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Where it all began: Looking back on the first game in MLS 20 years later

Twenty years have elapsed since Major League Soccer's inaugural game. Let that sink in for a moment.

A league whose formation was part of the deal to bring the 1994 World Cup to the U.S. has managed to exit its teenage years. And along the way, it has navigated its way past enough obstacles to fill up an episode of "Wipeout." There have been contractions, relocations and predictions of the league's demise, yet MLS has managed to survive all of that to become a league with 20 teams, numerous soccer-specific stadiums, and more of both on the way.

April 6, 1996, was when it all began. The excitement in San Jose, California, that day was evident. For the first time since the demise of the North American Soccer League nearly 12 years before, a first-division soccer league would commence play in the U.S., with D.C. United taking on the San Jose Clash. A capacity crowd of more than 31,000 soccer-starved fans crammed its way into Spartan Stadium, but as so often happens with sporting endeavors, it was a day long in the making and not everything went according to plan.

Let the team-building begin

As the teams were announced, and players landed with their new clubs, it wasn't quite like throwing darts at a dartboard, but it was close.

Kevin Payne, GM, D.C. United: We selected our teams, and got a couple of guys we knew about beforehand in allocated players. We selected our players in middle-to-late January and then got them together. We trained for maybe six weeks. Our situation was made even more confusing because Bruce [Arena] and [assistant coach] Bob [Bradley] were working with the Olympic team. So they were spending time in Chula Vista. It was pretty chaotic. That's the best way to describe it.

Laurie Calloway, manager, San Jose Clash: With every team being new, we decided to rely heavily on the guys that I had coached with the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in the American Professional Soccer League [one of several leagues that carried the soccer torch post-NASL]. We had guys like John Doyle, Tim Martin, Jeff Baicher, Paul Bravo, Paul Holocher and Troy Dayak. I think that turned out to be the right decision. We had a decent first season.

Bruce Arena, manager, D.C. United: Everything about the league in Year 1 was hectic. We were operating by the seat of our pants. We didn't know what the hell we were doing. It was all of that, discovering how to put a roster together, who the players were that were available, it was basically a mess in every franchise, I would say. Then we had a league that had very little experience in professional sports, very little understanding about soccer in general. It was a real scramble.

Preseason

As the players gathered for preseason, some who had toiled in various post-NASL leagues were thrilled to be making a step up. For others, that step was harder to discern.

John Harkes, midfielder, D.C. United: There was a huge adjustment for me. You go from a culture and a training environment every day in a country that already has the passion and understanding and the commitment to the game, and the accountability from the fan base. Now you're coming into the U.S. and basically you're going into the unknown. We don't know what kind of feedback we're going to get, we don't know if the crowds are going to come. Is the league going to be successful? It comes with the territory when you're trying to build something. There's a lot of risks. You just try to take those head on.

Paul Bravo, midfielder, San Jose Clash: Calloway was a coach who was traditionally known as a pretty hard guy. He had brought in an assistant coach who was known as a fitness guy. Yes, we did an awful lot of running, most of it without the ball. But I wouldn't trade it for anything. I was a 26-, 27-year-old who was trying to piece together a soccer career playing in the old ASPL, trying to find alternative means for the rest of the year to make ends meet. For me as a player, it was a pretty exciting time.

Jeff Causey, goalkeeper, D.C. United: I just remember there being a lot of bodies flowing in and out just on trial, and figuring out who was going to fit in and who wasn't. I remember Jesse Marsch coming in from college, all of sudden he showed up, then he left, then he was back a couple of weeks later. I remember I was traded from Kansas City before preseason even started. I went to D.C.'s training ground and being a little horrified looking at old Redskins Park. It was all dilapidated and nasty-looking. I had just come from [the University of Virginia] and it was a lot better in terms of the facilities.

Payne: The whole thing was basically like building an airplane while you were in flight.

