The inevitable is hap-pening. Those stalwarts who were inspired during the NASL years and witnessed its demise are leaving MLS, which they helped found.
Eric Wynalda, Marcelo Balboa and Tab Ramos each played in three World Cups. John Harkes played in two. Peter Vermes' only showing was in 1990, but if not for Walter Zenga's left buttock, he would have scored against Italy in Rome.
For various reasons, they came home for the launch of MLS in 1996. Frankly, some of their importance was more symbolism than substance, and in the cases of Wynalda and Ramos, what they did for the national team superseded their accomplishments in MLS.
But those early years are memorable in many ways, and those men were in the forefront.
Harkes was vital to D.C. United's first two league titles, and Vermes played every minute for the championship Wizards in 2000. Balboa anchored the upstart Rapids when they reached the final in 1997 and a few years later drilled home a bicycle-kick goal. Waldo rescued us from a goalless inaugural match with a superb strike. When healthy, Ramos embarrassed defenders.
As dozens of foreign frauds came and went, the U.S. internationals labored for a league somewhat short of top-class. They chafed and complained, but much of the time they also excelled.
Waldo played for a coach who fined him for golfing on game days. Ramos and Vermes spouted off while trapped in a revolving door of Metro-fiascoes. Harkes danced under duress to the tune of the Salary-Cap Shuffle. Balboa remembers ''appearances'' for the Rapids at Denver tiendas, where no one knew who he was.
As Pele and Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer and George Best had done before them, these pioneers inspired the generations that followed them. But theirs was a different calling: that in the U.S. there is a place for its native sons.
by Soccer AmericaSenior Editor Ridge Mahoney