Eric Wynalda on the first MLS game, the first MLS goal and American soccer then and now

Eric Wynalda always had a flair for the dramatic.

In the USA's first game in the World Cup in 40 years, the 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia at Italia '90, he got sent off.

Four years later, the USA opened play at USA '94 indoors at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan with a 1-1 tie against Switzerland thanks to a spectacular goal by Wynalda on a free kick.

When MLS launched in 1996, the future Hall of Famer scored the first goal -- another great goal -- in the 87th minute to give the San Jose Clash a 1-0 win over D.C. United -- and spare MLS of the embarrassment of a scoreless draw in its first game.

Now the head coach and technical director of the USL's Las Vegas Lights, Wynalda talked with the media last week about the opening game and MLS then and now, in its 25th season ...

The buildup to the first game:

ERIC WYNALDA: In the beginning, nobody really knew much, and as much as we were trying to market ourselves and to be a part of the community, we had not started yet. So there was just such an unknown component of that.

I even attribute this to something that happened to me much later when I was traded to the Chicago Fire. I was sitting in the airport with Chris Armas, and this woman came up to me and said I want to thank you for everything that you do because you guys are amazing. I had just been traded to the team, so I had no idea. I was like, wow, this is really great. They really care about our team. And Chris leaned over and said, "She thinks you're a fireman."

We had about a hundred of those moments leading up to the San Jose game. Nobody knew who we were until after the game was over and the hard part for some of our guys was, you know, once that game happened, and it got it the attention that it did it really kick-started a lot of things.

People were so receptive, and then San Jose really got to show its true colors. We used to go to Tony & Alba's, which is a family-owned restaurant there and we were just unknown. Nobody had a clue who we were but six months later, if we were going in there, it was the royal treatment and everybody knew who we were all of a sudden.

The starting point of all of this really was the first game. Once that game was over, and they kept re-running the goal and re-running the results, and it just gave us such a positive push in the right direction.

The first game and the first goal:

ERIC WYNALDA: My daughter, it's her birthday today. She's 4 years old. I have six kids, and yesterday when we started talking about – I got to talk to my kids for the first time about what that was like, and show my 15-year-old daughter the video of the game, which was just an amazing experience in its own right to have her get to watch that and she wasn't even on the earth yet.

So when you look back at what you were going through, 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, just the amount of people, just running around and the anxiety that people were having, they had to paint the poles, which were the light poles, green, so they didn't stand out for television reasons.

I watched [TV 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. We ate at the little Il Fornaio that's right down the street, downtown San Jose, and I remember they thought that the food was bad because four of our guys threw up after lunch, and it had nothing to do with the food.

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.

And the part for me as being a guy that had already played in a World Cup, two World Cups and had an opportunity to play in Germany, I was like the mother hen. I was trying to get all my guys to just figure out a way that they could focus, and I could go on a couple of other stories, but the reality was it was just the anxiety and the nervousness and the magnitude of that game and how much it meant to the progression of the sport.

Our guys were really, really, really nervous until, I'd say, about 20, 30 minutes in, the game started to get better, but you could tell that it was just nervousness had taken over. But some of that stuff -- some of that stuff when you look back on it now, it's incredible. It really is truly incredible.

And I just found out this week or last week that Chris Wondolowski was a 13-year-old boy and very impressionable young man watching that game, and that just blows me away that we were making an impression on the next generation, and we didn't even know it at the time.

MLS then and how: level of play and level of players:

ERIC WYNALDA: I think one of the things that people need to be reminded of is the infrastructure that now exists in Major League Soccer and the platforms that these players have to play on and the beautiful stadiums and just that part of it really changes this conversation and this answer.

Taylor Twellman asked me earlier today who was better: Carlos Vela or Marco Etcheverry, and I said it was an unfair question because it would have been great to see what Marco Etcheverry at 26, 27 could do in the modern game in the stadiums that now exist in this league. And I made the analogy of this is was the guy that was, you know, painting in a cave with his fingers, as opposed to a guy that has an open canvas and $1,000 paint set.

It's very hard to compare, but some of the players that we had in '96, the circumstances; that we were playing on 60-yard-wide fields. Most of the conditions weren't optimal. They were really challenging. So it was hard to find space out there. That's what made we have an appreciation for guys like [Carlos] Valderrama, Etcheverry, because they found space where it wasn't there. I mean, Valderrama who was doing 1-2s in a phone booth, and players like Steve Ralston were introduced to the world because they got world-class talent and subsequently they became better players for it.

Initial doubts about MLS's viability:

ERIC WYNALDA: Got me in a lot of trouble then, and gets me in trouble now, some of the things that were coming out of my mouth in 1996 were just out of love; it was only me wanting the league to get better, quicker.

But it was almost because there was so many things to complain about, you would always get the, 'Come on, just shut up and play the game and just we'll handle that and that will get better.' It was always that feel.

But it was just guys like Tab [Ramos], John [Harkes], Marcelo [Balboa], Lexi [Alexi Lalas], Burnsy [Mike Burns], all we wanted was -- in our coming back, was to see a league of our own; to see that opportunity for our country to enjoy everything that this league has become now.