Eric Wynalda, forward, San Jose Clash: I had to fly the week of the game out to Tampa to do a commercial. Everyone had a name. I was "The Finisher" --I had to shoot a gun or something. All I remember is that my coach demanded that I don't miss practice. He demanded that I take a red-eye flight, head straight to the shoot, do the commercial, then get on a plane as soon as the shoot was over. I got back late and the assistant coach picked me up at the airport. I said, "Hey you didn't have to do that." He said, "You're going straight to the stadium and you're going to run the stairs." It was old school; we were going to run, run, run.

Eric Wynalda
Eric Wynalda was the center of attention at Spartan Stadium, eventually scoring the winner for the home side.

The venue

The aptly named Spartan Stadium was the league's smallest venue. As it turned out, that trait had huge appeal to a league office keen to make a good first impression.

Doug Logan, MLS commissioner: We wanted to be sure we had a full house. We remembered the legacy of the Earthquakes and thought we'd be able to bring back a decent number of fans, and we wanted a decent weather site.

Calloway: It's such an intimate stadium. People can almost stroke your neck and hopefully not throw stones.

The run-up

As the game approached, the amount of demands on players and staff increased, and nerves became frayed. And in some instances, it was clear that the training wheels weren't quite ready to come off.

Logan: I invited [FIFA president] Joao Havelange to the opening game, and he confirmed and said he was coming. About 10 days in advance, our staff met in L.A., and I asked, "Are all the arrangements made for Havelange?" The response was yes. The people working on it said he was coming into LAX, and had secured the VIP lounge at LAX.

I don't know what possessed me to ask the question, "What airlines do we have him flying on?" The answer was "Oh, Southwest." I'm sure he's flying into L.A. first class and then going to the VIP lounge. Then he would be heading to an American cultural oddity called Southwest Line 1, Line 2, Line 3. The fact that he doesn't have a seat, and I'm going, "This isn't going to work." Ultimately we were able to get one of the sponsors to provide a charter and get a charter flight for him. If we hadn't caught that we would have had egg on our face.

Payne: Two days before the game, the day before we left D.C. to head west, a notification came that the Argentina federation hadn't released Mario Gori's international transfer yet. There was a young guy in the office, Michael Robles, who had been given the responsibility of handling some of the administrative work for the team itself.

Bruce hadn't been around a whole lot, he didn't know half the staff. Robles shows this letter to Bruce and Bruce is freaking out now. Our left-back is not eligible to play. We have to figure out what to do. Bruce reads this letter and goes, "Who the f--- is Michael Robles?" Michael is standing there and raises his hand and goes, "That would be me, coach." [Gori ended up getting cleared in time to play.]

Sunil Gulati, MLS deputy commissioner: The crazy part is that we were doing everything at the same time, which is true of any startup; getting documents signed with investors, to uniforms, to referees, to fields. I remember Mark Abbott joking, "Listen, I've got all of the other things covered, just promise me that the referees will be there when the game starts." It was that level of detail.

Payne: A few days before the game, the league put the MLS insignia on the field, and the referees who were working the game said they would refuse to work the game because FIFA mandated that there was to be no markings of any kind on the field other than the official markings, so they had to get rid of the insignia.

Game day

April 6 finally arrived, and San Jose Clash GM Peter Bridgwater made good on his promise to have a sellout crowd. This was uncharted territory for some players.

Calloway: I've been asked what I needed to do to psyche the team up. I didn't need to psyche the team up for something like that. It's like being in the playoffs or in a championship game, because it was very important to all of us. Sometimes in the middle of the season, after a big win, teams can fall flat psychologically. I never had that problem with that first game. If anything, I was trying to calm them down a little bit rather than psyche them up. It was an exciting time, stepping out onto that field and seeing 31,000 people there.

Bravo: I grew up in San Jose, going to the Earthquake games, that was the inspiration for me to aspire to be a pro. I was jacked up and excited because I was going to get to play professional soccer at the highest level in the U.S., in front of my friends and family. We had actually even done a concentration [where the home team spends the night before the game in a hotel]. I don't think there are any MLS teams today that do that, but we spent the night in a team hotel in downtown San Jose.

