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The Zero Gang: MLS's most random Cup champions
If the year ends on 0, expect the unexpected.
The playoffs so far have not lacked in drama: penalty shootouts, comebacks, and legendary careers concluded.
As I peruse the annals of MLS playoff history, you recognize some of the all-time great dynasties. DC ruled the 90s, making all four 90s MLS Cups and winning three of them. The 2000s were dominated by a core that split its career across two cities (San Jose and Houston) that won four Cups, as well as a pair of Galaxy titles. LA’s original team rose again in the early 2010s, winning three of four MLS Cups before the latter half of the decade was dominated by Seattle and Toronto. Even the one-and-done title wins in these years were won by teams that came close within that window, such as Chicago in the late 90s and early 2000s, RSL in the late aughts and early 2010s, and Portland from 2015 through 2021.
Then you get to the few fairly random champs, champs that were fairly unremarkable the year before their ring, and who were just kinda there after, never really threatening again with that core. And the three most noticeable all had one thing in common: they were the team to ring in the new decade, with, well, a ring.
Let’s take a look at 3 of the weirdest MLS Cup winners, bonded by a single digit.
2000 Kansas City Wizards
The memories of the Wizards are remembered fairly nostalgically, so I’m going to cut through the nostalgia and lay out the facts headed into the 2000 MLS season. KC had finished last in the West back-to-back years, and dead last in attendance three years in a row. That’s more noticeable when you’re drawing sub-10,000 crowds in 80,000+ seat Arrowhead Stadium. The team had a magician in Preki, but little else: only the pathetic 15-point MetroStars had scored fewer goals than the 1999 Wizards, and the defense was also very leaky.
To solve this, KC made some major moves entering the first full season of their head coach, former USMNT boss Bob Gansler. To shore up the defense, the team scooped up bruising defender Nick Garcia in the SuperDraft’s first round, then snagged Kerry Zavagnin in the third. These pickups were nice, but the biggest gain for KC’s back line came in the form of a trade that frankly changed the entire club: midfielder Scott Vermillion, allocation money, and Chicago’s second round SuperDraft pick for Peter Vermes and Matt McKeon. Throw in the signing of Sevilla’s Danish forward Miklos Molnar, and suddenly KC looked pretty formidable.
And when they took to the pitch, those improvements seriously paid off. The defense let in just 29 goals in 32 matches, earning Meola the MVP and Goalkeeper of the Year and Vermes Defender of the Year, while both Zavagnin and Garcia (a finalist for Rookie of the Year) ate tons of minutes. Molnar proved to be worth every penny, scoring 12 goals in just 17 games and forming a strong attack with Preki and Chris Henderson.
KC shot to the top of the league, winning the Supporter’s Shield over Chicago on a tiebreaker. In the playoffs, the Wizards survived scares from Colorado and the Galaxy to reach the final, where Chicago awaited for the grudge match. Molnar scored early, and Kansas City rode its defense the rest of the way to their first MLS Cup.
Yet, as suddenly as they rose, the team fell off in 2001. Molnar, aged just 30, retired that offseason, and Preki dipped for Miami, his one season MLS season spent outside of Kansas City. When the MLS season ended early after 9/11, the Wizards sat 8th in the 12 team league on points per game, and were swatted away by the Fusion in the first round. It wouldn’t be until 2004 that the Wizards were back contending for league trophies, but even that turned out to be a blip, and the team would be mostly mediocre until the start of the 2010s.
2010 Colorado Rapids
I hate to be this blunt, but throughout their history, the Colorado Rapids have been the very definition of mediocre.
They have basically always finished midtable or worse in their conference, and if they do make the playoffs it’s usually as a filler team that gets swatted by the genuine contenders. The two times they have actually been good in the regular season (2016 and 2021, where they were Shield runners up both times) both turned out to be pretty fluky, and even their one trip to the Open Cup final saw them lose to a non-MLS side, the Rochester Rhinos.
But for a few weeks in 2010, Colorado got the right mix of heat level and fortunate bracket placement and earned their only MLS trophy ever.
