Culture foot: defending a title

Saturday was the MLS Cup final, and after a long and gruelling run that started with 12 teams, our finalists, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders FC, were the same as last year. Seattle had the unique opportunity of repeating as champions, a feat achieved only three times since the MLS was inaugurated in 1996, but Toronto had the last word in front of its own fans, becoming the first Canadian team to win the MLS Cup.

Whether in MLS or around the world, nothing shows more dominance than repeating history. It’s moments like these in professional sports that underline dynasties and that stay bolded in history forever. Seattle came close to doing just that Saturday. Let’s look at some teams that defended their titles, and some others that came close but failed.

Houston Dynamo
MLS Cup
2006-07

It was an energetic day at Robertson Stadium, on April 2, 2006, when the Houston Dynamo played their first ever MLS game, having just relocated from San Jose. They would go on to win that game, 5-2 over the Colorado Rapids, before eventually finishing second in the Western Conference.

The final in 2006 was against the New England Revolution, a team that had come close to winning an MLS Cup in previous years, losing in two consecutive conference finals in 2003 and 2004, before losing in the finals against the LA Galaxy in 2005.

It seemed like 2006 was going to be the year for the Revs. After a scoreless 90 minutes, New England scored 22 minutes into extra time to take the lead, but were caught celebrating as Brian Ching netted the equalizer less than a minute later. Houston would go on to edge New England in the first ever MLS Cup penalty shootout.

Houston would start the following season with only two wins after nine games, and pundits had written off the defending champions early. But the Dynamo turned things around, and went on an 11-game win streak after the all-star break, propelling themselves into the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams.

Again, they would match-up against the New England Revolution, the Revs now desperate for some silverware of their own after losing two straight finals. With the game tied at one goal apiece, Dwayne de Rosario would add to his legend by heading in the game winning goal late in the second half. For the second time in MLS history, we had back-to-back champions. As for the New England Revolution, that would be their third straight loss in an MLS Cup Final. Ouch.

Manchester United
Champions League
2008 (won), 2009 (lost)

It’s only this year - with Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, and exciting youngsters like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial - that Manchester United is starting to look like their old selves. Since Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, United has failed to win the Premier League, and have gone through two world class managers in David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

But in 2008, Manchester was a different beast. Cristiano Ronaldo was still under the tutelage of the great Ferguson, along with his compatriot Nani. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs still manned the middle of the field, and Carlos Tevez was firing on all counts. The likes of Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, and Nemanja Vid played in the back, and the net was guarded by none other than Dutch legend Edwin van der Sar.

In the Champions League Final in 2008, they would face a familiar foe, and Premier League rivals, Chelsea. In the penalty shootout, John Terry would slip and fall, his eventual shot going off the post, giving Manchester United the edge and allowing them to lift their third European trophy.

The following year, Manchester found themselves in the final again, this time against a team they had beaten in last year’s competition, but in the semifinals, FC Barcelona. A true battle of the titans, as some of the best players in the world featured on both teams, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. After FC Barcelona went up 1-0, Lionel Messi scored one of his most iconic goals, a leaping header that left everyone stunned, including a motionless van der Sar (see video below). Unfortunately for Manchester, second place was the best they could achieve a year after they won it all.  

LA Galaxy
MLS Cup
2011-12

After the Houston Dynamo did it to the New England Revolution just a few years back, it was now their turn to suffer the same fate.

The LA Galaxy are the most successful team in MLS history, with five MLS Cups to their name. What’s even more impressive is that they were runner-up four times as well, meaning they could have potentially had nine cups to their name since the league was started. As good as the Galaxy were in the early years as well, their squad that won back-to-back cups is arguably the best in MLS history.

Led by the likes of David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, the LA Galaxy were a force to be reckoned with, and they would face the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup two years in a row. The 2011 final ended 1-0, with Landon Donovan scoring a chipped game-winning goal to send them to the Promised Land.

Houston had revenge on their minds the following year, controlling most of the play in the first half and being rewarded with a goal in the 44th minute. But the Galaxy clawed their way back, tying it at one before Landon Donovan stepped up to take the penalty that served as his second Cup-winning goal in two years.

Although LA boasted plenty of talented players, 2011 and 2012 were the only two seasons Beckham was with the team for the entire year, his previous years at the club being highlighted by loans to AC Milan.

Bruce Arena, winner of two MLS Cups with D.C., would add two more titles to his trophy case with the LA Galaxy, and then another in 2014.  

Real Madrid
Champions League
2016-17

Since 1992, when what was known as the European Cup was transformed in the Champions League that we know today, no team had ever won back-to-back tournaments until Real Madrid completed the feat just a few months ago, when they plummeted Juventus 4-1 at the Millennial Stadium, in Cardiff.

Juventus came out strong, and big wins against FC Barcelona and AS Monaco in the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively had the Italian giants confident in their chances. Mario Mandzukic tied the game at one going into the second half, but Madrid came out a different team after the break, scoring three unanswered goals to earn their 12th Champions League title. 

Just a year before that, they faced off against their city rivals, Atlético Madrid for the second time in three years. The first time, in 2012, the match ended 1-1 after a very late equalizer from Sergio Ramos gave Read Madrid a lifeline, which was all they would need, as they scored three goals in extra time for their 10th title.

Two years later, the two would meet again in the final, this time both teams needing a penalty shootout to settle their differences, and again, Real came out on top, to the dismay of the Atléti faithful watching.

D.C. United
MLS Cup
1996-97

Led by prolific coach Bruce Arena at the time, D.C. United set the standard in the league’s early years, winning the first two MLS Cups EVER.

The League came into existence after FIFA awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States, one of the main conditions being that they started a Division 1 professional soccer league. That gave birth to the MLS, whose first season consisted of just 10 teams. After a very rocky start to their inaugural season, D.C. found themselves in the final against the LA Galaxy. It would be a memorable first MLS Cup, with United storming back from two goals down to win the game in extra-time (see video below).

The next year, with Arena and his team settled into the new league, D.C. would steamroll their opponents all the way to the final, where they beat the Colorado Rapids. Bruce Arena would leave for the USMNT the following year, and D.C. United would finally experience a downturn after two straight Cups. 

Brazil
FIFA World Cup
1994 (won), 1998 (lost)

Going into next year’s World Cup, Brazil finally looks like they have a squad that can seriously contend for the highest honor in international soccer for the first time in quite a while. Since their World Cup victory in 2002, Brazil has been mediocre on the international stage, perhaps struggling to recover from losing living legends like Ronaldo, Adriano, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, and some others all in the same window.

There was a time when Brazil was almost always a favorite.  In 1994, they were just that. The tournament was in the United States that year, and the final was between the Brazilians and a very strong Italian team, with Roberto Baggio at the helm. After a scoreless 120 minutes, the World Cup was to be decided by a penalty shootout for the first time ever, and the world witnessed one of the lasting moments in the history of soccer. With the game on the line, Roberto Baggio rocketed his spot kick way over the bar, and Brazil was crowned Champions (see video below).

They looked to repeat the feat in 1998, but this time they faced France in the final, at the Stade de France in St-Denis. Needless to say, a very difficult task. Brazil would lose 3-0 to the French, falling just short of winning back-to-back World Cups.  

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