In the beginning, it seemed MLS Cup was just meant to be played in the rain. Cold, hard, driving rain. In both 1996 and '97, Mother Nature tried to put a damper on the league's showcase event, only the players and fans would have none of it. They still showed up, full of energy and desire. Ready to play. In many ways, it was those first two Cup Finals that set the stage for the future of MLS. At the end of every long season, there was a game everyone wanted to touch. But it was never going to be easy getting there. In its first eight years of existence, the Cup has provided more than its share of thrills:
11. Packed (MLS Cup '97). Even when they announced on the day before the game that every ticket at RFK Stadium had been sold for the second MLS Cup Final, it was hard to believe that every single person in possession of a ticket would brave the torrential downpour that enveloped the Nation's Capital on match day. But that's exactly what happened. As far as the eye could see, there was not an empty seat to be found. D.C. United would not disappoint its home fans, defeating the upstart Colorado Rapids 2-1 on goals by Jaime Moreno and Tony Sanneh, but the real story on this day was not the 11 men in uniform for D.C., but the 57,431 who came out to support them.
10. Raising the Bar (MLS Cup '00). The final returned to RFK in 2000 and it appeared the outcome had been scripted the night before the game at the MLS Gala Awards Ceremony, where Kansas City goalkeeper Tony Meola took home three major awards, the League MVP, Best Goalkeeper and Comeback Player of the Year. All that was left, it seemed, was for him to win MLS Cup MVP. Of course, Meola did just that, withstanding a 22-shot Chicago Fire attack to post a 1-0 shutout. Perhaps the game's most telling moment occurred early in the second half when a ball bounced to the Fire's Diego Gutierrez in the box and he hit the underside of the crossbar from one yard out. Quite simply, the ball was not going into the net for the Fire on this day.
9. Down Goes Cobi (MLS Cup '99). Most everyone remembers MLS Cup '99 as the year Galaxy keeper Kevin Hartman misplayed a back pass from Steve Jolley, allowing Ben Olsen to shoot into an empty net, which gave D.C. United an insurmountable 2-0 lead. There is, however, a play that sticks in my mind. With L.A. down 1-0 and fighting to get back in the game, Cobi Jones dribbled past D.C.'s John Maessner along the byeline. Maessner stuck out his leg and Cobi went down. No call. Soon after that came Hartman's gaffe, which turned the second half into a D.C. kick-around, and a third Cup in four years.
8. Not So Fast (MLS Cup '03). Members of the 2000 and 2003 Fire probably still have sleepless nights thinking about mistakes that cost them championships. There may not have been a blunder more bizarre than the one that resulted in a Richard Mulrooney goal a year ago at The Home Depot Center. After falling behind 2-0, the Fire battled hard to get back in the game and were rewarded just five minutes into the second half when DaMarcus Beasley scored from a tight angle to make it a one-goal game. But then, with the Fire still celebrating, San Jose made one pass off the ensuing kickoff and Mulrooney was in alone on net, beating Zach Thornton and restoring the two-goal margin.
7. No Need to Change (MLS Cup '99). As we all know, it's been a great comeback year for D.C.'s Jaime Moreno. But when you think of Moreno at his best, you think of United's three-out-of-four run from '96 to '99. No player brought as much fun to the field as Moreno, who seemed to have an endless supply of tricks he could use to tantalize defenders. My lasting memory of Moreno comes from MLS Cup '99. More than an hour after the game at old Foxboro Stadium, Moreno was still in full uniform, right down to his shin guards and cleats. When the team, ready to go to a post-game party, looked at him and asked, "Jaime, are you going to shower?" Moreno said, simply, "No, I'll go to the party like this." And he did.
6. A Fitting End (MLS Cup '02). As Meola's shutout performance was a perfect ending to the 2000 season, there was really no other way for the 2002 season to end but with a golden goal from L.A.'s Carlos Ruiz. All season, the Galaxy had pulled out victories on late Ruiz goals and as the '02 Final went into extra time, you had a feeling, even with the Revolution playing in Foxboro, that Ruiz would get his chance. In the 113th minute, with penalty kicks looming, Chris Albright found Tyrone Marshall with an outlet pass down the right flank. Marshall looked up, saw Ruiz running and hit him with one-touch pass. Ruiz, as well, needed only one touch to slip the game winner past a helpless Adin Brown. The Galaxy finally had their championship.
5. Sorry, Not Today (MLS Cup '03). Back to those Fire regrets. We mentioned Mulrooney's goal in Memory No. 6, but the rest of the story needs to be told. Four minutes after that goal, the Fire pulled back to within one on an own goal by San Jose's Chris Roner. Only a minute after that, Roner pulled down the Fire's Damani Ralph in the box and, suddenly, the Fire were a penalty kick away from equalizing. Ante Razov, who'd been firing and missing all afternoon for Chicago, stepped up to take the kick and the craziest MLS Cup Final ever played only got crazier. Pat Onstad made the save. The Fire would have more chances, but Landon Donovan's goal in the 71st minute gave the Quakes the insurance they'd need for a 4-2 victory.
4. Slip, Slidin' Away (MLS Cup '96). We've gone through some likely heroes from MLS Cups past, but how about an unlikely one? Look no further than the first-ever final and a 70th minute substitute named Shawn Medved. With his team trailing 2-0, upon his entrance to the game, Medved became part of the uprising. First, in the 71st minute, Tony Sanneh connected on a header to make it 2-1. Then, in the 80th minute, Medved was the right man in the right place at the right time, pouncing on a poorly-punched clearance by Galaxy 'keeper Jorge Campos and sliding the ball into the net, tying the match 2-2. You'd have a hard time finding a more important goal in MLS Cup history.
3. First Time, Long Time (MLS Cup '98). When the Chicago Fire won MLS Cup '98, all the talk was of how they did it as an expansion team. So, obviously, Fire fans did not have to wait very long for a Cup. Two of the teams biggest stars, however, had waited a lifetime to raise a trophy. Both captain Peter Nowak and defender Lubos Kubik, veterans of European leagues and international soccer, revealed after the game that neither had ever been a part of a championship team. A week after their 2-0 win against D.C. United at the Rose Bowl, Nowak and Kubik would add another title to their resumes as the Fire defeated the Columbus Crew 2-1 to win the U.S. Open Cup, completing the double.
2. Bang! Zoom! (MLS Cup '01). Talk about a glimpse of things to come. With Los Angeles leading San Jose 1-0 late in the first half of MLS Cup '01, a 19-year old kid named Landon Donovan gave America its first real taste of what the world would witness a year later in the World Cup. In what might be the purest goal in MLS Cup history, Donovan hammered a right-footed half-volley into the upper right corner to level the game at one. Dwayne De Rosario would take home the MVP of the match when he netted the golden goal, six minutes into extra time, but it was Donovan's strike that's indelible.
1. See Ya Next Year (MLS Cup '96). As Eric Wynalda's first-ever MLS goal will always hold a special place in the hearts of MLS fans, so will the first-ever golden goal in an MLS Cup, scored by an unassuming 22-year-old rookie defender named Eddie Pope. Just four minutes into extra time, Pope met a Marco Etcheverry corner kick perfectly with his head and drilled the ball into the net to make D.C. United the champs. Obviously, Pope's no kid anymore. He's a fixture in a league that continues to make history. His goal eight years ago was just an early sign that MLS Cup was here to stay. Rain or shine.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.