There are two dates on the Major League Soccer calendar that I look forward to more than any other. First, opening day and the end of a long, domestic soccer-less winter. Second, the first night of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, when the stakes go up and crazy is often in the cards.
We don’t yet know what the playoffs will look like or when they’ll happen in 2020, but you can re-live some of the most biggest postseason moments in MLS history this week as part of Audi Playoff Week. I’ve got Leg 2 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Championship between Toronto FC and Montreal circled on my calendar (Wednesday, 4 pm ET; MLS YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, MLSsoccer.com).
To whet your appetite, I’ve winnowed my postseason memories down to a Top 10. They’re my memories, so there are none from pre-2006, when my MLS obsession took hold after the FIFA World Cup. You can leave you favorite playoff memories from the first decade of the league in the comments below.
Let’s get to it, in chronological order.
Twellman-Ching go back-to-back in MLS Cup
I don’t remember anything from 2006 but the final. Even then, I’ve got no specific memories until extra time, when, for a split second, I thought Taylor Twellman had won the Revolution their first MLS Cup during their third try in five years. That feeling didn’t last long. Brian Ching equalized one minute later, and the Dynamo won on penalty kicks. I mostly remember my college roommates poking their head in my room to see why I was yelling.
New York Red Bulls win the … Western Conference?
I was a big Juan Pablo Angel guy from 2007-10. He was the shiny new goalscorer when I first started following the league day to day. In 2008, the Red Bulls barely made the playoffs – they finished a point ahead of the Rapids to sneak into the eighth and final spot – and were placed on the Western side of the bracket. They upset the defending back-to-back champions (Houston), snuck past Real Salt Lake and might have won their first and only MLS Cup had the Crew and Guillermo Barros Schelotto not stood in the way. I just loved the novelty of a New York team making a run through the West, then playing the final in Los Angeles. Bizarre!
Blizzard? What blizzard? Ben Olsen and D.C. United want to play
The 2012 MLS Cup Playoffs got off to a weird start thanks to Hurricane Sandy. Because of the storm, D.C. United and the Red Bulls had to swap home dates for their Eastern Conference semifinal series. It got even weirder when a Nor’Easter dumped snow on Red Bull Arena ahead of the second leg.
The game was eventually postponed, but not before viewers were treated to some incredible scenes: workers rushing to shovel the field and Olsen pushing for the game to be played – "It's soccer; you can play it in any weather," he said – while Red Bulls coach Hans Backe called for postponement. A couple hundred traveling D.C. fans whooped it up in the stands, too. They didn’t even play a game that night, but it was incredible drama. That the emotions carried over to the next day and prompted Bill Hamid’s famous “You can’t hold us back, c’mon,” outburst makes it even more memorable.
Jimmy Nielsen wins MLS Cup playing in a body cast
OK, so he wasn’t in a literal body cast, but the White Puma could barely move on that frigid night in Kansas City thanks to at least one broken rib suffered earlier in the playoffs and sub-zero conditions that made moving “like ice skating.” He changed cleats at halftime, to no avail, but still managed to do enough to get Kansas City to penalty kicks, where he saved two and helped deliver the club’s second championship. I just remember thinking the Dane looked rooted to the ground anytime he tried to move. And yet…
New England ends Thierry Henry’s career, books MLS Cup place
There’s nothing better than being on the field when a team either wins a championship or books their place in the final. I was in Foxborough, Mass., in 2014 to see the Revs, fueled by Jermaine Jones’ reckless abandon, Lee Nguyen’s MVLee season and my guy Charlie Davies’ goals, spoil another Red Bulls’ MLS Cup bid. It was also Thierry Henry’s final professional game. My lasting memory, other than Henry’s post-game press gaggle, was just how contagious the joy was on the field as New England’s players, staff and owners reveled in their accomplishment. I still smile thinking about it.
Knockout Round in 2015
October 2015 was a magical month of my life. The Royals were marching to a World Series win against the Mets, and the Knockout Round that season was absolutely insane. I remember sitting in the old MLS Digital offices watching all four games, plus a Game 2 smackdown at Kauffman Stadium that broke the spirit of noted Mets fans Ben Baer and Simon Borg, and just thinking, “It doesn’t get much better than this.”
In case you forgot … Juan Agudelo’s bike got pipped by Chris Rolfe’s winner. The Sounders’ exacted revenge for 2014 against the Galaxy. Montreal and Didier Drogba smacked Toronto FC and MVP Sebastian Giovinco during the Reds’ first playoff appearance. Then, finally, the Double Post game, complete with a late Kevin Ellis equalizer, two extra-time goals and one of the craziest, physics-defying shootouts you'll ever see.
Faulty measuring tape delays first leg of Toronto-Montreal
The Canadian Classique delivers in the playoffs. In 2016, before the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship, the referees noticed the 18-yard box at Stade Olympique looked a little tight. It turned out that the measurements were off, forcing a delay before the classic game and classic series. The Impact went up 3-0, only to allow two away goals that became important when the series went back to Toronto for a 5-2 extratime win that sent the Reds to their first MLS Cup.
Tunnel fight in Toronto!
I remember it like it was yesterday.
There's US men's national team bust-up on the field, and sky-high stakes for both Toronto and RBNY. Then, the brawl, made even more memorable by Zapruder footage and the red-mood lighting in the hallway leading to the home and visitor locker rooms at BMO Field. The crowd of players and staff werepushing and shoving in a confined space. The yelling. The police officers and security personnel trying to break it up. Greg Vanney screaming “Why are you here?!” in Jesse Marsch’s face as Michael Bradley tried to calm both sides.
The public back-and-forth after it all went down was classic, too. Jozy Altidore tweeting then deleting the following: “Yo, Sacha Kljestan, why you snitching bro? You tried to pull up on me while my back was turned and almost got that work. Safe flight.” Suspensions followed. Toronto advanced. What a time to be alive.
Portland Timbers don’t know the away goals rule
I still can’t get over it. Zarek Valentin had to explain the rule on the field to his teammates after the final whistle! Even better, it was against the Sounders, and the Timbers still went through on penalties. I just remember laughing and laughing. They. Didn’t. Know.
LAFC’s 2019 playoff run
All the hype of El Trafico – Zlatan’s quotes, LAFC’s reply and the simmering history between the two – somehow delivered an eight-goal thriller to top even the most-hopeful expectations. Then, with Bob Bradley and his team chasing history, here come the Sounders and Brian Schmetzer, complete with public zingers and an “upset.” Here’s to hoping that we get more of the same this year.