Here we make no apologies for the MLS Cup Playoffs. Heck no. Here, we celebrate the history of this league and some of the playoff moments that have had us jumping out of our seat since 1996. As we head into this weekend's first-round matchups, let's take a look at a First XI of Greatest Ever First-Round MLS playoff dramatics.
11. 2000: MetroStars over Burn
OK, let's start off slow here. The MetroStars went from worst to first in 2000 and hooked up with Dallas in the first round of the "first-to-five" playoff series. Clint Mathis gives the Metros a 1-0 lead in minute 34 of Game 1. Paul Grafer, subbing for the injured Mike Ammann (remember the Mamadou Diallo incident?) stops a PK, but Dallas still manages to equalize on a goal by Bobby Rhine. The MetroStars and Burn appear headed for a draw, which would be a huge moral victory for the visiting Burn, but on the final kick of the game, Adolfo Valencia spins into the box and scores a golden goal. In Game 2, Mathis nets a pair and Grafer provides the Metros with what, to this day, is their only playoff series victory. Bruce Arena will look to change that, starting this weekend.
10. 2005: Rapids over FC Dallas
After a scoreless draw at Invesco, the Rapids and FCD play to a 1-1 draw through 90 minutes at Pizza Hut Park. On to extra time and Carlos Ruiz scores what would have been a series-winner for FCD back in the golden goal days. But since this one will play out, the Rapids have time to come back. All they need is about a minute and Ritchie Kotschau is able to bring the Rapids back to level. A second OT session provides no dramatic winner, so it's on to PKs, where the Rapids prevail 5-4. Alas, a week later the Rapids are unable to win their second-ever Western Conference title, falling 2-0 to the Galaxy.
9. 2001: Galaxy over MetroStars
The first game in this first-to-five ends in a 1-1 draw and the Metros rip the Galaxy 4-1 in Game 2 at Giants Stadium. So, a draw gets Metro into the semifinal. So, do you think Game 3 was played close to the vest? Heck no. In a thrilling finale, the Galaxy win 3-2, forcing what was known as "series overtime." And in the OT, a Mauricio Cienfuegos free kick deflects off of Mark Chung, past Timmy Howard and into the net. To this day, what I still am trying to figure out is why only 6,000 Galaxy fans attended this game.
8. 2004: Revolution over Columbus
Fans of the Columbus Crew look back on this series in much the same way that MetroBull fans look back at the 1996 loss to D.C. United. And Crew fans put Tony Sanneh up there with the aforementioned Rob Johnson when it comes to villains. After dropping Game 1 of the two-game aggregate series 1-0 at Foxboro, the Crew had a pair of penalty kick attempts to take the lead, but Revs 'keeper Matt Reis stopped both of them. The first attempt was taken by the team's usual penalty-taker Ross Paule. The second was taken by Sanneh, who opted for placement over power and was denied by Reis. In the 81st minute, Taylor Twellman's goal made the lead an insurmountable 2-0, and the Revs, who barely squeezed into the playoffs, were on their way to the conference final.
7. 1996: Wiz over Burn
Did anyone see "Once in a Lifetime?" Did you hear Rodney Marsh and Johan Cruyff talking about their love of the shootout? I laughed at that, with the way U.S. fans act like it was created by the devil himself. Anyway, in 1996 (and I have to word this properly), MLS saw its one and only series that came down to a Game 3 shootout (not PKs, a shootout with the Price is Right clock and all) won by the "Wiz." The "Wiz" won Game 1 3-2 and the Burn took Game 2 2-1 to set up the finale, which was a back and forth affair. Dallas grabbed the lead on a goal by Hugo Sanchez only to see K.C. level the game through Mark Chung and take the lead on a goal by the one and only Digital Takawira. Dallas did not go down easily, however, and tied the game at 2-2 on a goal by Gerell Elliott, setting up the shootout. And my memory may be cloudy, but I seem to recall that no one was quite as good in the old tiebreaker as Ron Newman's "Wiz." I was told that was due to all the collective indoor experience on the squad.
6. 2001: Fusion over Wizards
A few weeks ago, I botched a note about the old Miami Fusion FC, giving credit to Ray Hudson for the team's dramatic entrance into the 1999 playoffs. Alas, ol' Ray didn't even become coach of the Fusion until 2000, but what he'll be remembered most for is his team in 2001, which won the Supporters' Shield. The other thing that the Fusion did was win a dramatic three-game set against the defending MLS Cup champion Wizards in the first round. The Fusion won Game 1 of the first-to-five series by a 2-0 score only to get whacked 3-0 at Arrowhead. In need of a hero for Game 3, who better than Chris Henderson, who'd been dumped by the Wizards after their MLS Cup season, to score the game-winner in the 71st minute of the finale at Lockhart Stadium.
