A 10-team organization with zero soccer-specific stadiums at the start, Major League Soccer now has 20 franchises, 13 of them playing in homes of their own, with payrolls that have tripled. As the league plays its 20th season, key figures recall the kickoff campaign
THE CAVEAT that came with the awarding of the 1994 World Cup seems quaint compared with recent allegations against FIFA: The U.S., a country that had tried and failed several times to support pro soccer, would have to start a first-division league of its own.
ALAN ROTHENBERG (U.S. Soccer Federation president, 1990 to '98; director, World Cup '94): I never had any intention of creating a pro league. I assumed if we had a successful World Cup and the excitement was clear, some entrepreneurs would say, "Time to have a pro league again." But no one was stepping forward. Then, at the time of the World Cup draw, in December 1993, FIFA told us, "You really gotta get going."
JONATHAN KRAFT (New England Revolution co-owner): None of [the Kraft family] really knew the sport; we weren't comfortable committing in the lead-up to the World Cup. But once we saw it in person, at a high level, we really took to the pageantry. This was the traditional U.S. sport on steroids.
CLARK HUNT (son of Columbus Crew and Dallas Burn owner Lamar Hunt): One of the first people Rothenberg called was my father. He'd been a great believer in this sport going back to the 1960s, and he was eager to jump back in—despite his business advisers' recommending he not.
ROTHENBERG: We hired the consultants who had done the economic consulting for NFL stadiums. We got them to show it was feasible to own a soccer-specific stadium in the 20,000-to-30,000-seat range.
CHARLIE STILLITANO (New York/New Jersey MetroStars vice president, 1994 to '99): Sunil [Gulati, then executive vice president and chief international officer for World Cup '94] and Rothenberg were bringing in all these investors, doing this dog-and-pony show, saying, "You can build a little stadium for $30 million."
HUNT: The original prospectus envisioned soccer-specific stadiums. It was the right idea, but the timing was wrong. Also, the dollar amount was wrong by a factor of 20.
KRAFT: Alan realized we weren't going to get 10 or 12 of those [stadiums] done up front, but he wanted to get the league off the ground.
MARLA MESSING (MLS senior vice president, 1994 to '97): Soccer-specific stadiums and single-entity [ownership of the league]—everything spun out from those two things.
ROTHENBERG: In pro wrestling, the league owns everything, and they sign up the wrestlers. But as far as a more traditional league, no [single-entity] had been done. The idea had been rattling around in my head since the 1970s, when I was a young lawyer for the NBA. Boy, it would've been smart if [the NBA] was originally structured as a single entity.
HUNT: The league was trying desperately to round up a group of owners. Other than Stuart Subotnick and John Kluge [who would own the MetroStars], the Krafts and my dad, they were really having a hard time getting others to commit.
IVAN GAZIDIS (MLS deputy commissioner, 1994 to 2009): The guy who had not yet committed, but if he committed everyone was in, was [entrepreneur] Phil Anschutz. Phil dialed into a conference call from an airplane and said he was in, but he wanted that guy who did the bicycle kick at the World Cup for his team in Colorado. So we had to get [U.S. defender] Marcelo Balboa. It was an incredible negotiation because Marcelo was doing great playing in Mexico. But I don't think Marcelo fully realized the leverage he had. The whole league depended on that signing.
STEVE SAMPSON (U.S. national team coach, 1995 to '98): It took Anschutz owning half the teams in the league in order to get MLS started. Where else in the world does that happen?
The league did sign Balboa, and Anschutz committed to owning five of the 10 teams in 1996. With ownership essentially set, and teams playing mainly in football stadiums, the league began to determine what it would present on the field.
GULATI: We had a number of think-tank meetings to talk about what we could do to make the game more interesting.
GAZIDIS: Some of the ideas sounded crazy, but it wasn't clear at that time whether there was enough of a core audience that loved soccer the way it was. I found the debate not a stupid one.
