Bruce Arena recalls MLS's 1996 opener: 'I certainly wasn't an icon that day'

D.C. United of the 1990s is the greatest team in MLS history, winner of three of the first four MLS Cups and eight trophies in the first four seasons.

D.C. United titles (1996-99)
MLS Cup titles (3): 1996, 1997, 1999
MLS Supporters' Shield (2): 1997, 1999
U.S. Open Cup (1): 1996
Concacaf Champions Cup (1): 1998
Inter-American Cup (1): 1998

But it all started badly, beginning with a 1-0 loss to San Jose in the league's opening game on April 6, 1996, and extended into May as D.C. United opened the first season with a 1-5 record.

And Bruce Arena, D.C. United's first coach, says that was on him.

"As I looking at the starting lineup for D.C. United on that day, I tell you, I realized how poor a coach I was then," he said in a conference call with the media to mark the first MLS game. "The way I set the team up that day, the way we played. We played poorly, and we had players on the field that maybe a month later were no longer a part of D.C. United. So there was a swing there."

Indeed, three starters in the opener -- Thor Lee, Said Fazlagic and Juan Berthy Suarez -- played in United's second game -- a 4-0 loss to Columbus -- and never played an MLS game after that.

Arena came from the college ranks, where he had led the University of Virginia to five national titles in the previous seven seasons. The early D.C. United teams included players he had at Virginia -- John Harkes, Richie Williams, Clint Peay, John Maessner -- and players he knew from the ACC -- like North Carolina's Eddie Pope.

Many of the early players in MLS came from the A-League or overseas, where Arena didn't have any experience.

"I didn't have much of a background with players in that league," Arena said. "So when we drafted players, we scouted players in the different combines we had. We had a real shot at observing them and evaluating them, and some you get right and some you get wrong."

Arena was doing double-duty in 1996. He had been appointed the head coach of the U.S. Olympic men's team for the Olympic Games in Atlanta, and Bob Bradley left Princeton to be his assistant at both D.C. United and on the Olympic team.

They had been holed up with the Olympic team in Chula Vista, California, in the winter and then had a short preseason with D.C. United before the MLS opener in San Jose.

"I certainly wasn't an icon that day," he said. "I look at our team, and you know, Bob and I at the time, we were wearing two hats. We were coaching the Olympic team, as well as D.C. United. I think we didn't do a good job in selecting our initial roster, and when I look at the way we lined up that day and how we played, we had a big learning curve ahead of us."



Everything was done on the fly.

"That day, you know, I remember John Harkes came in maybe a week before we played that game, a week to 10 days," said Arena. "He came from England. He was playing at Derby, so he wasn't fit. Marco Etcheverry reported about 15 pounds overweight. He wasn't fit."

Neither Arena nor Bradley knew Spanish.

"We never experienced this as coaches," he said, "but we had four players in our starting lineup that day that didn't speak any English: Raul Diaz Arce, Marco Etcheverry, Mario Gori, Chicho Suarez, our striker. So our communication was crazy. Our team wasn't fit. We had an awkward preseason. The week before the game, we are in D.C. training and it's snowing in D.C. and we come out to California to play."

But the importance of the occasion was not lost on Arena and Bradley. They grew as college coaches in the years after the NASL collapsed so MLS's start was a monumental development.

"We labored real hard at the collegiate level and we were biting at the bit for the professional league to come back. We were supporters of the NASL, and when it went under in the '80s, you know, we thought a professional league would never return, and obviously as part of having the '94 World Cup in the United States, we pledged to FIFA that we would start a league again, and we got to 1996."

Arena, who has won a record five MLS titles at D.C. United (1996-97) and the LA Galaxy (2011-12, 2014), remembers two things about the opening game: Eric Wynalda's late winner for the Clash that spared MLS of opening with a scoreless draw -- "a great goal by Eric" -- and the opening ceremonies.

"What I recall, that whole buildup, how proud we were," he 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."

All these years later, Arena and Bradley are still coaching in the league -- Arena at New England and Bradley at LAFC.

"It was a great moment for, I know, American coaches and American players, in particular," Arena said of the MLS launch. "I know at the time Bob and I were quite proud on that day to be part of the new professional league in the United States, and 25 years later, we've battled an awful lot to keep this league afloat."

Photo by John Todd, courtesy of MLS

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1 comment about "Bruce Arena recalls MLS's 1996 opener: 'I certainly wasn't an icon that day'".
  1. Kevin Leahy, April 7, 2020 at 7:47 p.m.

    As a season ticket holder from the beginning, I was amazed by how ugly they were @ first. The team slowly came together and was a joy to watch by the end of the season. Jaime Moreno was the icing on the cake. Eddie Pope was underrated. The would have won the first 3 if the ref had called the PK for the foul on Etcheverry. To have that level of play for 4 years was great and not something you see in pro sports anymore.

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