'It was madness, complete chaos' – How painted poles, pregame vomiting and a timely goal defined first-ever MLS match

As the league enters its 25th season, those involved in the debut recall everything that led up to the start of something bigger than they imagined

On April 4, 1996, a lot of people’s hopes and dreams were on the line. It was the day of American soccer’s last great chance, the debut of a new league. Over a decade after the death of the NASL and nearly two years after a highly-successful World Cup on home soil, many saw this as American soccer’s best hope of surviving.

But for those gathered in Spartan Stadium for the first match in Major League Soccer’s history, the focus wasn’t on the missteps of the past or the hopes for a better future. There were no concerns about ticket sales or TV contracts or endorsements. On that day, as the match wore on, all of those hopes and dreams were funneled into one, singular thought: Please, someone score a damn goal.

As MLS now embarks on its 25th season, it’s easy to forget just how wild those early days were. Much was being done on the fly and much of it was being done with blind hope. There was no real gameplan for this and, when the San Jose Clash hosted D.C. United in the league’s first-ever match, everything was being put to the test. There are no second chances to make a first impression, goes the famous saying, and this was the league’s only chance at getting this right.

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If you ask many of those involved, they’d say the game was, by and large, a mess. It was a game that lacked quality and chemistry in a stadium that looks nothing like the fine-tuned soccer-specific homes we see today. But it was a game that kickstarted a league, one that showed that there may just be hope after all.

“Leading up to it was just madness, complete chaos,” said longtime U.S. men’s national team star Eric Wynalda, who was on the field for the San Jose Clash on that day. “It was just… let’s get to the finish line. Let’s get this game started, let’s get this league started, so we can just focus on the future. But everything leading up to that was really tough.

“It was just nervousness. It was guys that had never played in a professional game or 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.”

MLS’ goal was to turn that game into a spectacle but, for those involved in the lead-up, it was anything but.

On the D.C. United side, half of the team spoke little English and, after an abbreviated pre-season, Bruce Arena’s side had little chemistry. John Harkes, one of the team’s stars, wasn’t fit, fresh off a stint with Derby County, while Arena says that another of the team’s key players, Marco Etcheverry, came to camp 15 pounds overweight. Arena himself admits that he wasn’t fully prepared for what was being asked of him, as he juggled responsibilities of running D.C. United and the U.S. Under-23s.

As for the Clash, the pre-game jitters turned out to be something much, much bigger. The team ate as a group at a local restaurant called Il Fornaio, Wynalda remembers, and, by the time the meal was done, four players had thrown up. It wasn’t food poisoning; it was a legitimate fear of what was to come. 

And that says nothing of what went on behind the scenes. The facilities at Spartan Field, built in 1933, weren’t ready for an event like this. The field was barely wide enough to meet regulations and the locker room was a little trailer just off to the side of the stadium. In the lead up to the match, it was determined that D.C. United couldn’t wear their preferred all-black uniforms, being forced to wear red shorts to appease higher-ups who were worried about differentiating the two teams.  A giant MLS logo painted at midfield had to be removed just a day prior to kickoff after referee Esse Baharmast made it known that FIFA’s rules banned such a marking during his pre-game inspection. 

“I think the hardest part for players in the days – two days prior and maybe even the last time that we stepped on the field prior to the game the day before – was just the amount of people, just running around and the anxiety that people were having,” Wynalda said. “They had to paint the poles, the light poles, green, so they didn’t stand out for television reasons. I watched [producer] Michael Cohen get in a pretty good argument with Peter Bridgewater, our then-president and GM, and this was going on during our practice. So the hardest part was getting the guys to just focus on the game.”

Then-D.C. United defender Jeff Agoos added: “It was probably the field more than anything. We obviously played the Clash on the sixth of April and that was our first official match. We had had a long pre-season, a four-and-a-half-week pre-season where I think when we started, all 10 teams were in the same place in southern California. So it was an interesting way to start the league. Obviously the kickoff against San Jose was a great way, you know, to push the league forward. But I’ll tell you, that field was a really challenging place to play.”

