It’s kind of hard to believe, especially if you have been a long time MLS fan, but Major League Soccer will celebrate its 20th MLS Cup Final this Sunday on ESPN at 4 PM ET. Columbus Crew SC host the Portland Timbers in Columbus and if the rest of this years is any indication, this could be one of the most exciting MLS Cup Finals ever. I decided to look back on the top five MLS Cup Finals throughout the years.
In terms of what gets included in the top five, I took into consideration how entertaining the game was, if anything historic happened and/or the importance of that game as it relates to MLS history.
5) MLS Cup 2011 – Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 Houston Dynamo
Four years before this game, David Beckham moved to the United States from Real Madrid to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer. This sparked the “Designated Player” rule and started a trend of some of the most well known players worldwide to come play in MLS to finish our their career (even though Beckham ended his career at PSG, playing a season there).
This was Beckham’s first MLS Cup victory and the game was most memorable for all three of their DP players (Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane) to team up and score the game winning goal. This was the first time a team won an MLS Cup with a Designated Player and to this day, they are one of two teams (Sporting KC-2013) to have won an MLS Cup with a Designated Player, even though the rule has been in place since 2007.
4) MLS Cup 2009 – Real Salt Lake 1-1 Los Angeles Galaxy – RSL won 5-4 on penalties
This was David slaying Goliath. One of the biggest upsets in MLS Cup history took place in Seattle as the powerful LA Galaxy team with such players as Beckham, Donovan, Magee, Buddle, Gonzalez and Ricketts lost to Real Salt Lake. A team who may not have had many well known players at the time but played as a team and relatively stayed together for years under Jason Kreis to put out a team who could compete against any MLS team for a fraction of the cost.
After 120 exciting minutes, the game went into penalties and that was when RSL pulled out all the stops. Even a penalty save on Kyle Beckerman couldn’t stop RSL. After Landon Donovan committed a rare penalty miss, RSL was in control and after a few more rounds, won in the seventh round of penalties.
3) MLS Cup 1998 – D.C. United 0-2 Chicago Fire
In any sport, it’s usually accepted that an expansion team is never good in their first year. It takes time to build a team and turn them into a winner. Just ask Orlando City and NYCFC this season about starting from scratch as an expansion team.
Apparently the Chicago Fire never got that memo. After finishing second in the Western Conference, the Fire blazed through to the Final where they faced the two time champs D.C. United. A team who was two for two in MLS Cup titles and nobody else had won one. This was also a game that matched up the two future USMNT managers, Bruce Arena (D.C. United) and Bob Bradley (Chicago Fire).
From the get go, it seemed like Chicago was in control. Two terrific goals toward the end of the first half by Jerzy Podbrozny and Diego Gutierrez got Chicago the lead and it was essentially over after that.
2) MLS Cup 2013 – Sporting Kansas City 1-1 Real Salt Lake – SKC won 7-6 on penalties
No MLS Cup Final, before or since, had anything like this. In one of the coldest games in American soccer history, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake had to battle through the elements of freezing temperatures and a partly ice covered field to try and win MLS’ highest honor.
The game itself had its moments. Both teams had a chance to win but the conditions made it difficult. After a 1-1 draw, both teams entered into a shootout that seemed like it would never end. When RSL went down 2-0 early in penalties, USMNT players Matt Besler and Graham Zusi both failed to convert their penalties to extend the shootout. After that, both teams kept matching each other, including non conversions in round eight. It wasn’t until the tenth round where each teams final outfield kick takers would decide it. Goalscorer Aurelien Collin, who probably wasn’t expecting he would be taking a penalty in a million years, converted Sporting’s seventh penalty. As Lovel Palmer stepped up, he bounced the kick off the crossbar and Sporting KC won at home.
If you haven’t seen it yet, KickTV created a great recap of the penalty shootout, with perspectives from the players and the managers in the video above. It is very much a great resource to understand some of the psychology behind taking and saving a penalty. Especially from those who never expected to be taking a penalty on the highest MLS stage.
1) MLS Cup 1996 – Los Angeles Galaxy 2-3 D.C. United
The beginning. MLS back in 1996 was a bit awkward to say the least. Most of the kits were eyesores, the team names made no sense with the city they represented and the rules were insane compared to every other league around the world. A shootout from 35 yards out to break ties, the game clock counting down instead of up and a best of three playoff were some rules that just made soccer purists scratch their heads and really have a sour taste in their mouth.
This Final was under some very rough conditions. It down poured all game so Foxboro Stadium had puddles all over the field and made for some rough play but it was entertaining. Eduardo Hurtado got LA on the board very early and after a Chris Armas goal, it looked like LA was set to become the first MLS Cup champs.
That was until D.C. United got back into this. Bruce Arena made two subs in the second half and ironically both scored their regular time goals late to tie the game. Tony Sanneh and Shawn Medved scored in the 72nd and 81st minute respectively and that led to extra time in the first Final.
Back in 1996, a golden goal was what ended the game so whoever scored the first goal won. To be fair, even FIFA had a golden goal rule back then so MLS gets a pass. Anyway, it didn’t take long for D.C. United to score and win the first MLS Cup. Eddie Pope scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time and thus started a dynasty for the early part of MLS history. A multiple goal comeback, an extra time winner and this being the first MLS Cup Final, the 1996 MLS Cup Final is the greatest MLS Cup Final ever.