We're within sight of 20,000 total MLS goals across regular-season and postseason play. Add in the Concacaf Champions League, and we inch closer still. With that in mind, it seems a good time to sort out which ones stand out not necessarily for their greatness, but for their importance. Which ones were bellwether or turning-point moments for the entire league?
On Tuesday we will look at MLS Cup. On Thursday we will look at the CCL.
Here, by my reckoning – and with a little help from some friends – are the most important from the regular season:
1. Waldo Saves the Opener (1996)
Every "most important goals" list, for as long as MLS still stands, will start here, at the beginning. It is hard to overstate how
essential the Class of '94 was to getting the league off the ground in the first place, and how terrified the powers that be were of draws, and how badly they wanted to start the league with a crescendo rather than a flop.
The first game, without that goal, was definitely a flop. Bruce Arena, who was on the sidelines for D.C. United on that day, called it "one of the worst games ever played in MLS" – and he's not wrong.
Eric Wynalda – the goal-scoring hero of the US men's national team in the mid-90s, one who achieved a level higher than just "respectability" by making the World Cup Round of 16 in '94, by thumping Argentina 3-0 en route to the Copa America semifinals in '95 and by being the first US team since the 1930s to regularly go toe-to-toe with Mexico – was the right man for the moment.
It's a great goal in any context – that nutmeg (sorry, Jeff) and that curl are both sweet. But in this moment with, quite literally, the entire soccer world watching? You could argue that nothing else on this list comes close.
2. Zlatan's Debut (2018)
If there is some sort of rubric to determine star power – name recognition x personality x on-field achievement – Zlatan is probably the biggest "star" in MLS history (yes, I'm including David Beckham in that metric). He played the villain like nobody else, was irresistibly charming on his dozens of late-night TV appearances and scored 52 goals in two years with the LA Galaxy.
I've been watching this league since Day 1, and there's never been anything like what Zlatan did in his debut, nor has there ever been a response from domestic, tried-and-true fans of the league and fans around the world to a goal scored in MLS. He embiggened the legend of Zlatan while launching a new derby and fueling an epic comeback. He was the biggest story in world soccer that day, as well as the next.
It was a ridiculous goal. The world watched because it was Zlatan, but they also watched because oh my god Zlatan did what?????
3. Fredy Invents Goals in Seattle (2009)
It's not a great goal like the previous two, because Danny Cepero maybe should've done better. But Fredy Montero's goal in Seattle's opener as an MLS club in front of more than 30,000 standing, singing screaming fans ... to those of us who'd been around for a while, it felt like something from another world. In a lot of ways, it was.
First: The Sounders leaned into their local soccer roots in a way that earlier MLS teams just hadn't. Those stands were filled with young people of all stripes, but also with folks who'd been around in the old NASL days. This was still their team, with the same name and same colors, the same record book and the same culture. They were there to keep it going.
Second: The then 22-year-old Montero was a throwback signing reminiscent of Marco Etcheverry (came to the league at 25) and Jaime Moreno (came at 22), both of whom debuted in 1996. MLS teams hadn't really taken the hint and gone shopping for the best South America had to offer in the intervening 13 years despite the dominance of those Bolivian-led D.C. teams.
Then Montero came, and while he's not an Pantheon-level MLS player like Diablo & Jaime, he was crucial in opening MLS to a new era of Conmebol-bred stars. He was a reminder of what was, and a harbinger of what was to come.
It was a big moment and a big goal, one that confirmed MLS would work in Seattle, and that "south" is a great direction to look for match-winners.
4. Dab God Wins the Shield (2018)
I doubt I'm alone in feeling that 2018 was the best season in MLS history. There were a lot of things that made it special – Zlatan's goal above, which launched El Trafico; an unfathomably talented cadre of young players, led by guys like Miguel Almiron, Alphonso Davies, Tyler Adams and Yangel Herrera; a number of veteran stars living up to their billing; and just an inordinate amount of well-coached, high-level games.
The best part of the year from my perspective, however, was that two historically great teams (New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United) pushed, week after week, for the Supporters' Shield. Both teams coveted it, resulting in a chase that led to weekly must-watch games and naturally led both to historic point-totals. The single-season points record of 69 was set the year before by Toronto FC; Atlanta matched that number, and RBNY bettered it on Decision Day thanks to the above, Shield-winning goal from Derrick Etienne Jr.
These are two of the five best teams in league history. They spent the entire year hating each other, looking at the standings, and then beating the hell out of basically anyone who crossed their path. Every game had playoff-level intensity, and it was glorious.
I wish every MLS season was half this good.
5. The Cushions Come Flying (2007)
Imagine Seattle's fanbase, but they say "sorry" more often and instead of immediate success followed by 10-12 years of good-to-great teams, they had immediate failure followed by eight more years of pretty abysmal soccer on the whole.
That's what Toronto FC were in 2007. They instantly had the biggest, loudest, most online fanbase of anybody in the league, and they weren't shy about letting you know. They continued not being shy even as their team... let's be charitable and call it "stumbled" out of the gates by losing their first four games, all by shutout. The last of those four was the opener at BMO Field, and after a 1-0 loss to Kansas City it seemed as though the Reds were en route to a historically bad season.
However, 24 minutes into their next outing, Danny Dichio finally got Toronto's first, and thanks to a seat-cushion giveaway, it became an iconic moment in team and league history. That above mini-documentary does a good job of explaining it, and I'll just add my two cents here: TFC's fanbase, and then Seattle's, showed what MLS fanbases could be. They paved the way, and those goals – Dichio's and Montero's – were the moments that crystallized it.
