With 1 goal, first-ever MLS game was filled with promise

Sports
Mauricio Cienfuegos, Eric Wynalda

FILE – 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.” (AP Photo/Michael Caulfield, File)

Before the first-ever Major League Soccer match, a group of San Jose Clash players went to a local restaurant for some pregame bonding. Four of them threw up after the meal, but it had nothing to do with the food, recalled Eric Wynalda.

“It was just the nervousness,” he said. “These were guys that had never played in a professional game. We 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.”

Wynalda scored the first — and only — goal back on April 6, 1996, when the Clash hosted D.C. United in the inaugural Major League Soccer match. The nationally televised event attracted a sellout crowd of 31,683 to Spartan Stadium. Monday marks the game’s 24th anniversary, a bittersweet moment amid the coronavirus pandemic that has put the league’s 25th season on hold indefinitely.

Then-United coach Bruce Arena said the game was important for what it represented.

“I recall that whole buildup, how proud we were when ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was played and they introduced teams. It was something we all waited for, for many years, to have a professional league back in the country,” he said.

Actor Andrew Shue, who starred on the TV series “Melrose Place,” performed the coin toss. Shue was actually a good player and appeared in five games for the LA Galaxy in the league’s inaugural year.

Wynalda’s goal in the 87th minute gave the Clash the victory on the warm evening.

“I’m just so glad that I scored and we finished that game 1-0 and it didn’t give all the haters an opportunity to say, ‘Oh look, soccer’s boring, 0-0,'” Wynalda said. “It was a wonderful moment and it really was the kick-start.”

From The Associated Press story at the time: “Wynalda, who earlier had failed to convert two good scoring chances, dribbled through two defenders and slammed a shot with his right foot past Washington’s goalkeeper, Jeff Causey, and into the corner of the net.”

It went on: “Most of the sloppy game was played at midfield and there were few good scoring chances, giving ammunition to critics who charge soccer does not have enough offense to succeed in the United States.”

Wynalda played in three World Cups and scored 34 goals in 106 appearances with the U.S. team over a 10-year span. A National Soccer Hall of Famer, Wynalda now coaches the Las Vegas Lights of the USL Championship league.

Jeff Agoos, now a senior vice president of competition for MLS, was a defender for D.C. United in the inaugural game. Agoos went on to a 10-year playing career in the league.

“I give Eric an incredible amount of credit for what he was able to accomplish in the end. 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,” Agoos said. “But I felt like the worst outcome we could have had was a 0-0 game, and that everybody had complained about soccer as boring. 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, himself a Hall of Famer and former national team coach, went on to coach teams to five MLS Cup titles. Now the coach of the New England Revolution, he said he’s looking forward to the league’s next quarter-century.

“I was at a ceremony with (MLS Commissioner) Don Garber and I told him for the 50th anniversary, you know, we’re going to have a bottle of Champagne and celebrate where the league’s going to be at,” he said. “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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