CARSON, Calif. – The tear trying to escape the corner of Sigi Schmid's eye didn't even begin to tell the full story of the emotional maelstrom churning within the Columbus Crew head coach.
In his moment of triumph Sunday, after his Crew capped a superb season by capturing the MLS Cup thanks to a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls, Schmid's professional life flashed before him.
There was joy, redemption and a sense of justice, all released at the moment Columbus captain Frankie Hejduk hoisted the Cup aloft and an explosion of streamers cascaded around the Crew players' shoulders at Home Depot Center. Yet there was also a truly personal element to Schmid's mindset.
Foremost in his thoughts was his wife, Valerie, who encouraged him to take the Columbus position two years ago even though it would take him thousands of miles away from the family. Throughout the season, she told her husband that the Los Angeles venue of this year's final was fate – and that he would emerge a champion from the city in which he was disgracefully fired as coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2004.
But in the early hours of Sunday morning, Valerie, who still lives in Southern California, suffered a health scare.
"It was an eventful day because I got a call from my wife at 4.30 a.m. because she was not feeling well," said Schmid of Valerie's gastrointestinal problem. "My son-in-law, who is a doctor, got her hooked up to an IV – they even had her hooked up in the parking lot so she could come to the game. It was all pretty emotional."
Schmid celebrated the fruits of his labor through moistened eyes, yet he went about the pursuit of a championship with the precision of an architect.
His blueprint dictates that the Crew plays more like a South American team than one typical of Major League Soccer in that they are generally content to operate by stealth instead of taking too many risks. Some unfairly call their style dull, yet just how any side including the magnificent Guillermo Barros Schelotto could ever be described as such defies belief. Then again, Schmid has rarely received the full credit he deserves, and the bitterness he feels will never fully subside.
His alleged crime with the Galaxy was that their style of soccer was not entertaining enough – never mind that the team was then in first place – and L.A.'s embarrassing failure in recent times has, and continues to highlight, the utter folly of the decision to fire him.
But with doubts surrounding the Crew, Schmid came into the 2008 campaign amid predictions of failure and with his job in jeopardy. Instead of struggling, the Crew won six of their first seven games and carried on the momentum.
"Our goal before the season was to get into the playoffs," Schmid said. "As the season progressed, we thought we might as well try to win the Eastern Conference and get home advantage, then to win the Supporters' Shield. But we believed early on after six or seven games that we had a team with a chance to win the MLS championship.
"It is a very special moment for me, winning in L.A. in front of family and friends and in the town I was fired in. That meant an awful lot."
Sunday's result made it the first time since 2002 that the team with the best regular-season record emerged as MLS champion. The key to it all has been the way Schmid has built a team around the 35-year-old Schelotto – the Argentinean soldier of fortune who is happy to live by his wits on the field.
Schelotto's thinking is on an entirely different plane than most of the players in the league, yet Schmid got his squad to understand how to coexist with the former Boca Juniors star and to read and maximize his quick-thinking methodology.
"Guillermo has been very consistent for us. He has been there game in and game out," Schmid said of Schelotto, who assisted on all three Columbus goals Sunday to set an MLS Cup record. "He is a player that always belongs on the field and as an individual he is the sort of person who can raise the level of those around him."
Schmid's contract is up this month; Schelotto's future is also in doubt. To sign both men required foresight and initiative. To lose either without the sturdiest of fights would be nothing short of criminal.
As a franchise that failed to make the championship in each of the league's first 12 seasons, Columbus has waited a long time for its moment in the sun. How it handles the matter of two of the league's most influential men will dictate whether or not this is the start of a brighter future.
- Sigi Schmid