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Top 10 Most Memorable MLS Cup Finals in History – Who Could Forget 1996?

| November 19, 2021 7:42 am PDT

Ever since 1996, the MLS Cup Final has dished up tons of iconic moments.

From DC United and LA Galaxy’s epic battle in the inaugural showpiece to Columbus Crew’s famous victory over Seattle Sounders in 2020, the biggest game of the year never fails to disappoint.

Remember when Sporting Kansas City edged out Real Salt Lake in a thrilling penalty shootout? What about when Brian Ching fired Houston Dynamo to glory back in 2006?

In this post, I look back on the best MLS Cup Finals of all time. Of course, there are plenty to choose from. But I have decided to relive the top ten most memorable MLS Cup Finals in history.

1996 – DC United 3-2 LA Galaxy (After Overtime)

Will the inaugural MLS Cup Final ever be topped?

The LA Galaxy looked destined to lift the trophy in 1996. Eduardo Hurtado gave his team the lead inside five minutes before Chris Armas doubled the Galaxy’s advantage early in the second half.

However, DC United went on to produce one of the most dramatic comebacks in the history of Major League Soccer.

Anthony Sanneh pulled a goal back for the Black-and-Red on 73 minutes. Eight minutes later, Shawn Medved netted a late equalizer to send the game into overtime.

Back in those days, the “golden goal” rule was in place – meaning overtime was effectively sudden death. Whoever scored the first goal in overtime would win the game.

Luckily for DC, Eddie Pope bagged the winner. The USMNT all-time best XI representative scored from close range to hand Bruce Arena’s side the title.

Many believe the 1996 showpiece is still the best MLS Cup Final of all time.

2014 – LA Galaxy 2-1 New England Revolution (After Overtime)

Almost two decades after the drama of the inaugural MLS Cup final, the Galaxy reached the showpiece again in 2014. This time around, they came out on top.

Gyasi Zardes put the Galaxy ahead just after the break, but Chris Tierney equalized for New England – sending the game to overtime.

Just when it looked as though a penalty shootout would be needed to decide the outcome of the match, Robbie Keane scored deep into overtime to secure the title for the Galaxy.

Thanks largely to his heroics in 2014, Keane is widely recognized as one of the greatest overseas players in MLS history.

2014 was also the year that Landon Donovan left the Galaxy. Donovan and his teammates were desperate to get their hands on the trophy that season – and they managed to achieve the feat.

2003 – San Jose Earthquakes 4-2 Chicago Fire

The 2003 final is officially the highest-scoring MLS Cup Final to date. Funnily enough, overtime wasn’t even required to produce this six-goal thriller!

San Jose carried a 2-0 lead into half-time. Yet, following a crazy spell early in the second half, the Earthquakes led 3-2 with more than 35 minutes remaining.

On 71 minutes, Landon Donovan made it 4-2 to San Jose – becoming the first player to score two goals in an MLS Cup Final.

San Jose Earthquakes Statistic Chicago Fire
4 Goals 2
11 Total Shots 22
7 Shots on Target 10
8 Saves 4
3 Corners 13
14 Fouls 17

As you can see, Chicago dominated the match. The Fire racked up a whopping 22 shots – ten of which were on target – but failed to get the better of the Quakes.

The 2003 showpiece will always be remembered as one of the greatest MLS Cup Finals in history.

2013 – Sporting Kansas City 1-1 Real Salt Lake (7-6 Penalties)

A total of four MLS Cup Finals have gone all the way to penalties, three of which feature on my list of the best MLS Cup finals of all time.

Of course, penalty shootouts are always dramatic. But it could be argued that Sporting Kansas City’s spot-kick battle with Real Salt Lake in 2013 is the craziest penalty shootout in MLS Cup history.

Admittedly, the final itself wasn’t the best. The two sides drew 1-1 inside 90 minutes before playing out a goalless overtime period. But it’s what happened after overtime that makes this final so special.

Sporting KC converted their first two penalties, while RSL missed their opening two. However, the Claret & Cobalt managed to score five consecutive spot kicks to keep the game alive.

Unfortunately, Lovel Palmer missed the decisive kick for RSL – handing SKC an extraordinary 7-6 penalty-shootout victory.

Talk about drama!

2004 – DC United 3-2 Kansas City Wizards

The Galaxy’s Home Depot Center was the venue for the 2004 MLS Cup Final, which saw DC United come up against the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City).

This game had absolutely everything – five goals (one of which was an own goal), a penalty, a brace, and a red card. You name it, the 2004 MLS Cup Final had it.

Kansas City took the lead after just six minutes, but a quick-fire double from Alecko Eskandarian saw DC go ahead on 23 minutes. An Alex Zotinca own goal then made it 3-1 to DC before the break.

Despite a second-half goal from Josh Wolff – and a red card for DC midfielder Dema Kovalenko – the Black-and-Red managed to hold on to claim their fourth MLS Cup in nine seasons.

It is worth noting Nick Rimando made several key saves to prevent the Wizards from mounting a comeback. The record-breaking gloveman is undoubtedly among the best MLS goalkeepers of all time.

2002 – LA Galaxy 1-0 New England Revolution (After Overtime)

A full house of 61,316 crammed into Gillette Stadium to watch the Revs win their first MLS Cup in 2002. Sadly, the home supporters left the ground with their tales between their legs.

