Tata Martino's team played some dazzling soccer en route to 70 goals, a 15-9-10 mark and a spot in the playoffs — just the fourth expansion team to reach the postseason — but fell at the first postseason hurdle.
That would appear to eliminate the Five Stripes from consideration for No. 1, but LAFC coach Bob Bradley has made it clear that no such debate actually exists. Others might pretend, but who but the Chicago Fire side he guided to MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup titles in 1998 deserve the designation?
Sigi Schmid, whose LA Galaxy team this weekend takes on LAFC for the first time Saturday (3 pm ET | FOX) — and who has a bit of experience in leading a successful first-year franchise — thinks Bradley might be right.
Or maybe not.
“Certainly, there's a lot of things that speak for Chicago, because they won the double that year,” Schmid said Tuesday as the Galaxy began preparations for Saturday afternoon's clash at StubHub Center. “And you've got to say that. But it was also a year in which the league was only [in its third season] and at that time you only had, what, was it 10 teams or so? It was a different time.
“Certainly from a standpoint of winning the Cup, nobody can take that away from that expansion team.”
It was a different time. The Fire and Miami Fusion boosted MLS to a dozen teams, and both made it into the playoffs, which wasn't nearly as tough as it is now. Eight of the 12 teams advanced.
MLS was quickly maturing beyond adolescence when Schmid, fresh off a Shield/Cup double with Columbus Crew SC, took charge of Seattle Sounders FC in 2009. They went 12-7-11 to finish third in the West, just one point off the top spot and two points behind Shield-winners Columbus, and became the first expansion team since the Fire and Fusion to reach the playoffs. They also won the U.S. Open Cup in their first year in MLS.
The Sounders did not advance beyond the conference semifinals that year, but Schmid thinks the foundation the club built that season and expanded upon in the following years has, among expansion teams, never been approached.
It's a fair argument. Seattle have reached the playoffs in each of their nine seasons, the second-longest such streak in league history, one year shy of the Galaxy's 1996-2005 run. Atlanta, with only the one year to their credit, are the only other MLS team never to miss the postseason.
“I'm proud of what we did in Seattle,” Schmid said. “What we wanted was to establish a consistent franchise, one that would be there every year, that would battle every year, and I think we accomplished that right from Year One. We were in the hunt, we were in the thick of things, and I think building that consistency [is impressive].
“Different times, different eras. Chicago was a very, very good expansion team. I think Seattle was, as well, and I think Atlanta's gotten off to a good start as well.”
Perhaps the best challenger to Chicago's claim would be the 2006 Houston Dynamo, which won the first of successive MLS Cup championships after relocating from San Jose. Officially, the Dynamo were a new club, but even Galaxy assistant coach Dominic Kinnear, who coached those teams, doesn't fully buy in. Houston inherited the Earthquakes' 2005 Shield winners.
“We were an expansion club,” he said, “rather than an expansion team.”
Schmid has been impressed with LAFC.
“They have a talented roster,” he said. “The days are different now. There's more money available for you as you come in as an expansion team, there's the ability to start putting your team together in advance of your actual start date, so there's a lot of things that are positive that you got going for you, and, obviously, Bob's a good coach and he [and LAFC's technical staff has] done a good job in terms of selecting players. ...
“Certainly, they're capable of being the best [expansion team MLS has seen]. They're only two games into the season, and you've got to make that determination at the end of the year.”