doesn't lose. He never did as a coach at UCLA and not as the coach of the Galaxy. But not losing was going to take time. The team was going to get knocked down again before it picked itself up. But unlike, say, the gotta-win-now Los Angeles Beckhams or the gotta-win-soon New York Red Bulls, the Crew had time to make sure they got it right.

In the Midwest, success is not measured by the number of daily media hits or by the paparazzi appeal of the luxury-box fans; success is the result of hard work, assembly-line cohesion, and a dash -- but just a dash -- of artistry.

In MLS, success comes from the unheralded core. Because in a salary-capped world, teams are only as good as the middle-class players. These guys are the key to success. And they need to marinate for a while before the flavors really come out. Columbus has been simmering on the back burner for a few years and now looks ready to hit the table.

They have that perfect blend of: experience (Frankie Hejduk, Alejandro Moreno); youth (Robbie Rogers, Adam Moffat); hard-working no-name defender types (Danny O'Rourke); silky-smooth creative types (Guillermo Barros Schelotto); newly-acquired winners (Brian Carroll); and newly-acquired foreigners who don't know the Crew's mediocre legacy (Emmanuel Ekpo). In many ways, this is like a perfect reproduction of the great New England and Houston teams of the past few years.

New England and Houston have proved that over the past few seasons. Both teams boast core units of solid, honest players who have been given time to work together -- for the Revs, it's Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston, Shalrie Joseph and Matt Reis; for the Dynamo, it's Brian Ching, Dwayne De Rosario, Brian Mullen and Pat Onstad. These are not Beckham-esque names that draw TomKat to the stands (although I wouldn't mind Kate Beckinsale showing up at a Revs game now and then). These are names you hear year in, year out, always with the same team, and always connected to something positive.

Plus, Columbus has Alejandro Moreno.

I grew up in Detroit, watching Bill Laimbeer get under the skin of opposing players, coaches, fans, general managers, cheerleaders, waterboys, team nutritionists. Aside from tireless rebounding and draining the three, it was his greatest talent. And it helped the Detroit Pistons win two NBA championships.

But what most people never realized about Laimbeer is that off the court he was a joker who never took it as seriously as his opponents, a smiley character who laughed off all the vitriol hurled at him. Moreno does the same thing. He is Laimbeer in cleats. He'll do whatever he can to win, which might explain why he's led the league in fouls suffered the past three seasons. But this year, he's scoring goals (four so far) and creating chances for his teammates. If this Columbus team is going to continue on this blazing path they've started, it will be Moreno who is the spark.

If he stays healthy and keeps up his early season form, I could imagine writing another sentence: "Columbus wins the Eastern Conference and makes the playoffs."

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