The Birth of a League

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

Reporting by Grant Wahl and Brian Straus
Compiled by Alexander Abnos
Videos courtesy of Major League Soccer

The caveat that came with the awarding of the 1994 World Cup seems downright quaint compared with recent allegations against FIFA: The United States, a country that had tried and failed several times to support professional soccer, would have to start a league of its own.

Alan Rothenberg (President, USSF; Director, ‘94 World Cup): Honestly, 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 soccer 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 (Co-owner, New England Revolution): 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 see it in person, at a high level, we really took to the pageantry. This was the traditional U.S. sports on steroids.

Clark Hunt (Owner, Columbus Crew): One of the first people Rothenberg called was my father, [Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt]. He’d been a great believer in this sport going back to the 1960s and ‘70s, and he was eager to jump back in—despite his business advisors recommending that he not.

Kraft: There was no formal document. It was just guys committing to be involved, and when the World Cup ended we decided it was something we wanted to do.

Rothenberg: I called one of the partners at my law firm who would be interested in possibly doing this. [Current MLS president] Mark Abbott happened to be in that partner’s office when the call came in, and he said, “I’d like to do that.” Talk about being in the right place at the right time

Kraft: Alan is the one who provided the gravitas and the energy to convene the potential owners. Sunil had the connection with the U.S. players and international soccer. And Mark was the lawyer-business person who put it all together.

rothenbErg: We hired a consultant who had done the economic consulting for the NFL stadiums—we got them to do a package for us, to show it was feasible to own a soccer-specific stadium in the 20-30,000 seat range.

The thousands who gathered in Spartan Stadium in San Jose, Calif., were clearly prepared to have a ball at the inaugural game of Major League Soccer between the San Jose Clash and D.C. United on April 6, 1996.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Charlie Stillitano (Vice President and General Manager, NY/NJ MetroStars): Sunil 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 gonna get 10 or 12 of those done up front, and he wanted to get the league off the ground.

Marla Messing (MLS Senior Vice President, 1994–1997): 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.

hunt: The single-entity structure was a big selling point for us and, frankly, everyone else who came in after the fact.

rothenberg: [Single-entity ownership] had been rattling around in my head since the 1970’s when I was a young lawyer for the NBA. I remember kicking it around with some other lawyers, saying, “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 VP): 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 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.

The league did sign Balboa, and Anschutz was in. The league would need his presence to survive.

Messing: We still had two units to sell. A family called in and agreed to buy either a unit or the last two units. There was absolute euphoria in the office; I think Alan was smoking a cigar. It was awesome. Two days later they pulled out.

kevin PAYNE (President, General Manager, D.C. United): We needed $50 million. Everybody’s initial commitment was $5 million and we were stuck at $40 million, so we had a meeting. We literally said, “We’re not going to be able to do it. We can’t go forward. We don’t have enough money.” I said to Stu Subotnick, “You have indicated that you’d like at some point to own a second team. How about you buy an option for a second team, and $5 million as a pledge? He thought about it for a minute and said, “I’ll do that.” Then he said, “Phil Anschutz will do that, too.” Either Mark [Abbott] or Clark [Hunt] turned to me and said, “Congratulations, you just saved the league.”

With ownership set, the nascent league began determining just what things would look like on the field. Despite the World Cup’s success, soccer was still an outsider’s sport in the U.S. To counter that, the league considered some drastic measures.

sunil Gulati (MLS Deputy Commissioner, 1994–1999; Current U.S. Soccer President): We had a number of think tank meetings to talk about what we could do to make the game more interesting.

gazidis: Of course 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 (Commissioner, MLS, ‘96–99): Everyone thinks we were the crazy Americans and FIFA was the restraining reins, 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 (Coach, D.C. United): My first meeting in the league was at the opening scouting combine. We were told that MLS had requested from FIFA that we could be experimental. Then we were told that they were 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 Sepp Blatter. Alan did his whole song and dance about bigger goals, which would lead to more scoring. Human beings—goalkeepers in particular—had gotten bigger and bigger over the years, making scoring much harder. And Sepp 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.

