The inaugural MLS Cup is still the gold standard among the league's nine previous title games, according to fans who voted in a poll last week to determine the best MLS Cup to date. The poll, conducted on the league's official website, MLSnet.com, was part of the celebration of the league's 10th season.
In the league's first title tilt in 1996, D.C. United topped the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-2, thanks to an extra-time header from defender Eddie Pope. To even get to the golden-goal session, United had to mount a furious two-goal comeback late in regulation.
In a driving rainstorm at Foxboro Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., the Galaxy got on the board in just the fifth minute as forward Eduardo Hurtado headed home a Mauricio Cienfuegos cross. Midfielder Chris Armas made it 2-0 for Los Angeles in the 56th minute, and it seemed the Galaxy were destined to be the first team to lift the Alan I. Rothenberg trophy.
But Tony Sanneh started the comeback for United in the 73rd minute, heading home a Marco Etcheverry cross, and Shawn Medved poked home the equalizer in the 82nd minute, taking advantage of a bad punch by Galaxy 'keeper Jorge Campos. Just four minutes into overtime, Pope drove an Etcheverry corner into the back of the net, then celebrated with a belly-slide in front of the United bench as his teammates converged on him.
The Galaxy were also involved in the game voted the second-best MLS Cup ever, but this time, they came out on top.
In 2002, the Green and Gold were in enemy territory, facing off against the New England Revolution in front of a partisan crowd of more than 61,000 people at Gillette Stadium, the Revs' home ground. For 112 minutes, the teams slugged it out in a defensive battle, with neither team finding the back of the net. Then Galaxy forward Carlos Ruiz, the league's MVP, struck. After receiving the ball in the middle of the box from teammate Tyrone Marshall, Ruiz coolly slotted home a one-time effort just inside the far post, instantaneously ending years of frustration for the Galaxy. The victory gave the club its first MLS Cup in its fourth trip to the title game.
The third best MLS Cup came in 2003, when the San Jose Earthquakes topped the Chicago Fire 4-2 in the highest-scoring final in league history. Quakes midfielder Ronnie Ekelund got the pulsating affair off to a fast start in the fifth minute, rocketing home a free kick from 20 yards out. Landon Donovan made it 2-0 in the 38th minute, and it seemed the Quakes would coast.
But that wouldn't be the case, as DaMarcus Beasley cut the score to 2-1 just four minutes after the break. Richard Mulrooney made the lead two goals yet again a minute later, but the Fire fought back again, getting a Chris Roner own goal in the 54th and earning a penalty kick in the 55th. Fire forward Ante Razov stepped up to take the kick and was stoned by Quakes 'keeper Pat Onstad, effectively killing the Fire's hopes. Donovan made it official in the 71st minute as he became the first player to hit for two goals in an MLS Cup game and lifted the Quakes to their second title.
In the game that finished fourth in the "Best MLS Cup" poll, the Fire completed an astonishing inaugural season with a 2-0 victory over United in MLS Cup 1998. The Fire were part of the league's first expansion that year and went on to win the domestic double, capturing both the MLS title and the U.S. Open Cup.
The Fire's central midfield tandem of Peter Nowak and Chris Armas shone during the match, as Nowak created both Fire goals with his playmaking abilities and Armas shut down Etcheverry. Nowak helped get the Fire on the board in the 29th minute, storming into the box on a give-and-go with Razov before slotting a pass to Jerzy Podbrozny for the easy tap-in. The former Polish international was at it again in the 45th minute, firing a shot that deflected off Diego Gutierrez and past United 'keeper Tom Presthus, who was caught leaning the wrong way on the play.
Other games receiving votes in the poll were, in order of finish, the Earthquakes' 2-1 win against the Galaxy in MLS Cup 2001, United's 3-2 win against the Kansas City Wizards in MLS Cup 2004, the Wizards' 1-0 win against the Fire in MLS Cup 2000, United's 2-1 win against the Galaxy in MLS Cup 1999, and United's 2-1 win against the Colorado Rapids in MLS Cup 1997.
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.