It was October 3, 2000, deep into that year’s MLS Cup Finals, and the Kansas City Wizards’ goaltender had just conceded a Rose Bowl goal in very painful circumstances: an overtime winner off a broken LA Galaxy’s Danny Califf . 1-1 deadlock in the second leg of the semi-final.
“And all I think about,” Meola told MLSsoccer.com this week, “is, it’s OK, we have another chance.
In most top leagues around the world, the Wizards (who nowadays go by Sporting KC) would have been cooked. They had only held the Galaxy to a 0-0 draw in the first leg at their home Arrowhead Stadium, so under the standard two-leg aggregate format, LA would have advanced to the MLS Cup at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC
“If you had only played two games in that time, just like the football world is quite used to, we would have been done at that point,” added Meola. “So it stands out.”
Things worked differently in the first seven years of Major League Soccer. It was a three-game series, with the goal being “first to five,” meaning two wins (six points) or a win and two ties, and the higher-seeded Wiz got to host the first and third games.
With one of the best defenses in the history of the league, KC would hold serve at home and win 1-0 in game three with a penalty converted by the cult Miklos Molnar and then win the “mini game” that revolves around the tie. which followed Molna’s second strike. The Wizards would go on to win the 2000 MLS Cup, with Meola winning MVP, Goaltender and Comeback Player of the Year, while his KC teammates Peter Vermes and Bob Gansler won Defensive and Coach of the Year honors.
Go back to the roots
Back then, the MLS team was closer to American and Canadian sports standards than the soccer world. 2000 was the first year in which ties were allowed, as ties had been decided by a shootout – of the “NASL-style” 35-yard variety, rather than penalty kicks – in the league’s first four seasons. MLS had just adopted a running clock that counted down to the international game the previous year, which also marked the debut of soccer’s first stadium, Columbus Crew Stadium.
So the postseason series generally paid more attention to baseball, basketball and hockey than to world football, trying to generate interest and competitiveness over a sample size of three rather than just one or two games. As with many other aspects of MLS, the concept was changed repeatedly as the fledgling competition scratched and clawed for survival, eventually being scrapped altogether after the 2002 season in favor of a hybrid of two-legged ties in the conference semi-finals and one. -conference finals.
Few would have guessed at the time that two decades later, the league would revisit the three-game series and dust off the format for the first round of this year’s Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. But it sure is back, just as the baggy fits and bright colors of the 90s have come back into fashion.
“If you live long enough, everything will be, I guess, either cool or at least tried again, right?” Alexi Lalas, who experienced the three-game series with the New England Revolution, MetroStars (today’s New York Red Bulls) and Galaxy, told MLSsoccer.com.
“It’s all circular and it comes back.”
Lalas pointed to the confusion that Nashville SC defender Daniel Lovitz recently expressed over the setup of this year’s playoffs — “he was talking about it being something that MLS has never done before.” Come on, man!”—suggesting that those old days have been lost in the mists of time for a younger audience. (In his defense, Lovitz was just 11 when the last MLS three-game series took place.)
Some welcomed the demise of the best-of-three concept. Others didn’t care what the road to a league title looked like.
“Being a player and a coach is a little bit of a different mindset,” said Houston Dynamo FC coach Ben Olsen, who reached the 1998 and 1999 MLS Cup finals with DC United, winning the latter and earning game MVP honors. “Especially when you’re going through it and you’re 21, 22, I wasn’t thinking about it much. I was just stepping on the court and playing.
“Whatever was thrown at us, we just did it.
While DC’s rivalry with the MetroStars would go down in history as the Atlantic Cup, they actually played just as many important games against the Crew during that season, if not more. Olsen’s United battled the Ohioans in epic fashion in both of their first two seasons.
In ’98, DC won its Eastern Conference opener 2-0 at RFK before Brian McBride broke Columbus’ momentum to a thumping 4-2 win on the tight field at Ohio Stadium, then known as “The Horseshoe.” The 3rd inning broke a 3-0 lead for United via Roy Lassiter’s double in front of over 21,000 people in the US capital, “one of those special RFK nights,” as Olsen put it. They competed again in the same scenario a year later, with DC winning 2-1 and 4-0 at home either side of a 5-1 crew.
“I thought it was really great,” Olsen said. “Three quick games and it was hot and certainly intense. To come back to a game at home and win that game, I remember it was a very special night.”
It was the same for New England goaltending legend Taylor Twellman, who played the old format as a rookie in 2002 as the Revs swept Chicago and the Crew in three games before falling to the Galaxy in a 1-0 MLS Cup upset. The final was decided by Carlos Ruiz’s golden goal in overtime at Gillette Stadium.
