This year marks the 20th season of Major League Soccer, and the league is citing the big round number to pat itself on the back for doing what its predecessors couldn’t— sustain domestic club soccer in the United States on a long-term basis. If you watched the MLS All-Star Game last night you saw the self-congratulatory message on full display, including a hype video before kickoff narrated by Alexi Lalas. “It’s not perfect, but it’s ours.” And while the league isn’t perfect, it certainly has come a long way.
This week, we reflect further on 20 seasons of Major League Soccer by revisiting one of the highlights of the first— the 1996 (and inaugural) All-Star Game.
While the All-Star Game in its current form is essentially a preseason friendly for an English or European club, the first ASG bore a closer resemblance to the kind we usually see in other American sports leagues— an intra-league affair featuring the best players from one conference facing off against the best players from the other. For MLS fans of a certain age, the lineups for both East and West read like the giants that made US soccer what it is today. The Eastern Conference featured the likes of Carlos Valderrama, Tony Meola, Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos, and Brian McBride, while the West boasted Eric Wynalda, Jason Kreis, Preki, Cobi Jones, and Jorge Campos in their lineup. The players who kicked off at Giants Stadium 19 years ago were, in many respects, the founding fathers of the league we have today.
The game itself more or less lived up to the hype. The East jumped out ahead in the 14th minute thanks to Tab Ramos, but two goals in quick succession from Preki (33’) and Kreis (37’) gave the West the lead at halftime. Giovanni Savarese leveled the score in the 69th minute. With time running down and MLS’ special brand of penalty shootouts looming;, Steve Pittman gave the East the late winner in the 88th minute, sending the 78,000 fans in attendance home happy.
For all of Major League Soccer’s faults, it’s come a long way from its start in the mid-90s. Back then, domestic club soccer in the US didn’t have a great track record, and the nascent league was definitely an experiment. That it’s survived 20 years is a bona fide accomplishment, and a testament to everyone who wants soccer to “make it” in this country. Twenty years from now, the league will probably look very different than it does today, and we’ll be looking back fondly on the years when Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi, and Gyasi Zardes ran rampant. So, here’s to that far-off day of future nostalgia, and to the days we have now.