LOS ANGELES – Watching a Boca Juniors home game at La Bombonera (the Chocolate Box) is one of soccer's most spectacular viewing experiences, an audio and visual extravaganza of streamers, flares and thousands of fanatics clad in the club's traditional blue and yellow jerseys.
Just recently, though, shirts of a different kind can be found around the famous old stadium's hallowed terraces. Bright yellow, unfamiliar and with English writing, the new outfits at first caused a few confused looks among the Boca faithful.
Soon, however, word spread that in this one instance, it was OK to wear the colors of another team. Or more specifically, another team's player.
That player is Guillermo Barros Schelotto of the Columbus Crew, and on Thursday, he added his name to Major League Soccer's young history by being named league MVP for 2008. On Sunday, Schelotto will attempt to lead the Crew to their first-ever league title on Sunday when they face the New York Red Bulls in the MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center.
U.S. soccer fans are still waking up to the special brand of soccer Schelotto provides, but back in Argentina there is no doubt.
"He [Schelotto] is a hero [in Argentina] and he always will be," Boca's star striker Martin Palermo said. "The fans will never forget what he achieved for this team and they love him just as much even now he has gone."
Schelotto scored 62 goals in 196 appearances for Boca between 1996 and his departure ahead of the 2007 MLS campaign, helping the Argentinean club win 16 major trophies and further cement its reputation as a giant of South American soccer.
His arrival in the United States has coincided with a time when the value of employing highly paid foreign stars is under scrutiny, after the David Beckham-led Los Angeles Galaxy failed to reach the playoffs again. Now, Schelotto is the poster child for MLS's influx of overseas talent.
His efforts on the field lifted a Crew squad that was tipped to finish near the bottom of the table all the way to the Supporters Shield, the award for the best regular season record. Columbus enters the MLS Cup as the favorite.
"It was very important for me to win the MVP," Schelotto said. "It is great to acquire this, but it will be even better when we win on Sunday."
Schelotto's reputation in Argentina, where he played 10 times for the national team, was of a highly intelligent player. He has educated himself in the intricacies of MLS rapidly, partly through studying footage of rival teams and partly with his own intuition.
Whereas some other teams with experienced imports have struggled to adapt around their superstar, Schelotto has raised the level of those around him in Columbus. The Crew has an option to retain him for 2009, at an increased salary of $650,000, which would elevate him into a designated player slot and require a reshuffling of the Columbus squad.
Given his efforts this year, losing him would surely be unthinkable.
"The expectation is that he will be with us next year," Crew general manager Mark McCullers said of Schelotto. "It is extremely important to me."
"On the field he has been a force," McCullers added. "We have never had a player in this league with the vision and technical skill, but it is the intangibles. He is confident and experienced at the top level and the other players feed off that confidence and calmness."
Schelotto has found himself in a comfortable environment in Ohio, enjoying the relative level of anonymity compared to Buenos Aires. His family is settled and if his contract can be worked out, he would like to stay until the end of his career.
"MLS has the option right now," said Schelotto, 35. "I figure after the final we will sit down and talk. I would like to stay for at least one or two more years. I like it here."
North American soccer is certainly glad to have Schelotto here, too.