Major League Soccer players were enshrined into the National Soccer Hall of Fame for the first time Monday as defender Paul Caligiuri and forward Eric Wynalda were honored at the Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y. Joining Caligiuri and Wynalda in the class of 2004 was former U.S. women's national team star Michelle Akers.
Caligiuri, who played one season with the Columbus Crew in 1996 before spending his final five professional seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, became the first MLS player ever enshrined in the soccer hall when he rose to the podium and donned the red inductee's jacket. Prior to his time in MLS, he spent several seasons in the German first division, becoming the first American-born player to make his living in the German top flight.
Caligiuri expressed his awe at being honored alongside the past greats of the U.S. national team and the country's professional leagues. He also gave the hall a gift in exchange for the gift of inducting him: the cleats he wore during the U.S.'s 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago on Nov. 19, 1989, a game in which he scored the only goal, sending the USA to its first World Cup in 40 years.
"The Hall of Fame is forever," Caligiuri said. "This (pair of cleats) signifies a great victory in U.S. soccer's history, and a moment I cherish."
MLS commissioner Don Garber presented Caligiuri for induction, thanking him for coming "back home to make Major League Soccer a reality" on behalf of the league's owners, players and fans.
Upon receiving his red jacket, Wynalda -- who spent six years in MLS with four different teams and scored the first goal in the history of the league while with the San Jose Clash -- deflected praise, thanking his family, his coaches and his fellow players.
"I played with a lot of great players," he said. "I'd be stupid to stand up here and say I got here without their help."
Wynalda honored his fellow inductees, too, saying he is amazed to be enshrined alongside the greatest female player of all time, his mentor and his first U.S. national team captain. He also wondered aloud where U.S. soccer would be without Caligiuri.
"If that ball doesn't go in, does any of this happen?" he asked.
Current University of North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance, who guided the U.S. women to victory in the 1991 FIFA Women's World Cup, heaped praise on Akers, who finished her 15-year international career with 105 goals, the second most in the history of the U.S. women's program. Dorrance said Akers -- who was named the FIFA Women's Player of the Century in 1999 -- was responsible for the U.S.'s rise to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s.
"We rose with her and fell when she was hurt or after she retired," Dorrance said. Speaking directly to Akers, he added, "Every great player I coach for the rest of my life will be touched by you and your remarkable example."
Also honored Monday were Michael Windischmann, the captain of the 1990 U.S. World Cup team and a veteran's selection, and Jerry Trecker, who was given the first ever Colin Jose Media Award for his nearly 50 years of covering soccer for the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.