By Michael Lewis
The rain was incessant.
It wouldn’t stop.
It was so bad that it went sideways at a fierce speed.
Most people would have stayed inside or home.
Well, most sane people would have.
I would have, except I had to be in Foxborough, Mass. to cover the inaugural MLS Cup at old Foxborough Stadium Oct. 20, 1996. After all, how often do you cover the first championship of a new league?
When the media bus that took us from Boston pulled up at the stadium, it was difficult to avoid not stepping in a puddle, heaven knew how deep.
Yet, we were the fortunate ones. We got a chance to sit inside a cozy press box and watch D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy battle for the Alan I. Rothenberg trophy.
Some 34,643 hearty souls — more 42,000 tickets were sold — braved the nasty elements and watched what is still considered the standard of MLS championship confrontations.
Unless you are a new or recent fan, you already know about the legendary match, on how well the two teams played in the less-than-favorable conditions. And how the Galaxy enjoyed a 2-0 lead until the 73rd minute, how United made one of the most remarkable comebacks in league history and how it was culminated and climaxed by an extratime goal by a rookie named Eddie Pope. Pope, who commuted to and from the University of North Carolina at the time, headed home Marco Etcheverry’s corner kick — one three set-piece goals created by the former Bolivian international.
Little did I know at the time that that game would be the start of a run of 23 consecutive MLS Cups.
On Sunday, I will attend No. 24 at CenturyLink Field as Seattle Sounders FC hosts Toronto FC in front of more than 69,000 spectators.
Yeah, that’s right. This will be my 24th MLS Cup. When Washington Post soccer writer Steven Goff and former Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney did not show up at the 2013 final in Kansas City, I became the last writer standing, to have covered every final (don’t tell Steve or Ridge this, but I rather would have had them there with me).
Like I said, MLS Cup 1996 set a standard that will be difficult to equal or exceed. Perhaps No. 24 will.
Saying that, here are some quick memories of the other MLS championship games:
That second game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. in 1997, which was played in the rain as United won its second consecutive crown at home at RFK Stadium.
That third game at the Rose Bowl in 1998, when Chris Armas shut down Etcheverry and the Chicago Fire shut down a weary United team (it played its semifinal second leg on Wednesday in a horrible schedule snafu), 2-0, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. At the official MLS dinner the night before the game, MLS gave out mini-umbrellas as a joke about rain (it never rains in Southern California, right?).
That fourth game in Foxborough in 1999, when the Galaxy gifted a couple of goals to United in a 2-0 win.
That fifth game back at RFK in 2000, when former U.S. international goalkeeper Tony Meola and company completed an almost worst to first scenario for the Kansas City Wizards, who upended the Fire, 1-0.
That sixth game in the first soccer-specific stadium in Columbus in 2001, a 1-0 extratime win for the San Jose Earthquakes over the Galaxy. This guy named Dwayne DeRosario scored the game-winner. Hmmm. Whatever happened to him?
The seventh game was back in Foxborough at new Gillette Stadium in 2002, when the Galaxy and Sigi Schmid finally took home the silverware with a 1-0 win over the New England Revolution in front of a record 61,316 spectators. What I really remember about that day was that Bob Bradley had accepted an offer by the MetroStars to become their head coach.
The eighth game in at the new Home Depot Center Center (now Dignity Health Sports Park) in 2003, when the Earthquakes and this young budding star named Landon Donovan got past the Fire, 4-2. Jeff Agoos earned his fifth championship ring.
The ninth game at the HDC in 2004, Alecko Eskandarian struck for a brace in a 3-2 United win over the Kansas City Wizards.
The 10th game at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas in 2005, some unknown for the Galaxy scored in extratime to lift the Galaxy over the Revolution, 1-0. Still don’t remember his name. And who knew this would begin a hat-trick of frustrating losses for New England?
The 11th game at Pizza Hut Park in 2006, the Revs played the Dynamo even during regulation and extratime, but the Dynamo prevailed in penalty kicks.
The 12th game at RFK in 2007, the Dynamo prevailed over the Revs again, 2-1, becoming the second team to win back-to-back titles.
The 13th game at the HDC in 2008, the Columbus Crew and the absolutely brilliant Guillermo Barros Schelotto bested the team that I have covered since Day One of the league, the New York Red Bulls, 3-1. Schmid, incidentally, became the first coach to win titles with two teams.
The 14th game in a rainy Seattle in 2009, when Real Salt Lake bested the Galaxy in penalty kicks. Yours truly had mixed emotions about the outcome. I felt happy for players I knew on RSL — Clint Mathis and Chris Wingert, and club president Bill Manning, but sad for players I knew on the Galaxy, including Todd Dunivant, Dema Kovalenko and Mike Magee, among others.
