As Major League Soccer spent Monday commemorating the anniversary of the league’s inaugural match, Bruce Arena remembers that special day for what it meant to American soccer at the time.
Arena has fond memories of the first match in MLS history, even if it also involves him remembering just how difficult preparations were as he led D.C. United into that historic meeting against the San Jose Clash on April 6, 1996.
“Coaches like myself, and at the time Bob Bradley was my assistant, we labored real hard at the collegiate level, and we were biting at the bit for the professional league to come back,” Arena said during a conference call with reporters to discuss the first-ever MLS match.
Arena, who coached the University of Virginia to five NCAA Division I titles from 1978-95, watched the demise of the North American Soccer League in the 1980s and thought a top-flight professional league would never return. But a pledge to bring back first-division soccer was made to FIFA when the U.S. was selected to host the 1994 World Cup, which ultimately was—and still is—the best-attended edition of the quadrennial tournament.
Fast forward to 1996. Arena was learning to construct a professional roster through a mixture of mechanisms. They included allocations (Marco Etcheverry plus Jeff Agoos and John Harkes, who played for Arena at Virginia), draft picks (Raúl Díaz Arce, and another pair of Virginia players in Clint Peay and Richie Williams) and lottery (Jaime Moreno). Arena and Bradley were also in charge of the 1996 Olympic Team.
“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,” Arena said.
Arena added that Harkes arrived from England “maybe a week before we played,” and Etcheverry reported about 15 pounds overweight.
“Our team wasn’t fit,” Arena said. “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. That team that day we started, three or four of those players weren’t on our roster maybe four or five weeks later. So we had a lot to learn as coaches. We had a lot to learn as a team, and that day, I can remember we were just pretty poor.”
Something that was not poor was the eventual game-winning goal scored by Clash forward Eric Wynalda, which rewarded a sell-out crowd of 31,683.
“The goal he scored was pretty damn good,” Arena said. “Afterwards, I do remember [then MLS commissioner] Doug Logan and Sunil Gulati saying to us,’ We’re happy there was a goal scored. We had to have a goal that day.’ They certainly got one. It was a great goal by Eric.”
While Arena lamented how poor D.C. United from both a coaching and playing perspective, eventually, Arena and his team found their collective footing during that first season. D.C. United won the inaugural MLS Cup and repeated as champions the next season before Arena left for the first of two stints with the U.S. Men’s National Team. Overall, Arena has won five MLS Cups as a coach, the most ever.
Arena, who is currently the head coach and sporting director for New England Revolution, said MLS is “positioned to really move up another tier among professional leagues in the world, and we continue to improve.” Soccer “has come a long way, and that day in April in 1996 was a fabulous day, and it gave us the impetus to be where we are today,” Arena added.
“I mentioned this a couple weeks ago, I was in a ceremony with Don Garber, and I told him for the 50th anniversary, we are going to have a bottle of champagne and celebrate where the league is going to be at,” Arena concluded. “Who would ever think MLS would be 25 years old and I know it’s going to make it to the 50th anniversary, as well.”