April 6, 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of the first match in MLS history. Eric Wynalda scored the lone goal in the 87th minute as the San Jose Clash beat D.C. United at Spartan Stadium in San Jose.
To mark the occasion, MLS in partnership with Mitchell & Ness on Tuesday launched the awesome retro-inspired apparel collaboration, "Since ’96."
We're going to celebrate the day in a slightly different way here.
There have been thousands upon thousands of consequential moments in league history since then, and each has their own rippling butterfly effect that has somehow led us to this point on the timeline of the universe's infinite curve. It seems pretty cool that we got to be on the same part of the curve as Ilsinho.
That being said, we can’t pinpoint every single consequential on-field moment in MLS history. But we can pinpoint a few moments of significance that had far-reaching reverberations that led us up to this point and whatever points are coming our way in the future, even if we didn’t know it at the time.
There’s obviously going to be some recency bias here, and I’m not going to get to every single influential moment. But I did pick out a few of my favorite instances where someone cannonballed into the MLS pool and left an impression for years afterward.
The last 10 minutes (roughly) of Decision Day 2009
Heading into Decision Day in 2009, Real Salt Lake needed a nearly impossible amount of things to break their way to gain a “Wild Card” spot. (Please note there are going to be a lot of things that sound fake in here. The internet says that they are real.) RSL sat in 12th place in the overall standings on 37 points going into their final game with the Colorado Rapids. They not only needed to beat Colorado, but also needed D.C. United, Toronto FC and FC Dallas to all fail to grab three points. If that happened, they’d be through to the playoffs on goal differential.
WELL, we’re talking about it so you can probably guess what happened. RSL beat Colorado 3-0 and Toronto got thumped 5-0. But even with two things crossed off their checklist, RSL didn’t know their fate until about as late as they possibly could. In Seattle, the Sounders went down in the 14th minute to FC Dallas on a goal from Atiba Harris. But goals in the 61st from Nate Jaqua and in the 84th from Brad Evans sealed a 2-1 loss for Dallas.
Meanwhile in Kansas City, D.C. United went up 2-1 in the 82nd thanks to a goal from Julius James. D.C. just needed to hold on for about 10 minutes or so and they’d be in the playoffs. RSL would not. Seems easy enough, right? It was not easy enough.
D.C. gave up a penalty in the 92nd minute and Claudio Lopez buried it. The game ended 2-2. D.C and RSL ended the year with 40 points. RSL won the Wild Card spot on goal differential, got shifted to the Eastern Conference bracket* (*told you) and made their way to MLS Cup where they beat the LA Galaxy on penalties. The Galaxy regrouped and won the Supporters’ Shield the next year before coming up short on winning MLS Cup again. They redoubled their efforts, brought in Robbie Keane that offseason and won three of the next four MLS Cups.
Which then of course led to Galaxy manager Bruce Arena building enough clout to take over as US men's national team manager for the second time which led to [mumbling] and then the current renaissance of the New England Revolution and probably like 80 other consequential things. Do you see how the rest of these are going to go now?
Whatever Bob Bradley did here
I’m pretty sure the league ceased to exist for like a year after this as they reformatted the rules and waited for a government-appointed commission to figure out exactly what went wrong. I didn’t research that, but I honestly see no other option after this.
Steve Clark does this in MLS Cup 2015
There’s the obvious result here that this mistake led to the Portland Timbers' first MLS Cup. But it’s really fun to think about everything else that came because of it.
Consider that the Columbus Crew rebranded in 2015. They lost Kei Kamara after a 22-goal, six-assist season and exchanged him for Ola Kamara (I know it’s confusing) who still put up 16 goals and two assists (still very good). They completely faltered the rest of the year despite Ola’s best efforts, finished with the third-worst record in the league and saw attendance drop the next year as a result of a rough few months on the field that would only get worse off it.
To yada-yada some things to say the least, the Save the Crew movement eventually comes alive out of this, the Crew gets saved, and in the span of a few short years Columbus went from an all-time blooper to MLS Cup champions in 2020. And who is their MLS Cup-winning manager? 2015 Portland manager Caleb Porter, who left Portland in 2017 after feeling like he’d accomplished everything he could with the club. Who knows if that happens if Portland loses in 2015.
CONSIDER ALSO that Giovanni Savarese took Portland to MLS Cup the year after Porter’s departure, and former Columbus center back Michael Parkhurst — offloaded after the bottom fell out from under the team in 2016 — captained Atlanta United to a 2018 win over the Timbers.
