I tell people that the NASL and the Earthquakes were always a presence in my household growing up, but they don’t believe me, or they don’t quite understand. I tell them we had a dog named “Pele.” Maybe that can give you an idea of what my household was like, but the glory days of the NASL all occurred before I could even walk with confidence. I was born in 1982, and by the time I began to understand the sports world, names like “Best” and “Child” were mere ghosts of a league folded, kept alive in the memory of people like my dad, Hal Ramey, former voice of the Earthquakes in the NASL era (and again in the Clash/MLS era, but we’ll get to that later). The stories and quotes (“…even me blood was twisted!”) were hilarious, indicative of the times, and entertaining as could be, but those stories all ended the same way, with the NASL folding, and the future of soccer in the US in question, if not in doubt.
Flash forward to 1994, the World Cup being played in our own backyard at Stanford, and the promise of what would become Major League Soccer on the horizon. It was at this point I remember my dad talking to me about what was going on with the “team in San Jose,” and what this meant to the sporting and soccer community. It was exciting. I had been raised on stories of the NASL, but now I was about to see it for myself, albeit under a new name, and in a new era.
I don’t remember my dad making an announcement to me about taking on the role of TV play by play for The Clash, but I do remember him telling me the name of the team was “The Clash.” Now, I wasn’t against the name, but I always thought that “San Jose Earthquakes” was as simultaneously geographically apt and wonderfully bombastic as a sports team name could get. Toeing of a company line aside, it may be the best name in sports. Top 5, no doubt. I didn’t understand the need for a name change, and I didn’t quite get the “scorpion,” but I did recognize the social impact of MLS in light of the success of the World Cup in America. There was a palpable buzz about the game, and even at only 13 years old when the first game happened, I was noticing the cultural shift towards sports, the influx of big money and mass media taking precedence in our society. It was now or never for a professional soccer league in the US.
The first ever MLS game was nationally televised on ESPN, so my dad had the day off, but he was always keenly aware of making sure my older brother and I were taking part in his work (which apparently paid off as we’re both broadcasters now), and wanted to get us to as much Bay Area sports history as possible (like game 3of the 1989 world series, but I don’t think he knew quite the level of history he was taking us to that day). On April 6th, 1996, my dad tossed my brother and myself in his car, and said “Today, you’re seeing history.” On the drive to Spartan Stadium, he regaled us with tales of the “old NASL days (like Peter Lechermann dropping an “S-bomb” live on air while explaining how a yellow card turned into a red card ),” and as always, talked about the NASL’s overspending leading to its eventual downfall. He was cautiously optimistic about the new league structure “this time.”
As we pulled up to park, I remember looking at the fans outside the stadium and marveling at their enthusiasm, and general demeanor. There were people wearing vintage Earthquakes apparel, as well as new Clash gear. It was a decidedly diverse gathering, and I remember thinking that was a good sign. Cross demographic, mass appeal was not lost on 13 year old me. It all felt like something halfway between the first day of school and a family reunion. A homecoming and a new beginning.
Inside, I won’t say it was a wild atmosphere, but it was different compared to every sporting event I had been to that I could remember. There was a level of fan organization that was not evident at A’s or Giants games, and I remember remarking that it was incredible for a team and a league that hadn’t played a single game to already have die-hard fans. The fans were loud, energetic, and into it from the first minute. They didn’t stop either (I’m guessing at some point my dad referenced how the Quakes led the NASL in attendance for a couple years, and how wild it used to be at Spartan Stadium), and created an immediate “home” for the Clash. I remember fans had these hand cranked noise makers that they swung above their heads incessantly. At first I thought it was weird, but by the end I wanted one.
The uniforms were, I’m sure, the brain child of someone very well paid and highly regarded in the world of uniform design, but I was not that into them. They were baggy, full of colors that clashed (I actually wondered if that was part of the design), and weren’t all that pleasing to my eyes. I like the current kit style much more. In retrospect, I appreciate the uniforms much more, though, as they do embody 1996 with a certain charm that I can’t quite put my finger on. Not gaudy, not ugly, just eye catching. I’ve been scouring eBay, actually. I want one, and not just for the irony.
As the game wore on, I remember waiting for a goal. I also remember my dad saying around the 60th minute, in a slightly nervous fashion, “Someone needs to score.” To me, it didn’t matter. I was 13 years old, I was at a soccer game. I was seeing the first ever game in MLS history. The outcome wasn’t really part of the equation for me. For everyone else involved, it was. The league wouldn’t want the first game to end in a scoreless draw. The goal happened to our left. I can still see Wynalda, in the area, switching from left foot to right, taking the shot, and scoring. I don’t remember his shirtless celebration, probably because I do recall slapping high five with everyone around me. Chest bumps. Hugs. Pure elation. Looking back, the goal had been simmering for longer than almost 88 minutes. The goal was a decade in the making. The culmination of the idea for a first division American soccer league. It was athletic, it was dramatic, it was a game winner.
The way delighted fans poured out of Spartan Stadium, you’d have thought San Jose just won a World Cup final. It didn’t matter to anyone in attendance that the game was viewed by some (watching at home) as boring. Everyone there had just seen “pure drama!” For me, I was into it. One of the more interesting things, to me, was going to school the following Monday. These red shirts with “Major League Soccer Inaugural Game April 6, 1996” were either handed out, or available for purchase, and I got one (my dad worked for the team, of course I got one). I wore my shirt to school (I was in 7th grade, that’s what you did), and I saw other kids wearing the same shirt. Kids I didn’t really know, or I didn’t know they were into soccer. Maybe they weren’t, but they were now. And this was in the East Bay, mind you, Walnut Creek. Not in San Jose, or somewhere of immediate proximity. Major League Soccer made an impact.
The problem with being 13 and being presented with history is that I didn’t quite know to appreciably memorize the day. I have a pretty good memory in terms of seeing the past, but I mostly remember the emotion of that day. The cautious optimism regarding the new league, the eruption of the fans time and time again. The first day at Avaya Stadium? I can see it all. I have pictures on my phone. I knew how to take it all in. I was working for the team. That was a sure thing. MLS was here to stay by 2015. MLS in 1996? It was the unknown future that made it so fun. Even if the future wasn’t guaranteed, that day was. It was, and may still be, the most pivotal day in the history of soccer in the United States. I was there. 20 years later, I’m still here.