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