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The best that never won: 1998 LA Galaxy

The team that set the bar very high for decades in MLS.

Cobi Jones...

This week, SB Nation is asking sites across the network to discuss the following question: What is the best team covered on the site that never won? The parameters are flexible, and there are several candidates among the LA Galaxy teams over the years.

While the Galaxy now are the most decorated team in MLS in terms of MLS Cup trophies, with five, their early history was one of being nearly men. In the opening six seasons of the league, LA went to three MLS Cups, but lost all of them, before breaking their duck in 2002.

In nine seasons in their history, the Galaxy have won at least one major trophy. So there’s been plenty of good times, to be sure. But the best that never won?

I would submit it was the 1998 LA Galaxy team. While they did win the Supporters’ Shield as the best regular-season team, that trophy only started being awarded beginning in 1999, so they received that one retroactively.

Why them? Why not 2013, where they could have won four straight MLS Cups? Why not 1996, 1999, or 2001, when they went to the MLS Cup final and fell at the final hurdle? They did win the U.S. Open Cup in 2001, but while I think 2013 is the closest competition, to me it’s 1998.

That Galaxy side was an absolute juggernaut. Three players — Cobi Jones, Welton and Mauricio Cienfuegos — combined for 49 goals on their own, which was more than roughly half of the other teams’ total goals for the season.

On top of that, they scored 85 goals as a club for the season, which remains a record in an MLS season. While LAFC matched that total last year, they did it in 34 games, while the Galaxy scored 85 in 32 regular-season games, scoring an average of 2.65 goals every game.

While they were scoring seemingly at will, the LA defense was also the stingiest in the league, allowing just 44 on the season, with the likes of Robin Fraser, Greg Vanney and Ezra Hendrickson anchoring the backline in the process.

The ‘98 Galaxy lost just six games in the regular season, and lost back-to-back games just once. Under Octavio Zambrano, who went on to coach elsewhere in MLS, in Europe, in the Americas and even the Canadian Men’s National Team, LA seemed unstoppable, and won their first playoff series, over the Dallas Burn, in the first two games, without having to play a third game in the best-of-three series.

But then they hit the wall. In the Western Conference final, the Galaxy faced the Chicago Fire, an expansion team in 1998 that had already won the U.S. Open Cup earlier that year. In the first leg of the series, at the Rose Bowl, Galaxy villain Jesse Marsch scored the late winner for Chicago, before the teams tied 1-1 in the second game, at Soldier Field.

Remember the MLS shootout? That was in effect in 1998, including the playoffs, and after that 1-1 draw in Chicago, the Fire won the series by winning the subsequent shootout 2-1. Talk about an abrupt ending.

And so the Galaxy didn’t even make it to MLS Cup, instead getting knocked out a round early, while the Fire completed a historic double, becoming the only MLS expansion team to date to win MLS Cup in their first season.

It’s worth noting that while the Galaxy put up gaudy stats during the season, they were frozen out of the end-of-year awards, most of them going to the Fire and the Columbus Crew. However, three Galaxy players were named to the MLS Best XI: Fraser, Cienfuegos and Jones.

Again, one could argue there’s been plenty of good seasons for the Galaxy, and I can’t make a case the 1998 team would rival some of the subsequent title-winning teams. But while LA had to wait a bit to win that first MLS Cup, they set down a marker for the league with their blistering 1998 regular season, a campaign that was scarcely rivaled for over two decades. In setting the bar that high for the entire league, the high-flying side in 1998 was the best Galaxy team that never won.

What do you think? Do you agree with the 1998 team being the selection here? Let’s chat in the comments below.