Numerous high-profile players have featured in the MLS since its inception in 1996. To pick the best of them is probably really hard. Thierry Henry, David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hristo Stoichkov, Landon Donovan, Wayne Rooney, Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Gonzalo Higuain, Kaká, Dider Drogba wore an MLS jersey, just to mention a few. To remember all or most of them is also difficult. But, to forget the star names of the first ever MLS season in 1996 is not that easy.
The Major League Soccer started in April 1996, delayed by 6 months due to various difficulties in the administration department. The curtain was raised on April 6, 1996, at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. The SJ Clash overcame D.C. United with Eric Wynalda being the first ever scorer in the new league. He was also one of its most famous marquee players.
But what is a marquee player? In simple words: a star athlete who attracts people to watch the game. Marquee players are most often considered exceptionally skilled compared to the majority of the league’s players and are usually exempt from the salary cap. Now, if a marquee player is worth the money is another story.
The first marquee player of the league
On January 3, 1995, 29 year-old midfielder Tab Ramos became the first player to sign with MLS. And he was not just a U.S. international. The former NC State Wolfpack player had been transferred to Spanish Real Betis for $400,000 in 1992, he was chosen as the CONCACAF Player of the Year in 1994 and had of course played in the same year’s World Cup. And New York MetroStars was the team to acquire the first (marquee) player.
1996 MLS Inaugural Allocations
The Major League Soccer inaugural allocations were signed by the league and then distributed to the ten clubs by February 1996. Each club was allocated four marquee players. The league’s maximum salary for a player was up to $192,500, but the players would be paid additional money by sponsors. On the other side the league’s minimum was just $24,000, while the team salary cap could not exceed $1,200,000. Figures that would seem too low in 2021. And of course the 1996 rosters were limited: to just 18 players.
Additionally, in order to promote American players, teams were limited to five foreigners on the roster. A rule that was abandoned some years later. But let’s have a look at the marquee players of the the league’s 10 teams in that season.
The 40 marquee players of the 1996 season:
Dallas Burn were playing in the vast Cotton Bowl stadium (92.000) in Dallas and managed by David Dir. They probably had the biggest name of the league at their disposal: 37 year-old Mexican legend Hugo Sánchez. Real Madrid’s former striker scored 6 goals in 23 games, while Duke’s graduate Jason Kreid scored 13 for the Burn! Sánchez left Dallas at the end of the season to return to Mexico for Atletico Celaya.
The other star players of the roster were Colombian defensive midfielder Leonel Álvarez, Uruguayan Washington Rodríguez and Mark Santel from St.Louis Ambush.
The team from Ohio were allocated the No1 Draft pick, Brian McBride, who had previously played for German side Wolfsburg. The Crew were playing its home games at the biggest stadium of the league, the Ohio stadium of 102.000 capacity! But, their marquee players signings were not that big. Americans Brian Bliss and Brian Maisonneuve, Uruguayan forward Adrián Paz and South African midfielder Doctor Khumalo.
However, Crew’s 1996 roster also included Poland international Robert Warzycha, veteran Paul Caligiuri and goalkeeper Brad Friedel who would later go on and spend 18 years in the Premier League!
Los Angeles Galaxy
The LA Galaxy finished runners-up in that season, narrowly missing out on the title in the 1996 final against D.C. United. Galaxy had the best attendance in the MLS with a home average of 28,916 and one of the best goalkeepers: 29 year-old Mexico international Jorge Campos. The sweeper-keeper known for his acrobatic, risky, and flamboyant style had already played 9 seasons for Pumas UNAM, scoring 28 goals (!) in the Mexican league.
The other three were Mauricio Cienfuegos from El Salvador, American Dan Calichman and Ecuadorian striker Eduardo Hurtado. Hurtado who signed from Emelec, would fire 21 times in 26 games that season!
The MetroStars used the NY Giants stadium (80.000) and apart from Tab Ramos they were allocated two more U.S. marquee players. USA national team goalkeeper Tony Meola and midfielder Damian Silvera who passed away in 2010. But, the shining star of the roster was the 32 year-old midfielder Roberto Donadoni. The Italian World Cup runner-up from Bergamo had played for AC Milan for 10 years, alongside Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard. Milan’s coach Fabio Capello was very reluctant to let him go and ultimately signed him back after 2 seasons in the MLS.