That bus ride from the hotel to Spartan Stadium, I've never been so nervous in all of my life, and excited all at the same time. That was a pretty surreal ride for the guys. I thought I had arrived walking down that ramp onto the field and then hearing the crowd roar was bone chilling for me. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. I was in front of Jeff Baicher and behind Timmy Martin, guys who I had grown up with and played a lot of soccer with over the years. We couldn't contain ourselves.

John Harkes and Joao Havelange
Former FIFA president Joao Havelange, right, shakes hands with John Harkes before taking in the first game in MLS history.

The match

Despite the hiccups, the match took place as scheduled, though it wasn't exactly an aesthetic masterpiece.

Arena: I remember it being one of the worst games I've ever participated in. The quality was very poor. Our team in particular, we knew at the start of the season wasn't a particularly good team and we had to make changes.

Wynalda: Really nervous start. I remember thinking, "Man, we're better than this." I thought the fans were fantastic, but I don't even think they knew what they were yelling for. That Krazy George was telling them what to yell. It had that late-'70s feel to it. It was a pretty electric vibe, it really was, a lot of excitement. You couldn't help but feel it. Usually it takes 20 minutes for everyone to calm down. This game took 45 minutes.

Jeff Agoos, defender, D.C. United: Spartan Stadium, it's a bowling alley. It's very tight. I think it was even narrower in '96 than it was when I was playing there later on in my career with the Earthquakes. I just remember that you had no time on the ball. There was no space. It was like throwing a ball in a U-8 game and you had a bunch of people around it trying to figure out what they should do with it. The soccer was really bad.

Logan: I personally wasn't worried about 0-0. I was looking at the long arc of what we were about to do and knew we would have some 0-0 ties. It's a part of the game. I know that I had an awful lot of my colleagues pacing and being very, very nervous. Sunil was there and Mark Abbott. I was in the box with Alan Rothenberg and Joao Havelange. Havelange wasn't concerned at all. As a matter of fact, he happened to tell me that he would have liked to see a shootout firsthand, which might have been very interesting.

Wynalda: We did so well to conquer the anxiousness at the start of the game, and then once all of that anxiety was gone, you looked up and there was 83 minutes into the game. Then it was like, "Aw man, this is going to end 0-0. That's going to be horrible."

Gulati: I was standing at the game with the president of the J-League at the time, Saburo Kawabuchi. He wasn't quite understanding why I was so nervous. I had to explain to him that having a 0-0 game in our opening game would give credence to what some of the naysayers were saying, which was, "No goals, no excitement."

The goal

The fans -- and the suits -- were eventually allowed to exhale. In the 88th minute, Wynalda bagged the first goal in league history, the dreaded shootout was avoided and the league was on its way.

Wynalda: Ben [Iroha] did a great job to get to the ball first, and I was screaming at him to get me the ball. I got the ball wide and I knew I was in a really good spot. I was fortunate on that play. I tried to wrong-foot [Agoos], but he played it perfectly. My last out was to try and nutmeg him. I really didn't think that was going to work out. We've all seen Agoos' calves. It's pretty hard to squeeze a ball between those two tree trunks. I remember thinking, "As a last resort, I'm going to give it a shot."

Agoos: I remember being out of position. I remember moving over to the right side of the 18, and I can't remember why or what. That was just endemic of the game. People were flying all over the place. I remember Eric picking up the ball and going into the box. It was late in the game and so when he put the ball on his left foot I knew Eric could strike the ball pretty well with both feet and when he went to his left I essentially figured he was going to take the shot. I went to block the shot, he cuts back in and did a great job getting around me.

Wynalda: We did play against them in preseason, and in that game I had a chance from the left side of the box against Jeff Causey and I elected to go high near post, which is not something you usually do. But I tried to throw him off, and in the back of my mind I'm thinking he doesn't know where I'm going to go.

Causey: I remember Wynalda telling me that years later about him going near post in preseason, I saved it, so he went far post because I might be expecting him to go near post. He thinks too much [laughs]. Typical forward, thinking too much.