Sounders Win the Shield (2014)
Basically the 1.0 version of Atlanta vs. RBNY in 2018 was LA vs. Seattle in 2014. That was the final year of the pre-TAM era, and I'm pretty sure those are two of the five-best teams in league history to that point.
Seattle won the Shield on the above goal, while LA ultimately won the final MLS Cup of their dynasty.
De Ro Becomes a Star (2005)
Dwayne De Rosario was known as a clutch-off-the-bench scoring threat heading into the 2005 season. He finally became a starter that year, and delivered by leading the Quakes to their first-ever Shield and finishing runner-up in MVP voting with 9g/13a as a No. 10 in Dom Kinnear's diamond.
His final goal of the season came in the final game of the season, and cemented his status as the first Canadian field player to truly become a star in MLS.
That's No Longer So Metro (2013)
The Curse of Caricola was still real, and Thierry Henry's time in New Jersey was still questionable. Here the Red Bulls were, with their first piece of silverware in their grasp, and somehow they were already down 1-0 at home to a very poor Chicago team. It was the same old thing all over again.
And then it wasn't. Henry's banger sparked the comeback win, and the curse died.
Every Goonies Goal (2012)
The 2012 Quakes were a Shield-winning 66-point team with a massive, +29 goal differential. If games were 85 minutes instead of 90, they'd have been a very good 55-ish-point team with about a +15 goal differential.
They never said die, and so they were the Goonies, and I still can not believe the season they had. They were legendary for their stoppage-time heroics, and they won the Shield because of them.
I don't think we'll ever see another team quite like this.
Rooney to Lucho (2018)
This one probably doesn't belong here because of two giant "ifs." The first "if" is if Zlatan doesn't score that goal listed above, is this the defining goal of the great 2018 season, the one that instead captures the world's attention? Believe it or not, Rooney's goal actually has more views on the MLS YouTube page, so maybe it actually already is. Maybe I'm underselling how important this one was.
The second "if" is if Lucho Acosta is actually sold to PSG for $7 million last year, is this the goal that gets played around the world when people discuss the move?
It would've been one of them, and it would've had extra resonance for the "MLS-to-giant-European-club" narrative.
Alphonso Davies, Wunderkind (2018)
Speaking of that pipeline and that narrative...
I'll let my colleague David Gass take it:
"I was behind the goal on that one with [the Whitecaps] front office. He scores it and someone just goes 'yup, he’s gone.'"
LD Sets the Record (2014)
It's the record-breaking goal from the best US player ever, so of course it's going to be here. But do you remember that it came just days after he was cut from the USMNT ahead of the 2014 World Cup?
There was a lot of pent up emotion in this goal.
RSL's Way Is Paved (2009)
Great memory on Adam here:
Yes, this game was played at a minor league baseball stadium. Community America Ballpark was Sporting's home before Children's Mercy Park was opened. And before Sporting became Sporting, they were still the Wizards:
RSL from 2009-13 can't really be considered a dynasty since they only won one trophy, but they were the connoisseur's choice since they played the prettiest and best soccer in the league. They were the "almost" dynasty that everybody went out of their way to watch.
And the one trophy they won? It doesn't happen if not for Claudio Lopez coolly slotting home this late penalty. RSL are, thus far, the only MLS Cup winner who could've been eliminated on the last day of the regular season.
Rapids Head East
RSL were a much better team in 2010 than in 2009, and should've won the Shield that year. They had literally only one loss in the final six months of the season and owned the best defense in league history.
In this game, the final game of the season, they were headed for loss No. 2. Alvaro Saborio instead scored a pair of stoppage-time goals to claim a point and retain the Rocky Mountain Cup (RMC was insane from 2008 through 2010 – the league's best rivalry at that point – and has been almost entirely one-sided since then).
More importantly: Sabo's goals knocked the Rapids down to fifth in the West, behind Seattle, which meant Colorado were slotted into the much, much easier East bracket. They tore through it and actually met another West team, the Quakes, in the Eastern Conference final. Colorado won that one, then went on to beat Dallas for the club's first (and still only) MLS Cup.
Shouts to Jason for recalling this one. I'm not sure if it quite belongs on this list, but it's worth remembering that back-to-back MLS Cup winners a decade ago really were dancing on the knife's edge at the end of the regular season.
Apex Seba (2015)
Toronto came into the league in 2007 and were the worst team in league history. They were worse than Chivas, worse than those old Tampa Bay teams and worse than the MetroStars. All of the above teams at least made the playoffs a few times.
Not the Reds. From 2007-14, they were either outright awful or stunningly capable of late-season collapses (their final game of the 2009 season remains an all-timer) that kept them from the playoffs.
Then Sebastian Giovinco arrived. His 2015 season, in terms of raw goals and assists, was the best the league had seen at that time. He capped it off by scoring the above golazo against the best team in the league – RBNY were the Shield winners – to clinch Toronto's first playoff appearance after nearly a decade of waiting.
Every Goal in Atlanta's Demolition of Minnesota United (2017)
"We are here to do this, and you better be ready to stop us."
For two years, this is how Atlanta United played. Feel free to hate them – lots of folks do – but just know that at least part of you hates/hated them because they were good and fun and relentless and ruthless in a way that no team before them quite managed.
I remember watching this game, thinking about Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, Yamil Asad and Tito Villaba, and then most of all thinking about Tata Martino. And then I remember thinking that the league was about to change.
Cheatin' Bob (2003)
And then there is the one goal that literally changed the rules of the league. I'll let Judah Friedlander tell it...
Thanks to Bob Bradley's willingness to exploit the goalkeeper sub loophole, that was pretty much that. Overtime got the ax as well.
Hell of a performance from Eddie Gaven!