Robert Ukrop’s image isn’t plastered on the walls of Gillette Stadium and his name doesn’t generally get mentioned when fans are listing their favorite New England Revolution players. Regardless, the forward from Virginia will forever hold a unique place in Revs history as the scorer of the team's first-ever goal.
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Ukrop was a soccer vagabond when Major League Soccer began. After graduating from Davidson College, Ukrop traveled throughout the eastern United States, linking up with teams like the Richmond Kickers, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and even indoor soccer’s Dayton Dynamo. It was a lifestyle driven by Ukrop’s love of the sport.
"I played indoor in the MISL, I played in the USISL, and then I played in the NPSL," Ukrop recalled. "Every six months I would go to another city. I would pack up my car and drive from point A to point B and just play, earn a living, and do something I love to do."
Ukrop got his big break when he was invited to the inaugural MLS Combine. It was an opportunity to showcase himself among some of the country’s most elite players. Soon after came the draft, and Ukrop watched as players were taken off the board. Finally in the seventh round, the Revolution selected him with the 65th overall pick.
Being selected meant little, however, as Ukrop knew that he would need to fight on a daily basis to remain with the team. He kept his focus, hoping to establish New England as his permanent home.
Although MLS was in its infancy, Ukrop immediately noticed differences in how the Revolution functioned versus some of the other clubs he had been with before. The team trained at Babson College, whose cafeteria and female population appealed to the former lower division star. The Revs also had big names, including US internationals Michael Burns and Alexi Lalas. Perhaps most impressive was the gear.
"I think the coolest day was when we walked into the room and there was wall-to-wall Reebok gear," Ukrop said. "The commitment from sponsors—whether it was Reebok, Adidas or Nike back in the day—to see these partnerships starting to grow was really cool."
Although he was an Adidas player, Ukrop happily donned the Revolution’s flamboyant kit for the season opener. To be part of something like the start of MLS was big; to be named to Revolution’s starting lineup for their season opener against the Mutiny was an added bonus.
Playing in front of 26,473 fans at Tampa Stadium, the Revs got off to a quick start as Welton settled a Lalas long ball before playing a pass across the six yard box. Ukrop then used his left foot to one-time the ball into the net. The Revolution were ahead of the Mutiny 1-0.
It was a big moment that Ukrop looks back on humbly.
"It was more of a surprise, like ‘Oh, alright, cool’," Ukrop remembers. "That’s my job, I scored a goal. It was an electric atmosphere. It kind of quieted their crowd down, which was cool."
The goals kept coming as the Mutiny equalized in the 25th minute through Roy Lassiter. The home team grabbed the lead in the 53rd minute when Ivan McKinley finished a Martin Vasquez feed. Steve Pittman added another goal for the Mutiny in the 65th minute. Needing a goal, Ukrop struck again, with Peter Woodring the provider.
Having a two-goal game generally equates to a good night for any striker. For Ukrop, however, something else stuck out a bit more.
"My most vivid memory was that we lost the game," Ukrop reflected. "If you score two goals and you lose, it doesn’t really matter. The final does was 3-2 and I remember that I missed a header late into the game. I just missed the inside of the post. It went wide a little bit and that would have evened the game up."
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Scoring two in the season opener was a red-hot start that Ukrop was never able to replicate. Though he started in the next seven fixtures, Ukrop never found the back of the net again. It was a frustrating drought considering that he knew his role was to be the goalscorer.
Perhaps a foreshadowing of what was to come, Ukrop was pulled early in his third-to-last Revolution game after goalkeeper Aidan Heaney earned a red card in the second minute. Ukrop was sacrificed to make way for netminder Jim St. Andre. It was an upsetting moment for Ukrop, whose parents were in the stands.
"My mom is very passionate, loves her son to play," Ukrop said. "I think the big benefit was that she went to the concession stand and I think she spent a couple hundred dollars on snack food for other people to spread some good will and to calm herself down."
During the scoring drought, Ukrop remained positive, spending extra time on the practice field trying to perfect his game. Ukrop was ultimately dropped from the starting lineup for the Revolution’s ninth game, settling for a late-game appearance against the LA Galaxy.
With only a short time until contracts became guaranteed, the talk around the locker room was about who would be cut. Ukrop was unsure what to think. Although he hadn’t scored since the season opener, he was still earning minutes and showing a daily commitment to get better by listening to the advice of assistant coach Ron McGenchin.
Then it happened.
Ukrop was summoned to the locker room for an urgent discussion. It was a moment that seemed innocent at the time.
"Just being naïve and having no clue, I looked at Alexi and Alexi was like, ‘Where you going?’ I go, ‘They want to talk to me in the locker room for a second.’ Then all of a sudden he drops an expletive and he goes, ‘Holy beep, you’re getting cut’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m getting cut’."
And just like that, Ukrop’s time with the Revolution was over.
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Ukrop would have liked to have had more time in MLS, but being released helped jump start the next chapter of his life. He returned to his hometown club the Richmond Kickers, where he would play from 1996 to 2004, the longest stint of his career. Upon his retirement, the forward held club records for career goals, assists, and appearances.
"When I found out that I was getting released, it was certainly disappointing but I ended up bouncing back in my hometown," Ukrop stated. "I had an opportunity to play in the lower division and was somewhere I could actually make a difference in the community."
Ukrop now serves as the president of the Kickers, who play in USL and are affiliated with D.C. United. In this position, he continues to help grow soccer in America. More than just a professional soccer team, the Kickers give back to the community and provide young players with an opportunity to play the game they love.
A naturally upbeat person, Ukrop looks back on his time in New England fondly, noting the supportive teammates and passionate fans. The Revolution's first goalscorer does have one regret, though.
"My one regret is that when I got released that I didn’t ask to keep a jersey," Ukrop said. "I just remember that they were awful. They were awful looking."