The Revs finished atop the Eastern Conference that year. They then dispatched Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew in the playoffs to book their spot in the final.

Over in the West, the Galaxy also topped the table. Sigi Schmid’s men beat Kansas City and Colorado Rapids in the playoffs, setting up a final showdown with New England.

The two sides failed to break the deadlock in normal time. So, following a goalless 90 minutes, the 2002 MLS Cup Final went to overtime.

Both teams had multiple chances to score during the overtime period, but with less than seven minutes left to play, Carlos Ruiz netted the golden goal to hand the Galaxy the trophy.

There may have only been one goal, but the 2002 final is unquestionably one of the greatest MLS Cup Finals in history.

2020 – Columbus Crew 3-0 Seattle Sounders

Believe it or not, the Sounders reached their fourth MLS Cup Final five seasons in 2020. Having triumphed in 2016 and 2019, Seattle was expected to lift the trophy again.

But Columbus had other ideas.

The Crew ended up thrashing the Sounders 3-0 in front of a COVID-restricted crowd at Mapfre Stadium. Despite seeing just 35% of the ball, Caleb Porter’s side crushed Seattle

Columbus Crew Statistic Seattle Sounders
3 Goals 0
35% Possession 65%
15 Total Shots 13
5 Shots on Target 2
7 Corners 8
15 Fouls 13

Lucas Zelarayan was the start of the show, bagging a brace and an assist. He opened the scoring with a volley before completing the rout with a pin-point left-footed strike.

As one of the best MLS Cup finals of all time, it is hardly surprising that the showpiece event is also among the standout moments from the 2020 Major League Soccer season.

2006 – Houston Dynamo 1-1 New England Revolution (4-3 Penalties)

You may have noticed that New England hasn’t enjoyed much luck in MLS Cup Finals over the years. Unfortunately for the Revs, they fell short once again in 2006.

After 90 goalless minutes, the 2006 MLS Cup Final went to overtime. Steve Nicol’s men had dominated large spells of the games, but they failed to find a way through in normal time.

The Revs must have thought they had secured the title when Taylor Twellman ended their 346-minute scoring drought in MLS Cup Finals, hitting the target with seven minutes left to play.

But a mere 71 seconds later, Houston forward Brian Ching headed home an equalizer to send the game to penalties.

Dominic Kinnear’s men converted each of their first three penalties, putting the pressure on New England. Pat Noonan then missed the Revs’ third spot kick before Jay Heaps missed the fifth.

Having just equalized for Houston in overtime, Ching stepped up and scored the winning penalty – sending Frisco’s Pizza Hut Park into raptures.

2001 – San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 LA Galaxy (After Overtime)

The 2001 MLS Cup Final was an all-Californian affair. Strangely, the old playoff format allowed the San Jose Earthquakes and the LA Galaxy to go head-to-head in the deciding match.

The Galaxy finished atop the Western Conference that year, just two points ahead of second-place San Jose. Needless to say, the final did not disappoint.

The Los Angeles side took the lead after 21 minutes thanks to Luis Hernandez. Just before half-time, however, a 19-year-old Landon Donovan equalized for the Earthquakes.

Neither team managed to add to the scoreline in the second half, despite multiple goalscoring opportunities. As a result, the game entered a sudden-death overtime period.

Dwayne De Rosario proved to be the hero for the Quakes. The Canadian was substituted into the match in the 85th minute and ended up scoring a golden goal six minutes into overtime.

The Quakes were officially the worst team in Major League Soccer in 2000, finishing last in the overall standings. A year later, they completed a memorable “worst to first” turnaround.

2009 – Real Salt Lake 1-1 LA Galaxy (5-4 Penalties)

Led by the legendary David Beckham, the Galaxy would have been confident of securing their third MLS Cup in 2009. But Real Salt Lake spoiled the party.

The Galaxy went ahead when Mike Magee opened the scoring just before half-time. However, RSL battled back after the break and equalized through Robert Findlay on 64 minutes.

The game eventually went to overtime, although no further goals were scored. That meant the 2009 MLS Cup Final would be decided by the dreaded penalty shootout.

Both teams converted four of their first six spot kicks before Robbie Russell gave RSL the advantage. Edson Buddle then missed the Galaxy’s seventh penalty, gifting RSL an indelible victory.

When it comes to discussing the greatest MLS Cup Finals in history, you simply cannot leave the 2009 showpiece out of the conversation.

Final Word on the Best MLS Cup Finals Ever

I hope you enjoyed looking back at the best MLS Cup Finals of all time as much as I did.

It goes without saying that some memorable games missed the cut. Seattle’s dramatic penalty-shootout victory over Toronto in 2016 deserves a mention, as does Portland’s triumph in 2015.

In many of the top soccer leagues around the world, the final standings determine the champion. But where’s the fun in that?

Personally, I love the playoffs. The postseason adds extra spice to every campaign and keeps MLS fans coming back year after year. Let’s hope the format never changes!

If you enjoyed this post and want to check out more MLS content, make sure you explore the post below.

Ben Morris

Ben is a sportswriter and tipster who specializes in soccer. Currently based in the UK, he has traveled all around the world watching – and betting on – his beloved sport.

Alongside his regular soccer content, Ben publishes blogs and picks for cricket, Formula 1, Aussie rules, darts, and various other sports.

Ben is a diehard fan of Nottingham Forest and England, so he hasn’t had much to cheer about in recent years!

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