DOUG LOGAN (MLS commissioner, 1996 to '99): Everyone thinks we were the crazy Americans and FIFA was restraining us, but nothing can be further from the truth. FIFA thought this would be a great laboratory. If the experiments worked, wonderful—and if they didn't, they could blame it on us.
BRUCE ARENA (D.C. United coach, 1996 to '98): We were told that [MLS was] going to tell the linesmen not to call offside if a call was close. I remember asking, "What the hell did we get ourselves into?"
LOGAN: They had another proposal to make throw-ins kick-ins.
MESSING: I remember a meeting between Alan and [then FIFA general secretary] Sepp Blatter. Alan did his whole song and dance about bigger goals, which would lead to more scoring. And Blatter just looked at him like, Everyone across the world would have to buy new goals; do you realize what you are contemplating? He was just shaking his head.
KEVIN PAYNE (D.C. United president, 1994 to 2001, '04 to '12): I had a fundamentally different belief about why the league was going to work. I believed people wanted something that looked like what they saw in Europe or South America and from watching the World Cup. They didn't want some kind of crazy, Americanized version of it.
KRAFT: In retrospect, bigger goals would have been a huge mistake. [But] that's what happens when you have a bunch of people thinking about a sport, trying to introduce it to a country that at the time hadn't fully embraced it.
GAZIDIS: The issue wasn't really throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what stuck. It was, What is our potential audience? How far do we have to lean in to the American audience? In the end we came to a reasonable place, which was basically the traditional game with a couple of tweaks, including the shootout and the countdown clock.
But even those two rule changes were seen by many as radical departures: Instead of the time being kept on the field by the officials, each half ended with a buzzer; instead of counting up to 90 minutes, the clock counted down to zero. And there would be no ties; shootouts started from 35 yards out and players had five seconds to try to score.
LOGAN: FIFA was truly intrigued by the shootout.
ERIC WYNALDA (San Jose Clash forward, 1996 to '99): I hated it. You had the rest of the world going, What the hell are they doing? All of my friends in Germany would just laugh at us.
BRAD FRIEDEL (Crew goalkeeper, 1996 to '99): In one of my first games we drew 1--1, so I walked off the pitch and into the locker room. The equipment manager said, "What are you doing? You have a shootout; nobody told you?" I did know; I had just completely forgotten. I had to put my shirt back on.
WYNALDA: I actually got hurt! That was the injury that really knocked my career off the rails, when I ran into [Kansas City Wiz goalkeeper] Garth Lagerwey during the shootout.
FRIEDEL: I hated the countdown clock, too. Time should be kept by officials. It was very easy when you were winning by a goal to run the clock down.
GAZIDIS: Twenty years later a lot of things have changed, including the sophistication of the U.S. soccer audience. [Both innovations were abandoned after the '99 season.] When you talk about the ideas that were considered, they sound much wackier now than I think they were at the time.
The same can't be said for most of the initial logos, jerseys and team names.
LOGAN: I told MLS before they hired me that they'd made two immense mistakes: putting teams in Florida [Miami and Tampa Bay] and the preposterous arrogance of putting major in their name. How can you start something by saying you're major? Let somebody else come to that conclusion down the line. All of a sudden you've gotta live up to Major League Baseball.
MESSING: We did this [multimedia] show called MLS Unveiled, where we paraded out the uniforms. We had music and models, and we couldn't have been more excited. Then we got hammered by everyone.
PAYNE: Some of the worst uniforms in the history of sports.
HUNT: The league, in its infinite wisdom, allowed the apparel companies to have beyond-significant input in the naming and the branding of the teams.
RANDY BERNSTEIN (MLS chief marketing officer, 1995 to '99): Our senior executive team decided that there are no smarter, better people when it comes to branding and licensing and understanding the idiosyncrasies of certain markets—so we had Nike, Adidas and Reebok doing this.
PAYNE: They wanted looks that were reflective of skateboard culture. They were very taken with the idea that this was a counterculture sport, whereas my feeling was exactly the opposite—this was the most traditional of sports. People in the U.S. liked what they saw overseas.
