The inside story of the first MLS match: ‘Please, please, please no 0-0 game.’

Ryan Baldi
Eric Wynalda celebrates first MLS goal
Eric Wynalda celebrates first MLS goal

In the hours before they were set to face DC United on 20 April 1996, the San Jose Clash squad met for a pre-game meal at a local Italian restaurant. Shortly after finishing their food, a handful of the players felt suddenly sick and began to vomit. It had nothing to do with anything they’d eaten.

“I think it was more nerves than anything,” explains former Clash midfielder Paul Holocher. “People were getting the sense that this was a big game.”

That big-game feeling was because this was a match two years in the making. Longer, even. For the first time since the North American Soccer League folded 12 years earlier, there would finally be a fully professional, FIFA-sanctioned soccer league in the United States again. The advent of Major League Soccer, announced in the wake of the 1994 World Cup and delayed a year as the organisers sought the requisite corporate sponsors and financial backing, was finally here.

READ: The rise and demise of the NASL: Pele, Best, Cruyff, Beckenbauer and the lessons MLS learned

Most of the players involved had played high-level soccer before. Several had recently featured in the American Professional Soccer League, which was designated only division two status and became defunct once MLS began. Others had been stars on the international scene.

For many, though, this new and exciting MLS venture felt different, right from the moment the country’s best young hopefuls were invited to try out for the new league at a 10-day combine in Irvine, California, in January.

“Being evaluated by the coaches and the MLS staff was an interesting experience,” says Paul Bravo, another former Clash midfielder. “That was the first sign we knew this was big.”

Those who impressed were selected in the inaugural MLS draft the following month and were joined by a host of marquee players, many of whom had starred at the last World Cup, to make up the rosters of the league’s initial 12 teams. Then, in March, those dozen clubs came together for a collective pre-season in San Diego.

“You got to see all the teams play against each other,” Bravo says. “That was an exciting time. It felt different than the other leagues we’d been a part of that had fallen short. We were young and just wanted to play soccer. This was an opportunity for us we didn’t think we’d have.”

“I remember in that first pre-season trying to take the ball away from Carlos Valderrama and not even getting close,” says Holocher. “He protected it and shielded it so well. You’re a young American coming out of college soccer and now you’re playing against guys you’ve seen on TV playing in the World Cup.”

With DC United’s trip to San Jose chosen as the league’s first-ever fixture, set to air live on ESPN and beamed to a global audience, the pre-match hype was inescapable.

“As we got closer to that first game, you could feel that something big was happening,” Holocher says. “In the week before the game, the media coverage ramped up. The night before, we stayed in a hotel then got a bus to the stadium. The bus had to crawl along really slowly to get by the thousands of fans outside the stadium. Only a couple of years earlier, we were playing in high school stadiums. It was bigger than we expected. It was dreamlike.”

The understandable nervousness only added to a complex emotional cocktail the San Jose players were experiencing. There was tension emanating from the already-fraught relationship between manager Laurie Calloway and star striker Eric Wynalda. “There was a time when it started to get a little out of control,” Bravo says. “The two of them really clashed throughout the first year.”

And tragedy struck when the wife of midfielder and future Chelsea director of football Michael Emenalo died while pregnant with their second child. “There was a lot of emotion around the lead-up to the game,” says Bravo. “We rallied around Mike. He was a great team-mate. It was a sad experience to go through that with him.”

If such difficulties hampered the Clash, the game’s venue stood firmly in their favour. San Jose’s Spartan Stadium was, by some measure, the smallest arena used by any MLS side in the league’s first season. With most clubs taking up residence in cavernous stadiums built for the NFL or college football, the intimacy of the 31,000-capacity reappropriated athletics venue generated a raucous and intimidating atmosphere.

“Spartan Stadium was a great venue,” Holocher says. “The crowd was right on top of you. You had maybe three yards of space off the sidelines before you were running into a concrete wall. It was like being a Spartan. It was a great environment to play in.”

“We had a distinct advantage playing at Spartan Stadium that first year,” adds Bravo. “I’ve played at big stadiums throughout my career, but that day, with the stadium filled to the gills the way it was, it was an unbelievable experience. It was so loud and right on top of you. For us, it was exciting. And we knew the dimensions of the tight field; we were prepared for that.

“But it didn’t make for a great soccer game.”

DC United ahead of that first MLS game
DC United ahead of that first MLS game

Not for the first hour, at least. After all the giddy build-up, San Jose and DC played out a tentative first half of few risks and fewer chances.

“The jitters, the nerves, the energy, the ups and downs of the game – all that can play into why it was kind of a stalemate,” suggests United’s Mike Huwiler. “And nobody wants to lose the first game. We didn’t go into it with a cautious style of play. We definitely were going at it. Bruce [Arena, DC’s manager] would always tell us to take it to them, set the tone, take control of the game. But everybody was getting their nerves out and feeling each other out.”

“I think it was a case of players getting used to each other,” says Holocher. “We’d only had maybe a month of full training. We were trying to be tight and organised at the back, then it opened up in the second half.”

After the restart, the game began to flow more smoothly. United’s star playmaker, the Bolivian Marco Echeverry, began to find space and create openings. “He was fun to play with,” Huwiler says. “He had a magnet for the ball on that left foot. He was quite the player – one of the best in MLS.”

READ: Arsenal man among seven average Premier League players who became MLS legends

And San Jose’s marquee man started to come to the fore. In the 68th minute, Wynalda struck a goal-bound free kick from 25 yards that DC goalkeeper Jeff Causey pushed on to the post. With 10 minutes remaining, Wynalda raced clear into the DC penalty area and flashed a low effort just wide.

“From our standpoint, the gameplan was to blunt Marco Etcheverry as much as possible and try and find Eric in transition, to get him into one-v-one situations where he could do his thing,” Bravo explains.

“Eric was definitely on our radar,” Huwiler says. “He was one of the best American players and one of the best players in MLS. He was talked about throughout training sessions before the game and in our preparation. A guy with the level of ability, you can only do so much.

“We did it for 80-something minutes, but that’s why he was that type of player. They find those special moments and they capitalise on them. That’s the difference between a good player and a great player.”

That special moment arrived in the 88th minute. Receiving the ball on the left side of the DC penalty area, Wynalda cut inside, beating defender Jeff Agoos, before curling a perfect shot past Causey and in at the far post. The first-ever MLS game might not have delivered a high-quality match, but it had delivered high drama and a last-gasp winner that would be named the Goal of the Year.

“There’s a little nutmeg on Jeff Agoos that Eric is very proud of,” Bravo says. “That was a typical Eric Wynalda move – drive you out to the left, then chop back inside and curl the ball with his right foot. I’ve seen him score that goal a thousand times.

“It was absolute relief. As the clock was winding down, all I could think was, ‘Please, please, please no 0-0 game.’ Because that’s all you’d ever heard about, that the problem with soccer was no scoring. To have the clock winding down to zero in the first game and to have two goose eggs up there was not a great advert for the future of the league. It was pure relief when the ball went into the back of the net.”

After the game, both teams were invited to a league-organised party at a local hotel. It was not an event to salute the winners nor to commiserate with the losing side, but rather an occasion for all to celebrate the history they had made together.

“A lot of us American players, we grew up watching the NASL,” Holocher concludes. “That was a league of Pele and Cruyff and some wonderful teams and players. We knew football could be huge in our country. It went through the desert, so to speak. But after the World Cup, we had this opportunity to create a new league and all of us guys were living our dreams.

“You look back and think about how you were part of a great journey.”