Don’t even really get me started about Atlanta’s influence on the current state of expansion, the league as a whole, et cetera that was all created with help from Parkhurst. You could even get some red yarn and a bulletin board and argue that all of these events came together to create USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter, who left Columbus in 2019. Clark’s error is at least a top-three influential play of the past decade.
Ricardo Clark gets injured in preseason 2004
From the highest-stakes moment on the list to the lowest end, but maybe with the deepest rabbit hole. Like, I had to go onto message boards from 2008 to parse this all out. Pray for my soul.
This on-field moment is one nobody really got to see. Fresh off starting 28 games for the MetroStars in his rookie season and earning a spot as an MLS Rookie of the Year finalist, Ricardo Clark picked up an injury during preseason. Clark started in just 19 games that year and became an asset the MetroStars felt comfortable trading away ... and then ... deep breaths here, we’re going deep.
The San Jose Earthquakes had just hired a new general manager. A longtime MLS and USMNT player who had just retired months before. And that’s whennnn ... Alexi Lalas effectively traded Landon Donovan’s MLS rights to the MetroStars in exchange for Clark.
I actually passed out writing that. I can’t believe that’s a real sentence. But Lalas offered a “portion of an allocation spot” for Clark. Donovan technically still belonged to Bayer Leverkusen at the time. He played on loan for San Jose. With Donovan back off to Leverkusen at the end of the previous season, it wasn’t absurd to think he might stay there for good. So Lalas shipped off the allocation order spot that would have given them the rights to Donovan when he returned to the US.
Donovan came back months later. The Galaxy traded Carlos Ruiz to FC Dallas and (somehow) ended up on top of the allocation order. Nabbed Donovan. And oh no, I’m going to pass out again, hold on...
Lalas wouldn’t last as a GM, San Jose ducked to the Houston Dynamo in 2006 with Clark in tow, the Dynamo won MLS Cup in 2007 and 2008, and Donovan became the greatest player in league history on his way to leading the Galaxy to four MLS Cups. By my count, this move directly influenced seven of the next 10 MLS Cups.
On top of that, you have to wonder if David Beckham sees the Galaxy as viable without someone like Donovan. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface here. The effects of this one are mind-breaking. I need a nap.
Seattle land one shot on target vs. Kansas City on July 24, 2016
We’re gonna take it easy on this one.
After Seattle lost to Sporting Kansas City 3-0 after putting up just one shot the entire game, Sigi Schmid resigns as manager and Brian Schmetzer takes over. Schemtzer informs them that they can actually win without putting a shot on target, and the Sounders use this strategy to win MLS Cup that same year.
From there, Schmetzer and Seattle prove themselves as the premier club and manager in the league, making it to four MLS Cups in five years. Meanwhile, Toronto regrouped after the 2016 MLS Cup loss to go full Death Star in 2017 as they cruised to multiple trophies and possible GOAT status. Somehow this all led to Greg Vanney managing the Galaxy.
Toronto crush Atlanta on Decision Day 2018
Another recent one, but a big one. You can probably explain most of present-day MLS through Steve Clark, Seattle losing to SKC in 2016 and Atlanta getting thumped by a bad Toronto team with the Supporters’ Shield on the line.
Atlanta just had to win to break the MLS record for points in a season and hold off the New York Red Bulls from claiming the Supporters’ Shield. They ... did not do that. They went down 2-0 in the first 21 minutes, nearly got back in the game, and then allowed two more late goals.
Afterward, a come-to-Jesus meeting among the team led to a renewed focus heading into the playoffs, plus a commitment to a more practical, defensive style. They pushed their way past NYCFC, Chris Armas panicked for some reason in the conference final because of it, came out in a mid-block instead of the crushing press Red Bulls had ridden to the Shield and Atlanta United won MLS Cup.
Tata Martino left after the triump, Atlanta galaxy-brained their way into hiring Frank de Boer, Toronto rebounded and Atlanta met in the Eastern Conference Final the following year and once again beat Atlanta in a massive game. Somehow all this led to the Red Bulls regressing, Armas leaving RBNY and Armas being named Toronto FC manager after Vanney decided to take on a new challenge.
I have no idea what this all means right now, but it feels like it may be important in understanding everything that happens in the league over the next 10 years or so.
I ... I can’t explain why it is. It just feels like the key to everything.