Wynalda: All I've got to do is keep this on goal. Keep your head down, don't try and be too fancy here and just start it outside the post, let it come back naturally, you've done this a thousand times in your life. The truth is the ball jumped up on me and it went a lot higher than I thought it was going to go. As soon as I hit it, I was like, "Oh no. It's going over." But then when it was about halfway there, I was like, "Holy s---, I just scored." I didn't know what to do.

Causey: I remember them coming down, playing the ball in the corner to Eric, him beating the defender, and then all of sudden I see him pick up his head. I just tried to cut off the angle as best as possible, realizing that once the ball curled out and away from me, I just prayed that it was going to hit the post or go wide. I joked with Eric years later, "You know what? For the good of the league, I really needed to let that one go in. I took one for the team, took one for the league and let that one go."

San Jose Clash celebrate
Spartan Stadium erupted as Eric Wynalda, center, delivered the game-winning goal in the first match in MLS league history.

Bravo: Once Eric got the ball wide and isolated against Agoos, I knew he was going to score that goal. When that goal was scored and the crowd erupted, it was pandemonium. If that game was played today, half the bench would have been suspended for entering the field of play during the course of the game. But then I think some of the league officials would have had to be suspended as well.

Logan: The mood in the box brightened up substantially. It was, "OK, we survived this one, on to the next one."

The aftermath

The home fans left Spartan Stadium happy, but some of the fireworks were just beginning.

Causey: Just the heartbreak of losing that late in the game, and sitting in the locker room and it was hot and just being miserable in that tight little locker room with a lot of unhappy people. And then knowing in the locker room next to you champagne is flowing and everyone is going ballistic. It felt more like a cup loss than a first game.

Gulati: I remember what I said during the postgame press conference, which was, "Thank God for Eric Wynalda." He's held that over my head for many years.

Wynalda: As I was coming up that old ramp to the locker room -- I don't know how this guy got there, I don't know who he is, I had never seen the guy to this day -- but he had a beard, probably in his late 50s and he tackled me from the side, hugged me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You looked like [George Best], I saw Bestie play here and you had your shirt untucked, you put it right in the corner just like Bestie." I used him as an excuse to get to the locker room instead of signing autographs.

I just kind of grabbed him, my drunk uncle, and we walked all the way to the locker room and I said "He's with me." I end up sitting him in my locker, and I gave him a beer. I went around started shaking hands, and there's a lot of people in there. Callaway walks into the room, and out of nowhere this voice goes, "Calloway! You were a bum when you were a player and you're a bum now!" I look over and it's the guy. Calloway looks at me and goes, "Who's that, your dad?" I knew right then that this was a relationship that was destined to fail.

Bravo: Eric used to love doing stuff like that, bringing random guys into the locker room. He was always that guy.

Epilogue

The first game was now in the books, yet for those who took part in one way or another, who won or who lost wasn't important. What was critical was that the game took place at all.

Harkes: It was important for that game to happen; it needed to happen. You can look at it as half-full or half-empty, but for me there were a lot of positives and more on the half-full side. Getting the first game out of the way, and let the people know MLS was kicking off was the most important.

Bravo: I didn't really understand the magnitude of the game until after and we look back on it now. I feel very fortunate to say I played in the first game of MLS. We've lasted this long, and I fully expect us to be a league that is going to around long after I'm gone. Those are the things that completely resonate with me.

Wynalda: D.C. United started the season 2-7 and walked away champions. That's MLS for you.

Gulati: The biggest emotion was relief. There had been a huge buildup to the game, and we got it launched, got it started. There was also pride in getting that done. Looking back, what I said to Alan a few years later when we had some more difficult days, "Listen, my only promise to everyone was to get it started. I didn't say it would be here for [10] years." Obviously I said that facetiously, but to see the league where it is now, having started on that day and 20 years later with 20 teams and growing and an average attendance of over 20,000 and being much more part of the conversation in American sports than it was back then, it's all very rewarding.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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