Armchair Analyst: The on-field stories that defined the first MLS season

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.


The two biggest stories from the first MLS season, which kicked off 23 years and 362 days ago, were all off-the-field. Or I guess I should say were both off-the-field stories, since there were only two that mattered:

  1. Would anybody turn out to watch this sport?
  2. Would the league survive?

Everything paled in comparison to those two.

The answer to the first question was "yes," as league-wide average attendance in 1996 was 17,406 per game, a number that wouldn't be topped until 2011, and also a number that sparked enough long-term hope in and understanding of the potential fanbase that it became something of a necessary reminder during the very, very lean times of the early '00s. The fanbase was there, the stadiums were being built, the quality of play was improving, and once again the fans would come back – and in greater numbers. That pattern of thought has proved prescient.

It also informed the answer to the second question. MLS survived in 1996, and then it just kept on surviving (once, in 2001, by the skin of Lamar Hunt's teeth), right up until it started to grow in 2004.

That was it. Those were, in a very major way, the only two stories that really mattered, and even as someone who watched and screamed and cheered and loved this league from Day 1, I totally understand why all retrospectives on this thing of ours focus on the fanbase question or the business question. It makes sense.

But as someone who watched and screamed and cheered and loved this league from Day 1, I assure you there were major on-the-field storylines we all watched and read and followed as best we could (shoutout to the gang at SoccerAmerica, whose coverage was, and still is, essential). Here are, by my recollection, the six biggest:

The Class of '94

Here is the timeline:

  • July 4, 1988: USA are selected as hosts of the 1994 World Cup
  • November 19, 1989: USMNT qualify for 1990 World Cup
  • June 1990: USMNT get thrashed in first World Cup appearance since 1950
  • February 1991: USMNT hire Bora Milutinovic
  • June 9, 1993: USMNT thrash England 2-0 in the US Cup
  • June, 1994: USMNT draw Switzerland, beat Colombia and lose to Romania in the group stage to qualify for the knockout rounds of the 1994 World Cup
  • July 4, 1994: USMNT lose 1-0 to eventual champions Brazil in front of 85,000 people in Palo Alto

The US had been a curiosity in the 1990 World Cup, and were largely overwhelmed across 270 minutes. Four years later, they were a dogged, pragmatic, counterattacking terror under Milutinovic, the seeds of which he'd been planting for three years and which had really begun to flower the previous June in that eye-opening win over England. The soccer world had started to take notice, and then the general sporting world in the US took notice when the USMNT went out and put in a very legit showing at the World Cup itself.

Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones became something close to household names. People knew who Tony Meola, Eric Wynalda, John Harkes, Marcelo Balboa, Paul Caligiuri and Tab Ramos were. Nobody knew who Mike Sorber was, but I swear to you he is still one of the most underrated USMNT players ever. MLS signed all of them, scattered them amongst the 10 clubs and on-field building blocks and off-field marketing cornerstones.

The results were... mixed. Wynalda spared the league some embarrassment with a golazo in the first-ever match – which you'll be able to watch next Monday here on MLSsoccer.com – but was hit-and-miss for a poor San Jose team. Lalas was meh for an even poorer Revs team despite coming off of two very solid years for Padova in Serie A, then unquestionably the best league in the world. Sorber didn't make a dent for KC, spending one unhappy year there. Caligiuri spent an even more unhappy year in Columbus with the Crew. Meola was very good for the MetroStars, but Ramos struggled with injuries and consistency.

Jones, Balboa and Harkes, however, were all very, very good in '96. Jones and Balboa are still all-timers for the Galaxy and the Rapids, and Harkes was a major part of a D.C. United side that won the MLS Cup/US Open Cup double that year.

Still, it was pretty obvious pretty quickly that "sign a USMNT'er and plug him into the lineup without considering the overall context" wasn't a great way to build long-term context. One guy wasn't enough to define a whole team.

Except in Tampa...

El Pibe, MVP

The biggest star in MLS in 1996 was The Kid from Colombia. Carlos Valderrama, the two-time South American player of the year and 1987 Copa America MVP, was already 34 years old by the time the first MLS season kicked off and was entering the twilight of his career. But the ravages of time didn't really affect Valderrama much because Valderrama didn't do much running. He had nine other guys who'd do that for him.

