Voices: Sam Jones

The 26 wildest and wackiest moments from MLS' 26th season

We did this last year for the 25th year of Major League Soccer. I couldn’t help but bring it back. And I couldn’t help but be amazed by how much I had to cut to bring it down to 26. There’s a lot missing here.

Feel free to complain about your favorite strange thing missing because I want to complain about it too. But in the end, cuts had to be made. No matter what, we’re still left with 26 beautifully strange events from the world’s most beautifully strange league.

Embrace the weird.

1. Henry Kessler: Hero

There’s no other way to start this. I’ll never forget. And you shouldn’t either.

2. Carlos Vela exits a little too early

It took just 20 minutes of LAFC soccer for something bizarre to happen.

In LAFC’s season-opening match against Austin FC, Carlos Vela appeared to pick up an injury. He motioned for the trainer to come take a quick look. Bob Bradley, understandably, took this as Vela signaling for a sub.

Moments later, Bradley did an already-scheduled in-game interview where he had to admit that he might have just messed up a little bit.

“That might be my fault,” the coach said. “Not sure. He gave us a sign early on that he needed to come off, I thought, so I can't say more than maybe it's my fault.”

LAFC still won 2-0, but no one had a more unique start to the season. Vela, for what it's worth, missed a few games after this one. Bradley gets some vindication there although he probably would have rather just had Vela for an extra month.

3. I’m 26 and I don’t know what any of this is

If you were born within the last week or so, you have phenomenal reading comprehension and you don’t recognize any of the logos on this list from an old MLS media guide. A few team names and the crayon flag are just about the only things that feel familiar to the recent past. No matter how old you are though, you have to appreciate emails like “kickstuff@aol.com”, “103506.1147@compuserve.com”, “theburnone@aol.com” and “TBD".

Seriously, I know what AOL is. But I don’t believe for a second that “CompuServe” ever existed.

4. Jim Curtin meets Gabriel Heinze

They did not get along.

One is still coaching in MLS and the other is not.

5. Josef shows his power

Remember when Heinze announced that Josef Martinez was training on his own for a still unknown reason? Then Heinze was let go after 13 games, making it apparent just how much sway Josef has in Atlanta? They call him The King, after all.

6. Nashville’s shootout for the ages

I don’t mean to dig too deep on a wound that’s still fresh, but my goodness, what a letdown. Nashville’s 0-for-4 attempt complete with two kicks still sailing toward the Delaware River is the new standard for bad playoff shootouts. Not great!

7. David Ochoa delivers a ball to a fan in need

After doing his best to rile up the entirety of Minnesota United, David Ochoa celebrated Real Salt Lake’s early-season win over the Loons by kicking a ball into the stands. While Minnesota were upset about the celebration, Ochoa later explained that he was [ahem] kicking a ball to a young fan in the stands.

Ochoa’s act of random kindness became a bit of tradition in Salt Lake.

8. Rock Bottom

I’m not here to comment on the event itself because this became an especially divisive topic, especially on Seattle Sounders corners of the internet. But when it makes its way all the way to The Rock, it can’t not go on an end-of-year list of weird.

9. Pepi hype train leaves the station

Ricardo Pepi’s 2021, in awards:

  • U.S. Soccer Young Male Player of the Year
  • MLS Young Player of the Year
  • Top spot on MLSsoccer.com’s 22 Under 22 presented by BODYARMOR list

Not bad! Let’s not forget, though, that Pepi’s season didn’t reach these levels right away. He only made one start before June 19, when he started and scored against Minnesota to claim the role the rest of the year.

His rise itself is insane, but we have to remember the most important thing that came out of it. With All-Star voting opening up and Pepi potentially on the fringes of making it to LA, FC Dallas social media manager, Eddie Koton, pledged to get a tattoo of Pepi and the hype train carrying him to stardom.

10. Dairon Asprilla what

Dairon Asprilla had the best season of his career or whatever. But he could have been the worst player on the field every single game and none of it would have mattered because he still pulled off this.

I’ve watched it a million times and I’m almost convinced that the San Jose player tracking back could have cleared it and just decided it was better for the world to have that ball go in the net. He was correct.

11. Jakob Glesnes listens to the people

The people said shoot. So Jakob Glesnes, who already scored a goal earlier in the season that bounced off the crossbar three separate times, scored the single latest goal in MLS history to give Philadelphia a playoff win over New York.

What makes it truly special is the people who know what’s about to happen and demand to see it immediately. The entirety of Subaru Park yells “SHOOOT” as the ball comes out to Glesnes. Glesnes, a man of the people, obliges.

12. Kanye - Phantom of the Benz

OOH! I’m actually a part of this one!

During Atlanta United’s match against the Columbus Crew, Kanye West showed up. He looked like this.

He didn’t buy a ticket or anything, he just kind of got out of bed and walked upstairs. 

