How do you build a new professional league from scratch? Like, the actual process of finding and signing players to construct 10 rosters at once in an enormous country of 265 million that hadn’t been home to top-flight pro soccer in more than a decade?
For Major League Soccer in 1996, it was via a series of drafts and combines, a hectic and at-times homespun process to identify domestic and international talent to fill out squads anchored by the US men’s national team’s 1994 World Cup stars and a handful of prominent imports.
The biggest of the lot was the Inaugural Draft, a 16-round behemoth with few comparisons then or since. Coaches and GMs had little more to work with than their own informal scouting networks and knowledge of the scene, and the observations from a combine held at Crawford Athletic Complex at UC Irvine in Southern California – a multi-day event that featured a whopping 260 players or thereabouts.
“Most of the coaches were overwhelmed after two days. They looked at 80 players and just said, ‘What’s going on?’” recalled Thomas Rongen, the Tampa Bay Mutiny’s first head coach, to Sports Illustrated for a riveting oral history 20 years later.
That was just one of myriad challenges the league’s founders navigated in those quirky early days. And despite it all, many of the players chosen turned out to be dependable foot soldiers in pro soccer’s return to, and eventual flowering in, North America. Not only on the pitch, but also on the sidelines, training grounds, boardrooms and television broadcasts of MLS.
Here’s a selection of the ‘96 draft picks who continue to grow the game across the league.
No. 1: Brian McBride (Columbus Crew)
The clear consensus No. 1, the man who’d later be lovingly referred to as “McHead” by adoring fans, had dominated the college game at St. Louis University before a stint in Germany with VfL Wolfsburg fizzled. The future Hall of Famer would score a mere 80 goals and add 52 assists over 11 MLS seasons sandwiched around a successful five-year run with Fulham FC, interspersed by three World Cup runs with the US national team. Today he’s the Co-Founder & Chief Sports Ambassador of TiPEVO, a service that documents and reviews youth sports programs, and he moonlights as an analyst for ESPNFC.
No. 3: Ted Eck (Dallas Burn)
A member of the generation of North American players who scratched out a soccer living – both indoor and outdoor – in the post-NASL, pre-MLS days, Eck was almost 30 when the latter league launched. A hard worker not afraid to employ the dark arts as needed, he made the Burn competitive out of the gate and stayed in the game as a coach after retirement. Today he’s Real Salt Lake’s Director of Video Analysis.
No. 4: Robin Fraser (Los Angeles Galaxy)
Robin Fraser is the head coach of the Colorado Rapids | Colorado Rapids
The rugged, cerebral center back who was named MLS Defender of the Year in 1999 and 2004, has been regarded as one of the league’s top coaches for more than a decade, though mainly as an assistant, with a second chance at a No. 1 job proving elusive after his two years in charge of Chivas USA. Last year he finally got the call from his former club the Colorado Rapids, where the Jamaican-American is off to a promising start.
No. 8: Paul Bravo (San Jose Clash)
After one season by the Bay, Bravo moved to Colorado, where he thrived as a player before moving into coaching in 2002. The occasional USMNTer would gradually transition into more of a technical director, filling that role with the Galaxy and Rapids – the latter club won the 2010 MLS Cup on his watch – before returning to the sidelines last year with a stint at NISA (lower-division) club Oakland Roots.
No. 1: Mark Watson (Columbus)
The Canadian international made 28 MLS appearances with three teams across the 1996 and 2001 seasons and also served in the English, Swedish, Canadian and US lower divisions. Afterwards he became a coach and aside from a year in charge of the Earthquakes, has worked as an assistant with Canada, USL’s Charleston Battery, San Jose, Orlando and now Minnesota.
No. 2: Denis Hamlett (Colorado Rapids)
The Costa Rican-born defender’s playing career was cut short due to a stroke in 1997, so he shifted gears and caught on with the Chicago Fire as they prepared for their expansion launch the following year.
“He spoke to youth soccer groups, answered phones, sold tickets, attended community functions and scouted MLS and A-League games for a coach that neither of us knew yet,” Peter Wilt, the Fire’s first president, once recalled. That coach turned out to be Bob Bradley, who helped Hamlett grow into a head coach. Today Hamlett is the New York Red Bulls’ sporting director.
No. 3: Tom Soehn (Colorado Rapids)
Another veteran whose career was winding down as MLS began, Soehn has worked as a coach or soccer operations exec since 2001, including a stint in charge of D.C. United (where he won a Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup). He’s currently leading USL Championship club Birmingham Legion.
No. 9: Peter Vermes (MetroStars)
Peter Vermes on the Sporting Kansas City sideline | USA Today Sports Images
This one needs no introduction, right? One of the few to have won an MLS Cup as both a player and a coach, Vermes is a National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee and currently the longest-tenured gaffer in the league as the manager, technical director and all-around architect of Sporting Kansas City.
No. 10: Erik Imler (D.C. United)
A two-time NCAA national champion under Bruce Arena at the University of Virginia, Imler and Arena also won the first-ever MLS Cup title together in ‘96. After injuries disrupted his pro career, he moved into coaching, where he’s worked successfully at the youth, collegiate and youth international levels. Today Imler works for Kwik Goal, whose products are used on countless pitches across MLS and beyond.
