Unless you’re the 1998 Chicago Fire, there is a steep learning curve to entering MLS. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the struggles expansion teams have had in getting to the postseason – just ask fans of Toronto FC, the Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps.
On Sunday, however, the Philadelphia Union made their postseason debut in just their second season, a disappointing 2-1 loss to the Houston Dynamo. Let’s see where that stacks up historically among expansion team playoff debuts:
Chicago Fire vs. Colorado Rapids, Oct. 1, 1998
The Chicago Fire became the first – and only – expansion team in MLS history to win it all in their first season. But you might not have seen that coming based on the way their first game went.
Lubos Kubik put Chicago ahead in the 50th minute as the Fire defense did not allow the visiting Rapids a single shot on goal through much of the game. Colorado’s first effort on frame, however, was flicked in by Waldir Sáenz to knot the game at 1-1. The match eventually went to a six-round shootout, where Zach Thornton put in a heroic effort to save the Rapids’ last three attempts and earn the Fire their first playoff win en route to the title.
D.C. United vs. Miami Fusion, Sept. 30, 1998
D.C. finished the 1998 season top of the Eastern Conference with the second-best record in the league behind the LA Galaxy. Miami, on the other hand, barely squeaked into the postseason with 35 points.
The disparity showed as the Fusion fell in their first playoff match to the two-time defending champions. First-half goals from Roy Lassiter and Jaime Moreno gave United a 2-0 lead. Striker Paulinho McLaren pulled one back for Miami in the 69th minute, but it wasn’t enough as the expansion side fell to an unceremonious defeat. D.C. would finish off the Fusion shortly after with a shootout win at Lockhart Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Chivas USA vs. Houston Dynamo, Oct. 22, 2006
After missing out on the playoffs in their first season, Chivas USA made amends in 2006, earning third place in the Western Conference and a first-round date with the newly coined Houston Dynamo.
Chivas withstood a first-half onslaught by Houston before nipping a goal just before halftime through striker Ante Razov. Juan Francisco Palencia added another in the 68th minute, a strike that proved to be the winner after Brian Ching put in a goal in the 75th. The Goats’ run ended, however, when Houston posted a 2-0 win at Robertson Stadium in the second leg.
Real Salt Lake vs. Chivas USA, Nov. 1, 2008
The second year of Jason Kreis’ tenure as RSL head coach became the club’s first in the playoffs. And they came out firing.
RSL blasted 21 shots on the night to Chivas’ three, putting nine on target. But they would have to wait until that final one to eventually break through, a 90th-minute strike by Yura Movsisyan that won the game for the playoff debutants. The goal proved pivotal, as RSL and Chivas battled to a 2-2 draw in the second leg, sending the Claret-and-Cobalt to the Western Conference Championship.
Seattle Sounders vs. Houston Dynamo, Oct. 29, 2009
The Sounders’ first trip to the postseason marked the first time since 1998 that an expansion team had made the playoffs in their first campaign.
Unfortunately for Seattle, the magic of the moment did not extend beyond the regular season. They played to a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals before an overtime goal from the Dynamo’s Brian Ching in the second leg sent the Sounders to an early exit.
San Jose Earthquakes vs. New York Red Bulls, Oct. 30, 2010
It took two seasons after their reincarnation for the San Jose Earthquakes to return to the MLS Cup Playoffs.
And they didn’t get off to a particularly auspicious start. Golden Boot-winner Chris Wondolowski was held to just two shots all night, while a Joel Lindpere goal in the 55th minute earned the Red Bulls a 1-0 win on the road. It wasn't until the next game where San Jose announced their return, stunning New York with a 3-1 win in Harrison, N.J., to knock out the vaunted Red Bulls.
Philadelphia Union vs. Houston Dynamo, Oct. 30, 2011
The Union’s first playoff match could not have found a better stage. On the same night that the Philadelphia Eagles were playing a rivalry game at home against the Dallas Cowboys, PPL Park attracted a sell-out crowd intent on spurring their team to victory over the Houston Dynamo.
But it was not to be. A first-half flurry of goals ended in the 30th minute when Calen Carr put Houston ahead 2-1. The Union continued to create chances in search of an equalizer, and perhaps a winner, but Dynamo ‘keeper Tally Hall stood on his head to record 10 saves and send Philadelphia to a loss in their first postseason action.