We are five days out from MLS Cup 2013, the 18th edition of the league’s championship match, and if history is any guide, we can expect an entertaining game between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City on Saturday (unlike the controversial regular-season slugfest they staged back in July).
That’s because, unlike the NFL’s Super Bowl, MLS Cup has a pretty solid track record of producing games worthy of the sparkling Philip F. Anschutz Trophy that goes to the winner.
There’s never been a scoreless draw, and even the 1-0 squeakers had their compelling moments (think Tony Meola standing on his head in 2000 to lead KC to a 1-0 upset of Chicago, or Carlos “El Pescadito” Ruiz slipping in a dramatic winner at the far post in extratime to lift LA over New England in 2002).
Seven of the previous 17 MLS Cups have gone to extratime, two have been decided on penalties, and almost all of them have had an attacking bent.
So chances are we’ll get a good game on Saturday, and if we’re lucky, the 2013 Cup will force us to revise the following list of the Top 5 MLS Cups in league history:
5. 2012: Beckham Goes out a Winner
LA Galaxy 3, Houston 1: This game was good, perhaps not great, but the outcome was a rich slice of league history, as Omar Gonzalez, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane scored to rally the Galaxy from a 1-0 deficit and put an exclamation point on the MLS career of global icon David Beckham.
MVP: Omar Gonzalez
Notable: The first MLS Cup held at the stadium of the finalist with the best record.
4. 2006: Twellman and Ching Trade Haymakers
Houston 1, New England 1 (Dynamo won 4-3 on penalties): After a tense but scoreless 90 minutes, this one burst to life in extra time, when the Revolution’s Taylor Twellman and Houston’s Brian Ching scored 72 seconds apart.
Twellman, and Revs fans, thought he had won New England’s first title in three trips to MLS Cup after he took an excellent pass from Khano Smith and buried a shot inside the far post, beyond the reach of Houston 'keeper Pat Onstad. But Houston immediately replied – while the stadium PA announcer was still detailing Twellman’s goal – with Ching nodding Brian Mullan’s deflected cross into the New England net.
The furious exchange set up the first penalty shootout in MLS Cup history. After Ching scored Houston’s fifth spot kick, Onstad stopped Jay Heaps’ effort to send the Dynamo to their first title in their first year of existence.
MVP: Brian Ching
Notable: This was the last game of Clint Dempsey’s first MLS stint. He departed for Fulham, and Premier League glory, a month later.
3. 2003: Donovan, Onstad Show San Jose the Way
San Jose 4, Chicago 2: The highest-scoring final in league history featured two goals from superstar Donovan and a pivotal penalty save from Pat Onstad, who stopped Ante Razov’s spot kick in the 55th minute to preserve a 3-2 Quakes lead. Donovan iced it with his second in the 71st minute.
The win capped a remarkable postseason run for San Jose, who had recorded the most stunning comeback in MLS history in the second leg of the Western Conference Semifinals, rallying from a 4-0 aggregate deficit to advance.
Notable: The two finalists’ rosters were chock full of players who did or would play for the US national team, including DaMarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra, Donovan, Razov, Jeff Agoos, Richard Mulrooney, Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch, Justin Mapp and Eddie Robinson.
2. 2001: DeRo Delivers
San Jose 2, LA Galaxy 1: This was Dwayne De Rosario’s first season in MLS, and he capped it in the most memorable way possible, while also signaling the greatness to come in his storied career.
In the sixth minute of Golden-Goal extratime, DeRo settled a long ball outside the Galaxy box, made a move on LA defender Danny Califf and curled a shot in off the far post past Galaxy 'keeper Kevin Hartman. Cue Jack Edwards: “The Quakes win the Cup! The Quakes win the Cup!”
MVP: De Rosario
Notable: LA and US national team defender Paul Caliguiri’s final game; Donovan’s peroxided ’do.
1. 1996: Pope Answers D.C. Prayers
D.C. United 3, LA Galaxy 2: The first and still the best MLS Cup was almost postponed due to a severe Nor’easter in the New England area. But the deluge wasn’t enough to stop the inaugural MLS Cup, or the 34,643 hardy fans who made it out to Gillette Stadium for the game.
They were not disappointed, as LA and D.C. put on an entertaining, end-to-end championship game, with United rallying from a 2-0 deficit and winning in extratime on Eddie Pope’s Golden Goal header from a Marco Etcheverry corner kick.
Notable: The league’s first championship game birthed its first (and arguably still its best) dynasty, as United went on to reach the next three MLS Cup finals, winning three titles in four years. Also: Pope’s father briefly left his seat during extra time at Foxboro Stadium, missing his son’s historic goal.