Major League Soccer has always set out to be a professional soccer league with an American identity. The biggest, and most obvious way they’ve done this is through their crowning of a champion.
Unlike most big European leagues, MLS does not crown their champion by looking at the table at the end of the season and crowning whoever has the most points. Instead, the league does what the rest of American professional sports does and puts the best teams in the playoffs to fit it out to see who comes out on top.
MLS does award a trophy to the team with the most points, called the Supporter’s Shield, but in MLS culture the MLS Cup is the one you want to win. The Shield is merely a consolation prize if you don’t also win the Cup.
The MLS Cup Playoffs have undergone many changes and alterations throughout the years. The league has included anywhere from 60-80% of MLS teams, divided the playoffs by conference, had neutral site hosts for the final or even had the team with the better record host the showpiece event. The league has also gone back and forth between aggregate goals deciding a two-legged series or having teams play a best of 3 series.
Currently, Major League soccer has 16 of 27 teams in the playoffs, separated by Conference, with the aggregate goal leaders advancing over two legs. The MLS Cup Final is hosted by the club with the better regular-season record.
It’s been a fascinating thing to watch the league develop over the years. Here are its champions.
MLS Cup Winners List
1996: D.C. United (3-2 a.e.t. over Los Angeles Galaxy)
Little did Major League Soccer know but the birth of the league would spawn it’s first league dynasty almost immediately. D.C. United would finish second in the league in points in 1996, a good 12 points behind Supporter’s Shield winner Tampa Bay Mutiny, but defeated the Mutiny in the Eastern Conference Finals with a 2-0 series win.
United, led by blossoming stars Raul Diaz Arce and Jaime Moreno on the field and future United States National Team coach Bruce Arena on the sidelines, would take down the Los Angeles Galaxy in the first-ever MLS Cup Final. But it wasn’t easy. United would require a golden goal from defender Eddie Pope to bring home the trophy.
Major League Soccer couldn’t have dreamed of a more dramatic title-deciding match for their inaugural season.
1997: D.C. United (2-1 over Colorado Rapids)
The Screaming Eagles would return to defend their crown the following season.
Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce finished first and second in the league in number of goals scored and Eddie Pope would be named Defender of the Year. The team would roll to the Supporters Shield, outpacing their nearest rival by 6 points.
United were nearly knocked out of the playoffs in the first round, the New England Revolution forced them into a shootout to decide the match. From there though, United rolled into their second straight MLS Cup Final. In that Final, they dispatched the Colorado Rapids with an early goal from Jaime Moreno and a second-half clincher from Tony Sanneh. Colorado pulled one back late in the match, but it was largely academic at that point.
D.C. United had made it two in a row and they looked unbeatable.
1998: Chicago Fire (2-0 over D.C. United)
To beat the best, you have to learn from the best. That’s a fairly common phrase that the front office of the newly formed Chicago Fire took literally. When the team was formed, they went out and hired Bob Bradley, who had just spent the previous two seasons on the bench next to D.C. United’s Bruce Arena.
The effect was immediate, as Bradley took the Fire all the way to the top in his first season. The Fire finished second in the Western Conference, 12 points behind Supporters Shield winner Los Angles Galaxy, but they were undeterred in the playoffs when it really mattered.
The Fire, led by stars Piotr Nowak and Jorge Campos, navigated the tricky Western Conference playoffs before setting up a clash with none other than reigning champs, D.C. United. The student defeated the master in the end, with the Fire defeating D.C. United 2-0 in the MLS Cup.
1999: D.C. United (2-0 over Los Angeles Galaxy)
Forced to lick their wounds all offseason after their defeat in the 1999 Final, D.C. came back in 1999 with something to prove.
United rolled through the regular season, picking up the Supporter’s Shield along the way. D.C.’s Roy Lassiter finished tied for 1st in the league with 18 goals scored, after being brought in to replace the departed Raul Diaz Arce. Jaime Moreno chipped in with an additional 10 goals.
It would be a rematch of the inaugural 1996 Final when D.C. met L.A. The Galaxy would have to wait for their elusive first title as D.C. would make it three in four years. Jaime Moreno opened the scoring just 19 minutes in and Ben Olsen would double their lead just before halftime. D.C. was able to coast through the second half to lift the MLS Cup trophy yet again.
2000: Kansas City Wizards (1-0 over Chicago Fire)
A new century brought a new champion, the Kansas City Wizards.
The Wizards dominated MLS in 2000, winning the Supporter’s Shield, and going on a league leading unbeaten run of 12 games during the season. Beyond that, the team made history with Tony Meola picking up the first, and to this day only, MVP Award given to a goalkeeper. Also given awards were Peter Vermes for Defender of the Year, and Bob Gansler was awarded as Coach of the Year.
Kansas City beat the Colorado Rapids and the Los Angeles Galaxy to advance to the MLS Cup Final and set up a meeting with the Chicago Fire. The match took place at RFK Stadium, the home of D.C. United, and was a hard-fought match between two regional rivals. Danish striker, Miklos Molnar opened the scoring in the 11th minute and the goal proved to be the title winner as both teams failed to score again. Kansas City lifted their first trophy.
2001: San Jose Earthquakes (1-0 over Los Angeles Galaxy)
The 2001 MLS regular season came to an abrupt end in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks. The league cancelled the final few weeks of the season and instead moved ahead with the playoffs just over a week later.
2001 brought yet another 1st time champion in the San Jose Earthquakes. The outfit had a solid season, finishing second in the Western Conference but well behind the pace for the Supporter’s Shield. The team were led by talismanic American Landon Donovan, who was back stateside on loan from Bayer Leverkusen.
The 2001 MLS Cup Final was one of the greatest league finals in history, featuring two California rivals playing to a draw in regulation. The game was decided on a Dwayne De Rosario golden goal in the 96th minute. Despite making two previous finals, the LA Galaxy’s wait to lift the trophy would go on.
2002: Los Angeles Galaxy (1-0 over New England Revolution)
2002 brought yet another season of transition for the league. The Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion folded, returning the league to two conferences and 10 teams. The top 8 made the playoffs regardless of conference.
It was a great year for the LA Galaxy though. Forever the bridesmaid no more, the Galaxy rolled through the competition winning the Supporter’s Shield by 6 points and winning 5 out of 6 playoff games on their way to MLS Cup.
It was there they met the New England Revolution, led by star striker Taylor Twellman. The teams were deadlocked through regulation and once again the game was settled by a golden goal in overtime. Only this time the Galaxy were on the winning side, with Carlos Ruiz scoring the title decider in the 113’ minute.
2003: San Jose Earthquakes (4-2 over Chicago Fire)
MLS Cup stayed in California as the San Jose Earthquake made it two titles in three years. It wasn’t an easy road for the Quakes, however. The Western Conference’s number 1 seed went down 2-0 after the first match of their opening round series against the Galaxy. They stormed back in the second and beat the Galaxy 5-0 on aggregate.
From there the playoffs were smooth sailing as Landon Donovan and company rolled to another title. The Final wasn’t much of a match with the Quakes winning 4-2 over the Supporter’s Shield and Open Cup winning Chicago Fire.
2004: D.C. United (3-2 over Kansas City Wizards)
D.C. United rolled back the years during the 2004 season. The team was once again competitive and brought home the MLS Cup at the end of the season. However, their MLS Cup winning campaign wasn’t the biggest news they made in 2004.
Yes, the team was great and finished champions but the most exciting thing to happen to United was the arrival of 14-year-old phenom Freddy Adu. The teenager scored 5 goals and spent most of his season coming off the bench. However, he gave the league a buzz and an incredible boost in attendance.
2005: Los Angeles Galaxy (1-0 over New England Revolution)
2005 would mark the beginning of an emotionally challenging journey for the New England Revolution and their fans. They came in riding high, having the best record in the Eastern Conference and the superior squad. They were matched up against an LA Galaxy team that wasn’t the high scoring, star studded club you’d expect. They were the lowest seeded team in the playoffs.
But the game is played on the field, not on paper. The game was tight and neither team were able to get much going offensively. The game finished 0-0 after regulation. With the title to be determined in extra-time, an unlikely hero stepped up. Guillermo Ramirez, who was on loan from Guatemalan club CSD Municipal, scored his only goal of the season in the 117th minute. It was a stunning volley off of a corner punch from Revs goalkeeper Matt Reis. A fitting end to a Cup Final.
It was the Galaxy’s second MLS Cup trophy in their history. For New England, it was the first of three straight MLS Cup Final disappointments.
2006: Houston Dynamo (1-1; 4-3p. over New England Revolution)
Houston and New England proved that the regular season doesn’t matter much, with both teams finishing in second place in their conferences. Both teams got hot in the playoffs and made it to Frisco, Texas for the Final match.
In reality, the match didn’t need a full 90 minutes of regulation, because all the excitement happened in the extra time period. Both team’s star strikers, Taylor Twellman and Brian Ching, scored goals 71 seconds apart from each other. Twellman’s 113th-minute strike for the Revs was quickly cancelled out by Ching’s 144th-minute strike for the Dynamo.
It would fall to Ching to score the winning penalty for the Dynamo to lift their first trophy as the Houston Dynamo. The franchise was moved from San Jose a year earlier.
2007: Houston Dynamo (2-1 over New England Revolution)
Would the third time be the charm for the New England Revolution? No, it would not. After both teams traversed their way through the playoffs to find each other again, the result ended the same.
The Revs started bright, with Taylor Twellman opening up the scoring in the 20 minute, but two second-half goals from Joseph Ngwenya and Dwayne De Rosario crushed their title dreams.
Houston were a proper dynasty, with their second trophy in as many years. For New England, it would be their final trip to the Final for a decade.
2008: Columbus Crew (3-1 over New York Red Bulls)
The 2008 MLS Cup featured an unlikely matchup of first time Cup Final participants. Columbus were favorites to get there, having earned the Supporters Shield for their work in the regular season, but the Red Bulls actually finished the season with a losing record and barely snuck into the playoffs.
As you can imagine, the matchup was rather one-sided and like it should be Goliath beat David. League MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto pulled the strings from midfield all afternoon, providing all three assists. The former Boca Juniors man was named Man of the Match for his playmaking efforts.
The Crew became just the fourth club in MLS history to win both the Supporter’s Shield and the Cup in the same season.
2009: Real Salt Lake (1-1; 5-4p. over Los Angeles Galaxy)
Real Salt Lake had a tough job ahead of them in the 2009 MLS Cup. They finished 5th in the Western Conference and barely snuck into the playoffs, and who did they meet in the final, David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The Galaxy weren’t a great squad but everyone, including the league, wanted Beckham to bring the trophy to LA. It would be ratings gold. Instead, RSL played spoilers, winning the match on penalties after a 1-1 scoreline at the end of regulation. Instead of the league’s biggest names lifting the trophy it was names like Nat Borchers and Ned Grabavoy that celebrated.
2010: Colorado Rapids (2-1 over FC Dallas)
The 2010 MLS Cup Final marked the first time the league’s championship game was played outside of the United States, with this edition being played at BMO Field in Toronto. To say 2010 was an aberration would be an understatement. By the late 2000s, the league was being dominated by the big boys, D.C., Houston, and the California teams. Yet the 2010 MLS Cup Final featured two clubs with 1 MLS Cup Final appearance between them, and it was a loss.
The match was dubbed “David vs David” as neither team was great. The Rapids finished 5th in the Western Conference and FC Dallas 3rd in the West. Yet the match was entertaining. Dallas jumped ahead via a goal from David Ferreira in the 25th minute before the Rapids’ Conor Casey levelled in the 57th minute.
The match finished level at the end of regulation and was forced into overtime. In a cruel twist of fate, FC Dallas defender George John put the ball into his own net while trying to defend a cross. It was the first-ever own goal in an MLS Cup Final, and it could not have been more costly.
The Colorado Rapids lifted their first MLS Cup trophy in their history.
2011: Los Angeles Galaxy (1-0 over Houston Dynamo)
For the Los Angeles Galaxy and their star power, it had been a long 6 years since they had won an MLS Cup. They had advanced to the final two years earlier but had been dumped on penalties. Much was at stake here, including the legacy of one David Beckham, whose arrival had been touted as destined to bring more silverware to Hollywood but that silverware had yet to arrive.
The Galaxy finally put it all together in 2011, dominating the regular season on the way to winning the Supporter’s Shield. The trio of Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane led the way for the Galaxy, while United States International Omar Gonzalez and AJ De La Garza held things together at the back. Despite the firepower, the match finished 1-0 to the Galaxy after Landon Donovan scored the winner in the 72nd minute.
The Galaxy’s MLS Cup Final win meant that they were the first team since the 2008 Columbus Crew to win both the Supporter’s Shield and the MLS Cup in the same season.
2012: Los Angeles Galaxy (3-1 over Houston Dynamo)
The 2011 MLS Cup Final was such an entertaining match the league figured they’d just run it back the next year. Of course, that’s not what actually happened, and both teams earned their spots in the final. MLS made a change in the host site for this season, with the home ground advantage going to the team with the better record in the regular season, instead of a neutral site like in previous years.
Conveniently for the Galaxy, the location of the match remained the same, and so did the result. Calen Carr opened the scoring for Houston just before halftime, but all that did was make LA mad. The Galaxy roared back in the second half with three goals, two on penalties as LA’s stars did what stars do in big moments. Omar Gonzalez, Landon Donovan, and Robbie Keane all scored second half goals as the Galaxy blew away the Dynamo for their second title in a row, and fourth overall.
2013: Sporting Kansas City (1-1; 7-6p. over Real Salt Lake)
The 2013 MLS Cup Final was an all-time classic. The game was the coldest MLS match on record with a kickoff temperature of 20 °F or -7°C. Both teams finished the season second in their respective conferences, with Sporting Kansas City the hosts.
After a scoreless first half, both teams scored before the end of regulation. The match inevitably went to penalties where Sporting Kansas City won 7-6 in an epic shootout that saw defender Aurelian Collin score the title-clinching penalty.
It was fitting that Collin would score the winner as he also scored SKC’s goal in regulation. He was named Final MVP as SKC brought home their second MLS Cup.
2014: Los Angeles Galaxy (2-1 a.e.t over New England Revolution)
2014 was the LA Galaxy’s “Last Dance” a la the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. The band was together for one last run together. This was their last chance to win more silverware and they were missing their chance.
League MVP Robbie Keane scored 19 goals and Landon Donovan led the league with 19 assists as the Galaxy finished second in the Western Conference, 3 points behind the Seattle Sounders.
After advancing past the Sounders on away goals, they met the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup Final. The match was tied 1-1 after regulation and finished in the 111th minute when who else but Robbie Keane scored the title-winning goal. The Galaxy had won their third MLS Cup in 4 years, and the dynasty was set.
2015: Portland Timbers (2-1 over Columbus Crew SC)
The 2015 MLS Cup Final was a matchup of two teams who played a very similar style. Caleb Porter’s Timbers were known for their possession-based style, while Gregg Berhalter’s Crew team became known as “Crewcelona” for their tiki-taka impression.