No. 3: Brian Haynes (Dallas)
The Trinidad & Tobago international was a feared striker in his heyday, but he’s likely left an even bigger legacy as a coach. First as an FC Dallas assistant and later as the boss at Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL and a Houston Dynamo youth coach, Haynes has taken talented youngsters under his wing to good effect, the most prominent example being Eddie Johnson, who lived with Haynes and his family as a teenage phenom at FCD. He’s currently on Inter Miami’s academy staff.
No. 10: Richie Williams (D.C. United)
Richie Williams as U.S. men's national team assistant coach | USA Today Sports Images
Today he’s one of Bruce Arena’s trusted assistants with the New England Revolution. But older MLS fans know the former US U-17 national team coach as a tenacious defensive midfielder who won three MLS Cups as well as the Supporters' Shield, Open Cup, Concacaf Champions Cup and the InterAmerican Cup with United.
No. 3: Jason Kreis (Dallas)
At one time the league’s all-time leading scorer, Kreis anchored the Burn as a prolific striker in their early years before coaching RSL into a powerhouse in his first coaching gig at the turn of the 2010s. Stints at NYCFC and Orlando City weren't quite as successful and now he’s juggling a technical-staff role at Inter Miami with the US U-23 national team job.
No. 8: Paul Holocher (San Jose)
Already a veteran when the league was born, he barely got a cup of coffee with the Clash in Year 1. That didn’t stop Holocher from blossoming into a well-respected coach, first in the NCAA game and more recently as an academy director who did good work with the Quakes’ system before the Dynamo lured him to Texas to renovate their sleeping-giant program.
No. 7: Frank Yallop (Tampa Bay Mutiny)
Frank Yallop, former MLS coach for the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy | USA Today Sports Images
He won two MLS Cups, a Supporters' Shield and two MLS Coach of the Year awards in charge of the Quakes, but the world might know him better as the Galaxy’s harried head coach in “The Beckham Experiment,” Grant Wahl’s juicy book about David Beckham’s chaotic first years in MLS. The English-Canadian defender was a stalwart for some very good Mutiny teams who’ve generally gotten lost in the sands of time. Today he’s the GM of Fresno FC, who just went on hiatus and reportedly plan to relocate.
No. 10: Brian Kamler (D.C. United)
One of myriad pros to rise out of the St. Louis soccer hotbed, Kamler won some hardware with that early DCU dynasty, then wandered around MLS a bit, playing for four other teams before ending his career with RSL, where he subsequently worked on the radio broadcast team. Today he’s coaching the Green Bay Voyageurs of USL League One.
No. 1: Janusz Michallik (Columbus)
You probably know him best as a straight-talking commentator for ESPN and SiriusXM, but the Polish-American defender put in work for the Crew and Revs in the first three seasons of MLS.
No. 7: Frankie Hejduk (Tampa Bay)
Frankie Hejduk in action for the Crew | Getty Images
Everyone’s favorite surf-riding, coffee-swilling right back is a club legend and brand ambassador for the Crew these days, though his excellent MLS adventure started with the Mutiny (RIP).
No. 9: Zach Thornton (MetroStars)
Maybe the most imposing goalkeeper in MLS history, the Maryland native won five major trophies when he joined Chicago – not to mention the "Power Shot" contest at an early MLS All-Star Skills Challenge event – and is today the goalkeepers coach at D.C. United.
No. 1: Todd Yeagley (Columbus)
He grew up immersed in Indiana University’s college soccer dynasty as the son of longtime Hoosiers coach Jerry Yeagley, and after 155 regular-season and playoff appearances for the Crew, Todd returned home to Bloomington, building his resume as an assistant before taking over the helm at Indiana in 2009 – and winning College Cup in 2012.
No. 4: Curt Onalfo (LA Galaxy)
Onalfo survived a battle with Hodgkin's Disease before the dawn of MLS, and though his playing opportunities proved limited in the league, he went on to coach Kansas City, D.C. United and the Galaxy and is now New England’s technical director.
No. 9: Giovanni Savarese (MetroStars)
Giovanni Savarese coaching the Portland Timbers | Craig Mitchelldyer / Portland Timbers FC
No. 10: Clint Peay (D.C. United)
One of Bruce Arena’s trusted soldiers in his D.C. United years, Peay hit the coaching grind after the turn of the century and recently took up his first pro head coach gig – back with Arena again – as the first-ever head coach of the Revolution’s new USL League One team.
No. 10: Garth Lagerwey (D.C. United)
No. 7: Greg Lalas (Tampa Bay)
You’ve probably heard of his older brother; today he’s the league’s VP of Content.
No. 8: Kevin Grimes (San Jose)
He never played a minute in MLS, though Grimes has put his stamp on the league by grooming talents like David Bingham, Steve Birnbaum, Servando Carrasco, Hector Jimenez and Nick Lima over two decades in charge of Cal’s men’s soccer program.