As the MLS All-Stars line up tonight against English club Tottenham Hotspur in the league's yearly exhibition of the best talent it has to offer, we will see a very different game from the one played in Orlando in 1998. Seventeen years before Orlando City played in MLS, players from the league lined up to show the City Beautiful the best of the domestic game.
Orlando was an interesting, but not entirely surprising, choice for this third MLS All-Star Game. After two games staged in New Jersey, MLS took its midseason game to two non-league markets, the first of these was Orlando. Four years prior, Orlando had successfully hosted a number of World Cup games, and, two years earlier, some of the early men's and women's soccer from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The city had a nice reputation as a soccer friendly town with a (then) newly updated stadium.
However, with clubs in both Tampa and Miami, MLS wasn't testing the waters in Orlando for future expansion at this point, but rather hoping to make some new converts to the league in an out-of-market city.
The MLS soccer on exhibit in 1998 was an entirely different game from the modern league we know. The shorts were baggier, the hair was shaggier, and the New York Red Bulls were still called the cumbersomely inclusive New York/ New Jersey MetroStars. This was still a fledgling league looking for ways to market themselves to a domestic and international audience. In this third MLS All-Star Game, the league split its best players into teams of U.S. players against international MLS All-Stars. This was the only year a U.S. vs. The World match-up existed.
For the benefit of TV, the game kicked off at 1 p.m. in early August, with the temperature at game time a humid 92 degrees. A nice crowd of 34,416 was on hand to enjoy the match. While the air might have been a little warm, the U.S. All-Stars were on fire all day as they put six impressive goals past the World All-Stars, who were only able to respond with a single score.
While most all-star games are high scoring affairs, this one was especially lopsided for good reason. The core of the U.S. All-Stars had just returned from France and their dismal showing in the 1998 World Cup. Despite losing all of its games in France, the team still had a built-in chemistry. The World All-Stars were the exact opposite, as they threw players from different nationalities into one team with only a few days of practice.
The on-field exhibition looked just like you would imagine, with the U.S. All-Stars creating chances with build-up play and well placed passes. The World All-Stars looked more like a really good pick-up team. The international players had tons of individual talent and some beautiful ideas with no execution or team cohesion. They did, however, look dangerous, and should be considered unlucky to not have found the back of the net at least a few more times.
In retrospect, the talent on display was quite impressive, with 11 of the U.S. All-Stars eventually finding their way into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. Most of the players lining up for the United States are better known now as coaches or broadcast personalities, but this generation was the first to start to put the U.S. National Team and MLS onto the path it's on now.
The future hall of famers who saw action at the Citrus Bowl were Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa, Jeff Agoos, Alexi Lalas, Eddie Pope, Cobi Jones, Thomas Dooley, Tab Ramos, John Harkes, Brian McBride, and Preki. Each of the benches were manned by future World Cup coaches, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, both of whom have also been named to the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame as builders of the game.
Besides the American talent on display, plenty of international stars filled out the opposing roster. Led by two all-time greats who were known for their talent as much as their style, Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos and Colombian Carlos Valderrama. Campos was a fan favorite for his wildly colorful keeper shirts, his ability to acrobatically protect the goal with his 5-foot-6 frame, and his penchant for also playing striker from time to time. Valderrama, a midfielder, dominated the early years of MLS with his pin-point passing and his iconic hairstyle. Other MLS greats on display that day were Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, Thomas Ravelli, Mo Johnson, Stern John, and Mauricio Cienfuegos.
The Most Valuable Player (allow me to translate the early MLS for you, "Man of the Match") was Brian McBride. A player that the TV commentators agreed "seemed to have a bright future in the game." This was long before game-winning goals in World Cups and a hugely successful career at Fulham Football Club in England.
I remember the day well. My friends and I were excited to see some of the U.S. National Team players and, of course, everybody's favorite, Valderrama. Much like the World Cup games, the crowd was into it, but not always sure how to express it, with lots of Ole-Ole chants for no real reason.
While fellow Mane Land writer Sean Rollins was also in attendance that day, it was an earlier event that holds the clearest memories. "The closeness to the players is what really stood out," he said. "While watching the Skills Competition at Disney's Wide World of Sports, Carlos Valderrama walked right past me with his unmistakable hairstyle. You could sit and talk with past, current and future stars like Marco Etcheverry and Brian McBride. I spoke with Cobi Jones who I idolized at that young age. It was an unforgettable experience which still resonates with me 17 years later."
Memories like these seem like part of the foundation that would see Orlando eventually have its own MLS team -- a dream people like Sean and I would have never imagined in 1998.
If you are interested in checking out the hairstyles, fashions, and soccer skills of the late 1990s, here is the game in its entirety: