Boniek Garcia - Benny Feilhaber - 2013
USA Today Sports Images

Unlikely MLS rivalries that were forged by the pressure of playoff competition

One of the best things about playoff competition is that high stakes postseason matches often breed unexpected storylines and even genuine rivalries between clubs that might not otherwise be connected.

As we continue to celebrate Audi Playoff Week, here are five such rivalries over the course of MLS' first quarter century that had their roots not in geographic bragging rights, but in competition for the ultimate prize: MLS Cup.

Chicago Fire vs. New England Revolution (2005-2009)

Almost 1,000 miles of highway separate Gillette Stadium and Soldier Field, but as MLS entered its second decade, superiority in the Eastern Conference always ran through one of those two clubs to the tune of meetings in five consecutive postseasons.

The Revs got the better of it early on, defeating the Fire in the 2005 and 2007 Eastern Conference Finals by identical 1-0 scorelines, the latter coming on Taylor Twellman's bicycle kick that remains one of the greatest postseason goals in MLS history.

Eventually, the tables turned. The Fire routed New England 3-0 in the second leg of the 2008 Conference Semifinal series to take the two-leg aggregate series by the same total.

A year later, the Fire moved to the Western Conference, but were thrown back East for the playoffs in a tweak to the postseason format and again met the Revs in the semifinals. New England won the first leg 2-1, but the Fire stormed back in Leg 2, sealing their passage on Mexico legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco's 83rd-minute series winner.

LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake (2009-2016)

The Galaxy and RSL aren't all that close geographically and are separated even further culturally, with the early success of the Claret-and-Cobalt's #TeamIsTheStar ethos in the Jason Kreis era presenting presenting a stark ideological contrast to Southern California's embrace of David Beckham and other stars.

And it was Salt Lake who got the better of the early days, beginning with their dramatic 2009 MLS Cup victory on penalties, a moment that solidified goalkeeper Nick Rimando's place among the greatest in net in the league's history.

The Galaxy finally captured their first MLS Cup title with David Beckham on the roster two seasons later, only after beating RSL 3-1 in the 2011 Western Conference Final on second-half goals from Mike Magee and Robbie Keane. 

That wasn't the end of the story. Chris Schuler's 103rd-minute extra time goal lifted RSL to a 2-1 victory on aggregate over LA in the 2013 Western Conference semifinals, a postseason that ended with Salt Lake reaching MLS Cup for a second time in club history. The Galaxy answered that the following season with a cathartic 5-0 win in Leg two of the conference semifinals that included a Landon Donovan hat trick, and in 2016 Emmanuel Boateng's brace lifted the Galaxy to a 3-1 Knockout Round win.

Sporting Kansas City vs. Houston Dynamo (2007-2013)

Cultures also clashed in our next rivalry. One team is from America's breadbasket, the other is from the city with the country's second-largest Latino community. One club found success after rebranding its identity, while the other picked up its Northern California roots to resettle in the Lone Star State. Heck, the color wheel even tells us blue and orange are opposites.

The two clubs met three times in postseason play over a seven-year stretch, and twice the winner ended up hoisting MLS Cup.

Despite playing in opposite conferences in 2007, the playoff format at the time sent the Kanas City Wizards out West in the postseason, where they met the Dynamo before more than 30,000 at Robertson Stadium in the Western Conference Final. Houston won 2-0 on goals from Nate Jaqua and Dwayne DeRosario, then defeated New England for a second straight MLS Cup.

Two years later, renamed Sporting Kansas City welcomed the Dynamo in the first ever Western Conference Final played at Children's Mercy Park. But Houston spoiled KC's party with another 2-0 win, as Honduran legend Carlo Costly sealed victory with his 87th-minute insurance tally.

Finally in 2013, Sporting got their revenge in a two-leg Western Conference Championship. After a scoreless Leg 1, flashes of 2011 must've returned when Boniek Garcia gave the vistors the lead in the third minute. But CJ Sapong leveled 11 minutes later, and Dom Dwyer's 63rd-minute goal stood as the winner as KC moved on en route to the club's second MLS Cup title.

D.C. United vs. Columbus Crew (1997-1999)

During the league's nascent years, the road to MLS Cup was synonymous with East Capitol Street, the address of D.C. United's RFK Stadium. And while no conference rival would prevent the Black-and-Red from reaching the MLS Cup from 1996 through 1999, the Columbus Crew came plenty close.

The sides met in three consecutive Eastern Conference Championship series from 1997 to 1999, which were then contested in a best-of-three format. Columbus took D.C. to three games in the last two years, and Stern John, the best MLS striker you may have forgotten about, even scored a hat trick in Game 2 of the 1999 encounter in a 5-1 triumph. But D.C. answered with the heart of a champion, Roy Lassiter scoring a brace and Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry also adding goals en route to a 4-0, series clinching win.

While D.C. were clear winners of that early rivalry on the field, in some ways Columbus were winners off it, becoming the first team in MLS to open their own soccer-specific stadium in 1999. Meanwhile, the Black-and-Red would have to wait nearly two more decades before they finally had their own suitable home, Audi Field, which opened in 2018. And oh yeah, Columbus won the first-ever playoff match played there, on penalties.

Chicago Fire vs. Dallas Burn (1999-2001)

While the Chicago Fire exceeded everyone's expectations in 1998 by winning the American double as an expansion side, if they had a weakness from a narrative perspective it was that they lacked a true rival, geographic or otherwise.

That began to change in 1999 when Chicago met the then-Dallas Burn in two very heated first-round series, pun intended.

In 1999, the clubs tangled in a best-of-three Western Conference semifinal, with Dallas pulling off one of the great early postseason comebacks in Game 3. Down 2-0 early after goals from Ante Razov and Jesse Marsch, the Burn stormed back in the second half beginning when Chad Deering scored 10 minutes after the break. Jorge Rodriguez converted an 84th-minute penalty to level the match, and then Ariel Graziani found a winner two minutes later to hand Chicago their first ever playoff defeat.

The Fire got revenge in 2001 in a short-lived playoff format that kept three-game series, but determined a winner based on total points earned. Five different Chicago Players scored as the Fire earned seven points of a possible nine. 

Those early playoff meetings helped fuel both teams' need for a regular season rival with the creation of the Brimstone Cup. While the trophy has taken on less significance with the creation of the Texas Derby and the arrival of more local rivals for both clubs (Houston, Austin, Minnesota, Cincinnati), it is still awarded to this day.

Series: 

Childhood cancer doesn’t stop for COVID-19

Share your message of hope to inspire their fight as part of childhood cancer awareness month. Learn how you can support