Armchair Analyst: A trip back in time to remember 1996 | Mailbag

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 mid-1990s were a very different time. Many – most? – of you reading this aren't old enough to remember them, to remember what it was like when MLS started. And I'm not talking about "what it was like in the world at large," because that's a much longer column for a different website.

I'm talking about "what it was like to go from not having a first-division soccer league in the US to follow to having one filled with a bunch of the 1994 US World Cup team stars, and rising college players, and Latin American playmakers, and oh-my-goodness are they really bringing the old NASL shootout back???"

One day there was no first-division soccer in the US. The next day, 24 years ago this coming Monday, there was. It was jarring, and then it felt like a weekly battle to keep this league so many of us instantly fell in love with afloat.

I asked for your "what was it like?" questions on Twitter. Let me try to give you some answers:

I'm not going to say that the biggest hurdle was self-imposed, but the team names were almost uniformly awful – Dallas Burn? Tampa Bay Mutiny? Kansas City Wiz? – and seemed to be aimed at children rather than communities. Lots has been written over the years, on this website and elsewhere, about that first crop of names.

Here's the problem with coming up with team names that sound, to borrow the parlance of the time, radical or gnarly to teens and tweens: Those kids eventually grow up, and those names start to sound cringey. And for those of us who were slightly older – I was 19, and at the end of my freshman year of college – a bunch of those names were off-putting enough to drive down interest among potential fans. I remember watching the inaugural game with a bunch of the guys from that year's UConn men's soccer team, several of whom would go on to play in the league, and "what's a Clash?" was a pretty frequent sentiment.

In modern parlance: MLS meme'd itself right out of the gates.

It would've been very easy to come up with team names that felt and sounded more like something that represented the city or region rather than something that felt and sounded like it represented a marketing exercise.

Big, solid negative on that one. Look at how spectacular this 1995 jersey reveal was:

"Garish Kite" was the design style, I believe.

Of course, MLS wasn't really an outlier in this regard. Go watch some highlights of Ronaldo at PSV or Barcelona, or Zidane's Juventus years. Everybody was into excess fabric back then.

It was weird.

None! But yeah, in general my clothes were also much, much too baggy. It was a strange time.

Also, no. I understand that the shootouts are exciting – Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and George Best, to name three, absolutely loved them back in the old NASL days. But ties are fine.

And more importantly: Shootouts are dangerous! The number of times some poor goalkeeper got kicked in the head because they had to come charging straight at the knees of a professional athlete sprinting towards goal ... it wasn't quite James Caan in "Rollerball," but it was brutal. I'm glad they're gone and wish they'd never existed in the first place.

The best teams in 1996 were the Tampa Bay Mutiny (runaway Supporters' Shield winners... retroactively), D.C. United (MLS Cup & U.S. Open Cup winners) and the LA Galaxy (Shield & MLS Cup runners-up).

The Mutiny would most likely be terrible in the modern game, which I wrote a bit about here. Maybe they could've made something work if Carlos Valderrama played as a regista, but defensively speaking Valderrama makes Haris Medunjanin look like Claude Makelele. They were a team from a very different era (and it's telling that D.C. absolutely crushed them in five of six meetings that year ... Richie Williams owned Pibe).

The Galaxy were much more balanced, and had a number of players who'd be elite in MLS right now. That includes three current coaches in Robin Fraser (LCB), Greg Vanney (LB) and Chris Armas (DM). What they didn't really have was a great or clear identity, nor elite attacking talent.

D.C. had both of those things, as well as some better-than-decent depth (they brought Tony Sanneh, Jesse Marsch and Steve Rammel off the bench). They had, in Bruce Arena, a head coach who still wins in MLS, and his top assistant was some guy named Bob Bradley. It's probably not a coincidence that they played the best, most modern and prettiest soccer in the league. It's not a coincidence that they won two trophies in their first year, two trophies in their second year, two trophies in their third year and two trophies in their fourth year.

That United team would compete for trophies, still, in 2020 MLS. I don't think they'd have enough depth to win a Shield (and they'd probably have to blow off the U.S. Open Cup), but once they got into the playoffs they'd be current Seattle Sounders-level scary.

D.C. had two modern-day Designated Players in Marco Etcheverry (top three in Conmebol Player of the Year voting, and just 25 when he got to MLS) and Jaime Moreno (didn't cut it in the EPL at age 22, just like Jozy Altidore). They probably had six other guys on the roster who'd be TAM-level players in the modern league, including Raul Diaz Arce. Add Edison Flores to that mix – I actually think he could play as a shuttler in that 4-4-2 diamond Bruce deployed – and man, that might be a 60-point team. Maybe more than that.

Add Chicharito, Cristian Pavon and Jonathan dos Santos to the 1996 Galaxy roster – which didn't have any players who I think would be considered "modern-day DPs," with all due respect to El Tanque Hurtado and Jorge Campos –  and that's probably a 60-point team as well. Provided they get themselves a head coach whose game plan isn't "cross it 35 times a game, please."

That would be a top three central midfield in MLS currently, and Fraser would be a Defender of the Year candidate. Armas is still, other than Ozzie Alonso, probably the best d-mid in league history.

Should I buy Football Manager? I feel like maybe I should buy Football Manager.

It's possible I'm giving short shrift to Tampa Bay, who I really did have a lot of fun watching that year and who really did have some excellent players, but they just got ripped limb from limb by D.C. This was also one of the best individual playoff performances in league history:

That was pretty much that for the Mutiny.

1. Nah, though he remains one of the best off-the-bench spark plugs in league history, behind only the likes of Alan Gordon, Vicente Sanchez and Ilsinho

2. Both. Shue could really play (and still does at Chelsea Piers), as he showed during his college career at Dartmouth. But he definitely got more coverage than he otherwise would've because, yes, he happened to be the start of a primetime soap opera.

3. I always thought it was ahead of its time, and still think it's an under-appreciated statistic. I also think that the punch is a bit of a lost art, and is an area a smart coaching staff could potentially exploit, as Diego Simeone has with "basic" clearances.

If I could sum it up in a single GIF...

Note: that's also a fairly representative hairstyle for 1996, and the facial hair is also not bad for that era.

If Matt McKeon, the No. 1 pick in the 1996 college draft, is coming through the ranks now, does someone turn him into a ball-playing center back instead of keeping him at d-mid, where he was as half-step too slow? Does he then go on to earn 50+ US men's national team caps? There's a world in which, yeah, that happens.

There is also a world in which the guys from the 1998 college draft – Pablo Mastroeni, Jimmy Conrad, Joe Cannon, Matt Reis, Mike Petke, Chris Klein, Wade Barrett, Daniel Hernandez and especially, especially Clint Mathis all get into a professional environment a few years earlier, in their late teens instead of their early 20s. The professional player development pipeline is so much better now than it was – you can read Nick Firchau's Project-40 longform for some details – that it's almost hard to put into words.

Mathis is the one, though. Give FC Dallas or the Philadelphia Union or the New York Red Bulls a 16-year-old Clint Mathis, and they'll give you a $20 million (or more) attacker in three years.

The good news? MLS has come a long way since 1996, so the next Clint Mathis will have that chance.

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