Armchair Analyst: The most important goals in MLS postseason history

EDITOR'S NOTE: All this week, Major League Soccer will be sharing magic moments and epic matches from MLS postseasons past as part of Audi Playoff Week. From Tuesday, May 26 through Sunday, May 31, fans will get to re-live these postseason stories across every MLS platform. MLS broadcast partners are also joining in, with special airings of playoff matches throughout the week. As part of this package, we're re-sharing this piece on the most important goals in Audi MLS Cup Playoffs history.


On Monday we talked about the most important goals in MLS regular-season history. On Wednesday we'll dive into the most important goals in MLS Cup history, and on Thursday it'll be the most important goals by MLS teams in Concacaf Champions League history.

Today is for the most important non-MLS Cup postseason goals in MLS history.

To be honest with you, this was the hardest one to do by quite some distance! Let's go:

1. Cowboy Saves the Quakes (2001)

I will let goalkeeper Joe Cannon, a San Jose legend and the MLS Cup-winning 'keeper in 2001, tell you exactly how much was on the line when the San Jose Earthquakes faced off against the Supporters' Shield-winning Miami Fusion in the 2001 playoffs:

2001 was a very different time in MLS history. Fans, coaches and players woke up every day wondering if the league would still be around by that evening. For two teams, the answer eventually was "no." For the entire league, the answer was nearly "no."

Here's the goal that saved one club and doomed another:

2. Reds Finally Break Through (2017)

This was a long time coming. It was 150 minutes into the Eastern Conference Championship, and the game was still scoreless. Happens all the time, right?

Right. Except Toronto FC had just won the Shield with a record-setting 69 points, won the Canadian Championship and were heavy favorites to become the first-ever MLS team to complete the domestic treble. Except they really hadn't played all that well in October, and neither Jozy Altidore nor Sebastian Giovinco were dominating like they had during the 2016 postseason. Jozy was kind of hurt, and oh by the way this is all coming in the aftermath of failing to get the job done in 2016, and in the aftermath of Jozy and Michael Bradley failing to get the job done for the US men's national team at Trinidad & Tobago the previous month.

There was a lot going on in the build-up to this game. And this is a spectacular goal:

Last year's LAFC side are the best team I've ever seen in MLS, but the 2017 Reds are still "the best team" because they're the only ones who won every trophy they played for. They were the first up that mountaintop.

Given their record in PK shootouts, if Jozy doesn't score that goal, we'd instead remember them along with the likes of the '98 Galaxy, the '01 Fusion, last year's LAFC and the '18 Red Bulls.

But we don't.

3. D.C.'s Dynasty Begins (1996)

Jeff Bradley was once a columnist for this site. Here's the lede to his longform feature on this series, which solidified D.C. United vs. the MetroStrars as the defining rivalry of the league's earliest days:

By the time they met for the seventh time in 1996, the rivalry felt 100 years old. When Tony Meola left the team huddle to take his spot in the goal, he took a look toward the upper deck of RFK Stadium and saw several hundred people cheering for his team.

"I'm guessing 500 had made the trip down from Jersey," Meola recalls. "And they stuck them in the upper deck. And for a few seconds I could hear them. They were really loud."

Then they were drowned out.

"I felt the ground start to move" Meola remembers. "It was 'The Barra Brava.'"

Back at the league's very beginning, and then for a disturbingly-long while afterward, there was no such thing as a draw in MLS. This included the playoffs. Any game tied after regulation and extra time would go to the shootout. And thus playoff series were (I'm not kidding here) a best-of-three event.

Metro won the first game of the 1996 Eastern Conference semifinals via a shootout. D.C. won the second game, back at RFK, on a Marco Etcheverry goal. The third and final game tilted D.C.'s way throughout most of it, but then Pitufo De Avila found a late equalizer for Metro, and it seemed destined for extra time, and maybe even another shootout round. Metro would be favored if that was the case. Meola was simply too good in those to bet against.

But it wasn't to be. With seconds left, in goes Leroy Jenkins Rob Johnson to scythe down Etcheverry, and up steps Raul Diaz Arce to convert the ensuing penalty. United win and advance.

For the entire first four seasons of MLS, this was as close as anybody ever got to knocking D.C. off before MLS Cup itself. Metro could've smothered D.C.'s dynasty in the crib, but they instead gave it life.