Fans in the United States had a league to embrace and call their own following the 1994 World Cup, with FIFA stipulating the creation of a pro league after awarding the USA hosting rights for its showcase event.
Craig Fujii/AP

kraft: If the goal was a foot larger on either side, visually I don’t think you’d know. And you’d get people taking shots they otherwise wouldn’t, goalies making more interesting and athletic saves.

payne: 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. I want to be clear so it doesn’t get written that I am a proponent of that, but it was definitely discussed. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of people sitting around a table, 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 quite a philosophical question: What is our potential audience? How far do we have to lean into the American audience? In the end we came to a reasonable place, which was basically the traditional game with a couple tweaks, including the shootout and the countdown clock.

But even those two rule changes were seen by players and aficionados as radical departures: Instead of the official time being kept on the field by the officials, each half ended with a buzzer. Instead of counting up to 90, the clock counted down to zero. And there would be no ties; shootouts started from 35 yards out and players had five seconds to dribble and shoot.

logan: FIFA were truly intrigued by the shootout. To them, had that worked, it might have worked well.

kraft: The shootout was a mistake. It was exciting but it was a mistake.

eric wynalda (Forward, San Jose Clash): 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 (Goalkeeper, Columbus Crew): In one of my first games we drew 1-1, so I walked off the pitch and into the locker room. The equipment manager came in and 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 to go back out.

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 count-down clock too. Time should be kept on the field by officials. It was very easy when you were winning by one goal to run the clock down in MLS.

gazidis: Twenty years later, a lot of things have changed, including the sophistication of the U.S. soccer audience. When you talk about the ideas that were considered, they sound much wackier now than I think they were at the time.

At “MLS Unveiled,” the original 10 franchises showcased their inaugural uniforms, which included just about every color on the palette.
Marty Lederhandler/AP

The same can’t be said for most of the league’s debut logos, jerseys and team names.

logan: I told them before they hired me that they’d made two immense mistakes: Putting teams in Florida 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.

Rothenberg: When we came up with our name, MLB sent a cease and desist letter. Then I think they realized they were overreaching by a bit, and it died right there.

randy bernstein (Executive VP, MLS): If they had lost that lawsuit it would have been detrimental to their exclusivity on their licenses. So yeah, that went away very quickly.

messing: We did this whole 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 came out of that early exercise.

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, which was very unusual.

bernstein: 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 United States liked what they saw overseas.

gazidis: When I was a kid I was imbued with the soccer culture of England and Europe. Obviously this stuff looked very strange to me. But what did I know? I’d only lived in the U.S. for a year or so. I didn’t know enough about the audience and what was going to appeal to them.

alexi lalas (Defender, New England Revolution): 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—they went crazy.

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.” “Okay, 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 (Coach, Tampa Bay Mutiny): 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 (Midfielder, Tampa Bay Mutiny): 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 [San Jose] 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?

GIOVANNI SAVARESE (Forward, NY/NJ MetroStars): The Galaxy’s shirts—you could count the colors that weren’t in there easier than the ones that were there.

hunt: In Kansas City, we had a couple problems with the Wiz. There was actually a company in a different industry that had that name, and it wasn’t long before they sued us to protect their trademark. (The Wiz changed their name to Wizards after the inaugural season for this reason.)

garth lagerwey (Goalkeeper, Kansas City Wiz): I was the guy who had braids and colored rubber bands to match all the colors in that [Wiz] logo. For me, it worked out very, very well. It gave me lots of ways to be creative with my horrible hairstyle.

payne: The league office ran with a lot of this stuff and by the time it was shown to the owners it was almost too late.

