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A history of expansion teams in the MLS playoffs

LAFC are looking for a successful playoff run as an expansion team. History shows how rare that is.

Colorado Rapids v Los Angeles FC Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

Los Angeles Football Club made the playoffs in their first season in MLS.

That’s an incredible accomplishment, but even just saying that does not do it justice.

Making the playoffs in sports in general is a hard thing to do, and this is reinforced by the history of teams making the playoffs in their first season in MLS.

In the history of the league, LAFC are just the 5th expansion team to make the playoffs in their first season.

Here’s a little insight about the other 4 teams, and how they fared in the playoffs.

1998: Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion

Peter Nowak
Fire lifting MLS Cup

By now everyone has heard of the Chicago Fire, coached by Bob Bradley in their inaugural year, winning both MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup.

But in 1998 there were actually two expansion teams to make the playoffs, the afoermentioned Chicago Fire, and the Miami Fusion.

The Fusion lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to D.C. United, losing the first leg 2-1, then losing in penalty kicks in the second game, 3-2.

At that time in MLS, 8 (out of 12) teams made the playoffs, there were two rounds before the final, and each series was best out of three games.

So 1998 had best case/worst case scenario: A team that goes all the way to win the title, and a team that gets knocked out immediately.

2009: Seattle Sounders

Seattle Sounders FC v Los Angeles Galaxy
Sounders midfielder Ozzie Alonso in action
Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Eight out of 15 teams reached the postseason in 2009.

The Sounders, who also won the 2009 U.S. Open Cup, acquitted themselves well in the playoffs, losing 1-0 over two legs to the Houston Dynamo, finally surrendering a goal to Houston in extra time of the second leg. But like the Fusion, they couldn’t advance.

2017: Atlanta United

Columbus Crew v Atlanta United FC - Eastern Conference Knockout Round
Josef Martinez in action in the 2017 playoffs.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The most recent expansion team to make the playoffs in MLS was last year, Atlanta United, when 12 out of 22 teams qualified. Much like LAFC, Atlanta United got a star-studded squad of youngsters and MLS veterans to roar to the playoffs.

Atlanta United also got a home playoff game in the Knockout Rounds. Unfortunately for them, they did not find a way to get on the scoresheet at home, and fell to Columbus Crew SC in penalty kicks, 3-1. Another expansion team that bit the dust at the first hurdle.


So, what does this all mean? It means that making the playoffs are really hard, extra so for an expansion team, and that once you are there, winning a game or series is even harder.

Out of the four previous expansion playoff teams, only Bradley’s Chicago Fire won a round in the playoffs, en route to winning MLS Cup

LAFC making the playoffs is a tremendous achievement. We all hope they win and make a deep playoff run, but it should not get lost how impressive the team making the playoffs is.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!