“I don’t remember talking about it much. Just tell us the rules and we’ll play,” Twellman, today the lead analyst for MLS Season Pass, told MLSsoccer.com. “The golden goal is what we remember the most, because in ’02 and ’05 we lost [the cup finals]then in ’06 they change it and we would have won [vs. Houston, who won a decisive penalty shootout instead].”
Higher seed advantage
For others, the three-game series widened the sample in which the better team could assert itself, while reducing the potential for upsets that have so often made the playoffs a treacherous zone for higher seeds.
“There’s this feeling out there that too much is allowed to chance, and it’s kind of crap, and one bad night can really screw you up,” Lalas said. “That’s part of the appeal, to be honest.” So this makes it maybe, in a weird sense, a little fairer, if you like, as there’s more room for error. And maybe in the end, after a three-game series, the better team is rewarded. So I think that’s how we saw it at the time.
“I remember Sigga [Schmid] speaking of, hey, listen, if we’re as good as we think we are, it’s three games and three shots at it. We should be able to find a way.”
Pablo Mastroeni is another standout player from the old days who will now look to sail through the three-game series again this year, now as the head coach of Real Salt Lake. After winning that job in part by making playoff upsets over Seattle and Kansas City as interim manager in 2021, he sees a little more balance for 2023.
“It’s actually an underdog advantage, in the previous set-up, as I think this set-up in the three-game series favors the home team,” said Mastroeni, whose side visit Dynamo in the first leg of their first-round tie. 3 series on Sunday, said this week. “It’s only fair given how long the season is and what you have to do to get to that point, although the West has been incredibly tight this year and it could have gone either way.” I think it will be exciting.”
The rules were repeatedly moved back to the league’s infancy, with transformations such as “first to five” and tie-breaking “mini-games”, and confusion over exacting details was one factor in the move to two-legged series. This year’s best-of-three format also has certain details, with ties decided by penalties after 90 minutes, much like the Leagues Cup.
“It gives the higher seed the chance to have two games at home, if it’s tied after two. I think that’s part of it,” said Vermes, who played in the old setup with the MetroStars, Wizards and Colorado Rapids and is today SKC’s general manager and athletic director. “Honestly, it makes the rivalry between the two teams, the series, a lot more impressive, I think, because now it’s not just a one-game deal.”
Familiarity breeds contempt
Meola, who today is an analyst on MLS Season Pass, SiriusXM and other outlets, likes the show’s fall drama akin to a Major League Baseball contest, but is one of many who plans to wait and see about the new system.
“One bad decision or one bad rebound or one bad play doesn’t put you out of a game.” But the other side of the argument is that’s the beauty of one game, right?” he said. “These things happen and you react in one way or another. It is interesting. I am curious. I’m curious how this will look. Because I really have no idea.”
Most participants agree that the familiarity of a three-game series breeds disdain and tactical innovation.
“You got to know the opposition very well at the time when there weren’t the almost 30 teams we have now. Which meant you were individually tested on the field,” said Lalas. “From a coach’s perspective, the margin was much better, in that you had to find ways to give new looks, and you had to find a way to stop a player that you’ve pretty much seen all their tricks, whatever they were, but just because you know what they’re doing doesn’t mean you can stop them. So I think it was a real game of chess.”
Fighting in such close quarters (up to three meetings a week or so) against opponents you had already faced consistently during the regular season in a league with only 10 to 12 clubs? This was a recipe for chips.
“Animosity builds. The competition builds,” said Twellman, whose Revs consistently faced the Fire in the playoffs and pushed for increased intensity. “The games became a complete blur for the players, because it’s the same team, but you also build up a collective hatred for them as well.” From 2002-08, how many times did we play against Chicago? Every year, almost. … For a long time there, the same six teams were competing.”
That’s somewhat less of a concern today, with 18 teams making the playoffs. What endures is MLS’s unique position, straddling the wide gap between the traditions of North American sports and world soccer, committed to the idea of the playoffs yet almost always willing to try something new.
“I think MLS will always be different. The playoff format is very American and I have very fond memories of it – though obviously not the 2002 final,” said San Jose Earthquakes goaltender Adin Brown, one of the league’s top goaltenders in the league’s first decade and a Revs teammate. Twellman’s from 2002-04.
“When you come into tournaments like this, the teams that can get hot at the right time are the ones that are going to have a lot of success. So I think I really enjoyed the formats and it’s going to be interesting to see, especially this year with straight to penalty shootout, I think it’s going to be interesting. You saw that in the League Cup, it definitely added another dimension.”