In the 15th game in cold Toronto in 2010 (not a smart venue for anything outside in late November), the winning goal was an own goal and the player who placed it on net, former Red Bulls midfielder-forward Mac Kandji, wrecked his knee on the play in a 2-1 win for the Colorado Rapids over FC Dallas and did not return to action until the 2011 season.
In the 16th game in Carson, Calif. in 2011, the Galaxy edged the Dynamo, as LA’s two stars did what they do best. David Beckham set up Donovan for the game-winning goal in a 1-0 win.
In the 17th game in Carson, Calif in 2012, the Galaxy allowed a 44th-minute goal, but rallied for three second-half goals en route to a 3-1 triumph over the Dynamo. It was Donovan’s fifth MLS championship, tying Agoos.
In the 18th game at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas in 2013 — pro soccer’s version of the Ice Bowl, the hosts prevailed over Real Salt Lake in Jason Kreis’ final game as head coach of the latter. The game needed penalties to decide this one.
In the 19th game at the StubHub Center (now Dignity Health Sports Park in 2014, Robbie Keane somewhat salvaged an average game in extratime to lift the Galaxy over the Revs, who have become the Buffalo Bills of MLS.
In MLS Cup No. 20 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus in 2015, I witnessed the fastest goal in MLS Cup history and a deja vu feeling back almost four decades in what turned into a 2-1 Portland Timbers win over Columbus Crew SC. In what appeared to be a rather, ordinary everyday play, Columbus’ Wil Trapp innocently played the ball back to goalkeeper Steve Clark. For some reason, with Diego Valeri bearing down on him in the penalty area, Clark mis-kicked the ball for a second and the Argentine pounced, stealing the ball and slipping it into the net from six yards for a stunning Portland lead 27 seconds after kickoff. It probably was the worst goalkeeping gaffe at a U.S. D-1 soccer final since the New York Cosmos’ Steve Hunt picked the pocket of Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Tony Chursky at the 1977 Soccer Bowl in Portland, Ore. The Cosmos won that game, 2-1 (that just happened to be my first ever pro soccer championship game I attended).
The Timbers doubled their lead in the seventh minute, even though their scoring sequence should not have happened. The ball went out of bounds at midfield, but the assistant referee did not stop play. Portland worked the ball to Lucas Melano, who sent in a looping cross from the right flank that a diving Rodney Wallace headed home at the far post for a stunning two-goal advantage.
Nos. 21 and 22 were in Toronto. The 2016 final was one of the worst, if not the worst MLS Cup I have attended. Don’t know what Seattle was trying to do at BMO Field, but it never placed a shot on goal. Yet, the Sounders managed to win in a shootout. The right team won the following as Toronto FC dominated the game the second year in a row and came away 1-0 winners.
In an MLS Cup first, the 2018 title match was played in a domed stadium – Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta during a rainstorm before a record crowd of 73,019. Scoring champion Josef Martinez tallied in the first half, Franco Escobar in the second as Atlanta gave their fans a 2-0 present in a win over the Portland Timbers.
This year’s game? Well, I just hope and pray to the soccer gods for an exciting and fun match, which is something we don’t always see in any championship contest.
Saying all that, I’ve decided to count the number of soccer championship games I have covered during my career. I have been fortunate to have witnessed in person a myriad of finals.
The criteria would be national or international titles. That included World Cups (men’s and women’s), Olympic gold-medal matches, FIFA Confederation Cup, FIFA Under-17 and U-20 World Cups, English F.A. Cup, the old European Cup Winners Cup, American professional leagues (North American Soccer League, MLS, U.S. Interregional Soccer League, the original Major Indoor Soccer League), college (Division I), Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup, Women’s United Soccer Association and National Women’s Soccer League) that I had attended, covered and written about prior to Sunday’s encounter. But then again, I might have forgotten about a couple (and that doesn’t count two New York State high school championships and several regional championships at the youth level).
The total came to 108 and I might have forgotten one or two matches.
My very first pro soccer championship game that I had mentioned was a doozy — the 1977 Soccer Bowl that pit the Cosmos against the Sounders in Portland, Ore., which was Pele’s final competitive match. Due to the huge media contingent at Civic Stadium (now Providence Park), I wound up sitting in an auxiliary press box behind one of the goals. At first, I wasn’t happy about it at all. But as a young sportswriter I learned something very important that day: Don’t complain about where you’re sitting because you might get a pleasant surprise.
And I did. One of the most memorable (or forgettable goals in North American soccer history) was scored right in front of me. I remember when Chursky made a save on the right side of the penalty area. He turned and started to dribble away. In came Hunt, who stole the ball and knocked it into the net for the first goal of a 2-1 Cosmos’ triumph. And I had a fantastic seat to watch it.
But I am not going to be too sentimental.
I will have plenty on my plate Sunday — covering Seattle and Toronto for the third time in four years in the MLS Cup — and watching two underdog teams battle for MLS supremacy and glory.