Much like their prior few seasons, the Rapids were their usual self with yet another midtable finish. They placed 5th in the West and 7th overall. But that mediocrity actually ended up rewarding them: due to the format, where the top 2 teams from each conference got in plus four wild cards, Colorado and San Jose were shifted to the much weaker Eastern bracket. This meant avoiding the two powerhouses of that season, the Galaxy and RSL, and for the Rapids, it meant a two-legged tie against Columbus.
They defended their home field with a 1-0 win in the first leg. Trailing 2-0 in the second leg and 2-1 on aggregate, Conor Casey put home an equalizer in the 84th to force extra time and eventually penalties. Colorado nailed all their spot kicks to advance, and better yet for them, San Jose had edged the Red Bulls in the other “East semifinal.” This gave Colorado a home game in the single-elimination semifinal, and they took advantage with a 1-0 win over the Quakes to reach their second MLS Cup.
That Cup, held in Toronto, saw the Rapids match up against Dallas. This match is often dubbed the “David versus David” final, but I’m actually going to push against that somewhat, because that Dallas team was better than you remember. At one point, Los Toros went 19 matches unbeaten, and had the services of MVP David Ferreira, who opened the scoring of the final. Casey equalized just before the hour mark, and the match went to extra time.
There was only one way this game between two surprise finalists with smaller fanbases played a continent away from their fanbases could end: on a deflected own goal where the last attacking player to touch it (Macoumba Kandji) blew out his ACL on the play.
The Rapids continued to be mediocre over the next few years, and have only won two playoff rounds in the 12 years since.
Someone please take this team off Stan Kroenke, I beg you.
2020 Columbus Crew
This seems harsh to put the Crew in this category, and frankly it probably is; the team had reached the conference finals in 2017 during a very tumultuous period for the club.
But the 2020 team was quite a bit different to that 2017 team. The likes of Pipa Higuaín, Justin Meram, Ola Kamara, Wil Trapp, and Zack Steffen were all gone, as was head coach Gregg Berhalter. The team was also in a much more stable situation, no longer in danger of relocation and with a new stadium being built. And let’s be real, anything coming out of 2020 was inevitably going to be weird, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Crew had also missed the 2019 playoffs under new head coach Caleb Porter, and took steps to rectify that in the offseason by adding Darlington Nagbe and club-record signing Lucas Zelarayán to shore up the midfield.
That did the trick, as Columbus surged to third in the East. But there were some noticeable glaring flaws in the team. The Crew did not win a single true road game all season (their three regular season wins away from Crew Stadium were all at MLS is Back), which theoretically makes the 3 seed kind of problematic. That usually means you’ll be on the road in the second round, which would probably kill the run right then and there.
However, three days after Columbus’s tight 3-2 first round win over the Red Bulls, both top-seeded Philadelphia and second-seeded Toronto slipped up and lost to lower-seeded foes fresh off a play-in. That gave Columbus home field against a significantly weaker playoff field, and they took advantage of it.
An extra-time win over Nashville sent them to the conference final against another play-in team in New England, the 8th seed in the East. In addition, Kansas City fell to Minnesota on the other side of the bracket, ensuring that Columbus would get home field in a potential MLS Cup final.
The Crew dominated the midfield and punched their ticket to MLS Cup with a 1-0 win, ensuring one more home game.
That home game did come with a scare, as Nagbe, Pedro Santos, and Vito Wormgoor were all ruled out with COVID. But it didn’t matter; Columbus thrashed Seattle 3-0 in the final to claim their second MLS Cup.
I really, really hate to rag on this title, because it was the perfect end to the Save The Crew saga. But…with an objective look, the Crew were our third true title oddball. Whereas most of the good teams from that odd season stayed good in 2021 (with the outlier of Toronto, who entered a rebuild), Columbus dropped back to the wrong side of the red line despite a very similar roster. With the team electing to move on from Porter after a 2022 season where they basically knocked themselves out of the playoffs, we’ll see if this core can return to their heights of 2020.
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