4. The Greatest Playoff Game Ever (2003)

No joke: We've made three separate mini-documentaries about San Jose's 2003 Western Conference semifinals win over the LA Galaxy. That's what happens when, in a rivalry series, a team goes from being down 4-0 on aggregate to winning 5-4.

Here's the best of those documentaries:

I'm no longer sure this is the greatest playoff game ever — I think that Toronto vs. Montreal in the second leg of the 2016 Eastern Conference Championship now wears that crown. But this one is no lower than second on the list, and Rodrigo Faria's game-winner didn't just win the series. I'd argue it was the turning point from that group being a one-and-done (in 2001) title team to a group that was a legitimate dynasty, winning four MLS Cups and a Shield over the course of seven seasons, albeit the final two of those coming as the Houston Dynamo.

5. Rave On Juninho

I've written this elsewhere, but let me set the scene one last time: The 2014 Galaxy and Seattle Sounders were two of the five best pre-TAM era teams in MLS history. They spent the final two weeks of that regular season vying for the Shield, playing a home-and-home with a trophy on the line.

That was peak ObaDeuce Seattle vs. the final* Landon Donovan team in LA, and what everyone suspected would be the end of the Galaxy dynasty. There were a lot of stories around this one.

(*) Or so we thought.

Seattle won the regular-season battle, drawing 2-2 at LA during the second-to-last weekend of the season and then winning the Shield at home in front of 50,000 fans behind Marco Pappa's brace.

Then came the playoffs. LA won the first leg 1-0 in Carson, but Seattle took a 2-0 lead at CenturyLink Field in the second leg. And then...

If Juninho doesn't score that goal, I'm pretty sure the Sounders win the domestic treble. If he doesn't score that goal, I'm not sure we even consider the early 2010s Galaxy to be a dynasty. If he doesn't score that goal, I think it changes the course of Seattle's franchise in a lot of ways.

Honorable Mentions

Twellman Gets on His Bike (2007)

The best striker of his era scored a goal so great and so clutch that we did a documentary on it:

Those Revs came so close so, so many times.

Tito Villalba Ends the Series (2018)

There was a very real feeling that Atlanta would never, ever beat the Red Bulls. And even if they'd come out of this one up 2-0, I'm not sure many folks would've picked them to advance.

At 3-0, though, it's a different story, and Atlanta could to play an entirely different game in the second leg at Red Bull Arena. They simply booted it long, recording the lowest pass completion percentage of any game we have data on (more than a decade's worth now) and refused to let the Red Bulls press. They ground out an ugly 1-0 loss that was plenty good enough for the 3-1 aggregate win.

The above remains the only win the Five Stripes have recorded against RBNY in any competition.

Sounders Own Zone 14 (2019)

Pick either of the first two goals Seattle scored in their kind of shocking, kind of not 3-1 win at LAFC last year:

As mentioned above, LAFC are the best team I've ever seen play in MLS. But they definitely weren't on this night, and in this league's history I've never seen a great team's one weakness so ruthlessly exploited again and again and again.

Orange Crushed (2013)

That Quakes/Dynamo dynasty I talked about way up at the top, the one that started in 2001 and lasted until 2007? You could argue, from a certain point of view, that it actually lasted until 2013. Though they weren't technically a dynasty by then, as a club they passed seamlessly from Frank Yallop to Dom Kinnear, and while the vast majority of the faces on the field changed, the culture never did and the attitude never did.

The Dynamo were still the Dynamo, and the Quakes of Yallop and the Dynamo of Kinnear were feared. They'd shift into fifth gear in late summer, thunder down the stretch and then, come playoff time, they were the team everyone wanted to avoid. That was true in 2001, and it was true in 2013. Their run of occasional excellence and consistency over the stretch, during which they were contenders every year but one, is maybe the best in league history.

And here's the goal that ended it:

Sporting Kansas City were favored to beat Houston in the 2011 playoffs and lost. Sporting were favored to beat Houston in the 2012 playoffs and lost. Sporting were favored to beat Houston in the 2013 playoffs and, after after a scoreless draw in the first leg, managed to go down 1-0 at home inside of three minutes. It was happening again.

But then it didn't. KC rallied back to slay the beast, and this is the goal that did it. Kinnear's gone, as is almost everyone else with a tie to the dynasty era, and the Dynamo have made the playoffs just once in the subsequent six seasons. 

It was a changing of the guard atop the Western Conference.

**checks notes**

**sees that both Houston and KC were in the East in 2013**

This column is over. MLS Cup's most important goals coming tomorrow...

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