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 (mostly) ugly uniforms. When team names were unveiled in October 1995, the league had signed only 53 of its eventual 180 players.

j. todd durbin (MLS Director of Player Personnel): It’s June, July 1995, and we know we’re going to launch in March. Not only do we not have any players, we don’t have any coaches, any club presidents. . . . Sunil was primarily in charge of signing all the big high-profile players—the Etcheverrys, the Valderramas, the Donadonis.

gulati: I went to four countries in one day and had meetings in all four of them. 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 [Italian star] Roberto 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 Alan Rothenberg and Doug Logan.

messing: We were trying to sign Jorge Campos, who was a huge star at the time. Mexico’s national team 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 in San Diego. 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 foreign players, and the compensation level of those players, and how it would add up to whatever the cap was in year one—I think it was $1.1 million. We did that a number of times, seeing what could the league look like.

rothenberg: We wanted to place players in the appropriate place. So Jorge Campos—I don’t think we would have been smart to spend money on him and 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 Carlos Valderrama], but we convinced Sunil that 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.

Melrose Place actor Andrew Shue was on the Los Angeles Galaxy’s inaugural team as part of a player-marketing deal. He had one assist in five appearances off the bench.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

andrew shue (Forward, Los Angeles Galaxy; Actor, Melrose Place): Mine was a player-marketing deal. I was a spokesperson for the World Cup and had gotten to know people like Mark Abbott and Alan Rothenberg; I made it clear that 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 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.”

Shue didn’t tell his “Melrose Place” producers he was playing for the Galaxy. “They just kind of found out about it when there was something in the paper,” he said.
Courtesy Everett Collection

durbin: Then there was a whole group of players that no one even knew whether they were even going to make the team—the players at the bottom of the pay scale. Those were the guys I was signing. Dave Dir had gone out and scouted the domestic player pool pretty aggressively.

dave dir (Coach, Dallas Burn): We had guys in Europe, the indoor leagues, outdoor leagues, Canadian leagues. I traveled 51 weeks that year and I watched everybody. I looked under rocks. It really was a comical process.

RALSTON: I didn’t have an agent. There was no negotiating. A guy from [Tampa’s] front office picked me up and I signed my contract on the hood of his car.

durbin: We had a lot of all-nighters, working like crazy to get all these players signed and into the combine.

The MLS combine was the first time that many of the league’s coaches had a chance to scout the players who would make up the bulk of their inaugural rosters.

rongen: Most of the coaches were overwhelmed after two days. They looked at 80 players and just said, “What’s going on?”

Chris Armas (Midfielder, Los Angeles Galaxy): There were tons of players at the combine. I just wanted to play. Just show yourself and hope someone saw something.

gazidis: On Day 1 a guy comes up to Sunil Gulati and me and says, “I have a player.” We said, “No, no—invitation only.” He said, “Look, this guy is a refugee from Bosnia. He’s brought his own boots and he used to play with the Bosnian national team.” The guy handed us a picture of the player in a Bosnian newspaper. He had this ratty old pair of boots. We looked at each other and said, “OK, we’ll see what we can do.” His name was Said Fazlagić.

Based largely on those combine performances, MLS held its first player draft. The first pick, in a prearranged move between Hunt’s Crew and the league, was American striker Brian McBride. But thereafter, things got fuzzy.

logan: Teams could only get about three players [into the draft] and then nobody knew who these players were.

durbin: Fazlagić 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 a friend and some photocopied newspaper articles.

wynalda: [Clash general manager] Peter Bridgewater was adamant about drafting a Mexican player, so he selected a kid who’d been in a Coca-Cola commercial. That was the reason he made our team. . . . Actually he didn’t make the team. He obviously wasn’t good enough when he got there.

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.

SAVARESE: A couple guys from the starting lineup ended up getting cut after the first week. It was the same situation with other teams. You always had guys trying out from week to week. It was a constant battle.

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], “Ole, ole, ole, ole. . . .” Those are common now, but back in 1996 they were super expensive, and some people thought we were crazy. It really did get people excited, that silly invitation.