Venezuela striker Giovanni Savarese was another foreign player in the squad, while Colombian legend Anthony de Avila was added mid-season. ”El Pitufo” signed with MLS after 8 years with America Cali in the Colombian league and he was an absolute success. He scored 6 goals in 8 games.
The team from Denver was allocated three U.S. international players: tough defender Marcelo Balboa from Mexican outfit Leon, midfielder Dominic Kinnear and 32 year-old Roy Wegerle who had played in England for 10 seasons! Wegerly featured for Chelsea, QPR, Blackburn, Luton, Swindon and Coventry.
Goalkeeper Chris Woods who had won the European Cup with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in 1979 and had been an England international for 10 years also signed for the Rapids. But there were more foreign players in the roster. Moroccan defender Khalil Azmi and South Africa international Shaun Bartlett also played for the Rapids in their first season.
Kansas City Wiz
The Wiz (now known as Sporting Kansas City) reached the 1996 semifinals losing to Galaxy, having three U.S. marquee players in their roster. It was Mike Sorber who signed after 2 years in Mexico with Pumas UNAM, and Chicago Fire legend Frank Klopas who had spent 8 years in the Greek league. Klopas was a key member of the USA national team from 1987 until 1995.
But, the designated player who would make such a great impact was Serbian-American midfielder Predrag Radosavljević ”Preki”. Preki who had started his career with the Red Star Belgrade retired in 2005 after 10 season in the MLS with the Kansas City club. He arrived in the States in 1985 to play indoor soccer and had also spells with Everton and Portsmouth. The other marquee player was Vitalis Takawira from Zimbabwe.
Nigerian defender Uche Okafor and former Glasgow Celtic and Rangers striker Mo Johnston were the two most prominent foreign players of the Wiz.
The 1996 champions were allocated Jeff Agoos, John Harkes and also the Bolivian internationals Marco Etcheverry and Juan Berthy Suárez as their marquee players. 26 year-old Etcheverry was by far the star name of the roster as he was considered Bolivia’s best player at the time. The Bolivian played for United from 1996 until 2003, helping the club win eight trophies. He signed from the Colombian league where he played for America de Cali.
But United without the help of Salvadorian Raul Diaz Arce (23 goals in 28 games) and Bolivian striker Jaime Moreno in scoring and also right-back Eddie Pope in defense would have not won that title.
Tampa Bay Mutiny
Tampa Bay Mutiny was a relatively short-lived soccer club (1995-2001), but it had the best record in MLS’ first season. And also the MVP of the 1996 league was a Mutiny player. It was the Colombian superstar Carlos Valderrama. The ”blond Gullit”, at the age of 34, had left Atletico Junior Barranquilla after 3 seasons to sign for the MLS side. Previously, he had played for Montpellier in France and Real Valladolid in Spain and he would feature in the MLS until 2002.
Striker Giuseppe Galderisi was signed from New England Revolution during the season to join the top scorer of the league in the attack. Roy Lassiter scored 27 goals in 30 games in 1996 and won the top scorer award. His U.S. countrymen Cle Kooiman and Martín Vásquez would complete the designated player list.
San Jose Clash
San Jose Clash (later known as Earthquakes) was founded in June 1994 during the World Cup. Eric Wynalda who came from German Bochum was the team’s main force in attack while John Doyle, San Francisco Dons’ former player anchored in defense. Nigerians Michael Emenalo and Ben Iroha were the other two designated players.
New England Revolution
The team from Foxbrough, had one of the greatest U.S. players in their squad: 26 year-old center back Alexi Lalas. The defender with the distinctive long beard and hair had just spent two seasons in the Italian Serie A with Padova. Fellow Americans Mike Burns, Jim St. Andre and Italian striker Giuseppe Galderisi were the other three. Galderisi had also played with Lalas in Padova, after short spells with Milan and Juventus in the 1980s.
But, two non-star players stole the show for the Revolution in that season. It was Joe Max-Moore with 11 goals in 14 goals and midfielder Ted Chronopoulos who was signed from Panionios after 3 seasons in the Greek league. Canadian center-back Mark Watson was also signed from Columbus Crew during the season.