If you care about soccer at all, you should take eight minutes to watch this mini-documentary from a few years back:

Valderrama was the sun and the other guys were the nine planets that orbited him. That included future USMNT World Cup star Frankie Hejduk, the great Steve Ralston – still second all-time on the MLS assists chart – and the Big Dog himself, Roy Lassiter.

Tampa Bay's gameplan in 1996 was simple: 1) Get the ball to Pibe, 2) Lassiter makes his run, 3) through-ball, 4) hope it's all onside. Often it wasn't, as Lassiter was offside a staggering 70 times in 1996, the third-highest single-season total in MLS history. But often it was, as Lassiter scored 27 goals, a league record that would stand for 22 years (Chris Wondolowski in 2012 and Bradley Wright-Phillips in 2014 matched Lassiter's total) until Josef Martinez's 2018 season.

Tampa Bay's gameplan was also effective, as they were easily the best team in the regular season with 58 points, nine points better than the second-place Galaxy. Technically that won them the Supporters' Shield, though that wasn't actually awarded until a few years later because the Shield did not technically exist until after the 1998 season.

But yeah, I'm not diminishing the other players or the work of head coach Thomas Rongen when I say no player in MLS history has more completely defined a given team's style than Pibe, who was the alpha and omega of the 1996 Mutiny and absolutely deserving of the first-ever league MVP award. He walks, they run, they score, they win. It was brilliant and beautiful and unlike anything resembling modern soccer.

The closest thing to modern soccer was found elsewhere in the Eastern Conference...

The Birth of a Dynasty

D.C. United won none of their first four games, and just two of their first nine. They had Harkes, and they had Raul Diaz Arce, Jeff Agoos and Tony Sanneh, and they had, in Marco Etcheverry, the best player of the league's first half-decade. It should've been good, but it definitely wasn't. Not right away, anyway.

But over the course of the season it slowly, slowly got better. Bruce Arena's team was mid-table by the middle of the season, and had gotten there by playing significantly more soccer than what the rest of the league was doing. Then in August of that year they got Jaime Moreno from Middlesbrough, and both Arena and Eddie Pope came back from the 1996 Olympics, and it was suddenly "oh man, these guys are light years better than everyone else," save for Pibe's Mutiny and the LA Galaxy.

United and LA would meet in the inaugural MLS Cup, which remains the most incredible and dramatic in league history:

Yes, it was a story that D.C. stunk for the first two months of the season. At the University of Virginia, Arena had been easily the most successful college soccer coach of the previous two decades, and they seemed to be loaded with talent. But what became the story is that once they settled into that gorgeous 4-4-2 diamond and started knocking the ball around, building more chances via actual purposeful possession and coordinated off-the-ball movement than anybody else in the league, they were a beacon of how the game could and should be played here.

You could see the genesis of modern soccer in this group, with overlapping fullbacks, build-outs via the back point of the diamond, and Etcheverry creating chance after chance while playing underneath Moreno and Diaz Arce.

Understand this about that D.C. team: They were the blueprint for what MLS teams are doing now. Etcheverry was 25 and had finished third in Conmebol Player of the Year voting, and Moreno was just 22 and still considered a high-level prospect despite flaming out of the Premier League. Pope was one of the best CBs at the Olympics, Harkes, an EPL veteran, and Sanneh, a future Bundesliga starter and USMNT star. Agoos and Richie Williams were MLS lifers and USMNT players to one degree or another, and Diaz Arce was a goal poacher extraordinaire.

Tampa Bay were 19-9 with a +19 goal differential against everyone else in the regular season. Against D.C., they were 1-3 with a -4 goal differential. D.C. then eviscerated them by 6-2 on aggregate over two legs of the Eastern Conference final (the playoff format back then was a mess, and probably worth a separate column of its own).

The bottom line is you could drop that D.C. team into MLS right now and they'd still compete for trophies.