From left, former FIFA president Joao Havelange, former U.S. Soccer president Alan Rothenberg and inaugural MLS commissioner Doug Logan stand together at the first MLS game at Spartan Stadium.
George Tiedemann for Sports Illustrated

logan: We got [then-FIFA president] João Havelange to come to the first game. Two weeks beforehand, Marla says, “He’s landing at LAX.” I don’t know what possessed me to ask, “So what’s he flying on from LAX to San Jose? She goes to her paper and she says Southwest. I had this picture of Havelange boarding—seat number 47, you know? She looks at me and she goes “Oh s---!” We found somebody to donate a private plane to pick him up instead of flying him on Southwest.

phil sChoen (Broadcaster, ESPN): The light poles at Spartan Stadium were situated between the stands and the field and when the cameras panned left and right 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.

sChoen: About three hours before kickoff they were still putting in plants and flowers, just beautifying things. It was a last-minute rush and it seemed everything was going at light speed but in slow motion.

Opening ceremonies honored all 10 teams at the first MLS match between the San Jose Clash and D.C. United at a packed Spartan Stadium.
George Tiedemann for Sports Illustrated

wynalda: I remember pretty much everything—the bus ride over, how nervous my teammates were. Some of these guys had never been on TV before. They were nervous, and, if you watch that game, that’s how it started.

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.

gulati: We were just hoping for something other than a 0-0 draw—all the naysayers’ stuff about watching paint dry.

gazidis: We were hoping for a great game—instead there’s no goal. Our worst nightmare: a tie and heading toward a shootout. I’m bursting for the loo. I run inside to go to the loo. . . .

bob bradley (Assistant Coach, D.C. United): And then Eric [Wynalda] scores a very good goal, and everyone is happy after the first game. That’s as ironic as it gets.

Eric Wynalda’s shot in the 87th minute found the back of the net in MLS’s inaugural match, giving the San Jose Clash a 1-0 win over D.C. United.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

gazidis: I’d been working on MLS for 18 months, signing players, 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 to see everybody going crazy 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.

A pair of U.S. men’s national team players went head to head, as Eric Wynalda (right) took on Jeff Agoos in MLS’s inaugural match.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Jeff Agoos (Defender, D.C. United): 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: And then even more slowly in my head, he strikes the ball and it’s curling toward that corner.

wynalda: In preseason we played against D.C. and there was a similar play: I cut in at the same exact spot and [Jeff] Causey was in goal. I thought, “Oh, I can get him near post.” I hooked it and it went out for a goal kick. Causey looked back at me like, “Wait, you tried to go near post on me?” At that moment in the opener when the ball went through Agoos’s legs and I realized where I was, I remembered the preseason, and if you watch it, I give a little bit of a lean to my left, to make it look as if I’m going to do the same damn thing. When I watch the tape, I still have to believe that Causey thought, for that split second, that I was going to do the same thing I did in San Diego.

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.

Clash mob: His San Jose teammates thronged Eric Wynalda after his game-winning goal against D.C. United, which gave the club the first victory in MLS history.
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

sChoen: There have been better goals scored in Major League Soccer, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger goal. It wasn’t a little tap in. It didn’t come off someone’s knee. It wasn’t a penalty kick and—thank heavens—it wasn’t in a shootout. It was a world-class shot to decide the very first game and it came at the very end. The drama, the release, the 10 years of pent-up misery—if you were a soccer fan in this nation, you just exploded. I think we felt it in the booth just as much as everyone else did.

gulati: Thank God for Eric Wynalda.

rothenberg: I never loved Eric Wynalda more. Tell him that! On the national team he was not the easiest guy to deal with. But I loved him when he got that first goal.

sChoen: I’ve covered World Cups, Champions League, Copa América, the Clásico. But I don’t know if there’s one goal that I was so glad to witness. To be there in person at such a momentous occasion and to have a great goal decide it—that’s got to be right up there at the top of my experiences.

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, we league officials and club owners still get concerned by 0-0 games. But, that’s life. That’s what the sport is.

payne: I remember talking to the players about not being remembered as the team that lost the first game but being remembered as the team that [would win] the first championship. We used that first loss to focus the guys on doing whatever it took to win the first championship.

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 (Midfielder, Los Angeles Galaxy): We were told that we’d get like 15,000 to 20,000 people. I remember getting off of 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.

Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos and the Los Angeles Galaxy celebrated in front of more than 69,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in a match against the NY/NJ MetroStars on April 13, 1996.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Peter Vermes (Defender, NY/NJ MetroStars): They had cornered off one of the sections behind the goal because they were going to shoot off fireworks at the end.

Jones: As the game was about to start, I looked back at Campos. All of a sudden, the tarp got torn down. The fans had said, Screw this.

durbin: They were announcing each player as he ran out. “Starting center back Dan Calichmann,” and there was a smattering of applause. “Robin Fraser,” a bit of applause. Then they announce Jorge Campos and the place just erupts.

jones: People forget that after we won, people rushed the field—enough where Campos was running toward the exit. He got escorted out.

durbin: After the weekend 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.

mark abbott (MLS’s First Employee; Architect of League’s Business Plan): I called up Beverly Hills Ferrari and said, “I’ve been asked to buy a Ferrari on behalf of Jorge Campos. I’ve never bought a Ferrari. I need to do some research about it.” They said, “You don’t need to do research. We tell you the price and you pay it.” “That may be, but my guess is there’s some negotiation in this.” And they said, “Not really.” I said, “Look, I understand you say you’re not negotiating the prices but there are other Ferrari dealers we could go to.” He said, “You seem like a nice guy, so this is what I’m prepared to do. I’m going to throw in the AM/FM radio for free.” I was widely teased when I got back to the office.

Los Angeles Galaxy goalkeeper Jorge Campos leaps to make a save against the Tampa Bay Mutiny. He was a sought-after commodity by MLS executives as the league attempted to appeal to the Mexican fan base.
Kevork Djansezian/AP

durbin: That was my first lesson into the importance of leverage in a negotiation.

lalas: It was very Wild West, on and off the field. We were just trying to figure it out as we went along. Today’s 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 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: The league didn’t know what a proper field looked like. 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. In San Jose and Columbus they had a small little fields.

friedel: If you scored a goal, it was really easy to defend the game out because you never had to run more than 10 or 15 yards to close anyone down.

lagerwey: In Kansas City, the concept of a locker room did not exist in the sense of a private space for the team, let alone a training facility or a field. Alan Mayer was my goalkeeper coach, and he was part time. He’d sell insurance and then come train us when he could—and that was probably a better situation than a lot of places.

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, Peter Vermes, Tony Meola, and I’m gonna ask them to do their own laundry? After the first training, Donadoni said, “It was like when I go play with my friends on Sunday at the park.”

dir: 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.

tony meola (Goalkeeper, NY/NJ MetroStars): Donadoni and Stillitano, they wanted us to learn professionalism. The problem was that we were forgetting about the soccer part.

SAVARESE: Donadoni was such a perfectionist, eating the right things all the time. He used to tell the guys, “Do you see your plate? That’s why you’re a Volkswagen. Do you see my plate? That’s why I’m a Ferrari.”

Jeff Bradley (Director of Public Relations, NY/NJ MetroStars): We would dress in these double-breasted Enrico Coveri suits—they might have been three-piece, and they were linen. We were the only team in the league with a suit sponsor and Charlie made a rule that the whole team would dress in suits on the road. We went to Columbus and people are looking at us—These guys must be really important. Then we went outside and piled into a school bus. All the opposing team could budget for us was a school bus.

eddie pope (Defender, D.C. United): I was missing practices, flying back and forth, going to school 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 after the game.

lalas: I put a band together in Boston and released an album a couple 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.

U.S. men’s national team defender Alexi Lalas starred for the New England Revolution in MLS’s inaugural season.
Frenk O’Brien/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

gazidis: [Dallas 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 months to believe that payments went into his bank account.

RALSTON: The visitors’ hotel [in Tampa] was directly across the street from a strip club. It was kind of smart—hopefully the opposing team was hanging out and going there all night.

