There have been a lot of great sides that have thrilled MLS fans through the league’s first quarter-century, but not all of them were able to rubber-stamp that greatness with at least one league crown.
We’re here today to discuss the best of the teams who never raised MLS Cup. Some of these will be specific to a particular season of peak-too-soon greatness, while others rep their colors over a multi-season “always a bridesmaid” era.
Any club that previously won it all with a similar core group of players or would soon do so is happily disqualified from making this dubious cut. For example, D.C. United failed to live up to their regular season Supporters Shield level in the 2006 and 2007 playoffs, but several key cogs were still around from when they took the 2004 title. Conversely, Sporting KC suffered a big postseason letdown after their monster 2012 season, but would go on to finish championship business a year later.
As always, we’ll start by serving up an appetizer of honorable mentions: Chicago Fire (2003), Chivas USA (2007), Seattle Sounders (2011-12) and Sporting KC (2018).
Tampa Bay Mutiny (1996)
Roy Lassiter with the Tampa Bay Mutiny | Getty Images
The Mutiny were the original Supporters Shield winners before the Supporters Shield was actually even a thing. In the inaugural MLS season, they had the Golden Boot man (Roy Lassiter), the MVP (Carlos Valderrama) and the Rookie of the Year (Steve Ralston). They had Mark Dougherty, Giuseppe Galderisi, Frankie Hejduk, Cle Kooiman, Ivan McKinley and others. They also had the misfortune of a seven-minute early second half collapse at hosts D.C. United in the Conference Championship first leg they never recovered from.
LA Galaxy (1996-99)
Former LA Galaxy teammates Mauricio Cienfuegos, Cobi Jones and Jorge Campos | Getty Images
There likely aren’t many out-of-town (and cross-town) observers who will feel sorry for Galaxy playoff misadventures. But in the league’s early years, they were actually the lovable scamps who couldn’t quite win the big one. The team sheet names from this somehow Cup-less era still resonate: Chris Armas, Paul Caligiuri, Jorge Campos, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Ezra Hendrickson, Kevin Hartman, Edwin Hurtado, Robin Fraser, Cobi Jones, Clint Mathis, Welton, Greg Vanney. They topped the West in three of those first four MLS seasons, yet failed to get past D.C. United or the Chicago Fire when it mattered most.
Miami Fusion (2001)
Like the two clubs above, the Fusion couldn’t get job No. 2 done after bringing home a Supporters Shield. With the irrepressible Ray Hudson in charge, Miami had the league’s top two scorers in MVP winner Alex Pineda Chacon and Diego Serna. Chris Henderson, Tyrone Marshall, Pablo Mastroeni, Preki and Nick Rimando led an impressive supporting cast. However, they got run over by the Earthquakes title train. After winning the first game of the Conference Championship, Miami were blown out in San Jose and then dropped the home decider on a 94th minute Troy Dayak strike.
New England Revolution (2002-07)
Taylor Twellman in his New England Revolution days | GettyImages
Okay, so for whatever reason, they weren’t always on song during the regular season. Heck, the first of New England’s four MLS Cups trips during this span came after they topped the East with a losing record. Clint Dempsey, Pat Noonan, Ralston and Taylor Twellman brought the attack. Shalrie Joseph, Michael Parkhurst, Matt Reis and a solid cast of regulars at the back united to post 11 playoff shutouts (and carry three other games scoreless into extra time) over this era. Despite all the talent, they’ll always be the team that lost four title matches, and typically in heart-wrenching fashion. The Revs dropped two MLS Cups on overtime lone goals, another on penalties and then another on a late rally. Ouch.
San Jose Earthquakes (2012)
This edition of the Quakes was most unusual for several reasons. They were sub-.500 also-rans the year prior, and started a four-year run of missing the playoffs after this one despite having a winning record. But, without making any major changes to the roster, it all clicked in 2012. Chris Wondolowski, Alan Gordon and Steven Lenhart combined for 50 of the team’s 72 goals (fifth-best season total of all-time) and 66 points. They also had a young defense featuring Steven Beitashour, Justin Morrow and Ike Opara, but couldn’t hang with the rival Galaxy in the Conference Semifinals.
FC Dallas (2015-16)
In all the years of MLS play, this is the only team to record consecutive 60-point regular seasons. The foundation of their success was one of the league’s stingiest defenses, which was ably marshaled by back-to-back Best XI honoree Matt Hedges. An attack paced by playmakers Michael Barrios, Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz could break you down when needed, hit on the run and bury set pieces. In 2015, FC Dallas fell to eventual champs Portland in the Conference Championship. The following year, eventual champs Seattle ousted them a round earlier.
New York City FC (2017-19)
Valentin Castellanos reacts in disbelief as NYCFC are eliminated from the 2019 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs by Toronto FC | USA Today Sports Images
Some might argue, but it says here the Cityzens of the last few years have been among the soundest, most complete squads in league history. This makes it all the more frustrating they’ve made it past all of one playoff round during this time frame. This is a club that transitioned from strike star David Villa by luring the equally productive Heber. Maxi Moralez and Alex Ring ensure that the midfield is consistently top-shelf. The defense is deep and reliable, the wide players are handfuls. Suffice it to say NYCFC have quickly run out of excuses for falling short in the postseason, but at least they’re still as big a title threat as ever.
New York Red Bulls (2018)
I could have easily linked several Red Bulls groups together. They’ve won three Supporters Shields since 2013, and have repeatedly looked like a contender. For my money, though, one of their iterations stands above the rest in both overall talent and level of playoff disappointment. Additions such as Kaku, Michael Murillo and Tim Parker helped the team improve their point total from 50 in 2017 to 71, which was a league record at the time. Then they suddenly forgot how to dominate Atlanta United in the playoffs, suffering what remains the only loss they’ve been dealt in eight series meetings in the Mercedes-Benz leg of the Conference Final.
Finally, we arrive at the freshest, and perhaps most obvious entry. When you set new standards for points and goal differential in a season, and then you don’t bring home MLS Cup, you end up in this company. As with the New York sides directly above, the good news is Bob Bradley and his boys can still win their way off the list. Record-smasher Carlos Vela leads a varied attack expertly supported by the midfield troika of Eduard Atuesta, Latif Blessing and Mark Anthony-Kaye, and an underrated defense. Unfortunately, they were unable to solve Seattle (at first try, anyway), which to be fair has afflicted many clubs in recent years.