and still the only -- replica jersey I ever owned was a Feyenoord shirt my father brought back from Europe when I was about 8 or 9. He had changed planes in Amsterdam and he'd grabbed the shirt as a last-second gift. He was always last-second like that.
Man, I wore that shirt all the time. It was red on right side and white on the left, split right down the middle of my sternum like a soccer version of the Phantom of the Opera. It had a collar, too, which I thought was very debonair. Because of that jersey, I've always had a soft spot for Feyenoord. (You go, Cory Gibbs!)
Now flash forward about 15 years, to 1996. I'm 23. Two months removed from teaching high school English in Michigan. A professional soccer player with the Tampa Bay Mutiny (RIP). Well, OK, so "player" is a slight exaggeration. More like professional soccer practicer. Because, truth is, I never really played back then. My coach, Thomas Rongen, wasn't about to replace Cle Kooiman or Frank Yallop with yours truly. If he had, I would've called for his firing myself.
Midway through the season, I hadn't played a minute. Oh, I'd warmed up a lot. I was great at warming up. And my halftime displays were legendary in the Tampa area -- bicycle kicks and diving headers. Anything to entertain the crowd.
Then, my chance came. An international friendly. A chance to play some real soccer, with referees and uniforms and everything. And because fate is the wart-faced wit that she is, I probably don't have to tell you who the game was against. Right. Feyenoord.
That Feyenoord side included Dutch legend Ronald Koeman, a guy I'd seen hit countless perfect free kicks with Holland and with FC Barcelona, and a young Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who has played with just about everyone since and is now with Barcelona.
Needless to say, I was as nervous as a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. I mean, that barrel-chested blond specimen out there in that oh-so-familiar dichotomous red-and-white jersey was Ronald Koeman, winner of two UEFA Champions League titles (one with Barcelona, one with PSV Eindhoven) and the 1988 European Championship as part of that brilliant Dutch team that included Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. He later coached Ajax Amsterdam and is now in charge at Benfica.
And I was a 23-year-old warmup specialist.
For you young whippersnappers out there, that's on par with Bobby Boswell going up against John Terry, which he did tonight. Or it's like Chris Rolfe taking on Paolo Maldini, which is exactly what he did last night.
My Mutiny team got whupped, although the score -- 2-0, if memory serves -- didn't say that. Koeman was so cool, so composed. I was the opposite, like a merman flopping around in the desert. I gave the ball away on my first touch of the game. And my second. And probably my third through fifth. Frank Yallop finally set me straight: "Greg, next time, just pass it back to the 'keeper."
But my how times have changed. The MLSers aren't intimidated anymore. These international matches, like L.A.-Real Madrid, Chicago-Milan, United-Chelsea, and the All-Stars-Fulham, are good litmus tests to see where MLS stands. And all indications are that MLS has made leaps and bounds. Today's benchwarmers and youngsters are anything but awed by a European club -- though maybe the sight of silky smooth Zinedine Zidane was a little overwhelming, as it is for about 99.9 percent of players in the world. But look at Rolfe. He scored a masterful goal last night against Milan, one that tied the game at 1-1, and got a bunch of Milanistas to cough up their Campari and soda.
For this Saturday's MLS All-Star Game against Fulham, I fully expect the MLSers to come out flying, with the confidence of a team that not only thinks it can win, but expects to win. For one, Fulham isn't Real Madrid. But, more important, everyone from Carlos Ruiz to Matt Reis knows that the best MLSers can compete with anyone these days.
Even the guys who will spend more time warming up than playing know that they can hold their own.
It's that much easier when they look across at Fulham's side and see Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride, two guys who were playing in MLS just two years ago. More than figures of intimidation, they're figures of inspiration. And that's what these international games really are for the players -- inspirational. The players want to prove themselves in the eyes of the world. Succeeding in MLS is important, but like the league itself, every player wants to shine on the world stage.
And maybe someday, a kid in Amsterdam will receive a MetroStars replica jersey when his dad comes back from a business trip to New York.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Send e-mail to Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.