By Ridge Mahoney
I know a lot of fans and journalists and other observers have jumped aboard the Good Ship MLS somewhat recently, and to them I say, "Welcome aboard!"
It’s certainly not the most majestic nor the sexiest league on the planet, but it’s quite serviceable, and occasionally churns out a marvelous young player, a truly spectacular goal, or even better, a really fabulous game.
Case in point is the Galaxy’s 3-1 defeat of Real Salt Lake Sunday in the Western Conference final at Home Depot Center. Many elements fell in place: star players on both teams and everybody else running themselves ragged; perhaps the noisiest crowd ever assembled for a Galaxy playoff game; excellent goals, shots off the woodwork, glorious saves, and courageous goal-mouth blocks; and the fans roaring in triumph as the final seconds counted down.
Apparently the giddiness ringing around the stadium spread throughout the land, for right away came inquiries, and even outright claims, about it being the best playoff game in league history.
First off, the playoffs include MLS Cups, last time I checked, and thus any postseason game must be measured against the first title bout: D.C. United’s amazing 3-2 victory over the Galaxy at a rain-lashed Foxboro Stadium in 1996. Eddie Pope’s dramatic sudden-death header to complete a comeback from 2-0 down (as late as the 70th minute) can’t be duplicated, since no longer are games decided by what FIFA once christened as the “golden goal.”
About all that game lacked was a raucous home crowd, but there were enough fans rooting for D.C. United or just enthralled by what they’d witnessed to conjure up a huge roar when Pope’s header sent water spraying from the back of the net. In the modern era, only a stoppage-time winner at the end of regulation or overtime can match Pope’s strike for drama, and on that benchmark, a game that in effect was decided in the 68th minute when Robbie Keane’s strike made it 3-1 doesn’t come close.
Even if we exclude that MLS Cup, and other memorable finals – the 2001 game also went to sudden-death, and the 2003 game at HDC featured six goals – the Galaxy-Real Salt Lake match doesn’t quite get there. Galaxy fans don’t want to recall how their team blew a 4-0 aggregate lead to archrival San Jose in 2003: after winning the first leg, 2-0, at HDC, Los Angeles imploded after it took a 2-0 lead in the second game.
(This reminds me of the English attitude toward World Cup upsets, i.e., that famous 1-0 loss to the USA at the 1950 World Cup. Outside of Britain, that game is generally regarded as the greatest upset in the tournament’s history; within those borders, however, North Korea’s stunning upset of Italy – accomplished on English soil, it must be pointed out – in 1966 usually takes the prize.)
The Quakes tied it up before halftime to trail only, 4-2, on aggregate, and throughout the second half Spartan Stadium trembled as they scored a third goal, and then a fourth in the final minute, to tie the series, 4-4. When Rodrigo Faria slid home the winner in the eighth minute of overtime, the crowd of 14,145 sounded more like 40,000 and a deafening din rattled the ancient edifice for several minutes.
While that game did have Landon Donovan – who scored San Jose’s third goal five minutes into the second half -- as well as Alexi Lalas -- mired on the Galaxy bench as a huge lead melted away – it didn’t have a national TV audience, nor the star power of Galaxy 2011, nor the feisty resilience of RSL, for which one of its dominant centerbacks hobbled while the other fidgeted on the sidelines. There’s no doubt Sunday’s game had a much shinier sheen to it, as well as some sweet soccer, but it can’t top the 2003 barnburner for drama and suspense and a pulsating finish.
The indomitable Quakes rallied again in the next round, beating Kansas City, 3-2, in overtime on another Donovan goal in the 117th minute. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess I was at both of these San Jose games, and didn’t attend HDC on Sunday. There’s nothing like being there, no question. I’ll also say Galaxy-RSL was a great game. But that doesn’t mean others can’t be greater.)
There are other non-MLS Cup postseason clasicos, too. On its run to MLS Cup in 1996, D.C. United lost a shootout to the MetroStars in driving rain at the Meadowlands. Current Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes, a MetroStar on that day, converted one of the kicks in a shootout marred by confusion over the sequence of shooters. That one came laced with a bit of contrived farce, yet also greatly entertained.
Brimstone Cup rivals Chicago and Dallas conjured up a goodie in 1999. The Burn (ah, those were the days!) fell behind, 2-0, in the first six minutes, then roared back to win, 3-2, and take the best-of-three series (more nostalgia!). There are probably a dozen others of high drama.
With nearly two weeks to go until this year’s MLS Cup, this might be a good time to dust off the video tapes and DVDs, and revisit the best of the best.
I’ll give Galaxy-RSL very high marks for spectacle and drama and grant it entrance to the royal court of the league’s best playoff games. But no, it is not fit to sit on the throne.