Almost 20 years to the day of the league’s first match at Spartan Stadium, United and San Jose will clash at year-old Avaya Stadium. (1996 photo/MLS)


To celebrate the 20th anniversary of its inaugural match, MLS has brought together the teams that christened the new league, D.C. United and the San Jose Earthquakes. On April 6, 1996, San Jose was known as the Clash and its home was not Avaya Stadium but Spartan Stadium, an ultra-narrow venue on the San Jose State campus.

There were skydivers and special guests. The game clock counted down, not up. FIFA President Joao Havelange attended. (Havelenge, Sepp Blatter’s predecessor, will turn 100 next month.)

Eric Wynalda, one of many 1994 U.S. World Cup players who helped launch the nascent league, rescued the sloppy match by scoring for San Jose in the 88th minute for a 1-0 outcome before a sellout crowd of 31,683.

“We all had basically thrown together new teams,” Bruce Arena, who had left the University of Virginia’s juggernaut to coach United’s first team, said recently. “We had practiced for about a month. The league, at that time, was not prepared to be a professional sports league. The game itself was of horrendous quality. It might have been the worst game ever played. And that’s quite a statement. It was a real bad game.”

United’s lineup included two Bolivians, a Salvadoran, an Argentine, a Bosnian refugee and four of Arena’s former Virginia Cavaliers.

“At that point, we were all trying to figure out what we got into and what it was going to be,” said Arena, who has coached the L.A. Galaxy since 2008. “It was easier to put a man on the moon than to put together a professional soccer league in this country. It was harder than to form the NFL, NBA, baseball or hockey. Because they created those [pro] sports in this country and made it an American product. We’re competing against the world. It took those leagues 50-60 years to make it. I say we’ll be there in 40.

“You look 20 years later, there’s great improvement. And in another 20 years, we will be a really strong league.”

After starting the first season with six defeats in seven matches, United underwent many changes over the course of the campaign and went on to win the first of its four MLS Cup trophies.

On Saturday, the San Jose organization will salute the first game by giving away 10,000 Clash T-shirts, replicate the 1996 pregame ceremony and honor its first squad.

United has yet to win anything this year, settling for a defeat and draw against Mexico’s Queretaro in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals before the MLS campaign began. In six matches overall, United has scored three goals and missed two penalty kicks.

Last weekend, Ben Olsen’s squad was no match for FC Dallas, which scored three times in the first 52 minutes and waltzed to a 3-0 victory at RFK Stadium. San Jose won its first two league matches before falling at Los Angeles, 3-1. The Earthquakes did not play last weekend. United is eager to gain at least a point before returning home for five of the subsequent six matches.

Defender Steve Birnbaum, who missed the Dallas match, rejoined United after playing 90 minutes in the U.S. national team’s 4-0 victory over Guatemala on Tuesday in a 2018 World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio. Reserve forward Alvaro Saborio returned from Costa Rican duty.

Defensive midfielder Marcelo Sarvas, who has started every match, is serving a one-game suspension for receiving a red card against Dallas. With Markus Halsti only just returning from a knee injury, Jared Jeffrey is the natural replacement for Sarvas. However, Olsen might try something different in central midfield. San Jose midfielder Simon Dawkins is also serving a red card suspension.

D.C. United at San Jose Earthquakes

Where: Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif.

When: Saturday at 10:30 p.m. Eastern.

TV: NewsChannel 8.

Records: United 0-2-2, 2 points; Earthquakes 2-1-0, 6 points.

D.C. probable starters: GK Travis Worra; Ds Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, Taylor Kemp; MFs Patrick Nyarko, Jared Jeffrey, Nick DeLeon, Chris Rolfe; Fs Fabian Espindola, Lamar Neagle.

S.J. probable starters: GK David Bingham; Ds Marvell Wynne, Victor Bernardez, Andres Imperiale, Kip Colvey; MFs Alberto Quintero, Fatai Alashe, Anibal Godoy, Shea Salinas; Fs Quincy Amarikwa, Chris Wondolowski.

The 1996 match: