MLS Cup a Continuing Tradition

Attending the championship game has become an annual event
by Peter Muller   |   Wednesday, December 04, 2013

John Hefti Photography - SKC, Sporting KC

When D.C. United clinched a spot in the first MLS Cup – to be held at old Foxboro Stadium in October 1996 – my friend Ian and I quickly decided it was a game we needed to attend.

It was the inaugural season for Major League Soccer and this was the first championship match. For 20-something’s like us, the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States and the creation of MLS had renewed the interest in soccer that we had as kids. And, who knew, maybe someday we could impress friends by saying we were at the first MLS Cup?

So, I drove from my home in Washington, D.C., picked up Ian in New York City, and off we went. Little did I know that attending the championship game would become an annual tradition.

I have been to 16 of the 17 MLS Cups so far and will be in Kansas City on Saturday. The only Cup final I didn’t attend was in 1998, in Pasadena – a good one for a D.C. United supporter to miss considering they lost 2-0 to the Chicago Fire.

MLS Cup had had its ups-and-downs over the years, just as the league itself has gone through periods of optimism and times of despair. There have been good games and bad. There have been stadiums full of enthusiastic supporters and stadiums with rows of empty seats. But like the league, these are heady days for MLS Cup. The excitement level for Saturday’s game is as high as ever and demand for tickets is unprecedented.

That first MLS Cup final, played in a driving rain storm on a sloppy mess of a field, set the bar for drama that may never be matched. After falling behind 2-0, United fought back to tie the game and won it in overtime on an Eddie Pope header. It was the only final to be decided on a “golden goal”, and unless that system is reinstated it is the only Cup that will end in such dramatic fashion.

Ian and I weren’t prepared for the weather that day, so before the game we bought a box of plastic garbage bags to cover ourselves. It wasn’t a great look, and didn’t really keep us dry, but it was part of what made the experience memorable. We even offered then-D.C. President Kevin Payne one of our plastic bags while he watched part of the game in the stands with us. He politely declined.

RFK Stadium was the site of the Cup in 1997 – where it once again rained throughout the game and D.C. United won its second straight title.

I have mixed feelings about missing the 1998 MLS Cup. D.C. United was in the game for the third consecutive year and as a native Californian it would have made sense for me travel to Pasadena for the Cup. But I was working for a Member of Congress at the time, who was facing a tough reelection battle. Election Day was just a week after the Cup so instead of going to the game I walked precincts in California’s Bay Area encouraging people to vote.

My boss won, which meant I got to keep my job. But my streak of attending MLS Cups ended at 2.

I was back in Foxboro the next year, however, to see United win a 3rd championship in 4 tries. And in 2000 the final was again staged at RFK Stadium and by them my determination to attend the Cup every year was firmly established.

One of the low points for MLS Cup was in Columbus in 2001. An early sign of problems was the lack of demand for tickets. MLS made the tickets available by lottery so Ian and I, anticipating the tickets might be hard to come by given the small stadium capacity, submitted as many applications as we could. It turns out there weren’t many people interested in going to the game so we ended up with more tickets than we could use.

The San Jose Earthquakes beat the Los Angeles Galaxy in a fine game on goals by Landon Donovan and Dwayne De Rosario. But there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the stands that day. Few San Jose and Los Angeles fans were able to make the trip to the game and the local Columbus fans just weren’t that into it.

The reverse happened the next year, when the New England Revolution reached the MLS Cup hosted at their home field – Gillette Stadium. Demand was high to see the local team try to win a championship and fans filled the giant stadium on a bitterly cold day. New England lost the game but this was an early indication that home team participation in the Cup can have a major impact on attendance and the atmosphere in the stadium.

Toronto in 2010 proved that point in a different way. The Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas reached the final that year and the time and location for the game – Sunday night in Toronto – made it difficult for many of their supporters to attend. There were so few people at the game that officials asked spectators in remote parts of the stadium to fill-in the empty seats that were visible on television.

Major League Soccer’s move to stage MLS Cup at the home of the team with the best record ensures that the stadiums will be packed with enthusiastic supporters. It makes scheduling difficult and limits the ability of travelling supporters – or neutrals like me – to attend the games. But the product in the stadium and on television is better for it.

One thing that has remained consistent over the years is the intimacy of the MLS Cup experience. Fans who attend the championship game have an opportunity to engage with MLS players and league officials in a way that is not possible in other major sports.

I’ve attended small gatherings with Commissioner Don Garber speaking to fans about the state of the league; I was in a bar with Los Angeles supporters before the 2009 final in Seattle when Galaxy executive Tim Leiweke arrived and ordered a round of drinks for everyone there; my wife and I even had a conversation with Alexi Lalas in Dallas about his dad’s work as a climate change negotiator for the Greek government. There have also been pseudo-celebrity sightings, like seeing George P. Bush wandering around Pizza Hut Park during the 2005 Cup.

Saturday’s Major League Soccer championship match between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake will be the 18th MLS Cup in the league’s history. The matchup between two quality teams, in one of the league’s finest new stadiums, promises to be one of the best finals in MLS history.

But as much as I’m looking forward to Saturday’s game, I’m already starting to think about where I’ll be heading next year at this time.


Saint Mary's
Club Domestic:
DC United
Club Foreign:
Peter is a government relations professional in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA. He has been a DC United season ticket holder since 1997 and has attended every MLS Cup except one – in 1998 when he was busy helping his boss get re-elected to Congress.