Today at 3p.m. CDT, Major League Soccer will re-air the inaugural game in league history on its various channels (YouTube link here). The league of 1996 was a very different world to the one we inhabit today. Of course, that’s true in the acute – a global lockdown as a pandemic virus ravages societies, and the temporary suspension of sports leagues the world over – as well as the picture of what the sport has become in this country. The league is a microcosm of the soccer culture in these United States.
There’s plenty of work to do, but the growth of the league – both as a product for the domestic audience and an entity with increasing clout around the world – speaks to the rising popularity of the World’s Game.
Jeff Agoos was a centerback on the DC United team that lost the inaugural game in league history to the San Jose Clash. Now the league’s Senior VP for Competition, he oversees the development of the game itself. There’s no denying the level of play has risen, particularly in recent years.
“We do see some really important players coming through now with our clubs,” he said. “We see [Mexico international] Carlos Vela for example, in LAFC, so many players are coming through the system, but also importantly we are seeing a lot of players developed in MLS, as well. I credit our owners for continuing to invest not only in player development and recruitment but also infrastructure.”
That infrastructure exists in a very different world than existed in 1996. The league’s inaugural rosters were populated by a number of recent college graduates, US Internationals returning from overseas careers, and a number of talented players from the Americas and overseas who perhaps weren’t household names, particularly in the United States.
As the game has developed, both inside and outside the sphere of MLS’s influence, the model has changed. The most talented young Americans often opt for professional careers through MLS’s Homegrown mechanisms or by heading to European youth academies from a young age. While a number of top Major League Soccer players have college degrees in-hand before heading to the league, more and more often, the age of new pros is closer to what you’d see in the countries that have been soccer-mad for decades.
“Well, just think about the American player today,” said Bruce Arena, the losing coach in the league’s inaugural game and later the head coach of the United State Men’s National Team and currently the New England Revolution. “A lot of our elite young players, they are in our academy systems; so they are not going to college. There’s a number of examples that you’re probably well aware of, but we still have players out of the collegiate ranks, and, in fact, right now in the New England Revolution, we have our top draft picks playing.
“I still think there’s a future for the American player, obviously, in the league and there needs to be. I think that’s going to be important as the league continues to grow. But the objective of the league is not to develop American players. It’s to create the best product possible. Therefore, I think over the last six, seven years, you’ve seen a much greater influence of international players in the league, and that’s good. It’s good competition within teams, and within the league. The American player today has to really battle to get on the field, and I think that’s good, and it’s only going to help make American players better.”
Now the coach of the USL Championship’s Las Vegas Lights, Eric Wynalda was the striker who scored the Clash’s game-winning goal against Arena, Agoos, and DC United in that inaugural game. He concurs with Arena’s assessment of the American player pool – and the role of development for professional leagues in our country.
“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,” Wynalda said. “Our players have just an unbelievable opportunity, an unbelievable opportunity to progress and to become better soccer players, which we really didn’t have in ’96. We were still in the learning stages and still trying to figure out how to make this a better scenario. I think that all we really need to know is that from then to now, we have gotten exponentially better at understanding what we need to do to make our players better. So we are going in the right direction.”
There’s plenty of work to be done in that regard. Wynalda knows – as a veteran of not just MLS, but also the German Bundesliga – that there’s more than one way to develop the game. Indeed, his current position with a team from the second division of the United States’ system is one that could be crucial for the bigger picture.
“We all looked at the United States as there’s little hot pockets of where soccer is and what 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.”
With that progress, there have been growing pains. The four-year college player has a smaller role than ever before – certainly among those who did’t enter college as Homegrown players to a given MLS club – and college soccer on the whole is at a crossroads. That filters to the coaching ranks, as well.
“Today you see a great influence of international coaches, but we had them in the first year of the league, as well, so I don’t think it’s changed drastically. However, I think in this day and age, I think it’s very difficult for any owner to hire a coach [directly] out of college, whether that’s right or wrong.”
The next several years will be interesting to follow as Nashville SC has its chance to stake a claim on the world of Major League Soccer. CEO Ian Ayre and General Manager Mike Jacobs are navigating an environment that’s very different from the league’s humble beginnings in 1996.
Until we get sports back, though*, what we have are the memories. Today’s rebroadcast will be a great reflection on where we’ve been, and a reminder of the path we’re on.
* Stay home people. We need sports back