SIRK'S NOTEBOOK | Playoff History in Columbus

As the calendar turns toward October, our attention turns toward the MLS Cup Playoffs. By the time the postseason gets underway, we will have crowned a Supporters’ Shield winner for excellence over the course of a 34-game season. (This year, it will all but certainly be Toronto FC. Yuck.) We will have also crowned a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup champion for surviving a gauntlet of do-or-die matches. (This year it was Sporting Kansas City.) But now it’s time to combine the two. After 34 games of fighting for a playoff spot and jockeying for seeding and home-field advantage, it will be time to play for Major League Soccer’s ultimate prize. It’s time for heroes to rise to the occasion with the season on the line in pursuit of an MLS Cup championship. It’s time to Claim Glory.

Easier said than done, of course. Only one team can make the ultimate claim each year and it’s not an easy road. Seed Nos. 3-6 in each conference will need to gut out a single-elimination knockout game. Then come a pair of home-and-home total-goals series that require you outscore an opponent over 180 minutes, with the added complication of an away-goals tiebreaker. And then there is the winner-take-all MLS Cup final at the home of the higher seed. Oh, and the terrifying specter of a season-deciding penalty kick shootout looms at the conclusion of each round.

The high-stakes fight to claim glory can produce some indelible memories. We’ve had many here in Columbus. For example, just one week after a dramatic Black & Gold comeback to eliminate the Montreal Impact in extra time, Justin Meram scored the fastest goal in MLS Cup Playoffs history (nine seconds) to set the tone for a 2-0 first leg win and a 2-1 aggregate series win over the New York Red Bulls to claim the 2015 Eastern Conference championship. When trying to claim glory, you have to be ready from the opening whistle.

When fighting to claim glory, you also need to be clutch. Chad Marshall scored the most famous goal in MAPFRE Stadium history when he headed the ball over Brian McBride (a Crew SC legend who took a Chicago detour at the end of his career) in the 49th minute to cancel out McBride’s first half tally and knot the 2008 Eastern Conference Final at 1-1. Riding the wave of adrenaline that coursed through the stadium after that delirious moment, Eddie Gaven scored the decisive goal just six minutes later as Columbus vanquished their nemesis, the Chicago Fire, to reach the MLS Cup Final for the first time in club history. In the playoffs, you can claim glory in pursuit of even greater glory.

When trying to claim glory, your stars need to be at their best. In 1999, the legendary Stern John exploded for a second-half hat-trick in the span of 16 minutes in a 5-1 win over D.C. United. Anyone who was in MAPFRE Stadium that day will never forget Stern’s performance in the face of playoff elimination against a hated rival. Those who missed the game, like me, will never stop regretting it. To witness and experience glory, you kind of need to be there.

1999 is also the flip side of glory. The MLS Cup playoffs can bring heartache. That 1999 team went to RFK Stadium and lost the deciding game 4-0. It was the third consecutive year Columbus was knocked out by D.C. United in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2004, Columbus won its first Supporters’ Shield, then bowed out in the first round after missing not one, but TWO penalty kicks in regulation against the New England Revolution. It was a Halloween nightmare unlike any other, and it came two years after the Revs won an Eastern Conference Finals matchup against Columbus in 2002.

But here’s the thing. As heartbreaking as any of those moments were, they also made the taste of victory that much sweeter. When Guillermo Barros Schelotto scooped the ball to Frankie Hejduk’s head for the goal that sealed the 2008 MLS Cup championship, all that remained in our hearts was the glow of Massive Glory. To have missed the moments, both good and bad, along the 13-year journey would be to have missed out on the full splendor of glory claimed.

Since then, there have been other heartbreaks. Upset losses to Real Salt Lake in 2009 and Colorado (on penalty kicks) in 2010, which then saw the roster breakup of the Massive Champions. Then there was a new era in 2014 that saw New England romp to a 7-3 aggregate victory. And in 2015, after a thrilling run to the MLS Cup final, hosted at MAPFRE Stadium no less, a misplay and an egregious refereeing error put the Black & Gold behind 2-0 in the first seven minutes, dooming their prospects of a second MLS Cup title.

But those post-2008 heartaches will someday be washed away in Massive Glory as well. 2017 will be the next opportunity. Who will rise to the occasion in the pursuit of glory? Will Fedrico Higuain replicate Schelotto’s wizardry? Will Ola Kamara bang home goals like Stern John? Will Justin Meram do those Justin Meram things that result in the ball hitting the back of the net? Will Zack Steffen make a season-preserving save that turns the course of history? Will Crew SC get the chance to vanquish rivals such as Chicago or Toronto? Will there be an epic comeback? A nailbiting finish?  A new legend in the making? Or will it be another heartbreak adding to the heft of the next MLS Cup title?

I can’t say. That’s the beauty and the terror of the MLS Cup playoffs. Everything is at stake, so every move, every decision, every play, every cheer, and every emotion is magnified to their extremes. And it’s all done, on and off the field, for club and for city, with one single purpose in mind.

To Claim Glory.

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