Major League Soccer has faced some tough times throughout its 20-year history, but it finally appears to be receiving the attention that it deserves. Attendance has been slowly on the rise since the turn of the millennium, and the playing quality has improved in leaps and bounds in the recent years.
The league has certainly come a long way since the first MLS Cup in 1996, with players like Steven Gerrard and Kaká now gracing the league with their presence and experience. Back then it was all about Carlos Valderrama and Eric Wynalda, and in that inaugural MLS Cup clash, the two goalkeepers, Mark Simpson and Jorge Campos.
Mark Simpson – D.C. United
Prior to the inception of MLS, Simpson had spent most of his career playing indoor soccer for clubs across the United States. The season had already kicked off when Simpson received a call from then-DCU Manager Bruce Arena, who wanted him to operate as the team’s back-up keeper.
It didn’t take long for the American shot-stopper to force his way into the starting XI after United suffered six defeats in their first seven matches, leaving them at rock-bottom in the Eastern Conference table. With Simpson between the sticks, D.C. United surged up the table, eventually finishing second in the division, and third in the overall standings.
Most expected that the cup final would be contested between LA Galaxy and Tampa Bay Mutiny, who had finished at the top of the table in the Western and Eastern Conferences respectively, but an inspired D.C. United side pulled off two shock victories over Mutiny, seeing them, and Simpson, through to the final.
Jorge Campos – LA Galaxy
Best known for his impressive appearances for Mexico at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, Campos treated MLS fans to his unusual style of goalkeeping throughout the 1996 season. His blend of acrobatic diving and risky outfield play certainly provided plenty of entertainment, and it seemingly did the job for LA Galaxy, as they steam-rolled their way to the top of the Western Conference.
Galaxy kicked off the opening season strongly, winning their first 12 games consecutively. The club suffered a blip throughout the summer months, but they had done enough early on to cushion what was a poor period. Three consecutive victories at the regular season’s close was ultimately enough to see them through to the playoffs.
Campos kept clean sheets in both quarter-final clashes against San Jose Clash to see the club safely through to a Western final against Kansas City Wiz, and back-to-back 2-1 victories saw them earn a shot at the first MLS Cup.
1996 MLS Cup final: LA Galaxy vs D.C. United
Galaxy were confident of a win going into the game, given that they had already claimed two straightforward victories over their challengers during the regular season. They appeared to be in the driver’s seat after just four minutes when Eduardo Hurtado powered a header past Simpson, who had plenty of time to react, but was unable to keep the ball out of the net.
Mauricio Cienfuegos almost doubled Galaxy’s lead with a curling free-kick towards Simpson’s near post, but the keeper was on hand to redeem himself by tipping the shot wide. DC had plenty of opportunities to equalise, but Campos was on hand to mop up any balls that they sent his way.
Following the break, Galaxy midfielder Chris Armas picked up the ball in the opposition’s half and went on a darting run before tucking the ball into the net from the edge of the penalty area. Simpson had come too far off his line and was ultimately too poorly positioned to make the save.
United appeared to be down and out, but a close range header from a free-kick beat Campos at his far post to make it 2-1 with 17 minutes to go. Galaxy gave away an unnecessary free-kick with nine minutes remaining, and Campos was on hand to halt the ball not once, but twice, although he was unable to stop Shawn Medved from levelling the score and sending the game to extra-time.
Set-pieces ultimately proved to be Galaxy’s downfall, as Eddie Pope powered a header past a stationary Campos from a corner just four minutes into extra-time – a Golden Goal which gifted underdogs D.C. United the first ever MLS Cup.
Campos certainly provided the better performance on the day, pulling off a number of stunning saves on his goal-line, around his area and even some outside of it, but it was a shaky Mark Simpson who emerged victorious at the 1996 MLS Cup final.