MLS Origins – Building the rosters for the inaugural MLS season
I’ve decided to write this series to take a look at the decisions made by the league and teams ahead of the first MLS season, mainly the events surrounding the original roster creations. This is some of the league’s history that has yet to be covered in a way I found really satisfying, and I intend to take a more personal look at each player that was selected and how they fared both before, during, and after their time in MLS.
MLS used four different sorts of drafts to build the initial rosters, the Allocations where each team received four “marquee players”, the Player Draft which gave teams a chance to draft from the pool of 250 MLS-selected players, the College Draft for drafting college players and the Supplemental Draft for drafting other American professional players. The last two live on in a combined state as the MLS SuperDraft.
Before we dive into the ten teams and who they selected, we first need to explain the four drafts a bit more, as well as get some context for the state of professional American soccer in 1995.
In 1995, the professional soccer scene in the United States was mainly limited to the indoor National Professional Soccer league and Continental Soccer League, and the outdoor American Professional Soccer League , by then renamed to A-League, and the USISL Professional League. The APSL suffered from the fact that, with the demise of Canada’s CSL in 1992 (not to be confused with the current CSL based in Ontario), it had admitted three Canadian teams which ran afoul of FIFA regulations governing division 1 status. Leagues were not permitted to cross national borders at the time. Additionally, the league was struggling to retain teams. USISL was growing, reaching a ludicrous 55 teams in 1995, while that same year the A-League fielded only 6. While the A-League was considered the higher quality league, money and teams were flying out the door, and with FIFA refusing to sanction them, the United States were left without a true D1-quality league.
Until MLS, that is.
By now, I’m sure you all know a good amount about the origin of MLS, but if not, go read Beau Dure’s “Long Range Goals”, which does a better job of documenting the actual birth of the league better than I could. Long story short, people came together, contracts were signed, teams were created, and work was done.
So now, we jump to October of 1995. MLS is a go, we have ten teams around the country, and a number of USMNT and other notable American players have signed with the new league. Great! The next step: turn these teams into a reality by actually building the rosters. We introduce now the men tasked with such, the inaugural class of MLS managers.
First up, the Colorado Rapids. who chose journeyman Englishman Bob Houghton, who by then had managed 8 teams in 3 different countries and became notable for winning the Allsvenskan three times and the Svenska Cupen four times with Swedish side Malmö FK. He previously coached the Toronto Blizzard in the North American Soccer League during their final three seasons, losing the championship game the final two years.
Next, the Columbus Crew. Their initial manager was Finnish-born Timo Liekoski who by then had spent the bulk of his soccer career in the United States initially as a college player, later coaching a number of NASL teams from the mid seventies through the league’s demise. At one point, he was fired twice in less than 12 months for dismal starts to seasons. His most recent experience before MLS had been with the USA Olympic national team, preparing them for the 1996 Olympics. He again was fired from this post after two winless tournaments.
The Dallas Burn decided to look local, and settled on Dave Dir who had by then already been working for MLS in charge of scouting and creating the player pools I’ll be analyzing. He had achieved notable success at Regis University and with the APSL’s Colorado Foxes.
DC United had arguably the strangest choice of manager, a man who had achieved the bulk of his athletic success in lacrosse, even winning the 1974 World Lacrosse Championship with the American national team, before finishing second to Canada four years later. He later dedicated himself to coaching soccer, coaching at the University of Virginia for 18 seasons and winning five national championships, before working with the U-23 American national team. This man’s name? Bruce Arena.
Kansas City, still known as the Wiz, signed NASL-era veteran player-manager Ron Newman, also famous for the 10 championships in 11 years won by his indoor soccer San Diego Sockers. He hired his son Guy Newman to assist. By this point in time, Newman’s coaching legacy was already cemented with his 1992 induction to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
The Los Angeles Galaxy went with a familiar name in the state of California, German-American Lothar Osiander, best remembered for his brief stint in charge of the USMNT in the mid eighties. He had spent time with the Atlanta Ruckus immediately prior to the formation of MLS, winning A-League Coach of the Year after his only season.
New England went with a frankly inexperienced manager in Irishman Frank Stapleton, whose only managerial experience came as player-manager for Bradford City. He was sacked from both roles following three mediocre seasons in the English third tier league. As a player, though, he was known for successful times at Manchester United and Arsenal, and for captaining the Irish national team.
The New York/New Jersey MetroStars made what seemed to be one of the more astute managerial decisions, hiring South African-born Italian international Eddie Firmani, who had spent years playing in Italy and had coached in England, the NASL, and the middle east. Most notably, he coached some of the peak New York Cosmos teams, and won a total of four NASL titles.
