Armchair Analyst: The most important goals in MLS Cup history

On Monday, we talked about the most important goals in MLS regular-season history. On Tuesday, we did the most important goals in MLS postseason history, MLS Cup excluded. On Thursday, we'll dive into the most important goals by MLS teams in Concacaf Champions League history.

Today is for the most important MLS Cup itself.

To be clear: Every goal is important, especially so when it's a goal scored in MLS Cup. But game-winners are naturally more important, and even among those there's a hierarchy – some start or solidify a dynasty, some cap a memorable individual performance or crystallize a player's reputation as a great player, or a big-game player. Some are the harbingers of a new era, others mark the end of an old era.

I've considered all of the above. Here are the most important goals in MLS Cup history. As usual, we shall start at the beginning:

1. The Birth of a Dynasty (1996)

Right up until 2017 there was a case to be made the original D.C. United teams were the very best teams ever to kick a ball in MLS. They were certainly the most dominant, winning eight trophies in four years – they won a double of some sort every single year, including in 1996 – and generally dominated the league like no team since.

Eddie Pope's goal, where he got to the near post on a well-rehearsed corner kick routine, rose up and headed it home four minutes into extra time for the golden goal, gave D.C. the first of those trophies. That they claimed the 3-2 win despite going down 2-0 spoke to their collective will to win; that they got all three of their goals off of set pieces spoke to their pragmatism and ability to find a way.

It was a hugely significant moment, though. Pope had just starred for the US Olympic team and was on the verge of a legendary national team career, while Marco Etcheverry made clear on the day and throughout the next three seasons he was, indeed, the best player in MLS.

Beyond that: It was the first MLS Cup, and the league was something of a phenomenon in that first year, and so everybody was watching. The optics of it were wild, as the game took place in a monsoon, and the climax remains maybe still the iconic moment in league history from what still might be the iconic team in league history.

2. Red Treble (2017)

So often in sports we look at a team, analyze them, and then say "on paper, here's what they're supposed to be." So often in sports we look at a team and see, on grass, they're something much, much different.

Toronto FC were everybody's favorites heading into 2017. They were coming off a 2016 season in which they'd really discovered themselves over the final two months, put in some incredible playoff performances (the second leg vs. Montreal in particular), and then utterly dominated the Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup itself.

Except this is a cruel game. Stefan Frei had to make the greatest save in MLS Cup history, and Seattle never got close to scoring, but the Sounders won. Toronto had come so close.

Thus in 2017, on paper, everybody looked at the Reds as the favorites. And then on grass, after a stop-start first six weeks of the season, they began playing like favorites and just... didn't... stop. Their Shield-winning margin of 12 points set a new league record, and along the way they won the Canadian Championship in dramatic fashion. So they went into the playoffs as favorites to become the first team in league history to do the domestic treble.

As in 2016, they were much, much better than the Sounders. As in 2016, Frei kept Seattle in the game. Unlike in 2017, Toronto eventually found their breakthrough. Sebastian Giovinco played Jozy Altidore through (about the 7:30 mark in the video above), and Jozy was able to get Frei on the ground and then chip him.

It was 1-0, it would end 2-0, and Toronto were the first up the mountaintop. They will always be the first to plant that flag.

3. The Beckham Experiment Succeeds (2011)

You have to understand the atmosphere and creeping conventional wisdom entering this game. David Beckham had been with the Galaxy since 2007, and Cuauhtemoc Blanco was with Chicago for three years, and Juan Pablo Angel was with the Red Bulls for four years, and Thierry Henry was in his second year in Harrison, as was Rafa Marquez. Freddie Ljungberg, Julian De Guzman, Mista, even David Ferreira... the DP rule was five years old and none of them had won an MLS Cup.

The creeping conventional wisdom was that DPs took up too much of the cap, and caused too much of an imbalance in the locker room. The creeping conventional wisdom was you were better off building your team like Real Salt Lake in 2009, or like Colorado in 2010, or like Houston in 2007.

Or like Houston, again, in 2011. The Dynamo had great players but not big stars, and Dom Kinnear had already won two MLS Cups, and everyone was waiting for his team to show that despite the Galaxy's regular-season dominance – they'd just won their second straight Shield – they would earn nothing but heartbreak in the postseason.

There was a ton of pressure on this Galaxy team. You didn't have to look far on social media or in the comments section or even in coverage of the league to see someone opining he was a marketing gimmick, and that DPs were a dead end. Even when the Galaxy cashed in their chips late in the season to bring in Robbie Keane, there was something close to a consensus this just wasn't going to work.

They came out and absolutely throttled the Dynamo, but couldn't quite beat Tally Hall.

