MLS celebrates anniversary during 25th season: Wynalda, Arena and Agoos remember inaugural game

April 6, 2020 is the 24th anniversary of soccer’s revival in the United States. It was April 6, 1996 when Major League Soccer’s first match took place at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, Calif. A young, hotshot coach by the name of Bruce Arena took the capital club D.C. United out west to face the San Jose Clash (now San Jose Earthquakes) in what was just the planting of the seeds for a league now pushing 30 franchises and global recognition. Since then, names like Kaka, David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have graced the league and further help grow.

Major League Soccer will be celebrating the anniversary of the match by airing it at 4 p.m. ET on the MLS YouTube and MLS Facebook accounts. 

Legends of the sport in this country, like Arena, former D.C. United defender Jeff Agoos and Clash star striker Eric Wynalda, looked back on that day and what the league has since become. At that time, MLS had many more questions than answers, and it’s long-term outlook was cloudy. D.C. United and the Clash were two of the league’s original 10 teams playing on a narrow field with an uncertainty about quality of play and the atmosphere in the stands. 

Here’s what they remember from April 6, 1996.

The fans showed up and Wynalda gave them a treat

It was a warm, sunny day in front of 31,683 fans on a field that was mainly used for San Jose State University football. A game that matched its excitement with sloppiness, a 0-0 draw looked likely as it approached full time. That’s when Wynalda, a U.S. men’s national team star, scored with three minutes remaining to give the home team the first win in league history. It was a brilliant strike where he turned Agoos, a USMNT teammate, inside out before going top shelf at the far post. Take a look:

“It’s an amazing day to look back at the inception of the league and the inaugural year and certainly that game,” Wynalda, now the coach of the Las Vegas Lights of the USL, said in a conference call on Thursday. “We as participants now look back at that and it always puts a smile on our face.

“Jeff [Agoos] and I were kidding each other about the way the game ended [as] I got to be the hero, so to speak … He had me in his back pocket for the first 79 to 80 minutes of that game, and we are still both, because of our affinity for the league and for the sport, happy that it was a good ending. He also reminded me that he got the last laugh. They [D.C. United] ended up winning the trophy that year and Bruce and Jeff, they like to remind me of that, as well. But all in all, it was a fantastic day.”

For Agoos, while it wasn’t the result he wanted, it was the beginning of many fond memories inside that stadium.

“It was a very special moment. It was an interesting moment for me personally just because of what that stadium would represent in my career going forward. I was traded to the Earthquakes in 2001, and won two championships there and played at Spartan Stadium,” Agoos said on the conference call. “I’ve got a very warm and fuzzy feeling for a lot of moments in that stadium.”

Inexperience and nerves to long-term stability 

With the league being formed in conjunction with the United States winning the right to host the 1994 World Cup, it was the first professional game for many players in the league. While there were talented international players like Carlos Valderrama with the Tampa Bay Mutiny (the club folded in 2002), Mauricio Cienfuegos with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Roberto Donadoni with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls), the league had a large portion of inexperienced American players just wanting a chance to be part of something special. 

“It was just nervousness,” Wynalda said. “It was guys that had never played in a professional game or were just starting to feel the magnitude of what was about to happen … And the part for me as being a guy that had already played in a World Cup, two World Cups and had an opportunity to play in Germany, I was like the mother hen. I was trying to get all my guys to just figure out a way that they could focus … Our guys were really, really, really nervous until, I’d say, about 20, 30 minutes in, the game started to get better, but you could tell that it was just nervousness had taken over.

“But it was just guys like Tab [Ramos], John [Harkes], Marcelo [Balboa], Lexi [Alexi Lalas], Burnsy [Mike Burns], all we wanted was — in our coming back, was to see a league of our own; to see that opportunity for our country to enjoy everything that this league has become now.”

Wynalda said it’s hard to believe how much the league has grown with the financial backing, the expansion franchises and more. The 2020 season — MLS’ 25th  — has seen the league add Inter Miami and Nashville SC to move up to 26 active franchises with four more teams coming over the next few years. 

“The reality of what soccer has become in this country right now, it’s a phenomenal time to be involved in the game,” Wynalda said. “The investment that is behind it is now warranted. It was kind of like, ‘Oh, I hope this thing works out’ before, and now it’s, ‘Look, this is a real thing.’ And the culture that we have in this country that is backing the sport, not just at a club level, but a regional and national level is unprecedented. It’s a wonderful time for all of us to watch the sport grow and to be what it is today.” 

Arena was thrilled to be part of the revival

Arena remembers the first game fondly, despite the loss and the poor display from his team — and also despite having four players who didn’t speak a word of English at the time, which made his job even tougher. 

“As we go back to MLS in 1996, I think it was a monumental time for the sport in our country, and coaches like myself and at the time Bob Bradley was my assistant, we labored real hard at the collegiate level and we were biting at the bit for the professional league to come back,” Arena said on the same conference call on Thursday. “We were supporters of the NASL, and when it went under in the ’80s, you know, we thought a professional league would never return, and obviously as part of having the ’94 World Cup in the United States, we pledged to FIFA that we would start a league again, and we got to 1996. 

“It was a great moment for, I know, American coaches and American players, in particular. I know at the time Bob and I were quite proud on that day to be part of the new professional league in the United States, and 25 years later, we’ve battled an awful lot to keep this league afloat.  

Arena, now the coach and sporting director of the New England Revolution, led D.C. to the title that season and the following season. He went on to coach the United States men’s national team to a quarterfinal finish at the 2002 World Cup and then won three more MLS Cups with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

“I certainly wasn’t an icon that day,” Arena said. “I look at our team, and you know, Bob [Bradley] and I at the time, we were wearing two hats. We were coaching the Olympic team, as well as D.C. United. I think we didn’t do a good job in selecting our initial roster, and when I look at the way we lined up that day and how we played, we had a big learning curve ahead of us. 

“Marco Etcheverry reported about 15 pounds overweight. He wasn’t fit. We never experienced this as coaches, but we had four players in our starting lineup that day that didn’t speak any English.”

While the internal communication was a challenge, the external message to the country was clear — soccer had a chance to make it in this country, and this was the beginning of a new era. 

“I’m proud to see what we’ve built and we stand on the shoulders of all of those people who have come before us and hope that those that come after us really understand this history and the work that went into the development of Major League Soccer,” Wynalda said. 

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