From the Periphery

As mentioned above, it wasn't the Class of '94 that proved to be the defining domestic players of that first year of MLS. Instead it was a bunch of guys who'd been on the periphery of the USMNT for most of their careers, including Lassiter (Best XI & Golden Boot), Robin Fraser (Best XI), John Doyle (Best XI & Defender of the Year), Mark Dodd (Best XI & Goalkeeper of the Year), Preki (Best XI), Mark Chung, Williams, Jason Kreis, Agoos, Brian Maisonneuve, Ted Eck, Danny Pena (who didn't join MLS until 1997, and actually turned down a USMNT call-up) and Brian McBride, who laid down a marker for US players.

McBride did this in Columbus's first-ever MLS game:

That is absurd.

Most of these guys were able to use MLS as a springboard into more prominent national team roles. They also paved the way for the slightly younger cohort of US players entering the league that year via the college draft – guys like Pope, Ralston, Greg Vanney, Eddie Lewis, Ramiro Corrales (who was the last MLS original to retire, after the 2013 season) and Ante Razov – to carve out significant careers for club & country.

They made MLS a credible stepping stone to international play.

Star-Power

Pibe really was the biggest star, but Roberto Donadoni was synonymous with modern, winning soccer from his days with Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan and Italy. There is no perfect analogy for Donadoni, who was an inverted right midfielder in Sacchi's famous 4-4-2, but the best comparison in terms of pedigree and profile (not position) would probably be when Bastian Schweinsteiger signed with Chicago.

The third member of the "this league's got some real star-power" triumvirate was LA Galaxy and Mexico national team 'keeper Jorge Campos, who had enough juice to get the league to buy him a brand new Ferrari after the first-ever Galaxy home game:

Donadoni left the MetroStars mid-season to play in the '96 Euros, and Campos was mostly pretty good that year.

I've omitted Hugo Sanchez, who played 23 times for the Dallas Burn in 1996 at age 38, from this list. Sanchez remains the most accomplished player in Concacaf history, but the five-time La Liga scoring champion and Real Madrid & El Tri legend was washed up by the time he got to MLS. If there was one signing that set the "retirement league" narrative, that was the one.

Anyway, the idea was these four guys, along with the Class of '94, would be the driving forces for the league. Other than Pibe, they kind of weren't. It wasn't Campos or Jones who were the stars of the Galaxy, but Maurcio Cienfuegos and El Tanque Hurtado. It was Kreis who carried the banner for Dallas, and around the league it was a series of lesser-known guys who were propelling themselves into the collective US soccer consciousness.

Including...

The Chop

I'm not sure where else to put Preki, so Preki gets a story of his own:

Kansas City didn't get a Pibe or a Donadoni or a Campos or a Sanchez or an Etcheverry, they got Preki. And if there is one indelible image from those first years of MLS, it was of Preki leaning into and absolutely selling that chop, and some poor sucker of a defender – who absolutely knew it was coming – biting on it in spite of himself. The series of highlights starting about 25 seconds into that video gives you a taste. He did this game after game after game, and it remains the most unstoppable individual move in league history.

Preki was already 32 when the league started, had played in the English Premier League, had scored a bazillion goals playing indoor soccer over the previous decade, had come through the youth ranks at Red Star Belgrade, and was on his way to becoming a naturalized US citizen and USMNT player (he'd get citizenship in late October of 1996 and made his USMNT debut a week later). He is a legend.

He also produced, scoring 18 goals and added 13 assists in 1996, and made the first of his four Best XI appearances. To this day he's the only player with two MLS MVP awards, having won in 1997 and 2003 (at age 39, mind you – the Preki Chop was timeless).


That's not the entire list of stories. I could probably write too much about that 1996 US Olympic team, or Pitufo de Avila's mid-season arrival, or Leonel Alvarez's astonishing 14 yellow cards and 2 reds in just 1,960 minutes, or entire volumes about how quickly it was apparent that Chris Armas was freaking awesome, and how he doesn't quite fit into any of the above stories.

There is also plenty to be said about Digital Takawira's celebration on the first-ever KC goal:

Maybe it's best to leave that one for another column.

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