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Remembering 2008: Crew’s ‘group of misfits’ formed a championship formula

From a group of no-name players to the best team in MLS.

Crew vs. United Photo by Chuck Myers/MCT/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The 2008 Columbus Crew SC season will be one that Black & Gold fans will always remember fondly. The Crew won the 2008 MLS Cup, the team’s first Major League Soccer championship, defeating the New York Red Bulls 3-1 in the final. While the championship was a final exhale for Columbus players and fans and led to celebrations across the city, it was just the icing on the cake after a season of unexpected success.

Recently, the Crew streamed the broadcast of that 2008 MLS Cup Final, but before it re-aired, forward Alejandro Moreno, the team’s leading scorer that year, joined team broadcaster Neil Sika on a Facebook Live session to talk about that season.

While 2008 ended well with the Black & Gold winning the Supporters’ Shield with 57 points and a 17-7-6 record — still the most wins in club history — and taking home both the Eastern Conference crown and the MLS Cup, the year did not begin with these expectations. In 2007, Columbus won just seven games and finished near the bottom of the East.

The Crew came into the 2008 season with a roster of relative unknowns. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, an Argentine legend, showed promise during the final half of 2007, Frankie Hejduk was a U.S. National Team player and Eddie Gaven flashed as a young player with the New York/New Jersey Metrostars. Other than those names, the Black & Gold was made up of pieces either looking to prove themselves or looking to prove someone else wrong.

“You have to go back to what we were in 2007 and understand where this team came from, and how much of a group of misfits we were,” Moreno said. “In the sense that we were leftovers from other teams where we were in other circumstances that hadn’t quite worked out, individually, for those of us that were now joining the Columbus Crew. And we were able to come together in a way in which all the pieces fit perfectly.”

Moreno himself was looking to prove that he could be an impact forward in MLS. Following early success with the LA Galaxy, he was traded twice in three years, including to the Crew in the middle of 2007. While he had one championship as a rookie, it came in a reserve role and he wanted an MLS Cup where he was a key part of the team.

Leading the charge for the Black & Gold was Sigi Schmid, who took over as head coach in 2006 after he was fired by the Galaxy in 2004 despite having the best record in the Western Conference. Following a 2002 MLS Cup championship, Schmid, like many of his players, was cast aside in favor of something perceived better and still looked for redemption.

After back-to-back disappointing seasons, there was reason for pressure on the team’s boss. But following a preseason that once again saw the Crew struggle, Schmid elected to stick with what he believed in and did not make any panic moves in an attempt to save his job.

“I think this is where credit goes to Sigi,” Moreno said. “That, in any other situation, or perhaps any other coach, may have said, ‘Man, this is not the right group. We need to shift things around and we need to change some stuff around.’ And instead, I think he believed in the group and the structure of the group and how strong we had been towards the end of the 2007 season and can we then take a step up from there, in order to make sure we get off to a good start in 2008?”

Throughout the year, the Crew relied on unsung heroes such as Brian Carroll, Danny O’Rourke and Brad Evans. Names like Chad Marshall and Robbie Rogers became MLS household names and fringe U.S. National Team players.

In the course of any season, there are moments and plays that stand out. For Moreno, there are a number of them from 2008 and one involves another player who stamped his place in Black & Gold history that year.

After the difficult preseason, the Crew needed something positive from that first match of the year at MAPFRE Stadium and found it in a 2-0 win against Toronto FC. But that victory only happened due to the heroics from goalkeeper William Hesmer, who joined the team the season prior and established himself as the starting option.

“You talk about important moments in 2008, and people may not remember this, but early on in the match against Toronto, in that first game at home in 2008, there’s a penalty kick that Will Hesmer saves,” Moreno recounted. “And that changed the dynamic of the game as well. And so now, we get off to a good start where we win the game and now you feel a whole lot better about yourself. And so now you put that preseason behind you and start thinking, ‘Okay, what’s next? How do we get better from here?’”

While the Black & Gold fell the next week at the Red Bulls, the team did get better from its opening win as these players learned how to play as a team. Columbus managed six victories in its first seven matches and didn’t suffer defeat again until nearly two months into the campaign.

That 1-0 loss at home to the New England Revolution was the beginning of a three-game losing streak in late May and early June. The way Moreno tells it, that could have been the end for this Crew team after a good start to the year, but something felt different about this group.

“A three-game losing streak, in any other circumstance and any other year, you may have felt some panic going on within our team and within the locker room,” he said. “And that’s when perhaps you may have thought, ‘You know what? Maybe it’s just not meant to be. Maybe it was a great start but that’s it.’ But I think we were much better than that.

“And so you recognize, when you’ve been around this league long enough, you recognize that there are going to be tough moments. And certainly around the summer, it gets to be a long season. And so we managed to navigate that and were able to then just string results and be consistent with our play, with our performance, individually, as a group. Nothing spectacular, nothing out of this world, but everything was so solid and so consistent.”

From that point on, the Black & Gold lost just three more matches in 2008. Each time the team suffered defeat, it responded with a result in the next game.

This came from a locker room of players that genuinely enjoyed being around each other and loved playing together. The 2008 group continued to build a rapport and a belief in each other that carried the team throughout the season and to the best record in MLS. While it was a group made up mostly of no-name players at the time, it turned into a team of players that was capable of taking the league by storm.

“We believed,” Moreno said. “Sigi Schmid believed. And the organization, I think, rallied around our team and we felt like we were a team that, once we got off to a hot start, we were going to be there or thereabouts, at the end of the season. And certainly, once we won the Supporters’ Shield, then it felt like it was our MLS Cup to win and to validate ourselves.”

Check back to Massive Report in the coming days for more from the 2008 MLS Cup season.