Then, in the 72nd minute, Beckham to Keane to Landon Donovan... to the back of the net. The three DPs combined for the game's only goal, and the DP era finally got out of second gear.

4. Ching's Answer (2006)

In 2002, the New England Revolution made MLS Cup and lost 1-0 in the 113th minute on a golden goal. In 2005, the New England Revolution made MLS Cup and lost 1-0 after extra time.

In 2006, the New England Revolution made MLS Cup again, and once again they played 90 scoreless minutes. Once again they were facing an extra time period and, it was suspected, they were kind of cursed. It had been 323 minutes of MLS Cup play without a goal for New England.

The first 15 minutes of extra time came and went, and it was now 338 minutes of MLS Cup play without a goal for New England. There would be no breakthrough.

And then it happened. Eight minutes into the second half of extra time Taylor Twellman got loose on a semi-transition opportunity and fired a left-footed strike just past Pat Onstad's dive, just inside the post and in. After 346 minutes of MLS Cup play, the Revolution had finally scored a goal. After 346 minutes of MLS Cup play, the Revolution finally had a lead.

Now they just had to protect it for eight minutes. That's all it would take.

That lead barely lasted eight seconds. The Dynamo planted the ball at midfield, kicked off after the goal, got it wide to Brian Mullan, and Mullan put his cross right on Brian Ching's head. Houston would go on to win in penalties.

The Revolution, it turns out, really were cursed. 

5. Schelotto's Masterpiece (2008)

The best individual performance in MLS Cup history? It's either Frei in 2016 or Tony Meola in 2000.

The best individual performance from an attacker? It's unquestionably Guillermo Barros Schelotto in 2008. The Argentinean maestro (who would not become a DP until 2009, mind you), had already led the Crew to the Shield during the regular season and was expected to be the key player as his side pushed to become the first team since the 2002 Galaxy to do the Shield/MLS Cup double.

He was indeed the key player. Schelotto assisted all three goals in Columbus's dominant 3-1 win over the Red Bulls, and the last of those three – the one that clinched it, and that sent the Crew fans three sections away from me into hysterics – was so pretty it should be hanging in a museum. GBS had spotted Frankie Hejduk's overlap and placed the most delicate of chips directly into his path, directly onto his head. All Frankie had to do was keep running, and it was going to end up in the back of the net.

It was a gorgeous goal. Two other notes:

  • This win also made the late, great Sigi Schmid the first coach in league history to win two Shield/Cup doubles, and to do so with two different teams (his first came in 2002 with the Galaxy).
  • The Nordecke was born in 2008. To borrow a line from a friend, "Every person who volunteered hours and expertise to #SaveTheCrew fell in love with the team during that season." And to a person, everyone who was there will point to that Hejduk goal as the club's high point.

Honorable Mentions

D.C.'s Only Blemish (1998)

United won three of the first four MLS Cups. The one they lost, in 1998, came against a Fire team that they absolutely dominated for the first 25 minutes.

But in the 29th minute Chicago pushed forward, and some interplay between Peter Nowak and Jerzy Podbrozny made it 1-0 Fire in the 29th minute. At that point – unlike the game against LA in 1996 – it was a fait accompli. Chicago were a masterful counterattacking team, and were only too happy to invite D.C. forward.

Just before the half United pushed up too far, Chicago countered, and 1-0 became 2-0. As great as D.C. were, the game was effectively over. You did not come from behind against that Fire team.

The Best Individual Season Ever (2002)

The LA Galaxy won the Shield in 2002. They bagged 44 goals in the process, and Carlos Ruiz scored 24 of them.

The LA Galaxy won MLS Cup in 2002, the club's first. They scored 15 goals in the postseason, and Ruiz got eight of them. That included the game's only goal in MLS Cup, an extra time goal in front of 62,000 Revs fans.

No player, before or since, has scored as great a percentage of a title-winning team's goals. Pescadito was a one-man show in a way no one's quite matched.

The Best Individual Season Ever – Fans' Vote (2018)

Not even Josef matched what Pescadito managed! But I think it's safe to say his goal, the opener in Atlanta's 2-0 win, validated a lot about what he seemed to be, a lot about how Atlanta had built their team, and a lot about the direction the league was heading in.

That said, Brad Guzan's save a few minutes later was actually the biggest moment of that game.

Gimme VAR (2015)

I am absolutely thrilled to end this column with a throw-back, Simon Borg Instant Replay. The most controversial no-call in MLS Cup history led to the most controversial goal in MLS Cup history, which just so happened to be the game-winner in Portland's 2-1 win over the Crew in Columbus in 2015.

I think MLS would've been one of the VAR earlier adopters regardless. But yeah, this one lit a fire, I'm sure.

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