And those challenges manifested itself in what was an ugly, ugly game of soccer. The game’s first shot, a fifth-minute effort from San Jose’s Ben Iroh, went sailing over the goal. It took until the 18th minute for a shot on target thanks to Raul Diaz Arce, who collected the league’s first yellow card 13 minutes prior. The two teams very much looked like a group of players that had just been thrown together because, by and large, they were. A handful of D.C. United players wouldn’t be on the roster just several weeks later as Arena admitted that his side was ill-prepared.

As the game wore on, the nerves set in. For years, soccer had been maligned by the American public. It was too boring, too low scoring. There wasn’t enough action, many believed, to keep the American fan involved. Save for a few NASL seasons headlined by the arrival of Pele, the sport had never made a dent in American culture. A scoreless draw in MLS’ opening match would be a bad omen, valuable ammunition for those that had no desire to see this sport succeed.

The game wouldn’t finish scoreless, though. In the 88th minute, Wynalda broke the deadlock, giving the league the shot in the arm it so desperately needed. It was a fantastic finish as the U.S. men’s national team star received the ball just outside of the box and darted in before cutting back and finding the far corner with a curled shot. It was the dream scenario for MLS: the league’s first match had been won in dramatic fashion thanks to a goal from an American World Cup hero.

“It’s hard for me to talk about it sometimes because it sounds a little self-serving,” Wynalda said, “but I’m just so glad that I scored and we finished that game 1-0 and it didn’t give all the haters that opportunity to say like, ‘Soccer’s boring, 0-0’. It was a wonderful moment, and it really was the kickstart.”

It was a goal so good, so important, that even those on the other side appreciated it for what it was: the start of a new era of American soccer.

“It’s a memory I have fondness for in a certain way,” Agoos said, “as a defender and having to face Eric Wynalda on the 88th or 89th minute in a one-on-one, is not an ideal place to be. Nonetheless, I give Eric an incredible amount of credit for what he was able to accomplish. 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, and that everybody had complained about soccer is boring, and that 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 we really created a lot of momentum.”

Arena added: “I hate to say this to Eric, but the goal he scored was pretty damn good. And afterwards, I do remember [MLS commissioner] Doug Logan and [deputy commissioner] Sunil Gulati saying to us, ‘We’re happy there was a goal scored, we had to have a goal that day’, and they, they certainly got a great goal by Eric.”

Hindsight tells us that Wynalda’s goal didn’t guarantee much of anything. It reminds us that MLS battled for another 10-15 years before finding any sort of stability and is still battling for relevance in respect to the global game. We all know that the league’s early years were difficult and that it took several last-gasp decisions to save the American game in the years since Wynalda’s big moment.

But, in other ways, it does all come full circle. Some of that game’s stars, players like Wynalda, Agoos, Harkes and Etcheverry, went on to become legends. Some of the game’s coaches, Arena and then-assistant Bob Bradley, went on to become icons of the American game. In the stands that day, taking in MLS’ first-ever match, was a 13-year-old Chris Wondolowski, who would go on to become the league’s all-time leading scorer and a San Jose icon.

Much has changed since then. The Clash became the Earthquakes a few years later, relocated the Houston to become the Dynamo in 2006 and then were reborn in 2008. D.C. United went on to establish MLS’ first dynasty, winning three of the league’s four MLS Cups. The league is set to welcome its 30th team in 2022, a far cry from the 10 that kickstarted the league with little hope of survival.

Over the years, there have been better matches, bigger goals and, depending on who you ask, more talented players. MLS has grown to a point that those involved at Spartan Stadium could never have fathomed, and it was their match, that goal, that started it all.

“What I recall, that whole buildup, is how proud we were,” Arena said. “When the Star-Spangled Banner was played that day, they introduced the teams, and it was something we all waited for for many years: to have a professional league back in the country, and it was a great day for that. And to think about it 25 years later, where we are, we’re very critical of our league. We criticize the players, the coaches, the national teams. We’re going to get better. There was a question [over whether] it would ever make it in this country, and there’s no question about that today. The sport is here today, and the question is how much better are we going to be. And I do believe one day we can be among the best leagues and the best national teams in the world

He added: “I was in a ceremony with [MLS commissioner] Don Garber and I told him for the 50th anniversary, we are going to have a bottle of champagne and celebrate where the league is going to be at. Who would ever think MLS would be 25 years old? And I know it’s going to make it to the 50th anniversary as well.”

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