Today, Eric Wynalda is the head coach of USL Championship side Las Vegas Lights FC, but 25 years ago, he was about to make history.
The forward, who became a star after playing in the 1994 World Cup with the U.S. Men’s National Team, was the first player in MLS history to score a goal, as his winner of April 6, 1996 led the San Jose Clash to a 1-0 win in the league’s inaugural game over D.C. United.
Speaking to reporters during a conference call this week, Wynalda spoke at length about the launch of MLS and his memories around the first game, but given his experience in both MLS, in Europe and most recently managing in USL, he had some interesting insight into the growth of soccer in general in the United States over the last 25 years.
When asked about what has fueled the growth of the sport and lessons to be learned from the first 25 years of MLS, Wynalda believed the ramifications of the league trickled far beyond the league itself.
“I think the turning point really has been the culture of what MLS has created in all the venues,” he said. “Expansion is one thing. We’ve always looked at the United States as there’s little hot pockets where soccer is and what would it be like if they had their own team and they could support their own team. That doesn’t mean they have to be involved in Major League Soccer, maybe they’re not ready for that.
“But still, you look at the USL or even places like Detroit or Miami, they were able to turn this thing into something special. The reality of what soccer has become in this country right now is it’s a phenomenal time to be involved in the game. The investment behind it is now warranted. It was kind of, oh I hope this thing works out, before and now it’s really, look, this is a real thing. And the culture we have in this country that is backing the sport, not just at a club level but a regional and national level, is unprecedented. So it’s a wonderful time for all of us to watch the sport grow and be what it is today.”
Wynalda believes the USL is playing a key role in player development and in giving supporters all over the country a chance to root for a local team.
“You look at the USL, for example, these are all teams and clubs, their purpose is to produce players and expedite that process of who’s getting discovered and maybe is not ready for Major League Soccer, but to make his way into Major League Soccer someday. All of that is progress. All of that is we’re all in this together, becoming a better soccer nation through all of the outlets and the channels and that’s all because of the interest that comes on 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. We only had 10 teams back then. Now it’s along 70, 80 teams, where in these smaller markets, people get to enjoy the game. That’s been the biggest component to me that just screaming that this country’s getting better,” he said.
He also notes that the dark times for MLS, such as contraction in 2002 which claimed two teams in Florida, turned out to be for the best to shore up the league and offers a blueprint that USL follows as it continues to mature as a circuit.
“We were living in fear, 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 we have in this country and taking a big step backwards to take a couple of steps forward was the smartest thing we ever did.
“USL, it’s different finances and it’s still people investing money in the games, there’s still people wanting to be involved and to make the sport better. It’s comparable because you see young talent or talent that got overlooked at some point getting an opportunity. That’s what the USL is. That happens to be what Major League Soccer, the perception of Major League Soccer in ‘96, ‘97, ‘98, and just filtering in some big names that were more of a draw. I’m blown away, everyday, at how much talent there is at the USL level. And these are kids, living a dream, trying so hard to make ends meet so they can have that opportunity. That’s where we were, back then. We’re not there anymore.”
For Sacramento Republic in particular, who are currently in the USL Championship but will be entering MLS in 2022, the lessons learned by the likes of Wynalda could help them navigate the challenge of moving up a division.
“The salaries, the players and the talent we have in Major League Soccer’s level is so much different now, but there still is 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 maybe they’ll grow into something great,” Wynalda said.
“’96 was hard, guys. 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,” he added.
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