After folks first took notice of him walking around the crowd, I got a tip that the Crew had been moved to a new locker room for this game. Their current locker room had an occupant. Kanye hadn’t left the stadium since his “album release” party two nights before. I confirmed with Atlanta United staff and not long after we all found out from some of the scary and very intense celebrity news outlets that Kanye hadn’t just left all his stuff in the visitor’s locker room, he had decided to live there for a while to finish the album he had an album release party for the previous night.

I think he’s left by now, but who knows.

13. RIP crayon flag

The New England Revolution have a new crest. Which means the last of the original MLS logos has officially gone to logo heaven with the Tampa Bay Mutiny cyberbat and the Dallas Burn electrohorse. Lighters in the air for a legend.

14. Philadelphia let the fans take over

This qualifies as weird even though it really should be the norm. The Philadelphia Union let fans take over their design process for their 2021 away kits. It just so happened to result in one of the best kits in the league. Funny how that works.

15. McConaughey plays the bongos

Austin FC’s Minister of Culture and bongo drums have some history. It’s only natural that he’d lean into that – and an all-verde suit – to whip the crowd into a frenzy for Austin’s first home match at Q2 Stadium.

16. Thierry Henry gives way to Wilfried Nancy

You may have forgotten, but Thierry Henry was the manager of CF Montréal up until about six weeks before the season actually started. That part is weird, sure, but it’s made even stranger by the fact that Montréal stayed in-house to replace him and found one of the best new managers in the league. CFM and Wilfried Nancy couldn’t find the win they needed to make the playoffs on Decision Day, but came closer than anyone would have ever expected after Henry moved on.

17. Freddy Juarez leads RSL to a playoff run

On Aug. 27 (!!) Freddy Juarez left his position as manager of Real Salt Lake, a team sitting in a playoff spot in the Western Conference. You may be wondering how, if he left, he led that same RSL team to a spot in the Western Conference Final? Well, Juarez didn’t just leave, he left to become an assistant coach on a team IN THE EXACT. SAME. CONFERENCE.

Anyway, RSL made the playoffs thanks to a Decision Day miracle goal and a bit of extra help. Who else would they be matched up against but the same Seattle team that Juarez had left for just a couple of months earlier. Here is the shot chart from that game.

RSL won in penalty kicks anyway. Because magic. And because, in my opinion, they were highly, highly motivated to do whatever they could to produce the biggest possible revenge game against Juarez. My goodness did they deliver. The game itself could have been its own section but I think a little bit of context takes it from “greatest game of all-time” to “deluxe greatest game of all-time."

RSL rode that win to another, much more impressive win over Sporting Kansas City and a shocking Western Conference Final appearance.

18. Vanni Sartini and the press conference of the year

On the same day Juarez left RSL, Vanni Sartini took over as interim manager of the Vancouver Whitecaps. From there the Whitecaps made a run to the playoffs and Sartini earned the permanent managerial job in Vancouver. He also earned your undying love and affection.

19. Ronny Deila says NYCFC aren’t good enough

On Wednesday, March 10, 2021, Ronny Deila said of his NYCFC team: "We need more quality players.”

Somehow, we got from there to Deila taking off all his clothes in celebration of winning MLS Cup 2021.

MLS is a very good league.

20. The trees strike back

Portland ended up nearly winning MLS Cup. But I just want to take a quick moment and point out that before that could happen, they had to play Austin FC three times. The first two times went very poorly.

Austin won 4-1 in game one and 3-1 in game two. Austin didn’t win a whole lot in year one. Or score a whole lot. In fact, by the end of game two on Aug. 21, 41.18% of the goals in Austin’s entire history had come against Portland. By the end of the year, that number went down to 20% but even that feels remarkable.

This alone would probably have been enough to make the list but Portland figuring out how to be good and eventually beating Austin for the first time on Decision Day made the first two games even stranger.

21. Texi-Cali Sadness

Hey, speaking of Austin, we might as well include the rest of the largest state in the contiguous US and how about the second-largest as well. 

Six teams did not make the playoffs in the Western Conference. There are three teams in Texas. There are three teams in California. None of the six teams from those two states made the playoffs.

22. Darren Eales has an announcement

For the last few years, Atlanta United president Darren Eales has had a tradition of firing off a cryptic tweet before Atlanta announce a signing. Anytime it happens, fans rush to decipher which player it will be or make a bad joke about how the clue actually means Lionel Messi is coming to Georgia. Sometimes though, Eales needs a little help. This time, he turned to Darren Eales.

23. Alex Bono loves this ball

And he will not give up this ball, this is his ball, do not touch his ball, he is in a committed relationship with this ball, he and this ball are going to the animal shelter later to adopt a dog that will make them mad at first but will eventually soften their heart, he and this ball are opening a joint checking account, he and this ball are quietly watching reruns of The Blacklist while they eat dinner.

No one is allowed to take his ball…….oh hey Richie, here, catch this ball.

24. Should have counted

You can't convince me otherwise.

25. Friendly fire from Bill Hamid

Look before you air punch.

26. Aim between the lines

Marcos Lopez delivers a masterclass. As does Watke.