When Guillermo Barros Schelotto made the unconventional switch from Boca Juniors to the Columbus Crew in 2007, most American soccer fans knew little, if anything, about him, nor did they know what kind of impact he would have on Major League Soccer.
What they might have known, or at least learned, was that Guillermo was the player who had claimed the most titles in the history of Argentine soccer, including major international trophies such as the Copa Libertadores, the Copa Sudamericana and the Intercontinental Cup, after having enjoyed a decade of success at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
Upon his arrival, most expected the Argentine to add a touch of class to the league, to perhaps help take Columbus out of the doldrums, and maybe to inject some South American flair into a league that was starving for more high-quality players.
Guillermo has surpassed all expectations. On Thursday he was named Major League Soccer's Most Valuable Player (as well as SI Latino's Sportsman of the Year).
More importantly, the 35-year-old has played a key role as the Crew look to claim their first MLS Cup when they face the New York Red Bulls in the championship game at Home Depot Center on Sunday. In 27 regular-season matches, Guille has a competition-high 19 assists to go with seven goals.
Such an impact from the veteran was unimaginable for most, as that kind of success seemed more appropriate for world-famous Designated Players such as David Beckham and Cuauhtémoc Blanco. Perhaps only the fans of Guille's former club, Boca Juniors, could have expected it.
"I don't think they knew what kind of player they were signing," said Martín Álvarez Noseda, a devoted Boca fanatic who lives blocks from the club's legendary La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires. "There's no doubt he is a player who has given so much to the club he plays for and to the league. He is a legend in the eyes of all Boca Juniors fans. After Diego [Maradona], he is the greatest player to have ever worn the Boca shirt."
Guillermo is considered a legend in his own right in Argentina, not only for Boca fans, but for those of Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata, the club where he turned professional back in 1991.
Because of the manner in which he is idolized back in his homeland, for everything he achieved during his time there, he continues to be as popular as ever these days. Even if he now finds himself in the U.S., his fans continue to monitor his footsteps and he is frequently invited to give his take on affairs at his former club.
"Here he is permanently in the headlines, but mainly because of Boca-related issues," said Miguel Bossio, a leading reporter for popular Buenos Aires newspaper Clarín. "Obviously his opinion is always very valuable to us and it is always well respected because Guillermo is always a topic of interest. He continues to be a great player who is always motivated to learn more and to win things. It is clear that he didn't go to the United States for a fatter pay check but to continue to accumulate glory and prestige."
Bossio believes Guillermo has transmitted the awareness he gained in his years at Boca to MLS, and that's how he has managed to rediscover his top form in his mid-30s.
"He has given MLS what he gave to Boca: energy, quality and attitude," Bossio said. "He is very intelligent, and because of this, he adapted quickly, and you can tell he is comfortable and happy. Last year, I was in Columbus with him and I could see he was very enthusiastic. I could tell that this year he was expecting to have a great season like he has had."
The success of Guillermo hasn't gone unnoticed in Argentina, and his outstanding performances for the Crew have helped promote MLS in the soccer-mad nation, and throughout South America.
Only a few years ago, MLS wasn't considered a worthwhile league to follow. It had limited coverage in South America, and with the overload of soccer in the continent, most fans wouldn't even bother taking an interest in it. But since the emergence of Guillermo, and other established South Americans like Juan Pablo Ángel (who will meet Guille in MLS Cup with the Red Bulls), Marcelo Gallardo and Claudio López, the popularity of MLS has increased at an accelerated rate. Matches are now broadcast live on TV, especially when Columbus is playing.
"I don't know if he helped all Argentines 'discover' MLS," Bossio said, "but definitely with Guille there, the Boca fans have begun to follow the tournament much closely."
Boca superfan Martín agrees. "Boca fans try to watch Guille in action as often as possible," he said, "so if he plays in MLS they watch it as well. MLS has grown a lot, and whenever Guille does something of significance, they show it on TV straight away, and it allows viewers to get to know MLS better.
Not only has Guillermo achieved wide success in less than two seasons in MLS, but he has also increased awareness of the league in his country to the point that fans are now beginning to take an interest in the competition and its players. Since its inception in 1996, MLS has been looking to attract foreign talent. And although its clubs have attracted their fair share of Argentines in the past, no one has come close to making such an impression back home in Argentina like Guillermo has.
Schelotto's exploits could prompt many other high-profile Argentines to opt for a move to MLS in the near future. As Bossio says, Guille's success could "surely open the door to other players like Hugo Ibarra, Martín Palermo, ArielOrtega, Juan Sebastián Verón and Kily González, who might just want to showcase their skills for a last time on the MLS stage. All of them will surely be able to perform to Guillermo's level."
Beckham may have attracted the headlines off the field this season, but on it, Guillermo's contribution has been much greater. He lifted Columbus from being an ordinary side to the strongest team in the competition, and as the Boca faithful will affirm, his dedication makes all the difference for any club.