5. 2005: Revolution over MetroStars
In Game 1 of the two-game aggregate series, the Metros (steered by then-interim coach Mo Johnston) get a 30-yard bomb from Amado Guevera, then clamp down on the heavily-favored Revs for a 1-0 victory. In Game 2, with October snow falling in Foxborough, the Revs force the issue but fall behind 2-0 on aggregate when Youri Djorkaeff scores on a counter. The Metros are a mere 30 minutes away from a date with D.C. United in the conference championship, but the Revs come roaring back on goals by Pepe Cancela, Pat Noonan and Khano Smith. It will turn out to be the final game ever for the team named the MetroStars.
4. 1996: D.C. United over MetroStars
When MetroStars/Red Bulls fans look into the past for villains, many point the finger at a guy named Rob Johnson, whom they remember as the guy who tried to slide tackle Marco Etcheverry in the waning moments of a decisive Game 3 at RFK Stadium. As Etcheverry knifed his way into the box, Johnson was just a bit late and El Diablo was only to happy to absorb the contact and go flying through the air to earn the penalty. Raul Diaz Arce converted from the spot and D.C. was on its way to the second round and, ultimately, the first MLS Cup title. This was an amazing series from the outset. This was back when the format called for a winner in each and every game. So, when Game 1, in the driving rain at Giants Stadium, ended in a regulation 2-2 draw, the contest went to the shootout. In 11 rounds, the tiebreaker was won by the MetroStars. The format then called for Games 2 and 3 to be played at RFK and D.C. responded with a pair of victories, the first a 1-0 game won in the 72nd minute by Etcheverry, who scored a rare right-footed goal. The finale was a classic. D.C. looked in control and got a garbage goal by Steve Rammel in the 67th, but then the MetroStars turned the game around. In the 86th, Antony De Avila equalized and just a moment later had a chance to win the game, but sent a close-range shot just wide. Roberto Donadoni hit the post with a free kick. The game appeared certain to be heading to a shootout ... when out came the foot of Johnson.
3. 2004: Wizards over Earthquakes
Maybe if the Wizards had gone on to defeat D.C. United in the 2004 MLS Cup Final this series would be more talked about. Or maybe it's just because I have an East Coast bias that I don't talk about it more. Who knows ... but suffice it to say, the Wizards came from 2-0 down after Game 1 to win 3-0 in the second leg and the ultimate winner was scored in stoppage time by Jack Jewsbury. It doesn't get much better than that.
2. 1999, Burn over Fire
Heart stopping all the way and the series that ultimately fueled a supporter-driven competition called the Brimstone Cup. Game 1 at the Cotton Bowl went to Dallas, by a 2-1 score. Game 2 was all Fire, 4-0 at Soldier Field. But at the very end of Game 2, as the final seconds were ticking away, a reckless tackle by Dema Kovalenko shattered the leg of Burn defender Brandon Pollard and infuriated the Dallas team. But it was not until the Fire had taken a 2-0 lead five minutes into Game 3 that the Burn were able to channel their anger in the right direction. In the 55th minute, a goal by Chad Deering made it 2-1 and put Chicago back on its heels. But the Fire defended well for the next half hour, and had a handful of chances on the counter, but couldn't deliver the knockout punch. In the 84th minute, Dallas equalized when C.J. Brown was whistled for a handball in the box and Jorge Rodriguez converted the penalty. And, just two minutes later, Ariel Graziani pounced on a loose ball in the box and delivered the series winner. Dallas coach Dave Dir picked up the injured Pollard like a baby and carried him into the celebration.
1. 2003: Earthquakes over Galaxy
The daddy of all first-round playoff series. The fourth-seeded Galaxy take a 2-0 victory in the home leg, then go out a week later and extend the aggregate to 4-0 in the first 13 minutes of action at Spartan Stadium. Talk about a butt-kicking. But, no. It all starts with a free kick from Jeff Agoos in the 21st minute. Then, in the 35th, Landon Donovan (then the most-hated man in L.A.) makes it 4-2. Give the Quakes credit for battling, but still, there's no way the Galaxy can cough up a four-goal lead. Or is there? Five minutes into the second half, Jamil Walker makes the aggregate 4-3. Game, officially, on. The Galaxy manage to dig in, and hold the Quakes at bay for the next 39 minutes, but just when it looked like they'd manage to hold on, defender Chris Roner delivers the tying goal, and it's on to extra time. The ultimate come from behind story would not be complete without an unlikely hero, and erstwhile forward Rodrigo Faria is just the man to provide the winner, slicing a tight angle shot past Hartman as Spartan goes wild. Looking back now, it was an amazing, surreal night in MLS history. Can't imagine this one being topped.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at email@example.com and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.