Eight years and one month ago, Eric Wynalda became the first person to score a Major League Soccer goal. On Wednesday, he became one of the first two MLS players, along with defender Paul Caligiuri, to be enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Wynalda's 88th-minute goal against D.C. United on April 6, 1996 capped off an exciting first MLS match and gave the league a kick-start. The goal was a monumental moment for both Wynalda and the league.
"Looking back on it now, it really is surreal. It was the first time for us launching the league, and mainstream America was going to be seeing what it was all about." he said. "You know, we still have a league, and it's something that I'll always look back on and smile and say, 'I was the guy who launched the whole thing with the first goal.' That's a good feeling."
But Wynalda's contribution to U.S. soccer doesn't end with that first goal. It extends to his 1996 MLS scoring title, his record 34 goals for the U.S. men's national team and his time playing in the German Bundesliga, where he became the first American to play soccer in Europe.
And it extends beyond those accomplishments. Wynalda was a part of the revival of U.S. soccer in the '90s, playing in FIFA World Cups in 1990 (the USA's first appearance in the tournament since 1950), 1994 and 1998. Along with players like Alexi Lalas, Marcelo Balboa and John Harkes, Wynalda blazed a trail into Europe and then back home to the United States to play in MLS, the U.S. first division.
Wynalda sees these accomplishments as the most important things he has achieved.
"We've lived through a lot of the mistakes, and we've been called the pioneers a bunch of times. I think what we bring to the table now is to help our kids find the next level," he said. "The guys in the middle of their careers finally have people like myself who can ... give them the kind of advice that's going to make them better soccer players.
"There's a reason why Brazil is the World Champion. They have years of experience that they always tap into, and they do a great job of figuring out a way to use their assets."
Wynalda said his selection is "bittersweet," pointing out that at age 34, he still is not beyond playing age, despite the fact that he's been retired for three years.
"I would have liked to be still playing, but that obviously, physically would have been a grind. I had the kind of injuries that kind of cut my career short." he added. "I'm happy with my decision. This makes it official. I have to officially retire ... so this will make everything final.
"I never would have thought that I'd be the first guy to retire."
Now that he is in the Hall of Fame, Wynalda said he feels honored that the media and coaches who vote for Hall inductees selected him to be enshrined.
"I think with all players, you give as much as you can for as long as you can, and you hope that it's enough," he said. "For me, I think to be elected kind of certifies or validates that my career made a difference in the sport."