There is no doubt that Eric Wynalda's goal, the coaching of Laurie Calloway, and the presence of the first generation of MLS Season Ticket Holders laid the sound foundation on which the league and San Jose Clash were built. Often unnoticed when reminiscing on these accomplishments is the front office staff that made the wheels turn on that spring day and beyond 20 years ago. We spoke with former San Jose Clash Director of Ticket Operations John Tebaldi about his experience getting the team and league up and running in the new era of American soccer.
SJEarthquakes.com: What do you remember about the build-up and preparation as a staff to get ready for the first MLS game ever?
John Tebaldi: There is so much to tell about the start of MLS and in particular the Inaugural Game. It was a completely different time for soccer in America. The 1994 World Cup was still fresh in people's minds, but there had only been failures in trying to establish professional soccer in the United States - NASL, WSL, APSL...etc. Needless to say, we were fighting an uphill battle.
The entire Clash organization was hyper-focused on April 6th. We were a league-owned team and had the weight of the world on our shoulders. We had to be successful and start the league off in the right way. The game had to be a sellout for perception and the national TV audience on ABC. We had to be perfect operationally - traffic, parking, ticket taking, ushers...etc. The game presentation had to rival or be better than World Cup ‘94 matches. In many ways we felt the survival of pro soccer in the USA depended on this single game - all of this on a very tight budget with little room for error.
SJEQ: This was the first game, so without others to reference, how did your team manage the operations behind it?
JT: There were many of us who had worked in pro sports and a select few that worked on the 1994 World Cup (myself included), but there were no test events or true run-throughs. We had to be perfect or close to it our first time out at Spartan Stadium. Peter Bridgwater was a leader that demanded excellence and the entire staff worked incredibly hard to make all this that I describe a reality. I know that I did not have a day off from January 1 through the Inaugural Game and I wasn't the only staff member to do that - almost 100 days straight with most days being a minimum of 8 hours. In fact, I regularly listened to Loveline on the radio with Dr. Drew and Adam Corolla in the office and that show went from 10 pm to midnight, Sunday through Thursday. It truly was a labor of love for most of the staff.
SJEQ: There are so many unpredictable elements in sports, what if things didn’t go as planned in the game?
JT: We did our best with everything within our power. One thing we couldn't control was the outcome of the game. Luckily, the boys played well enough to keep it close and Eric came through with most amazing goal. When that happened, you could almost feel the entire league exhale since the dreaded 0-0 tie was avoided.
SJEQ: Where were you sitting for the Eric Wynalda’s goal that gave the Clash the first MLS victory?
JT: I giggle at that question because staff didn't have seats for the match as it was ‘all hands on deck’ and we were just trying to make sure everything went well. I probably only saw 15 minutes of the match and I was lucky enough to witness the goal when I was checking in on some of my friends from the league office that were attending the match.
SJEQ: What are you proud of as you remember that team in 1996?
JT: Looking back on that match from 20 years, I know we were able to create a special beginning for Major League Soccer. I'm sure all of us have a tremendous amount of pride in knowing that we did our part to launch MLS, especially with how far the league has come and that professional soccer is here to stay.