EDITOR'S NOTE: To mark the anniversary of Major League Soccer's first-ever game between the San Jose Clash and D.C. United on April 6, 1996, MLS YouTube, Twitter and Facebook channels will air the game at 4 pm ET this Monday. A part of MLS Classics: Remix, the enhanced broadcast will feature alternative commentary from MLS legends Eric Wynalda and Jeff Agoos, as well as current D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid and MLSsoccer.com's David Gass. You can also now follow the @MLSin96 Instagram account, which will chronicle the entirety of the inaugural MLS season in “real-time” throughout 2020.
As the initial euphoria subsided and MLS’s inaugural match ticked into its final stages, the sum of all fears loomed over everyone involved.
“Everybody's worst nightmare was a scoreless tie,” said San Jose Clash communications chief Rick La Plante. “If we went 90 minutes without a goal, all the naysayers would have been proved right – like, ‘soccer’s so boring, nobody ever scores.’”
Spartan Stadium’s snug dimensions were limiting attackers’ space and making for a hectic, choppy tempo. Clash midfielder Paul Bravo was ably fulfilling his assignment for the day — shadowing D.C. United maestro Marco Etcheverry — but even as he did so, he could see the bigger-picture problem.
“It was tight. Not a lot of width. You could slide-tackle somebody on the sideline and actually end up going right into the wall,” Bravo said. “But the game wasn't a great game and all I could think about is, man, this is not the way we envisioned it, a 0-0 game to start off a new league.”
D.C. coach Bruce Arena has been even blunter in his subsequent assessments.
“That remains one of the worst games ever played in MLS,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2015.
Spartan Stadium in San Jose during MLS's first-ever game | San Jose Earthquakes
As the final whistle approached, he might have been content to pocket a road point. That was the worst-case scenario for just about everyone else, though.
“‘I hope this game doesn’t finish a 0-0 tie,’” referee Esse Baharmast remembers thinking. “I didn’t care who won, but please, anybody, score a goal.”
It’s a funny old game, as the old saying goes, and the inaugural match couldn’t have been decided by a more ironic, or fitting, hero.
“I do remember Sunil Gulati at the hotel afterwards, or maybe it was in the press conference, saying something like ‘thank God for Eric Wynalda,’ which probably is the only time any U.S. Soccer administrator ever said that about Eric,” said La Plante of the strong-willed but charismatic striker with a laugh.
“A moment of magic that Eric always seemed to come up with,” said Bravo.
MLS originals remember 1996 Inaugural Match: San Jose vs. D.C. United
The league hosted a postgame celebration at a downtown hotel; it wasn’t exactly a blowout party for everyone.
“We had a couple beers,” recalled Clash mainstay John Doyle. “We were tired, you know? Not saying ‘oh there was so much pressure,’ but there was some amount of wanting to make sure things went the right way, and a culmination of years of wanting it to work.”
Said La Plante: “Everybody felt a great sense of relief — first of all, that we pulled it off. Secondly, that we pulled it off well. I don't want to sound immodest but it was a good show, it was a professional event for coming out of the box for the first time.”
Opening day would not prove reflective of the two teams’ overall fortunes in 1996. Arena and his staff quickly grasped the lessons of a 2-7 start to their campaign and churned through players to improve their talent and balance.
“We didn't do a good job in selecting our initial roster, and when I look at the way we lined up that day and how we played,” Arena said last week. “We had a big learning curve ahead of us.”
D.C. United coach Bruce Arena on the sidelines during MLS's inaugural game. | Tony Quinn
Opening-day starters like Juan Berthy Suarez, Said Fazlagic and Thor Lee were sidelined or cut within a matter of weeks.
“Thor and I got an apartment together. And he played a couple games and then was released,” chuckled D.C. United midfielder Richie Williams. “I wasn't making a lot of money … And my concern was that I had this apartment and now I’ve got to pay the whole rent myself, and I was like, ‘this isn’t good.’” (Thankfully for Williams, newcomer Kris Kelderman would take over Lee’s spot.).
“We were trying to sail this ship while we're building it,” said D.C. team administrator Ray Trifari. “So there was a lot of trial and error. And we didn't really flesh out the front-office staff until maybe halfway through the season.”
Striker Jaime Moreno arrived in July and struck up a devastating attacking chemistry with Etcheverry and Raul Diaz Arce that Black-and-Red fans dubbed the “Magic Triangle” en route to hoisting the first MLS Cup.
"Day in and day out, some of the things that they did were unbelievable,” recalled teammate Jeff Agoos.
Conversely, San Jose largely treaded water after that iconic inaugural win, finishing with a losing record and bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to their budding rivals the LA Galaxy. Friction flared between Wynalda and coach Laurie Calloway.
“We ended up fighting all the time, about everything, and it was never a healthy relationship,” said Wynalda. Things bottomed out the following season when, during a June loss to D.C., a plane flew over Spartan Stadium bearing a sign urging the Clash to fire Calloway. Three weeks later, the club acquiesced.
More than anything, though, the simple existence of a top domestic league of their own — after years of wandering the desert — was a transformational shift for many of those involved. “I was 29 or 30,” said Doyle, “And it was like, finally, I don't have to play in Sweden. I don't have to play in Germany. I don't have to live with the national team in Mission Viejo, and train twice a day and do all these things and wait for a game three weeks later.
“You went to practice, trained, you did things in the community, you did certain things and then you went home, and you train the next day, it was consistency. And then you had a game on the weekend … it was just neat to have that consistency that had been lacking in America.”
Added Arena: “What I recall, that whole buildup, how proud we were. When the Star-Spangled Banner was played that day and they introduced teams, it was something we all waited for, for many years, to have a professional league back in the country. And it was a great day for that.”