Heading into the 2002 season, the LA Galaxy were already considered one of the premier clubs in Major League Soccer. Having made three MLS Cup appearances in 1996, 1999, and 2001, the Galaxy had a reputation of success in the regular season and the postseason, but one thing eluded them—an MLS Cup title.
In 2002, the Galaxy entered the season on a mission after falling in the 2001 MLS Cup Final to their archrival San Jose Earthquakes. To bolster a veteran side anchored by the likes of Cobi Jones, Alexi Lalas, and Mauricio Cienfuegos among others, the Galaxy added a new weapon in the offseason in Guatemalan forward Carlos “El Pescadito” Ruiz.
The cagey striker nicknamed “Little Fish” flourished in MLS in his first season, tallying a league-high 24 regular season goals as he helped lead the Galaxy to the 2002 Supporters’ Shield while earning Most Valuable Player honors. When the postseason began, Ruiz did not lose his scoring touch. “El Pescadito” notched a total seven goals in the MLS Cup playoffs as the Galaxy advanced past the Kansas City Wizards in the Western Conference Semifinal and Colorado Rapids in the Conference Finals.
Waiting for them in the 2002 MLS Cup Final at Gillette Stadium was the upstart New England Revolution led by head coach Steve Nicol—who was appointed in midseason after the firing of Fernando Clavijo ---and MLS scoring champion forward Taylor Twellman. But the Galaxy wouldn’t just be battling the Revolution on the field, but in the stands as well as more than 60,000 maniacal Revolution fans packed their club’s home ground, creating a daunting atmosphere.
From the outset, the match was an intensely physical affair with fouls and harsh challenges occurring far more frequently than scoring chances. That style of play carried on throughout regulation as the match went scoreless after 90 minutes of play, sending LA back to Golden Goal extratime for the second straight year.
The urgency on both sides rose in the sudden death period as both sides began to create substantial pressure. In particular, Ruiz would come close a number of times, but poor finishing or timely saves by New England goalkeeper Adin Brown kept the match scoreless. In the 113th minute, it was New England that nearly claimed their first MLS Cup win when a Steve Ralston corner kick was partially cleared, but only as far as ex-Galaxy player Winston Griffiths, who launched a left-footed strike that deflected off a defender and grazed the crossbar.
Handed a lifeline after Griffiths near goal, Ruiz would capitalize on his next opportunity just moments later. LA pushed forward on the counter as Chris Albright found a streaking Tyrone Marshall in a world of daylight down the right flank. Marshall hit a first time cross back across the face of goal for Ruiz, who calmly tapped a left-footed shot into the back of the net for the game-winning-goal. The Galaxy had a long last earned their MLS Cup title.
Ruiz’s goal proved to be a watershed moment for the Galaxy franchise, who have stockpiled the honors since. After Ruiz gave the Galaxy the franchise’s first MLS Cup, LA have added two more titles in 2005 and 2011 as well as two Supporters’ Shield trophies to bring the club’s total to four.