Whether the Eric Wynalda of 1996 would be satisfied with the league of today:

ERIC WYNALDA: The opportunities that we now have as players, and myself being a coach now, really is wonderful. I think I still argue the point about the timing of the schedule. I still think that's something that might be something that can be sorted down the road. I don't think that promotion and relegation is something that we are ready for, even though it's something people love to talk about.

But the realities of where we are now and how far we've come, I would be blessed to be a part of this league now just as I was then, but it would be a heck of a lot easier.

Selling soccer then and now:

ERIC WYNALDA: Look, I always think there's going to be doubters. There's going to be Euro snobs. That hasn't changed and that never will change. We have to accept that as a reality.

I think, again, when Don [Garber] came in [as commissioner], he made some fundamental changes. It may have been [deputy commissioner] Ivan Gazidis, who I think he is the first guy to develop what I think was called 'Game First,' which was so smart. It was the turning point where we made it all about the game; having a single anthem; having a way of doing things that was recognizable; making sure that everything looked the same. It wasn't so fragmented or one team doing it differently than others. I thought that was one of the turning points.

There will always be a challenge. Some people will always think our league isn't good enough or some league is better than others, and some of that, it's all perception and opinion.

But the greatest challenge that we have -- well, I guess that we are talking about here, is one that we are creating. I don't think we should care. I don't care what the rest of the world thinks.

If we take care of ourselves and our own product and we are all rowing in the same direction, our job is to make the sport the best it can be here, and the product on the field the best that it can be here. That's it.

Whether people want to compare us to someone else, that's up to them, but if we get this right, and we start to produce the kind of talent that I think we can, with the platforms that now exist through our league, we are going to eventually challenge to win the World Cup, and that is the objective. The objective is to be the best soccer nation we can be. That's always our challenge and that's every country's challenge.

I think what we all need to do is take a step back, be very proud of how far we have come in 25 years, and that this is real and people do care and the culture that we now have created, that our fans have created for us, is real, and we need to build off that. If we continue in this direction, eventually we'll be the soccer nation that we all hope to be. We all want the same thing.

Fast-forwarding 25 years ...

ERIC WYNALDA: I think the turning point really has been the culture of what MLS has created in all the venues and expansion is one thing.

We all looked at the United States as there's little hot pockets of where soccer is and what would it be like if they had their own team and they could support their own team and that doesn't mean that they have to be involved in Major League Soccer. Maybe they aren't ready for that. But still you look at USL or places like Detroit and Miami, they were able to turn this thing into something special.

The reality of what soccer has become in this country right now, it's a phenomenal time to be involved in the game. The investment that is behind it is now warranted. It was kind of like, 'Oh, I hope this thing works out' before, and now it's, 'Look, this is a real thing.' And the culture that we have in this country that is backing the sport, not just at a club level, but a regional and national level is unprecedented. It's a wonderful time for all of us to watch the sport grow and to be what it is today.

So you know, you look at the USL for example, these are all teams and clubs that their purpose is, really, to produce players and to expedite that process of getting discovered and maybe he's not ready for Major League Soccer, but to make his way into Major League Soccer some day.

All of that is progress. All of that is we are in this together and we are becoming a better soccer nation through all of the outlets and the channels and that's all because of the interest that comes city to city. I see it here in Las Vegas. You see it in small little towns across the nation that everybody wants to be involved now. It wasn't this thing where you were six hours driving in a car to get to the closest professional game. You only had 10 teams back then.

Now, it's 70, 80 teams in these smaller markets where people get to enjoy the game. That's been the biggest component to me that just is screaming that this country is getting better.

MLS of 1996 vs. the USL:

ERIC WYNALDA: It's very comparable to be honest. I remember, I guess it was when Don became our commissioner, and we had to go through contraction, which I still think was the smartest move that this league has ever done.

Even though it eliminated Miami, we just weren't ready and we needed to consolidate the player pool and the talent, and we were living in fear of, "Did we have enough talent to support 10 teams at that time?"

What we now know is that we don't have enough teams for the talent that we have in this country, and taking a big step backwards to take a couple of big steps forward was the smartest thing we ever did.

USL is different, finances, and it's still people investing money in the games and people wanting to be involved and to make this sport better.

So it's comparable because you see young talent or talent that maybe got overlooked at some point, getting an opportunity. That's what USL is. That happens to be what Major League Soccer, the perception of Major League Soccer was I guess in '96, '97, '98, and just filtering in some big names that were more of a draw.

I'm blown away every day at how much talent there is at the USL level. These are kids living a dream, trying so hard just to make ends meet so they can have that opportunity. That's where we were back then. We're not there anymore.

The salaries and the players and the talent that we have at Major League Soccer level is so much different now but there still is that undercurrent; that undercurrent of let's not let any stone go unturned; and let's find players and let's find places for them to play, and then maybe they will grow into something great.

I mean, one of the greatest players in my opinion in U.S. soccer history is Tony Sanneh. Tony Sanneh came from nowhere, playing indoor, and then he was the USL, NPSL level, and he made his way to [D.C. United], and then probably in my opinion was the best right back in the 2002 World Cup, and then went on to do great things in Europe.

