As we slowly build up to Major League Soccer's 18th season – a scary thought, especially since MLS Cup still feels like such a recent event, for me at least – it's worth taking a look back at how it all started. Rest assured, the goings-on weren't always quite so polished.
Take, for example, the first signing in league history. US Soccer is counting down its top 100 moments as part of the federation's centennial celebration and included an interesting anecdote from president Sunil Gulati about what it took to bring national team star Tab Ramos to MLS. The league and US Soccer wanted Ramos – an national team player with Hispanic heritage and attacking flare – to help give the league an initial foothold with fans as well as other Americans playing abroad.
He certainly helped with both those aims, but when he committed his future to MLS, there wasn't even contract to put pen to paper on. I'll let Gulati explain.
“He was going to sign with Tigres, and what we decided at the very last moment was why not have a handshake to sign with MLS, and we would loan him to Tigres,” Gulati told USsoccer.com. “The league wasn't far enough along to have a contract or a standard player agreement or any of that, so it was just a handshake.”
Just a handshake. Imagine suggesting that to the current crop of agents stocking teams these days. You'd get laughed out of the room.
But after a year-and-a-half with Tigres UANL, Ramos kept his end of the bargain, ending up with his hometown MetroStars for the next seven seasons. It wasn't always smooth sailing – cue Red Bulls fans simultaneously nodding their heads and silently weeping – but Ramos became a pioneer in a league that he helped put on the map.
To think, all it took was a handshake and the belief that professional soccer in the US was worth the commitment.
“I was excited to come home and start a new experience,” Ramos said. “It was coming home and there was the draw of playing at Giants Stadium, where I had watched the Cosmos play and where I practiced with the Cosmos 10 years before. All those things were really important to me. Obviously, having my family here as well.
“And it was fun. It was fun drawing the big crowds the first couple of years. It was fun driving to the stadium, just to be part of the whole thing. It really truly felt like we had a professional league at home and it was going to stick.”