ALEXI LALAS (Revolution defender, 1996 and '97): If you didn't come from a soccer culture and you were asked to brand a new sports team in the mid-'90s, of course you were going to go crazy. And they did.
PAYNE: I told them, "I don't get this [Tampa Bay] Mutiny. What's with the symbol?" They said, "Oh, it's a mutant bat." "O.K., what does that have to do with Mutiny?" "You know—Mutiny, mutant." I said, "Those are two different words with completely different meanings. They just share some letters. What are you doing?"
THOMAS RONGEN (Mutiny coach, 1996): What the f---? A mutant bat? What are we representing? Nike must have had a few guys smoking dope, coming up with the craziest things.
STEVE RALSTON (Mutiny midfielder, 1996 to 2001): The jersey material wasn't wicking away sweat. It was more like you were in a sweatsuit.
WYNALDA: Nike tried too hard. That away jersey from the Clash is just.... Someone threw up on a shirt.
PAYNE: One of the three principal colors for the Clash was "celery." Who gets emotional about celery?
HUNT: Beyond D.C. United, which was a very traditional soccer name, the rest of us were really scratching our heads.
The next trick: finding players to wear those uniforms. When team names were unveiled in October 1995, MLS had signed only 53 of its eventual 180 players.
J. TODD DURBIN (MLS director of player personnel, 1996 to '98): Sunil was primarily in charge of signing all the big, high-profile players—the [Marco] Etcheverrys, the [Carlos] Valderramas, the [Roberto] Donadonis.
GULATI: I went to four countries in one day and had meetings in all four. I had a morning meeting in Germany with Andy Brehme, who scored the winning goal for Germany in the 1990 World Cup. Then a meeting at the Milan airport with Donadoni. I flew from Milan to London, where I met with Bobby Houghton at Heathrow because Colorado was thinking about hiring him as the coach. Then I flew to New York, where I had dinner with [Rothenberg and Logan].
MESSING: We were trying to sign [goalkeeper] Jorge Campos, who was a huge star. Mexico was playing in San Diego, and we could not get to him.
ROTHENBERG: We met with him as surreptitiously as we could. We snuck off in the back hall in the stadium. It felt like we were doing a drug deal.
MESSING: The Mexican team comes out, and Sunil grabs Campos. He says, "I need to talk to you about MLS." We literally stopped him on his way to go play this game.
GULATI: It was semi-well-planned chaos. We would put up on a grease board what a team might look like, and that would include a couple of players from the U.S. national team, a couple of foreign players, their compensation and how it would add up to whatever the cap was in year one [$1.2 million].
ROTHENBERG: We wanted to place players in the appropriate place. So Campos—I don't think we would have been smart to send him to Columbus. So we brought him to L.A.
RONGEN: I knew there would be a Latin player designated for Tampa because we were the southernmost team. We weren't the first choice for [Colombia's] Valderrama, but we convinced Sunil this would be a good situation for us.
LALAS: I was one of the lucky guys who was able to say, "This is where I would like to go." I had this romantic view of Boston based on trips I had taken with the national team, where we would go out, and I just had so much fun. So I based my selection on the bars of the city.
ANDREW SHUE (L.A. Galaxy forward, 1996 and '97; Melrose Place actor, 1992 to '98): Mine was a player-marketing deal. I was a spokesperson for the World Cup and had gotten to know people like [MLS senior vice president of business affairs] Mark Abbott and Alan Rothenberg; I made it clear I wanted to play in MLS.
DURBIN: I faxed a contract to Andrew's house; three days later it was signed and mailed back to me. I open it up, and I'm looking at it, and I can't figure out what it is. I'm reading, BILL: WHAT ARE YOU DOING TONIGHT? ALISON: I'M NOT SURE. Why am I reading the script for Melrose Place? Then I turn it over, and on the other side is the contract. Apparently Andrew ran out of paper.
SHUE: I didn't actually tell anybody [at Melrose Place]. I didn't have an official conversation with [producer] Aaron Spelling: "Oh, by the way, I'm trying out for the Galaxy." They just kind of found out about it when there was something in the paper. They were a bit concerned. I came in limping one day and they realized, Wow, you could actually get hurt. What happens if you get a black eye? I told them, "We'd write it into the script."
