By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 2, 2021) US Soccer Players – Something momentous happened on Sunday in Mexico. Something momentous in soccer and, for a long-siffering fan base, something momentous in their lives. Cruz Azul won a championship.
If you don’t know much about the history of the Mexico City club, you might not know that until Sunday, Cruz Azul was cursed. Okay, “cursed” might not be the right word. Cruz Azul’s story didn’t include legends about great players stupidly sold, or barnyard animals denied entry to the stadium. Instead, Cruz Azul’s long championship drought, one that went back to 1997, came down to the club’s maddening ability to always trip at the final hurdle.
In the 23 years between titles for La Maquina, Cruz Azul lost six finals. The manner of some of those defeats became their legends. No matter how close the club got to the top of the mountain, some calamitous event would knock it down and see another year go by without a championship.
Cruz Azul’s situation wasn’t helped by how Liga MX runs its seasons. Holding two different seasons in the fall and spring doubles the chances for clubs to lift the trophy. A twenty-three-year drought for Cruz Azul equated to 45 missed opportunities. When you face failure that many times, it becomes part of your identity.
At least until you end the drought and overcome history. Maybe Cruz Azul’s Clausura 2021 championship will spark a run of titles and redefine the club’s image.
In Major League Soccer, the story is a little different for long-suffering clubs. The league only goes back 25 years, limiting the number of championships available. Expansion has tripled the remaining teams from that first season. Only nine teams can trace their history back to 1996.
That means that the vast majority of MLS teams have an MLS Cup-shaped hole in their trophy case. Thirteen clubs have lifted the trophy, so more than half the league is still waiting. The wait has been longer for some than for others. Just because MLS is only a quarter-century old, that doesn’t mean that everyone has avoided a stigma. There are three MLS original teams without a championship: FC Dallas, the New York Red Bulls, and the New England Revolution.
New England’s saga is the most heart-breaking of the bunch and carries the most potential for identity-shaping. New England has reached five MLS Cup finals, third on the all-time list. They’ve never won the title. Several of those finals played out in gut-wrenching fashion, with the Revs beaten only in extra time or on penalties.
Revolution fans who have supported the team since its aughts heyday will want to forget every one of those final disappointments.
There was the double-overtime golden goal loss to LA in 2002. Then the extra-time defeat to the same Galaxy team three years later. The 2006 final at RFK Stadium deserves a full treatment of its own. After New England took a 1-0 lead in overtime on a goal by star striker Taylor Twellman, Houston’s Brian Ching answered with an equalizer just a minute later. In the penalty shootout, Pat Noonan’s attempt hit the crossbar and Jay Heaps weakly rolled his into the waiting arms of Pat Onstad to give Houston the title. A year later, New England took an early lead through Twellman but conceded twice in the second half to lose to Houston again.
The last time the Revs went to the final, the club ran into the Donovan-Beckham-Keane LA Galaxy in 2014. Keane sank New England with an extra-time goal and the Revolution immediately dropped into also-ran status. The club hasn’t finished higher than fifth in the Eastern Conference any season since. New England did, of course, reach the conference final in 2020 where it fell to eventual MLS Cup champion Columbus.
For all the pain those final losses brought New England fans, they probably wouldn’t want to trade places with FC Dallas or the Red Bulls.
Those original MLS franchises can’t avoid a history of near misses in championship games because each has just one appearance in the MLS Cup final. The Red Bulls’ chance at the trophy came way back in 2008 when the New Jersey team flipped to the Western Conference through a quirk of the MLS playoff format and lost to the Columbus Crew. FC Dallas missed its opportunity to lift the cup in 2010 when the Hoops, as they were still called officially by the club, lost out to Gary Smith’s Colorado Rapids team in one of the most forgettable finals in league history.
Both of those losses came long enough ago that MLS was still using neutral venues for the MLS Cup final. The Red Bulls lost to the Crew in Los Angeles. FC Dallas fell to the Rapids in a cold, wet Toronto.
Of the group, perhaps only the Red Bulls have internalized the championship failure and watched it become part of the club’s identity. The Red Bulls play in the biggest media market in the country. That brings greater scrutiny and a healthy dose of schadenfreude when another season passes without a championship.
FC Dallas fans can’t be happy about their club’s championship ineptitude, but they’ve gone all-in on making its prolific academy the center of attention. The pressure to win titles is not nearly as intense as it might be if the club couldn’t take pride in its ability to develop players. In other words, FC Dallas’s lack of championship doesn’t dominate the narrative about the club. There’s some sleight-of-hand at work.
There are other clubs with “droughts” in MLS, ones that line up better with Cruz Azul’s long wait between championships. The Chicago Fire have one title, won way back the team’s first season, 1998. DC United, the club that dominated the early days of MLS and is still second all-time to the Galaxy in total MLS Cup wins, hasn’t lifted the trophy or even made it to a final since 2004.
Philadelphia is the oldest MLS expansion-era team without a championship. After last year’s Supporters’ Shield triumph, the Union looks closer to a title than ever before. Title droughts require a club be just good enough for the lack of championships to be worth talking about.
No one cares about championship futility if you’re not good enough to even challenge for the title. For some MLS clubs, becoming the pre-2021 version of Cruz Azul would represent progress. For others, it would be a nightmare.
More From Jason Davis:
- DeAndre Yedlin embraces changing role in USMNT
- A season of MLS transfers and loans to Europe
- New investor/operators in Orlando and Houston
- Aaron Long’s injury and Berhalter’s choices at center back
Photo by Tony Quinn – ISIPhotos.com