For San Jose, the managerial choice seemed logical to any long-time Bay Area Soccer fans. After bouncing around England for years, Laurie Calloway had played for and later managed the original Earthquakes, and had been at the helm of the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks during their CONCACAF Champions’ Cup run, making it all the way to the finals against Club America. His team was at that point the most successful American team yet in CONCACAF competition.
And finally, we come to the Tampa Bay Mutiny, who signed the colorful Dutchman Thomas Rongen away from the recently defunct second incarnation of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Rongen played a number of games both outdoor and indoor through the eighties in the United States, and by 1995 had spent over a decade coaching teams at various levels throughout Florida. With the Strikers, from 1989 through 1994, Rongen was manager, coach, player AND captain simultaneously, and led his team to the 1989 ASL title and national championship win.
With our manager class introduced, we move now to the first of our four player drafts, the 1996 MLS Inaugural Allocations.
Starting in January of 1995, MLS began signing notable US internationals and other notable American professionals to league-level contracts, designating these players as “marquee players”, eventually totaling 40 such players. With the intention of parity, the league planned on allocating four marquee players each to the ten inaugural franchises. The first player to sign such a contract was Tab Ramos, veteran of two World Cups for the USMNT and then on loan to Mexican side Tigres UANL. 39 players followed Ramos, representing a total of eleven countries from four continents.
Rather than allowing each team to select their players, the league did the actual decision-making, sending each team their four players although Dave Dir, soon to be manager of the Dallas Burn, had a hand in the decision process. The allocation process occurred shortly before the actual drafts took place, in early 1996. Each team was guaranteed at least one USA international and one foreign international.
The Colorado Rapids received three USMNT players in Marcelo Balboa, Dominic Kinnear, and Roy Wegerle, as well as South African international Shaun Bartlet.
Columbus got two American internationals named Brian, Brians Maisonneuve and Bliss. They also received Uruguayan international Adrian Paz and on loan received South Africa’s Doctor Khumalo from the Kaizer Chiefs.
Following MLS’s early strategy of marketing to Hispanic fans, the Dallas Burn were sent three players of Latino background along with their obligatory USMNT man in Mark Santel. The other three were Mexican legend Hugo Sanchez, Colombian veteran Leonel Alvarez, and Uruguayan youth international Washington Rodriguez.
DC United received two American internationals, Jeff Agoos and John Harkes, and two Bolivian internationals, Berthy Suarez and Marco Etcheverry, widely considered one of Bolivia’s best ever.
Kansas City got three American internationals; Missouri native Mike Sorber, Greek-born Frank Klopas, and Yugoslavian-American Predrag Radosavljević, better known as Preki from his indoor soccer days. Rounding out their allocation was Zimbabwean international Vitalis Takawira.
The Galaxy were given the same “Market to Hispanic Fans” treatment as Dallas, receiving three Latino players along with American Dan Calichman. Joining him were the flamboyantly eccentric Mexican international Jorge Campos, Salvadorean international Mauricio Cienfuegos, and journeyman Ecuadorean international Eduardo Hurtado.
The Metrostars were sent Italian international Roberto Donadoni along with a trio of Americans; Tab Ramos, the first to sign with MLS, Tony Meola, and Damian Silvera.
New England, like NYNJ, received the other allocated Italian international Giuseppe Galderisi, along with three Americans; Mike Burns, Jim St. Andre, and 1994 World Cup standout Alexi Lalas.
San Jose got a pair of Nigerian internationals in Benedict Iroha and Michael Emenalo, along with a pair of American World Cup veterans in John Doyle and Eric Wynalda.
And finally, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, yet another market where MLS employed its Latino marketing ploy, received Mexican international Martin Vasquez, who soon switched to the USMNT, along with Colombian legend Carlos Valderrama. Joining them was another pair of American internationals in Cle Kooiman and Roy Lassiter.
The next step in building the rosters was the Inaugural Player Draft, which took place over two days in early February 1996. This gave every team 16 picks to choose from a pool of 250 players MLS had invited to tryouts, ranging from indoor soccer players to Americans playing abroad to standout professionals from the various leagues across North America. Unlike in the following two drafts, there was no trading of picks nor any passing. Each team used all their picks, for a total of 160 selected players.
Following that was the College Draft, which took place on March 4th, in which teams had three rounds to select any amateur players from the NCAA soccer system. This round saw picks traded along with, and in some cases for, players taken in the previous draft.
The final draft, the Supplemental Draft, took place immediately following the College Draft. Once again, this draft encompassed three rounds with each team receiving a pick in each round, although trading and one pass, Colorado with the penultimate pick, meant that not every team left with three players.
With all the explanation out of the way, what follows will be team-by-team breakdowns of each of the 26 picks, and the careers of every chosen player. I’ll be looking at teach player’s career before MLS, their time spent in Major League Soccer, and their careers afterward, along with a bit of history of how the 1996 season unfolded. Stay tuned!