DURBIN: Then there was a whole group of players that no one knew whether they were even going to make the team—the players at the bottom of the pay scale. We had a lot of all-nighters, working like crazy to get all these players signed and into the inaugural combine.
The MLS combine was the first time that many of the league's coaches had a chance to scout the players; based largely on those performances, MLS held its debut draft. The No. 1 pick, in a prearranged move between Hunt's Crew and the league, was St. Louis All-America striker Brian McBride. But then things got fuzzy.
CHRIS ARMAS (Galaxy midfielder, 1996 and '97): There were tons of players at the combine. I just wanted to play. Just show yourself and hope someone saw something he likes.
LOGAN: Teams could only get about three players [into the draft], and then nobody knew who these players were.
DURBIN: Said Fazlagi´c [who showed up univited] was eventually drafted by D.C. United [in the 11th round], and he actually played in the first MLS game. Here was a Bosnian refugee who showed up at the combine with a pair of boots and some photocopies of newspaper articles.
ARENA: The players we had obviously were not of the quality they needed to be. After four or five weeks I got rid of six or seven players and brought in guys I knew.
The roster changes continued, even as the league finally started playing in earnest.
MESSING: I was in charge of the opening game in San Jose [between the Clash and D.C. United]. That was a very big deal. We made this greeting card where you open it up and the thing says [in a recorded voice], Olé, olé, olé, olé.... Those are common now, but in 1996 they were superexpensive, and some people thought we were crazy. It really did get people excited, that silly invitation.
PHIL SCHOEN (MLS play-by-play announcer for ESPN, 1996 to 2000): The light poles at Spartan Stadium were situated between the stands and the field, and when the cameras panned you had this glare of silver coming back at you. We made them paint every single light green so it wouldn't interfere with the cameras, and that was the day before the opener. About three hours before kickoff they were still putting in plants and flowers. It seemed everything was going at light speed but in slow motion.
WYNALDA: I remember the bus ride over, how nervous my teammates were. Some of these guys had never been on TV before.
ARENA: That remains one of the worst games ever played in MLS.
SCHOEN: A lot of the MLS people were in the booth next to us, and you could see them crossing their fingers and biting their nails at the same time. It wasn't a very pretty match.
GAZIDIS: We were hoping for a great game—instead there's no goal. Our worst nightmare: a scoreless tie and heading toward a shootout. I'm bursting for the loo. I run inside to go....
BOB BRADLEY (D.C. United assistant coach, 1996 and '97): And then Eric [Wynalda] scores a very good goal, and everyone is happy. That's as ironic as it gets.
GAZIDIS: I'd been working on MLS for 18 months, waiting for this game. I'm in the urinal and there's a massive cheer from outside, and I realize somebody had scored. I ran outside and somebody threw their beer on me.
SCHOEN: With the guillotine hanging over our head, to see that buildup and to get it to Wynalda out on the left flank.... He fakes one way, cuts back to the other....
GULATI: If I remember correctly, nutmegging Jeff Agoos.
JEFF AGOOS (D.C. United defender, 1996 to 2000): I sort of saved the league from going under in the first year. A 0--0 tie in the first game wouldn't fly, so we had to do something.
SCHOEN: For as forgettable a game as it might have been, that goal was absolutely amazing.
WYNALDA: I was trying to pass it into the corner and keep it low, but I got under it. If I had aimed for where the ball ended up, I would've skied it.
SCHOEN: There have been better goals scored in Major League Soccer, but I don't know if there's been a bigger goal. If you were a soccer fan in this nation, you just exploded.
ROTHENBERG: I never loved Eric Wynalda more. On the national team he was not the easiest guy to deal with. But I loved him when he got that first goal.
ARENA: I think that [fear of a 0--0 draw] stems from a lack of maturity and understanding of the sport. In 2007, with the Red Bulls, we won a match 5--4, and the game was terrible. To this day, league officials and club owners still get concerned by 0--0 games. But that's life.
