The date was April 6, 1996. After years of planning, Major League Soccer’s inaugural season finally began when D.C. United met the San Jose Clash at San Jose State University’s Spartan Stadium. To add some star power to the proceedings, the league secured Melrose Place star and former college soccer player Andrew Shue to lead the ceremonial coin toss. That fateful night in the Golden State, Clash forward Eric Wynalda scored the first goal in MLS history, a wonderful piece of individual skill that earned San Jose a 1-0 victory and Wynalda 1996 MLS Goal of the Year honors.
At the time of MLS’ launch—which landed on the same life-altering weekend when Richard Gere’s Primal Fear snatched the No. 1 spot at the box office from Robin Williams’ The Birdcage—soccer was an afterthought in the United States. Even though the 1994 World Cup had been a resounding success (it’s still the highest-attended World Cup in history), the notion of a professional soccer league becoming part of mainstream sports culture in America seemed about as likely as America Online and its beloved Instant Messenger fading into obscurity.
MLS sought to thrust itself into the national spotlight as much as possible by taking the world’s most popular game and adding an American twist. The league eschewed traditional, European-sounding team names with FC (football club), Sporting, or Real in them in favor of catchy nicknames like the Dallas Burn, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, and—everybody’s favorite—the Kansas City Wiz. Instead of the drab colors and minimalist patterns of traditional soccer kits, it went with patterns and color schemes that more closely resembled Ahmad Rashad’s NBA Inside Stuff T-shirt. Its game clock counted down instead of up and MLS replaced draws, a soccer staple, with the dramatic 35-yard “shootout,” so every match would have a winner and a loser. MLS built itself on an ethos that President Bill Pullman echoed that July in his memorable speech from Independence Day: “We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive.”
It did not happen without some bumps in the road, but MLS did survive. As the growing league plays its 20th season, little looks the same as it did in 1996; the uniforms are different, many nicknames and rule changes have been abandoned, cavernous American football stadiums have been replaced with soccer-specific palaces, and the players are far more well-rounded than their predecessors.
Nobody questions MLS’ staying power and vast potential today, but things weren’t always so clear. Revisit the exciting, uncertain, and totally unorthodox first year of MLS, as told by the people who lived it.