November 20, 2008

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.

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 BrianMcBride punished his former team with a curving header that put the Fire ahead.

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 Chad Marshall, who punched it in for the tie. But the most improbable play happened six minutes later, outside the Chicago area, where Guille went up for a high ball against 6-foot-4 central defender Bakary Soumare.

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, Gustavo, and a soccer ball. "We were always together, and all we wanted to do was play," says Gustavo. "He already had skills that set him apart when we were six or seven years old."

Later the twins joined the youth ranks of Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata, the Argentine First Division club that their father, Hugo, had served as president in 1983. Besides teaching their four children to love the colors of their hometown team, Hugo, a doctor, and his wife, Cristina, a schoolteacher, stressed the importance of studying. That's why the oldest, Carolina, 38, is an agronomist, and the next oldest, Pablo, 37, is a surgeon. The twins became professional soccer players after briefly studying law at the local university.

"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 World Soccer magazine deems the second greatest derby on the planet.

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: Nicholas, age 4, Máximo, 2, and Santiago, 1. "As they grow up, you realize the game is not the most important thing."

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, 'P--- madre, it's my fault.'"

"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 John Carver said he would rather return to England than stay in a league that tolerated such antics. But the criticism seemed to motivate Barros Schelotto. After being named Player of the Month for August he scored a goal and had two assists against New England, and the MVP buzz began.

Meanwhile, Gustavo's role as his twin's inseparable sidekick was filled by fellow countryman Gino Padula, a gritty left back who joined the Crew this season. When the families of both players get together there is a clear division of labor: Guillermo, a consummate pit master, handles the grill; Padula brews the maté herbal tea traditionally shared among friends in Argentina. "We talk about the same things, have the same sense of humor and live two minutes from each other," says Padula, 32.

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."

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