While the league's inaugural match provided a flash of on-field skill, the Galaxy's home opener against the MetroStars gave a glimpse of soccer's potential popularity.
COBI JONES (Galaxy midfielder, 1996 to 2007): We were told that we'd get like 15,000 to 20,000 people. I remember getting off the bus, and we were like, What's all the traffic? What's going on here?
SHUE: They delayed the game almost an hour because the walk-up crowd had been so big.
DURBIN: They were announcing each player as he ran out. "Starting center back Dan Calichman," and there was a smattering of applause. "Robin Fraser," a bit of applause. Then they announce "Jorge Campos," and the place just erupts.
DURBIN: Afterward Jorge says, "What'd you guys think about the game?" He didn't say it literally, but the basic message was: There were 69,000 people in the stadium and only 2,000 of them knew my teammates; the other 67,000 knew me. If you'd like me to return, I would like to have a Ferrari. [The team did buy him one that year.]
LALAS: It was very Wild West. We were just trying to figure it out as we went along. The new generation of American player, they don't have any understanding of what it was like back then, and I don't want them to.
WYNALDA: Most of those guys were making nothing! I remember going to Taco Bell after practice with [midfielder] Eddie Lewis, and he kind of looked at me like, "You're paying, right?" Every dollar counted.
LALAS: We didn't know whether the league was even going to survive. We didn't have training facilities. We were playing in football stadiums.
ARENA: We had a crown field in Tampa, where standing on one touchline and looking at the other side, you could only see a guy from his knees up.
LAGERWEY: In Kansas City the concept of a locker room did not exist in the sense of a private space for the team. Alan Mayer was my goalkeeper coach, and he was part-time. He'd sell insurance and train us when he could.
STILLITANO: I had to argue for an equipment manager. MLS wanted a brief on what the guy does. What he does? He does laundry. They said the team should do their own laundry. We have guys like Tab Ramos, Roberto Donadoni, Perter Vermes, Tony Meola, and I'm gonna ask them to do their own laundry?
DAVE DIR (Burn coach, 1996 to 2000): The first year we rented a high school field, and we had two trailers from the trailer park that we were using as a locker room. But by the time we finished, we moved up to a double-wide.
EDDIE POPE (D.C. United defender, 1996 to 2002): I was missing practices, flying back and forth, going to school [at North Carolina] to finish—or at least chip away at—my degree. It was important to me, and it wasn't like today. You couldn't take online classes. I'd come to D.C. on a Thursday or Friday and fly back out [to Chapel Hill] after the game.
LALAS: I put a band together in Boston and released an album a couple of years later. I was playing and doing all that stuff. I would do shows on a weeknight or after a game. That really wouldn't fly today.
GAZIDIS: [Burn defender] Leonel Álvarez would refuse to go on the pitch unless we gave him an envelope of cash—that's the way things happened in Colombia. It took him a couple of months to believe that payments went into his bank account.
MCBRIDE: Doctor Khumalo was a great person, but he must have had allergies; he played 10 games with a handkerchief in his left hand. He's running around, blowing his nose in his handkerchief and then puts it back. It blew me away.
PETER VERMES (MetroStars defender, 1996): We were doing a walkthrough [in practice], and at this time cellphones were starting to become common.
TAB RAMOS (MetroStars midfielder, 1996 to 2002): The coach asked [defender Nicola Caricola] to be in the wall for a free kick exercise. He didn't want to be in the wall; he had some phone calls to make.
VERMES: We're like, Nicko! And he's all like, 'Scusi!' He's on the phone to someone in Italy.
RAMOS: When you are in the wall, you are supposed to cover yourself. So he's covering himself with one hand, but he's got the cellphone in his other. Unbelievable.
LAGERWEY: After home wins I'd crowd surf. We won one game, I went behind the goal and a fan handed me a beer and I drank the whole thing. That's what we did back then. There were no fitness coaches. No nutrition coaches. We were winging it.
