There have been more than 1,400 MLS matches played since the league kicked off in 1996. This is a list of some of the most significant games, determined not only by the quality of play, but by the sense of drama, the relative stakes of the contest, and the surrounding atmosphere.
The inaugural game in San Jose might not have been of the highest standard, but the fact that it was played was an enormous accomplishment by MLS organizers, who confronted major obstacles in getting the ball rolling. Nobody knew for certain if the U.S. had the right qualities to actually pull this off. This match displayed some of the best and worst qualities that would characterize the MLS, and established just how much coaches and teams would have to improve. The main reason that this game is ranked at the top of this list, though, is that it got the attention of all sorts of observers and stimulated the imagination of fans, journalists, and sponsors.
After this, anything was possible, and that included disaster, embarrassment, failure. The MLS, like most start-up enterprises, was being condemned by critics and doubters both from within and without. Doom could have been just around the corner. But the fact that the league could get off to a running start justified the hope and optimism which were nearly as crucial to the league's existence as the dollars of Phil Anschutz, John Kluge, George Soros, and the Hunt and Kraft families. The MLS was on the map, and some of the youngsters who were in the stands at the opening game in their city formed their dream to become professional soccer players. Some of those kids are now among the league's better players.
(1) April 6, 1996 -- San Jose-D.C. United 1-0. At Spartan Stadium (31,683).
Eric Wynalda decided the inaugural game in the 88th minute before a crowd which included FIFA president Joao Havelange. The US Soccer Federation had fulfilled its obligation to FIFA, establishing a professional league, and Havelange seemed satisfied, though he might not have been quite so approving had the match been decided by shootout. The quality of play was uneven, but the presentation of the game and the buildup (which included an Alexi Lalas appearance with David Letterman) were well-orchestrated. Bruce Arena, juggling U.S. Olympic team duties, coached United as a work in progress, and this match clearly showed him where United needed to improve.
(2) Nov. 9, 2003 -- San Jose-Los Angeles 5-2 (OT). At Spartan Stadium (14,145)
A soccer maxim notes that a 2-0 score can be the most deceptive of advantages. The Galaxy absorbed a double dose of that lesson, after taking a 2-0 first-leg win, then earning a two-goal advantage in the return leg. Jeff Agoos started the rally with a 21st-minute goal, Chris Roner sent the contest into extra time with a 90th-minute header, a minute after entering the match, and Rodrigo Faria got the golden goal winner. The Earthquakes were able to raise their game when it counted. After having scored once in a nearly 500-minute span encompassing in the regular season and playoffs, San Jose began finding the range, scoring 12 goals in the final three playoff matches, including a 4-2 win over Chicago in the final.
(3) Nov. 6, 2004 -- D.C. United-New England 3-3 (7-6 penalty kicks). At RFK Stadium (21,101).
United displayed great resilience in this match, playing without suspended Dema Kovalenko and Ryan Nelsen, holding off a strong Revolution attack in overtime, then winning the first-ever MLS match decided by penalty kicks. Each time United took the lead (goals by Alecko Eskandarian, Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez), the Revolution (Taylor Twellman, Steve Ralston, Pat Noonan) tied the score. Nick Rimando clinched the result, diving left to stop Clint Dempsey's penalty, and United went on to defeat Kansas City for its fourth MLS Cup title.
(4) Oct. 20, 1996 -- D.C. United-Los Angeles Galaxy 3-2 (OT). At Foxboro Stadium (34,643)
This match was on the verge of being postponed after a torrential rainstorm soaked the field. But both teams displayed their skill and were able to play through the puddles. The Galaxy squandered a two-goal lead, all three United goals resulting from Marco Etcheverry corners or free kicks. Substitutes Tony Sanneh (73rd minute) and Shawn Medved (82nd) tied the score, then 22-year-old Eddie Pope headed the game-winner four minutes into golden goal overtime. United used this result to establish itself as the dominant team of the league's early years. The Galaxy would fade -- coach Lothar Osiander would be fired after a shootout defeat to the Revolution in the same stadium the next June -- and never quite match United's achievements.
(5) Nov. 23, 2003 -- San Jose-Chicago 4-2. At The Home Dept Center (27,000).
The game's best action occurred between the 49th and 55th minutes, as three goals were scored and Ante Razov's penalty kick was saved by Pat Onstad. The 'Quakes had a 2-0 halftime lead, then DaMarcus Beasley scored for Chicago in the 49th minute, Richard Mulrooney regained a two-goal advantage in the 50th minute, then Chris Roner surrendered an own goal and penalty kick in the 54th and 55th minutes. Landon Donovan's 71st-minute strike clinched the result.
(6) Oct. 17, 2001 -- Miami-San Jose 0-1 (OT). At Lockhart Stadium (11,242).
The Fusion began planning revenge soon after Troy Dayak's 94th-minute golden-goal header, not knowing this would be their final match. Ray Hudson had built a confident team, which went 16-5-5 and averaged 2.19 goals per game. But after Preki's spectacular strike in Game 1 of this playoff series, the Earthquakes' Joe Cannon shut them down.
(7) 1996 -- Kansas City-Columbus 6-4. At Arrowhead Stadium (8,848).
Ron Newman-coached teams were always lively, and the signing of Mo Johnston two days before this match kicked up the Wiz's intensity. Preki assisted on the opening goal, by Mark Chung in the fifth minute, and scored the final goal in the 88th minute. The Columbus goalkeeper was Bo Oshoniyi and among the Crew players were current Kansas City assistant coach Brian Bliss and Fulham's Brian McBride.
(8) Oct. 3, 2000 -- Los Angeles-Kansas City 2-1 (OT). At The Rose Bowl (20,849).
This could have been a defining moment for the MLS, the Galaxy going on the attack, the Wizards using spoiling tactics. Danny Califf returned from the Olympic Games to score the game-winner in the third minute of golden goal overtime. But that would be the last goal scored against the Wizards until the next season. Kansas City locked things up, which made for mostly destructive, dismal games, the Wizards rarely unleashing Mo Johnston, Miklos Molnar, or Preki. The style was effective, the Wizards blanking the Galaxy in the next playoff game and defeating Chicago, 1-0, in the MLS Cup final.
(9) Oct. 27, 1999 -- Dallas-Chicago 3-2. At Cotton Bowl (9,795).
The defending MLS Cup champion Fire scored twice in the first five minutes and seemed certain to be able to protect the lead. But Chad Deering (55th minute) cut the deficit, then Jorge Rodriguez' penalty kick (84th) and Ariel Graziani (86th) put the Burn into the Western Conference finals.
(10) Oct. 20, 2002 -- New England-Los Angeles 0-1 (OT). At Foxboro Stadium (61,316).
By August, the MLS was looking like a bad investment for the Krafts, as the Revolution were about to complete another losing season. But the family recaptured their enthusiasm as Taylor Twellman was nearly unstoppable and the Revolution went on a 5-0-1 streak to conclude the regular season, then became the only team besides D.C. United (1997) to the reach the MLS Cup final in their home stadium, attracting a record crowd. The Galaxy deserved the victory, on an precise golden-goal finish by Carlos Ruiz past Adin Brown. But the Revolution showed how close they were to being transformed as Winston Griffiths hit the crossbar minutes earlier with what could have been the winner.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.