Second-leg drama is the order of the day at the moment, with three of the MLS quarterfinal series having gone down to the wire. That may have put some fans in mind of the most dramatic second leg in MLS playoff history, between San Jose and Los Angeles in 2003. San Jose's comeback that year was a legendary one, but surprisingly, it is not the deepest hole that an American pro soccer team has ever climbed out of in a playoff series.
Even so, what happened in 2003 was pretty extreme. The Los Angeles Galaxy had won the first game of their two-leg, total-goals quarterfinal series against the San Jose Earthquakes by 2-0 in Los Angeles. They then scored two goals in the first 13 minutes of the second leg in San Jose for a seemingly unassailable 4-0 aggregate lead. Everyone in San Jose remembers what happened after that. Everyone in Los Angeles might prefer to forget (with the exception of Landon Donovan, who was playing for San Jose in 2003 and scored one of the Earthquakes' comeback goals).
With that comeback as a background, let's go back to January 1932, and the series that decided the 1931 American Soccer League championship. The series was played in 1932 because the regular season didn't end until the final week of 1931. The season was split into spring and fall halves, with the two winners playing off for the title. The New York Giants won in the spring and the New Bedford Whalers in the fall. Their playoff meeting, like the one between Los Angeles and San Jose in 2003, was a two-game, total-goals series, and was played on Jan. 1 and Jan. 3.
The first game, at Battery Park in New Bedford, Mass., was a bit one-sided. New Bedford was up by 2-0 at halftime on goals by Billy Gonsalves and Werner Nilsen. Nilsen made it 3-0 five minutes into the second half, but New York's Bert Patenaude cut the margin to 3-1 three minutes later. After that, it turned into a rout, with New Bedford scoring four goals in the next 10 minutes, three by Tom Florie and one by Gonsalves. An own-goal by New York's Hugh Lafferty raised the count to 8-1, but New York goals by Patenaude and Frank Tollan in the last seven minutes made the final score slightly more presentable at 8-3.
It's not likely that many New York fans believed that those two late goals would make much difference in the final outcome, but 3,000 of them turned out anyway two days later at the Polo Grounds in New York for the second leg and New Bedford's expected coronation.
In the 20th minute of the game, Shamus O'Brien scored for New York after a pass from Patenaude. Then Patenaude did the same three minutes later, heading home a long pass, and Bart McGhee got a third New York goal before halftime. It was a horse race again.
Eight minutes into the second half, O'Brien pulled New York still closer with his second goal of the game. The Giants, who at one time had trailed by seven goals in the aggregate, were now only one goal down. Ten minutes after that, a goal by New York's Jimmy Gallagher leveled the aggregate at 8-8. The goal that gave the title to the Giants was not a last-gasp thing, as Patenaude scored it in the 80th minute. The Giants had to stop New Bedford for another 10 minutes before the title was theirs.
The NASL, which only used an aggregate-goals system in its earliest seasons, never went through that sort of aggregate-comeback drama. This was lucky for the New York Cosmos, who once won a playoff series in which they had lost the opening game by 9-2. By the way, that 1932 game in which the New York Giants came from way back to win the aggregate by 9-8 was preceded by a preliminary between two New York amateur teams. The score was 0-0, of course.