Jersey Throwback - 1996 Tampa Bay Mutiny - Carlos Valderrama

MLS early years: The best moments and players I wish I'd seen | Andrew Wiebe

I’ve always been a history nerd. I want to know what happened, why it happened and how it’s shaping the present and the future. I can be borderline obsessive, as my bookshelves attest.

During the past 57 days (and counting), I’ve been professionally consumed by MLS history. I can navigate the Elias Sports Bureau database with my eyes closed. I’ve gone down countless Wikipedia rabbit holes. I’ve scoured YouTube for old clips, old highlight reels and old games. This NY/NJ MetroStars-Tampa Bay Mutiny thriller four games into the 1996 season was, in particular, a treat. It helped to watch it with Tab Ramos, Gio Savarese and Miles Joseph.

I know a lot about the league from 1996-2006, but knowing something and feeling something are two very different things. I know early D.C. United was MLS’s first dynasty, but I never felt their dominance. I know Jorge Campos was a star, but I was never personally caught up in his wattage. I know what happened, who scored and which team lifted the cup, but I can never experience the moment, immediately understand the context or be personally invested in the result, the person or the story.

It already happened, and you’ve got to ask the people who were there, who truly felt it to explain what it was really like. We’ve scratched the surface on Extratime with our Mount Rushmore series and will continue to do so as we crown the Extratime Greatest Team of All-Time in the coming weeks. I hope we all continue to do it once soccer and some sense of normalcy return. Our history deserves it.

Here are nine things I wish I was around to experience, to really feel from MLS’s past. Leave your recollections in the comments below, share what you missed out on or holler at me on Twitter. In no particular order…

Carlos Ruiz’s magical 2002 season (and Taylor Twellman, too)

Imagine how you would react if, let’s say, Adam Buksa scored 24 goals for the Revs in 2020, his first year in the league, won the Golden Boot, was named MVP, added eight more goals in the playoffs and scored the game-winning golden goal in MLS Cup to deliver New England their first championship after years of final disappointment. Just imagine.

Ruiz did that, only in Los Angeles. He gave the Galaxy their first of five Cups. He owned the 2002 season, with Taylor Twellman just a step off the goal and championship pace. Both made their names in MLS that year and I wish I was around to feel their arrival on the scene.

Peter Vermes’ transition from forward to center back

It’s near impossible to translate Vermes’ career trajectory into today’s MLS. There’s absolutely no equivalent here, but stick with me for this admittedly rough analogy: Jozy Altidore (one year older in 2014, 24, than Vermes was in 1990, 23) plays in the World Cup for the US as a forward, then, halfway through the next decade, transitions to central defense and eventually wins Defender of the Year in the year 2023.

That’s beyond farfetched, but it’s reality for Vermes.

My start in this league was covering Vermes’ teams in Kansas City, as technical director then manager. I know who he is as a manager. I don’t truly know what he was like as a player, what it would have been like to watch him make an incredibly difficult transition, both personally and professionally, look relatively easy.

The MetroStars

Everything about it. Curse of Caricola. Roberto Donadoni’s Best XI season in 1996. Tab Ramos. Everything about Tab Ramos, an American magician I never saw live. Giovanni Savarese’s star turn. Tony Meola. Youri Djorkaeff. Carlos Queiroz. Lothar Matthaus’ brief cameo. Clint Mathis in his defender-annihilating prime. Cheatin’ Bob and Michael Bradley’s first professional season. The playoff disappointment. Oh, the disappointment. There’s a historical richness there that I can never really understand.

The Chicago Fire’s almost dynasty

One MLS Cup, One Supporters’ Shield, three U.S. Open Cups and two MLS Cup losses from 1998-2003. Is that a dynasty? It’s certainly right on the brink.

I know Lubos Kubik, Peter Nowak, Chris Armas and Carlos Bocanegra were Best XI-caliber players in MLS, but I can’t see them in a Fire uniform. I can’t see them at that stage of their careers. Apart from scattered highlights and photos, I can’t see them as MLS players. I can describe it in broad terms, but I lack the specifics from watching them excel in the moment.

LD’s Quakes, pre-Houston move

First of all, the club was far more than just a young Landon Donovan. Just gotta establish that before the old heads start yelling – and rightfully so – about Ronnie Ekelund, Jeff Agoos, Dwayne De Rosario, Ronald Cerritos, Manny Lagos, Joe Cannon and so many others.

The Quakes missed the playoffs four straight years before Donovan arrived on loan before the 2001 season. Then they won two MLS Cups in three years, with a raft of memorable games, moments and goals along the way, not to mention a little relocation drama. I wish I knew that era of the club intimately. I don’t.

Pibe (and Ralston) to Roy Lassiter/Mamadou Diallo

The Mutiny are, for many modern MLS fans, mostly forgotten, a historical footnote. That’s a shame. I didn’t get to see El Pibe do legendary things. I didn’t get to anticipate the moment he’d release a through ball to Lassiter or Diallo. I didn’t see him marionette the attacking players around him with passes even they didn’t see coming. I only know Ralston as the Revs’ elder statesman and MLS assistant coach. I wish I could have known him as a young star on the rise.

2001 Miami Fusion

The Fusion won the Supporters’ Shield. They had the two top scorers in the league in Alex Pineda Chacon (MVP) and Diego Serna. They had Preki, Chris Henderson, Carlos Llamosa, Nick Rimando, Pablo Mastroeni, Jim Rooney, Ian Bishop, Ivan McKinley, Tyrone Marshall and a young Kyle Beckerman, who was injured and barely played. Ray Hudson coached the squad, and the squad … well, let’s just say they enjoyed south Florida.

Let Brian Dunseth tell you all about it.

Preki

Preki. Just Preki. I grew up on indoor soccer. I probably watched Preki do his thing for the St. Louis Storm against the Wichita Wings at the Kansas Coliseum sometime in the early 90s. I say probably because I was five years old, and I have no real memories other than nachos in a plastic bowl, vuvuzelas and getting autographs in the basement after matches.

I’ve seen the chop countless times, but that’s like following a famous chef on Instagram. Ultimately, you’ve got to taste the food and experience the restaurant, otherwise you’re just looking at pictures of brilliance. If only we could have gotten Wizards games on TV in Wichita…

1990/1994 World Cup heroes come home

I was eight in 1994. I remember watching games on my grandparents’ old-school tube TV. I remember how jacked I was to get the Robert Baggio indoor shoes for my winter season. Wearing them to school to play soccer at recess was my equivalent of Air Jordans. I felt like I could do anything with those shoes on my feet.

I was inspired by the US team, but I didn’t really know the players or their stories. I didn’t know where they’d come from, and I didn’t know where they were going. I didn’t know what MLS meant to them … or that MLS was even on the horizon. I didn’t know their sacrifices, what harboring pro soccer dreams in this country was like before 1994. I didn’t know their triumphs.

I know most more as coaches, administrators and broadcasters than I do players. I wish that wasn’t so. I’m missing the years that made them who they are today.

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