Brian McBride (Forward, Columbus Crew): 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, blows his nose in his handkerchief and then puts it back. It blew me away.

lalas: I remember getting a red card and still playing the next game. We were on a West Coast swing, doing L.A. then San Jose.

Richard Motzkin (Player Agent): He got it for some stupid thing, I can’t remember—kicking the ball into the stands or something.

lalas: The wording was something like “temporarily suspended pending further review.” Which conveniently enabled me to play in the next game. There were business considerations.

Alexi Lalas, one of a handful of players who determined where they’d be playing, said he chose New England because of his fun times out in Boston while traveling with the national team.
Patrick Tehan/San Jose Mercury News/AP

vermes: We were doing a walkthrough [in practice], and at this time cell phones were starting to become common.

tab ramos (Midfielder, NY/NJ MetroStars): 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, “Nico!” And he’s all like, “ ‘Scuse!” He’s on the phone speaking 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 cell phone 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. There were no nutrition coaches. We were winging it.

wynalda: After that first game there was this older gentleman—he was really, really drunk, and there wasn’t a lot of security. As I was walking off the field he gave me the greatest compliment that anyone has ever given me. In that drunken stupor, he said I reminded him of the old days, of George Best. I grabbed him and said, “You’re coming with me.” I used him as an excuse to get away from the field, to get to my locker and celebrate. I brought him into the locker room as if he was my long lost uncle and I gave him a beer. [Coach Laurie] Calloway walks into the room and I hear this voice screaming, “You were a bum as a player and you’re a bum now, Calloway!” I look over and there’s the guy sitting in my locker, yelling at my coach. I said, “All right, that’s it. You’ve gotta go.” Calloway asked me, “Who is that, your Dad?” 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: MLS’s first championship game, between a D.C. United team that looked far different from the one that opened the season, and the Los Angeles Galaxy, which came in as a heavy favorite.

logan: The final was a dream, just a wonderful exclamation point on the season.

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 it, then we’d get another report that we were going to play it. I just need to have my brain ready; it was a lot of confusion, back and forth.

agoos: I couldn’t believe they played the final. But it was Sunday—you can’t really postpone until the next day. Nobody’s going to come to a final on a Monday.

A torrential downpour made for a sloshy field at Foxboro Stadium as D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy played for the first MLS Cup championship.
George Tiedemann for Sports Illustrated

jones: It was ridiculous to play in those conditions. But that’s the nature of our sport, you don’t postpone.

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.

bob bradley: Guys come in from the warmup and they are 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.

Galaxy midfielder Cobi Jones (13) fought off a pair of D.C. United players and a waterlogged field in the 1996 MLS Cup.
Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated

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: Then Tony Sanneh and Shawn Medved scored. Those players stepped up and delivered—that’s what 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. By this time Sunil and I are on the field, and I see this from 40 feet away. Marco gets the ball, goes over to the corner, and it’s a puddle. He places the ball in the water. And he 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.

armas: The guys were distraught [in the locker room]. You could hear a pin drop. It was such a strange feeling. How did that happen? What could I have done differently? What can you do?

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 go get buckets of water. He had a little indentation in the ground and 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.” He may have been lying to me, but that was the story of the night.

John Harkes (center) and D.C. United celebrated their 1996 MLS Cup triumph after beating the Los Angeles Galaxy in thrilling fashion. Eddie Pope’s extra-time header capped a come-from-behind, 3-2 victory.
Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated

payne: There was a general sense of, “Wow,” that we all witnessed something very special. It created such an extraordinary and dramatic story at the end of a successful first year, everybody walked away over the moon. That was one of the greatest championship games I’d ever seen, in any sport.

pope: When we got back, at the airport there were a large number of people waiting for us. It was like playing in another country.

kraft: There were 36,000-odd people in what was effectively worse than a blizzard—it was like 35 degrees with freezing wind and a driving rain. Out of this, all of us took away that there was an appetite for this game in this country.

lalas: We were doing something new, and we can look back and be proud of the fact that we made a decision to be a part of it. Because we are still here, and MLS is going to survive well beyond our lifetimes. 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.