That kind of player, they are out there. That's what we all recognize; that this is one big machine trying to produce players. That's the cool part about this.

'96 was hard, guys. It was hard. Bad fields, bad locker rooms. Not the resources that we have now and we have the ability to give our players what they need to get better. We're still working on it at the USL level.

Memorabilia from the inaugural game:

ERIC WYNALDA: Unfortunately, the end of 2018, my house burned down in the Woolsey Fires in Thousand Oaks, and I lost all of my memorabilia, which is really sad because I had about 180 jerseys. Some were absolutely terrific.

A very good friend of mine, Brian [Holmes], who owns a printing company and business in San Jose, actually, I lost a bet to him, and he has the inaugural game jersey. I don't know where it is hanging up now. He kind of swindled me on that one. I had the jersey that I wore in the first half, but he ended up with the jersey I actually wore when I scored the goal.

It's somewhere in San Jose. I'll have to call him and figure out how I can make sure that it's still with us. I think it is. I'm fairly sure. But that's it. That's all I have from that due to the fire; I lost everything.

Photo by John Todd, courtesy of MLS

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6 comments about "Eric Wynalda on the first MLS game, the first MLS goal and American soccer then and now".
  1. frank schoon, April 6, 2020 at 10:22 a.m.

    Great stuff,Paul, thanks. Always like to read about what went on in the old days, the memories... It reminds me of Ric Fonseca's who from time to time evokes memories of those days... 

    Wouldn't it be nice for SA to interview once a week the famous stars that came over to play for MLS, like Marco Etcheverry , Valderama, etc . Those stars that came to play for the MLS in the past and let them just talk about their experiences, their opinion on today's  soccer in America, and what should be improved in our game,etc.....

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, April 6, 2020 at 2:33 p.m.

    Thanks Mr. Frank Schoon for mentioning my name.  To add a little bit to Eric's memoir, I remember meeting him I believe iether in '93 or early '94 when I had taken a sabbatical from my College to volunteer/work for WC USA'1994:  We, myself and mi kids were going to WC Headquarters in Century City (Los Angeles) waiting for the elevator when we hears a commotion of sorts, looked over at the lobby and here comes a gaggle of obviously soccer players, when my son pointed out that it was Eric Wynalda who was also going up to the WC Offices (it was located then on the 44th floor...) We all piled in to an elevator, my son and daughter were just suprised, Eric spoke to them had a little banter back and forth and we of course wished him well.  I see him now and then, but suffice to tell that we were very saddened when we heard about his house, but still, it was nice to have met him, though sadly I don't remember the other guys with him.  Nice article!!!  

  3. Nick Gabris, April 6, 2020 at 11:26 a.m.

    Great story from a great player. I bought season tickets to the Clash back then to support the team and soccer. It was a great atmosphere at Spartan Stadium in those days, very family oriented. Will always remember Wynalda giving us some thrilling moments in the games. I still think Wynalda should be the MNT coach. I still have a Clash blancket that was a give away promotion to get people to the games. Fun times! 

  4. Andrei Markovits, April 6, 2020 at 12:40 p.m.

    Wonderful interview, Paul! Great insights from a crucial player in American soccer history! I also like how Eric does not fall into the all-too-common trap in which so many American soccer fans fall: namely that MLS is second rate and will always remain so. The road traveled since 1996 is amazing! The future, if pandemics allow us any, looks very bright! Thanks Eric, Thanks Paul!

  5. Timothy Lane, April 6, 2020 at 11:05 p.m.

    It is great to read Eric's recollections. He cod probably take it back even a bit further into America's soccer dark ages to when he was playing for the SanFrancisco Blackhawks in the APSL. One of my most outstanding fan memories was in 1991 when my local team the Albany Capitals played were playing the Blackhawks for the title. Game 1 of the home-away series was in Albany. We had some good talent with Mike Master and Mike Mariner (yes Englands Paul Mariner), as well as former Sunderland midfielder Shaun Elliot. We won the opener and about 4,000 of us were chanting the players off the field as they headed off to our 1930's era locker rooms. One player trailed off and came around the fence to the track the separated the stands from the field like a great line of demarcation. So as we chanted "Na na na na hey hey hey good bye", that one player, Eric Wynalda, stood alone in front of us and shouted back, "IT'S NOT OVER YET!" I must admit that quieted us down. All I could think was "The B@!!$ on that guy. SF won in goal difference at home. Then they took Masters and Mariner the following season.

  6. Karl Sonneman, April 8, 2020 at 12:31 p.m.

    Tony Sanneh did not exactly come from nowhere in soccer.  He played in high school for St Paul Academy in Minnesota, which then was the epicenter of Minnesota soccer (SPA is still strong, but soccer has grown tremendously in Minnesota since then).  SPA was coached by Buzz Lagos who when on to the Minnesota Thunder.  Buzz's son is in management at the MLS's Minnesota United.  And Minnesota is not a "jonny-come-lately" to soccer.  Who can forget the Minnesota Kicks.

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