The Oxford Dictionary defines the word underdog as follows:
“A competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest.”
Now that we’re enlightened, we present the underdogs in the Western Conference MLS Cup playoffs race:
They are none other than your Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
It’s a description that suits everyone at the club, particularly head coach Martin Rennie, who talked up the benefits of such a tag straight after the team sealed the fifth and final playoffs spot in the West.
Considering the firepower of the defending MLS Cup champions, it is no surprise that everyone from MLS pundits to supporters outside British Columbia are expecting Los Angeles Galaxy to progress from the Western Conference Knockout Round to meet San Jose Earthquakes in an all-California semi-final series.
However, while it’s a trite sporting cliché, it is an opportune moment to mention this: Playoffs – especially in soccer – are a whole different ball game.
The MLS Cup postseason has witnessed many a heroic underdog tale since the competition’s inception in 1996.
Over the years, there have been clubs that have scraped into the playoffs and were instantly dismissed, yet somehow they were able to get it together – at the right time of the year no less – and go all the way to the MLS Cup final, and in some cases lift the Cup trophy itself.
Are Whitecaps FC capable of pulling off something just as special this season? As the following exhibits show, it can definitely be achieved.
Exhibit A - 1997 Colorado Rapids
In the second season of MLS, Colorado finished fourth (out of five teams) in the Western Conference – 11 points behind conference winners and semifinal opponents Kansas City Wizards.
Going into the first leg of the semifinal at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, the Rapids had the joint second-worst Goals Against tally in the entire competition, so the Wizards were expected to win easily.
But Colorado had other ideas and took the first game 3-0, before wrapping the tie up with a 3-2 win in the second leg. The Rapids then took care of Dallas Burn 3-1 on aggregate in the conference finals before ultimately losing 2-1 to DC United in the MLS Cup final.
Exhibit B - 2001 San Jose Earthquakes
The Earthquakes were the fifth-seeds in that season’s playoffs, and with a young Landon Donovan (pictured below) in their ranks, San Jose hit the ground running with a 6-1 aggregate win over Columbus Crew (seeded fourth) in the quarterfinals.
But it wasn’t until the semifinals when the Earthquakes sent an ominous warning to the rest of their competition. Facing Supporters' Shield winners Miami Fusion, San Jose overcame a 1-0 first leg away defeat with a stunning 4-0 result on home turf. It took an extra-time winner in the third and deciding game to book a date with the highly-fancied LA Galaxy in the Cup final.
The Earthquakes’ fairytale season was complete when they once again came back from a goal down and – once again – scored the winning goal in extra-time to beat Los Angeles 2-1 in Columbus.
Exhibit C – 2005 Los Angeles Galaxy
The Galaxy finished in the fourth and final playoff spot out west and awaiting them in the conference semifinals were mighty San Jose.
Despite finishing 19 points behind the Earthquakes in the final standings, Los Angeles started the ‘new’ season in scintillating fashion with a 4-2 aggregate win over San Jose, which included a 3-1 first leg victory at The Home Depot Center.
After scoring two goals in the San Jose series, Donovan – now with LA – continued his rich vein of form in the conference finals against Colorado to guide his team into the MLS Cup final against New England Revolution.
The Revolution finished top in the East – 14 points better than LA - but the Galaxy’s giant-killing ways went on unabated as they took home the MLS Cup thanks to an extra-time goal.
Exhibit D – 2008 New York Red Bulls
Twelve points separated second-place Houston Dynamo and eighth-ranked New York Red Bulls, who barely scraped into the postseason.
Despite the regular season records of the two teams and a 1-1 draw at home in the first leg of their semifinal, New York ventured to Texas and defied the odds to pick up a resounding 3-0 win. Current Whitecaps FC speedster Dane Richards opened the scoring on that day (perhaps a sign of things to come?).
The Red Bulls then travelled to Utah for the conference final with Real Salt Lake and recorded another unlikely road win. However, their Cinderella run ended with a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Columbus in the MLS Cup final.
Exhibit E – 2009 Real Salt Lake
RSL was awarded the eighth and final spot in the MLS Cup playoffs thanks to their superior goal difference over Colorado Rapids and DC United.
To everyone’s amazement, Salt Lake took care of Supporters' Shield winners Columbus Crew 4-2 on aggregate in the semifinals before eliminating Chicago Fire on penalty kicks in the penultimate round of the postseason.
Now it was down to RSL and the David Beckham-led Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup final. Salt Lake found an equalizer in the second half before the match went down to penalty kicks. RSL duly prevailed 5-4 in a shootout over the team which boasted the second-best MLS record in the regular season.
Exhibit F – 2010 Colorado Rapids
This playoff campaign will arguably be remembered as the ‘Year of the Giantkillers’ as Colorado (ranked seventh in the playoffs) met FC Dallas in the MLS Cup final.
Colorado eliminated the higher-ranked Columbus via penalty shots in the first round before edging San Jose Earthquakes – who were coming off a shocking 3-2 aggregate victory over third-seed New York – in the semifinals.
Dallas on the other hand, trumped second-ranked RSL in the quarterfinals before destroying Supporters' Shield winners and hot favourites Los Angeles Galaxy 3-0 in the conference finals.
So it came down to two unlikely clubs in the finale at BMO Field in Toronto. It was fitting the match was decided in extra-time, during which the Rapids broke the deadlock to clinch a 2-1 win – bringing to an end a crazy postseason that yet again saw the form book get thrown out the window.
The question now is: Will 2012 be another year for the underdog?