Both teams finished the regular season with 53 points, and a more evenly matched Final the league had not seen in years. Unfortunately, the match was altered early when Diego Valeri scored on a blunder from Crew goalie Steve Clark just 27 seconds into the game. Minutes later, Portland were through again after a linesman failed to flag for a ball that was out of bounds and Crew players stopped playing. Portland did not, and they were quickly up 2-0 with 7 minutes played.
The Crew pulled one back in the 18th but were unable to find the equalizer. Portland took the trophy home with them, giving the Rose City their first professional sports championship since the 1997 Trail Blazers won the NBA Finals.
2016: Seattle Sounders (0-0; 5-4p. over Toronto FC)
The 2016 MLS Cup Final was an epic battle of two evenly matched clubs. The match was a tactical masterpiece that was made all the more challenging by the frigid December weather in Toronto. The match kicked off in 23F or -5C weather.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder the match ended scoreless after regulation and the extra-time period. The match was mercilessly ended when Seattle defender Roman Torres buried the Sounders fifth penalty in the back of the net. Toronto’s quest for a title would have to wait, but they would get their revenge in the following season.
2017: Toronto FC (2-0 over Seattle Sounders FC)
Toronto’s 2017 MLS Cup Final win was the culmination of a project that began a few years earlier. An injection of cash from new investors meant that Toronto FC would be able to bring in stars like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore of the United States, and Sebastian Giovinco of Italy.
After years of struggle, followed by years of coming close, Toronto had returned to MLS Cup only to face the team that defeated them in the final the year before, the Seattle Sounders.
This time the Canucks would get their revenge. Throughout the playoffs Toronto FC were lead by Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez, and the Final was no different. After a scoreless first half, Altidore opened the scoring in the 67th minute. Vazquez sealed the deal in the 94th minute and Canada had its first ever MLS Cup winners.
2018: Atlanta United FC (2-0 over Portland Timbers)
Atlanta United became the quickest MLS expansion franchise to win an MLS Cup in the expansion era when they lifted the trophy in 2018 after defeating the Portland Timbers. Atlanta were led by league MVP, Venezuelan Josef Martinez. Their talismanic striker scored 31 goals and won the league’s Golden Boot, and MLS Cup Final MVP award.
It was a big year for Martinez, and his teammate Miguel Almiron. The Paraguayan assisted on most of Martinez’s goals and his form earned him a move to Premier League club Newcastle United the following January.
The Final was more of a formality than a competition. Martinez opened the scoring just before halftime, and teammate Franco Escobar doubled the lead just after the half. Atlanta made history as the home crowd cheered them on.
2019: Seattle Sounders FC (3-1 over Toronto FC)
It must be said that it was a shock that both of these teams made it to MLS Cup. Everyone expected LAFC to be runaway winners of the MLS Cup after a regular season that saw them win the Supporters Shield and set a record for points with 72. They were favorites in the West, and Seattle finished 16 points behind them. Toronto finished 4th in the East and 22 points behind the Shield winners.
Despite that, Seattle advanced after knocking off LAFC 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals. Then they dispatched Toronto by the same score line in MLS Cup. Seattle were led by Peruvian star Raul Ruidiaz, who scored 4 goals in the playoffs, including one in the final. Jordan Morris also chipped in with 3 in the playoffs.
2020: Columbus Crew (3-0 over Seattle Sounders FC)
In February, when the MLS season kicked off, everything looked rosy for the Crew. A new stadium was being built for the club, and they had a shiny new playmaker, the Argentine Lucas Zelarayan. Then the pandemic hits and the league is halted.
Eventually, the league restarts and the Crew earn a playoff spot. The team is struck by a COVID outbreak during the playoffs but incredibly they manage to advance to MLS Cup, which they will host.
In the final game ever at Crew Stadium, the club is forced to play without 2 starters due to positive COVID tests, against the reigning MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders.
The fairytale had already been written, though, as the Crew smashed the Sounders 3-0. Their talismanic number 10, Zelarayan, scored a brace to lead the team to their first trophy since 2008 and close down Crew Stadium on a high note.