Gino Padula hosed me down with champagne.
The Columbus Crew defender, who looks like an amicable pirate, was swashbuckling his way through the Home Depot Center locker room, wearing the most maniacal smile and brandishing his bottle like a sword. He broke away from a surging circle of teammates, doused innocent-bystander me and made a beeline for fellow Argentine veteran Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
In a dozen previous seasons as a professional soccer player, Padula won exactly zero league titles. That made him a perfect match for the Crew, which was also 0-for-12 when Padula signed with the club last spring.
They are losers no more.
The Crew captured its first MLS Cup on Sunday, wrapping up its dream season with an emphatic 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls. Understandably, Padula was elated.
No one has exhibited more unbounded joy this postseason than Padula. After each match, he and his teammates approached the rowdy fans of the Nordecke for a few minutes of boisterous post-match communion. Every time, he bounced. He grinned. He sang along with the "We love you" chant - the one that erupts into a wordless chorus of "Whoa-o-o-o-o-ohhhhh!"
Padula was still haphazardly humming that tune as he sprayed Schelotto, anointing the hero of the day with a splatter of bubbly.
Schelotto's three assists stole the headlines and earned him MLS Cup MVP honors to go along with his 2008 season MVP award. His precise service was the story of the cup, the playoffs, the season. But he was no one-man show.
Coach Sigi Schmid took three seasons to build this roster. His patience paid off. The Crew has never fielded a squad this well-rounded.
In the late '90s, Columbus lost three straight conference finals to DC United. In 2004, they rattled off a 17-match unbeaten streak, only to collapse in the first round of the playoffs. Those teams built wobbly momentum they couldn't sustain when it counted.
They were merely big. This Crew is massive.
Everything that's great about Schmid's team was on display Sunday, from Alejandro Moreno's tireless work ethic to Chad Marshall's aerial supremacy, from Frankie Hejduk's electrifying two-way play to William Hesmer's goalmouth authority.
The unsung heroes played their part, too. Danny O'Rourke, who has matured so much as a center back, played textbook bend-don't-break defense. Brian Carroll continued to silently dictate midfield play. Padula - marking the younger, faster Dane Richards - continued to defend like the savvy veteran he is.
All these players and more helped the Crew dominate MLS from wire to wire in 2008. And when all was said and done, every one of them cut loose.
They partied on stage as they accepted the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy. They partied in the corner with the hundreds of Crew fans that followed them to L.A. And they partied hard in the deep, dark confines of the stadium.
They lined up in front of a mirror and shaved their playoff beards into mustaches and Fu Manchus. They pounded beers and sounded cheers. They spilled enough champagne to literally flood the locker-room floor.
Marshall, an ace defender and deadly set-piece target who will probably be playing in Europe next season, took off his Crew uniform one last time and capped the celebration with a naked cartwheel.
When players started to forcibly shave locks of hair off each other's heads, I started heading for the exit, having already seen too much. Somebody tackled Padula into me on my way out. Suffice it to say, this was what a championship locker room is supposed to look like.
It only makes sense. On the pitch, this Crew has played the part of a championship soccer team expertly. They worked hard and waited patiently, and when the time came, even revelry they executed to perfection.
Crew curriculum vitae
Columbus racked up an impressive resume in 2008:
- MLS Cup Champions
- Eastern Conference Champions
- Supporters' Shield (best regular-season record)
- MVP (Guillermo Barros Schelotto)
- Defender of the Year (Chad Marshall)
- Coach of the Year (Sigi Schmid)
- MLS Best XI (Schelotto, Marshall and Robbie Rogers)
For more Crew coverage from California, click to Chris DeVille's blog at ColumbusAlive.com/sensory