WYNALDA: After that first game there was this older gentleman—he was really drunk, and there wasn't a lot of security. As I was walking off the field, he gave me the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me. He said I reminded him of the old days, of George Best. I said, "You're coming with me." I brought him into the locker room, and I gave him a beer. [Coach Lawrie] Callaway walks into the room, and I hear this voice screaming, "You were a bum as a player, and you're a bum now, Callaway!" I look over and there's the guy sitting in my locker, yelling at my coach. I said, "All right, you've gotta go." I was like, "I'm sorry, he seemed like a nice guy."
RAMOS: They're all good memories. Back then they weren't. Those are just the normal steps of any professional league, which inevitably is not professional to start, because it can't help itself.
After 160 games and the playoffs, the moment had arrived: the first MLS Cup, between D.C. United and the Galaxy in Foxborough, Mass.
PAYNE: There was a full nor'easter. The day before the game I was sitting in the restaurant of my hotel looking out at the harbor, and there was a huge ocean-going freighter trying to come in. They had multiple tugs on it, and the wind was blowing so hard that they couldn't get to the dock. They tried for an hour and finally the boat just kind of turned around and pulled out.
POPE: We were getting reports that they didn't know if we were going to be able to play, then we'd get another report that we were going to.
PAYNE: They put tarps down overnight, but there was so much water on them that the crew almost couldn't get them up. They ended up dumping most of the water right in front of one of the goals; there was no way to control it.
BRADLEY: Guys come in from the warmup and they're soaking wet. They're already changing socks.
JONES: The ball was getting stuck all over the place. It was difficult to see because of the rain. You'd open your eyes and water is going in. I can clearly recall Chris Armas's great goal, his little dance through the middle.
ARMAS: It was almost ours. It's a credit to D.C. They clawed their way back in. We were up 2--0 and seemingly had the game.
AGOOS: Tony Sanneh and Shawn Medved scored—that got us to overtime.
ARMAS: Then it just slips right out from under us.
LOGAN: Regulation ends in a tie, it goes to overtime and there's a corner awarded to D.C. Marco [Etcheverry] places the ball in the water and delivers a cross—a perfectly placed kick in the pouring rain out of a puddle—to Eddie Pope's forehead.
POPE: It was really hard to miss. That's why I headed it so hard.
LOGAN: I go into the D.C. dressing room and I'm talking to Marco in Spanish. I said, "What you did was remarkable." And he says, "I had a coach who, at the end of practice every day, used to make us get buckets of water. He used to make us practice kicking balls out of puddles because, he said, someday you're going to win a championship if you can kick a ball out of that."
PAYNE: There was a general sense that we all witnessed something very special. That was one of the greatest championship games I'd ever seen, in any sport.
KRAFT: There were 36,000 people [at MLS Cup '96] in what was effectively worse than a blizzard. Out of this, all of us took away that there was an appetite for this game in this country.
LALAS: There aren't many things you can say you were there for from the start. Through all the stories and the craziness of it, there is a pride, I think, for everybody who was involved from the beginning.
"Some of the ideas sounded crazy," says Gazidis, "but it wasn't clear at that time whether there was enough of a core audience that loved soccer the way it was."
"Said Fazlagi played in the first game," Durbin says. "Here was a Bosnian refugee who showed up at the combine with a pair of boots and copies of newspaper articles."
Photograph by George Tiedemann For Sports Illustrated
OPENING QUESTIONS D.C. United keeper Jeff Causey made a save in San Jose during the first MLS game, at which everyone in the league wondered—and worried—that a scoreless draw might spell doom.
AFTER A FASHION The uniforms were a garish reflection of counterculture aspirations; Valderrama (right, in blue) starred for a Tampa team that was a misnomer.
SIMON BARNETT/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES
GALACTICO It took some backdoor maneuvering to bring Mexico's Campos to his desired destination—L.A.—where he helped attract a new generation of fans.
SIMON BRUTY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SODDEN IMPACT After a season that drew average crowds of 17,406, Jones (13) led L.A. to the first MLS Cup against Clint Peay and D.C., a wet and wild match that went into overtime.