As part of his recurring series of interviews on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, as we prepare for Major League Soccer’s 19th season, Bradley talks to Phil Schoen, the original voice of MLS on ESPN. Schoen, who is now the lead broadcaster for beIN Sports, teamed with Ty Keough to call the very first match in league history on April 6, 1996. Before moving into his role at beIN, where he often teams with Ray Hudson, Schoen worked at GolTV. He lives in South Florida with his wife and two children.
BRADLEY: You were there in the beginning, the first national television play-by-play man in league history. So what feelings do you get this time of year, when the league kicks off? Do you think back to 1996 and your role in the launch of the league?
SCHOEN: Absolutely, I think back. But it’s not so much for my role. I was just glad to be along for the ride. As a soccer fan since I was a kid, someone who shared the heartbreak with other fans in the US when the NASL went under, to all of the false starts along the way, to finally be there and watch the teams come on to the field. It almost brought tears to my eyes.
BRADLEY: I don’t think you were alone. That was a big night for a lot of us.
SCHOEN: It is a seminal moment, not just in soccer but in my life. I was honored to be there. I was blessed to be there. It was a big part of my development, but in my mind, that’s on the backburner. Even more than the 1994 World Cup, because that was an event, this was more of a realization that soccer was back, we hoped, to stay.
BRADLEY: When you watch the clip of Eric Wynalda’s goal, the first in league history, a late game-winner, and a thing of beauty, are you happy with your call? (WATCH IT HERE)
SCHOEN: You always go back and think, if you could edit, you could probably make it a little bit better. But considering the entire scenario, where the powers that be and the cynics that be, were watching that match. And as it inched ever closer to being a scoreless draw, and you knew what the dinosaurs were going to be putting in their columns the next day.
BRADLEY: Right. You couldn’t say that, but that’s going through your mind.
SCHOEN: There was a little sense that started to build, just before the goal, that we could get a result, that we could get a goal, that we wouldn’t have to wait another week for that moment.
BRADLEY: There would have been a shootout!
SCHOEN: Well, a first real goal. A shootout might have been even more grist for the mill. But there was a sense that there was a rhythm developing.
BRADLEY: Had you rehearsed calling the first goal?
SCHOEN: I’d waited a year for that moment, working with ESPN. And, as a soccer fan, I’d probably been preparing since the mid 80s. So, the call, it was a giant release of frustration and utter joy. I just called it. The guys on the field created the moment.
BRADLEY: Wynalda nutmegs Jeff Agoos and it was like the seas parted.
SCHOEN: What Eric was able to do, I mean, he’s certainly done it thousands of times in practice, and he’d done it for the national team and his teams in Germany, but the fact that the first goal wasn’t a penalty kick, it wasn’t a tap-in, it wasn’t an own-goal. This was a special goal and my call was a release of frustration, joy, anxiety. I really didn’t know what I was saying, but I think the words I used conveyed the emotion I was feeling, a sense of the moment. I’m glad I just didn’t trip over my tongue.
BRADLEY: Let’s be honest: It was a pretty bad game on a really small field in front of really big crowd. And there were a lot of us with our heads in our hands, or praying for something to happen to make that game memorable. And all it took was that one moment.
SCHOEN: Absolutely. That one goal made everything explode for us. There were certainly ups and downs after that, but Eric’s goal turned that inaugural game into an instant classic.
BRADLEY: That whole first year was fun, right? Just trying to keep track of who was on the field every week was quite a challenge. How hard was that?
SCHOEN: Yeah, I remember we were preparing for the broadcast the day before the game and they were planting flowers outside Spartan Stadium. They were painting the light poles green because the light poles were silver and there was this fear that they’d create this flash or glare. So they tried to make them blend in as best they could. In some ways, that gives you an idea where it was.
And, yeah, as we went along, there were players we knew, like Carlos Valderrama, and then there were others we learned to appreciate along the way, like Raúl Díaz Arce or Mauricio Cienfuegos. But without a fully functional Internet at the time, it was a challenge to get background information on a lot of the players on the field. It’s not like today, where if D.C. United picks up a guy from Albania, within five minutes, you can find out something about him. Back then, we had to rely on the PR people, like you.
BRADLEY: Yeah, it was a freaking nightmare.
SCHOEN: It was hard enough to find out information on the American players, let alone guys from all over the world. Nowadays, you can get game reports and details on everyone. I know I spent a lot more time in those early days wearing out highlighters going through media guides.
BRADLEY: Do you still follow the league closely? Obviously, you’ve got a lot on your plate.
SCHOEN: Very closely, especially in the summer. The hardest part is during the MLS stretch run when the new La Liga season is getting ready to start up. But I have Direct Kick. I watch on my iPad. A lot of times when I’m preparing for a game for beIN Sports, I’m watching an MLS game. You can’t go through a lot of the stuff soccer announcers to through in this country without being an MLS fan. While I get the chance every week to call games with Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there’s something special about watching MLS, because it’s our league. I follow it every step of the way.
BRADLEY: So, can we look for Phil Schoen and Ray Hudson [at right] calling Miami games?
SCHOEN: I’m not sure that worked out too well the first time. I would love to do anything I can to help this team succeed in South Florida. When the league first started, I was basically like a kid out of college. Now, I have kids and I want to pass my love for the game on to them. The Fusion disappeared right around the time my kids were getting old enough to become fans.
BRADLEY: So it’s been tough to fill the void?
SCHOEN: We’ve gone to Strikers games, which are fun, but now that we will have a first division team back here, with a chance to see the bigger stars, from a father’s perspective, it’s a great feeling. And I know there are other young broadcasters coming up and they can see a future in the business. So while I think it would be great to be the broadcaster for the Miami MLS team, there’s a part of me that thinks it might be more enjoyable to just be a fan, and to see other people step up to the mic and do a great job.
BRADLEY: So, you call Barcelona-Real Madrid games all the time. You call some World Cup qualifiers. Where does the very first MLS game rank on your all-time games-called list?
SCHOEN: I have never done a Top 10 list, maybe I should. But there are a few I can think of. The Clasicos are amazing. But the games I’ve been able to call in-person are really special. One that comes to mind is the US-Barbados qualifier before the 2002 World Cup. Experiencing the buildup to that match, which was a big away match, was incredible. I also had an incredible experience calling a game between Haiti and Trinidad & Tobago. The stands were packed three hours before the game. Another would be the first game I got to call in the 2006 World Cup, Germany and Costa Rica, at the Allianz Arena.
Then there’s the Fusion’s debut. That was everything I felt in that MLS opener, but it was my home team, and seeing the line of cars on the highway is something I’ll never forget. But, yeah, the first MLS game in San Jose is at the top. It was one of those moments where everything seemed to come together.