MLS Cup

MLS 101: MLS Cup

This Saturday marks the final showpiece of the Major League Soccer season: MLS Cup.

So what is this unique, one off game for the league championship?

MLS Cup has been the championship fixture of Major League Soccer ever since the league’s inception in 1996. As the final match of the MLS Cup playoffs, the winner is crowned the season champion in the same manner as all of the other major North American sports leagues. Aside from all of the glory that comes with being crowned as league champion, both MLS Cup finalists are awarded CONCACAF Champions’ League berths – the winner earning a spot in the group stage while the runner-up starts in the preliminary round.

The inaugural championship match, MLS Cup ’96, was hosted on October 20, 1996. Today the MLS Cup is typically held in late November, or early December like this year’s iteration, and features the winners of the Eastern Conference Championship and Western Conference Championship. The cup champions have been awarded the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy since 2008 while the years prior saw two versions of the Alan I. Rothenberg.

The MLS Cup roots trace back to the foundation of Major League Soccer, when the structural format was being assembled. The league decided to have a similar setup to its contemporary North American sports leagues, by having a final championship match at the culmination of that season’s playoffs. This is one of the only competitive elements of Major League Soccer that has gone unchanged since the league’s inception in 1996.

D.C. United dominated the early years of the MLS Cup, appearing in the first four MLS Cup finals and winning three of them, including the first ever in the ’96 classic where they came back from a 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 on a golden goal from Eddie Pope in the fourth minute of extra time.

D.C.’s early run of dominance was followed by a period of great success out west. 2001 gave rise to the California Clasico, one of the league’s great rivalries contested between the San Jose Earthquakes and L.A. Galaxy. That year, a newcomer by the name of Landon Donovan tallied the equalizer in the Earthquakes 2-1 championship victory over the Galaxy. The next year saw the biggest crowd in MLS Cup history when 61,000 fans were in attendance at Gillette Stadium to witness the final. In the second period of sudden-death extra time, the Galaxy nabbed their first MLS Cup title, and sparked the start of a string of MLS Cup losses for the Revolution, who have still yet to win the final, even after making it to extra time in three straight cup finals from 2005-2007.

On May 10, 2011 the league announced that the MLS Cup 2011 would be at Los Angeles’ Home Depot Center, making it the fourth time in MLS history the venue would host the championship. On November 19, the day before the 2011 final, MLS announced that future finals would be held at the home field of the team with more regular season points.

D.C. United and the L.A. Galaxy have won the MLS Cup the most with four league titles each. The L.A. Galaxy, led by David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane, have won the last two championships.

That brings us to this Saturday, where Real Salt Lake will visit Sporting Park to take on Sporting Kansas City in the 2013 MLS Cup final. A win on the road for RSL would be their second MLS Cup since their entry into the league in 2004. A win for the home side would be the Sporting KC’s first under their current name; they won the 2000 MLS Cup under the name the Wizards.

Be sure to tune in to ESPN on Saturday at 4:00pm EST to watch history be made once again.