- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2008

There will be a first-time league champion hoisting the trophy at the finish.

And count on Guillermo Barros Schelotto of the Columbus Crew and Juan Pablo Angel of the New York Red Bulls making plays Sunday that draw oohs and aahs from the crowd. Schelotto, the regular-season MVP, and the ever-dangerous Angel were once rivals in South America.

Columbus’ Frankie Hejduk, an original member of the MLS when it began in 1996, finds the matchup between title-game newcomers refreshing.

“It was kind of the same teams making it to the final year in and year out. I think it was getting a little stale,” Hejduk said.

“It’s a good thing for the league, it’s a good thing for both our organization and the Red Bulls because they’ve been two organizations who have been there since the beginning and have never won a Cup. It’s a great story.”

And maybe inspiring for other Cup-less MLS teams.

“It diversifies the league a little bit and I think now every team is thinking, ‘Hey, we have a chance. If they can do it, we can do it.’ That’s a good thing,’” Hejduk said. “It’s going to be a great game. They’re peaking, we’re peaking.”

Schelotto, a 35-year-old Argentine, had 19 assists and seven goals for Columbus this season. He said through a translator that his MVP trophy is nice, “but it will be even better when we win on Sunday.”

He knows it won’t be easy.

“They have a very smart coach [Juan Carlos Osorio]. Their team has been able to defend well, even in its attack. There’s a reason they’re in the final,” Schelotto said.

The Crew made an impressive turnaround this year, coming back from a 9-11-10 record in 2007 to finish with an MLS-best 17-7-6 mark. They advanced to the Cup showdown by beating Kansas City and Chicago.

The Red Bulls had a mediocre season, going 10-11-9 but getting the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference as a wild card. They have gotten it together in the postseason, defeating two-time MLS defending champion Houston and Real Salt Lake.

“Nobody expected us to be where we are,” Angel said. “We got into this run against Houston and we haven’t stopped. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to win it, but one thing I can guarantee is that we’re going to give it our best shot.”

New York’s Kevin Goldthwaite credited Osorio with keeping the players on track during this year’s ups and downs.

“It has been a roller-coaster year with some things off the field and on the field, but he’s never really panicked on the field or in training,” Goldthwaite said. “He never wavered.”

Angel, a 33-year-old Columbian, and Schelotto resume a rivalry that began in the late 1990s in Argentina, where Angel played with River Plate and Schelotto with Boca Juniors.

Angel’s career includes stints with teams in Colombia, Argentina and England before he came to New York last season. Schelotto played his entire career in Argentina before arriving in Columbus last year.

Angel was hampered by back and hamstring problems early this year. He scored 14 times and has 33 goals over the past two regular seasons, most in the league. Schelotto has 30 assists over the last two years, also a MLS high.

“Life put us on different paths,” Angel said. “He’s for Columbus and I’m with New York. I’m sure he’s looking to finish up the way he started. He had a fantastic year. I had a fantastic year as well and we’ll try to help our teams just by performing on the field the best we can.”

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