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Top 5 late-season comebacks to reach Audi MLS Cup Playoffs


As you surely know by now, the Colorado Rapids will head into Decision Day presented by AT&T clinging to Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs hopes that seemed dead and buried back in May.

Thanks to a resurrecting stint under interim boss Conor Casey and five wins from the first six games of head coach Robin Fraser’s tenure, the Rapids are one win and a lot of help away from pulling off one of the greatest rallies in Major League Soccer history.

And what kind of esteemed company can they join by pulling the Western Conference’s last postseason berth out of a fire that’s been burning for four-and-a-half months? Glad you asked. Several factors went into the judging the greatest playoff place rescues ever seen in MLS, including strength of the closing run, amount of ground made up to snare the playoff berth and late season drama.

It wasn’t absolutely essential for teams to lock down their postseason bid in the final game, but you’ll notice we didn’t tab anyone who sealed their comeback any sooner than the next-to-last-round. Close shaves are far more memorable than rallies that end with the team standing well clear of the playoff line with matches to spare.

As is usually the case, we preface the list by saluting a handful of honorable mentions: LA Galaxy 2009, Seattle Sounders 2010, Seattle Sounders 2017, Vancouver Whitecaps 2014.

Colorado Rapids (2005)

Rapids midfielder Alain Nkong (right) battles New England’s Michael Parkhurst in 2005. | USA Today Images

Following a 2-1 home loss to San Jose on July 20, the Rapids were six games below break-even and eight points shy of the last playoff slot. A few days later, they rallied from an early deficit to rout Chicago 4-1 and ignite an 8-2-3 closing kick. Colorado’s run went right down to the wire, as they needed to win at Real Salt Lake on closing day and get help from elsewhere to scrape into the postseason.

A 70th-minute Fabrice Noel strike was all the Rapids would need to top their arch rivals to slide up to the seventh of eight playoff spots. On the weekend, Kansas City were held to a draw and the Galaxy fell to San Jose, leaving all three teams level on 45 points. The Wizards drew the short tie-breaker straw.  

Columbus Crew SC (1996)

The first great late swindle in MLS history took place down the stretch of the inaugural season. The Crew had just 14 points through 22 games to sit eight points below the playoff line at the end of July. Even with eight of 10 teams qualifying for the postseason, things looked grim in C-bus.

Looks were entirely deceiving in this case, as Columbus went 9-1 (with two of the wins by shootout) in their final 10 games to salvage the season. The job wasn’t done until the final day, when Brian McBride’s late first-half lone goal away to a chasing New England side to make sure the Crew would pocket the final playoff invite.

D.C. United (2018)

D.C. celebrate a goal in 2018. | USA Today Images

It’s not just recency bias. Even with 12 of their last 15 at their fancy new Audi Field digs, the capital crew’s back stretch run was truly stirring. D.C. United didn’t just rise from the grave, they flew out as if shot by a cannon.

D.C. were 12 points and six Eastern Conference rungs short of a playoff spot with 15 games to go. They went 10-2-3 over that remainder, and 7-0-3 over their final 10 games, clinching a postseason berth with a round to spare when Wayne Rooney’s brace decided a 3-1 decision over New York City FC. Not satisfied with merely making the playoffs, they then posted a scoreless Decision Day draw at Chicago to lock down a home playoff game.

New England Revolution (2002)

Carlos Llamosa (left) of the New England Revolution duels Alejandro Moreno of the LA Galaxy. | Reuters/Action Images

The Revs’ salvage run was much shorter than the other four on this list — but considering the fact that they needed to make up eight points in six rounds to reach the playoffs, it easily stands up as one of the best.

New England went 5-0-1 to close the regular season, and didn’t clinch until the final weekend. Taylor Twellman opened early and Wolde Harris added a double to seal a decisive 3-0 victory over the then-MetroStars. And thanks to a Columbus loss at Chicago, the Revs quickly went from reserving tee times to winning the East.

Seattle Sounders (2016)

Finally, we arrive at the gold (or is it rave green?) standard for season comebacks. It’s the MLS version of the 2019 St. Louis Blues. It’s the league’s most famous return from the dead tale authored by a club that’s made a habit of such tales. It’s all that and a bag of chips because the Sounders, who were gasping for air 10 points under the playoff line at the end of July, eventually sailed all the way from last place to their first MLS Cup title.

Boosted by the midseason acquisition of string puller Nico Lodeiro, Seattle finished on an 8-2-4 roll. They still had to leapfrog arch nemesis Portland on Decision Day to punch their ticket to the big dance. The Sounders topped Real Salt Lake 2-1 while Vancouver slapped around the Timbers, sending the Emerald City bunch on a path to history.





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