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MLS icons fondly remember inaugural match, take pride in league’s growth 25 years later

On the 25th anniversary of the first-ever MLS match, players and coaches from both sides looked back on the start of the league.

In this Sept. 15, 1996, file photo, Los Angeles Galaxy's Mauricio Cienfuegos (10) pursues San Jose Clash's Eric Wynalda during the first half of an MLS soccer game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Before the first-ever Major League Soccer match on April 6, 1996, a group of Clash players went to a trendy San Jose restaurant for some pre-game bonding, and four of them threw up after the meal. But it had nothing to do with the food, recalled Wynalda. "It was just the nervousness," he said. “These were guys that had never played in a professional game." (Michael Caulfield/AP)

The day of the first MLS game, half of the home team got sick.

Before the match, the San Jose Clash went out to Il Fornaio, a local Italian spot, for lunch. Several hours later, four players threw up their lunch. Multiple players reported nausea, leading athletic trainers and coaches to wonder if they had suffered food poisoning.

It wasn’t the food. It was the nerves.

Forward Eric Wynalda represented a rare caste of players who had a wealth of professional and international experience before joining MLS — he’d played in several World Cups and in the German Bundesliga before returning home to the U.S. to join MLS for its inaugural season.

In the hours leading up to the inaugural match, the forward described himself as a “mother hen” attempting to calm his teammates.

“The hardest part was getting the guys to just focus on the game,” Wynalda said. “There’s guys that had never played in a professional game and were just starting to feel the magnitude of what was about to happen — that we were going to be playing a game that the world was going to be watching.”

On April 6, 1999, the inaugural match of Major League Soccer brought professional soccer back to the U.S. for the first time in a decade. The Clash — which have since become the San Jose Earthquakes — hosted D.C. United, with the home team clinching a 1-0 win.

Before coronavirus swept through the U.S., the 25th anniversary of MLS’ debut match would have been celebrated during a weekend full of events. But with the MLS season suspended due to the pandemic’s spread, the league partnered with ESPN to rebroadcast the pivotal game Monday and focused on a key moment from its history.

MLS icons Wynalda, Bruce Arena  and Jeff Agoos shared their memories of the game that started it all for the league.

For all of the importance of the match, anyone who was there will admit it wasn’t flawless.

“It was a terrible game,” said Arena, who coached the D.C. United at the time.

Agoos, who was a D.C. United defender and five-time MLS Cup champion, described the day as “slow and fast at the same time,” recalling the “disjointed” play on the field as both teams struggled to maintain or develop possession. Wynalda still thinks neither team began to play true, tactical soccer until after the first 20 or 30 minutes of the match, flying on instincts and adrenaline alone.

But no matter the quality of the play on the pitch, both teams knew as the final minutes ticked down the game couldn’t end without a goal.

Neither team wanted to lose. But Major League Soccer would lose, too, if the teams settled for a scoreless draw.

Those stakes made Wynalda’s 88th-minute goal even more thrilling.

“It just gave us such a positive push in the right direction,” Wynalda said. “It’s hard for me to talk about it sometimes because it sounds a little self-serving, but I’m just so glad that I scored and we finished that game 1-0. It didn’t give all the haters an opportunity to say, ‘Oh look, soccer is boring, 0-0.’”

Agoos defended Wynalda for the entire game, and up until the 88th minute, the San Jose forward felt he’d been almost entirely shut down. The critical moment of the game came down to a one-on-one battle.

Wynalda cut outside. Agoos, determined not to let Wynalda get off the shot, launched himself to block the strike he was sure was about to come off the forward’s left foot. Seeing the small gap between the defender’s legs, Wynalda made a last-second improvisation — he tucked the ball back inside, slipping it between Agoos’ feet before firing a ball that curled into the top right corner of the goal.

To this day, Agoos jokes he saved the league from any accusations of a “boring” start.

“I do remember at the end of the game, in the shower and coming out of our locker room, feeling  obviously disappointed in the result, but I felt like the worst outcome we could have had was a 0-0 game,” Agoos said. “Everybody had complained about soccer [being] boring, and what Eric did and what the team did, what the Clash was able to pull off … the fans — they wanted to come back, they wanted to see another game and that really created a lot of momentum.”

In the 25 years since that match, life in MLS has changed dramatically.

Arena, who now coaches the New England Revolution, sees that plainly every day. In the weeks leading up to his D.C. United side’s first match, the team didn’t have a set training facility. A spring snowfall in the final week of March forced his team to train in sloppy conditions.

When the game finally came around, the team didn’t even play in its typical uniform — players sported black shirts and red shorts with white socks, a completely new combination that they never wore again.

At the time, Arena said, the league was still disjointed. The history of the North American Soccer League — which crumbled in 1984 despite an initial surge of support and success — tinged players, coaches and fans alike with an additional edge of uncertainty.

“The old days of the NASL was always a shadow on our league in the start,” Arena said. “The league was created in a more responsible business manner and everyone was conscious of that, yet in all honesty none of us knew where we were going in the early going. It was very challenging. … To be honest, we were just scrambling.”

That first game changed a lot. Before the home opener, Wynalda and his San Jose teammates often went out to dinner at Tony & Alba’s, never worrying about being recognized by fans. Within the next six months, they couldn’t get through a meal at the restaurant without being approached.

But it didn’t change everything. Wynalda also remembers an exchange with a woman at the airport in the weeks after he was traded to the Chicago Fire.

The woman approached Wynalda and his teammates in their Chicago Fire gear and began thanking them effusively for everything they did for the community. Wynalda beamed at the compliments, amazed that the team already had such a strong following from local fans.

After several moments, teammate Chris Armas leaned over and quietly burst the bubble of the moment.

“She thinks you’re a firefighter,” he explained.

For the coaches and players who competed in the inaugural match, there’s a sense of pride that comes from seeing the stability and support MLS enjoys now.

Although all three agreed they feel a nostalgic longing for the electricity of the now-defunct penalty shoot-out, there’s plenty they don’t miss — playing on football fields with the end zones still half-painted, navigating the early years of uncertainty and turmoil as the league found its way.

Agoos and Wynalda often field questions on whether the players of the inaugural season offered the same talent and ability as players of the modern MLS caliber. With top-shelf names Carlos Vela, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney entering the league recently, both said the quality of play on the pitch has grown visibly since that first game.

But to both former players, the greatest difference between the league of past and present is the quality of resources available.

“You have to have a really nice canvas for you to paint on,” Agoos said. “I think that’s what we’re seeing here today.”

Wynalda still remembers the inaugural game as one of the highlights of his career. He said he recalls fine details of that week — the club painting the light poles green during practice to fit broadcast requirements, the night-before jitters — as if they were yesterday.

As he rewatched the game on its anniversary Monday, Wynalda had the chance to show it to his children, the oldest of whom is 15.

For Wynalda, the anniversary offers a moment to reflect on what he and fellow MLS players built during the past 25 years.

“All we wanted in our coming back was to see a league of our own, to see that opportunity for our country to enjoy everything that this league has become now,” Wynalda said. “It’s just the reality of where we are now and how far we’ve come. I would be blessed to be a part of this league now just as I was then.”

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