When Alexi Lalas looks back on the inaugural 1996 season, he doesn’t think of a singular moment. Sure, he remembers that first plane ride to Boston, fun pranks on Welton, and screaming matches with head coach Frank Stapleton, but that’s not what stands out. What lingers the most are the emotions that came from starting a domestic league, a first season that Lalas describes as a "beautiful mess."
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Lalas was abroad while Major League Soccer was being organized. Experiencing the power of a World Cup firsthand, the defender joined Padova of Serie A after playing every minute of the US national team’s four games at the 1994 event.
While Lalas saw regular time overseas and even scored dramatic goals, including one against AC Milan, he always knew he would return to help launch MLS.
"The recognition, especially from the generation that came to life out of that ‘94 World Cup, was that not only did we want to be there, but we needed to be there," Lalas said. "There was a responsibility almost."
Lalas was signed as one of league’s marquee players in Jun. 1995. Soon after, he was allocated to the New England Revolution alongside fellow national teamer Michael Burns. For Burns, joining the Revs was a homecoming as he grew up in Marborough, MA. For Lalas, the move to New England meant something different.
"I knew that if I was going to come back, I wanted to go to a great city with great restaurants and downtown and bars," Lalas recalls. "It’s probably not the best way to pick a place if you’re given the opportunity but I basically associated the city with having a good time."
With the marquee players settled, the next step was filling out the rosters. Various drafts took place in the months leading up to the season’s start. Still with Padova, Lalas was forced to watch from afar as unfamiliar names appeared on his dialup computer.
Understanding the importance of comradery when building a team, Lalas took it upon himself to reach out to his future teammates. The message was a simple one: I’m excited for the adventure ahead. It was a gesture that would help establish Lalas’ role as a leader.
"It was important that we tried to come together as quickly as possible—on and off the field—as a group, recognizing that there were going to be plenty of challenges along the way," Lalas said.
On Feb. 25, 1996, Lalas played his last his match in Serie A, a 3-1 loss to Lazio, before returning to the United States.
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Lalas quickly became the face of the franchise once in New England. His fiery, long hair and beard—a look more fitting for a rock star than a soccer player—would soon appear on posters, cups, and cereal boxes.
The most interesting marketing tool was a figurine that featured an in-action Lalas heading the ball. Seeing the action figure was a surreal, if not odd, moment for Michigan native.
"We all grew up with figurines, whether it was in my case Star Wars figurines, or hockey players, or bobbleheads," Lalas noted. "All this different stuff I associated with stars. To actually be part of that machine was very surreal and very, very cool."
Lalas, who admits to having some of the figurines still in their original packaging, understood that this was all part of building a franchise. They were pioneers, hoping to bring soccer to the United States. As a result, the responsibilities of the players went beyond the 90 minutes on the field as public appearances were a necessity to ensure the success of the league.
"For me at least, it was never a hassle," Lalas said. "I always said that if the worst thing in your life is that you’ve got to go make appearances or someone wants your autograph or wants to take your picture then you’ve lived a charmed life."
Soccer players typically play until their mid-30s, early 40s if they’re lucky. This brief window is all the time that they are afforded to leave a lasting legacy. Lalas knew this, which is why he fully embraced being an ambassador for both the Revs and MLS.
Twenty years after that inaugural season, Lalas is still a champion for American soccer. Currently serving as a commentator for Fox Sports, Lalas has appeared on various outlets, including the Colbert Report and Good Morning America, to talk about the beautiful game.
All of the growth that has occurred in MLS—the new teams, players, and stadiums—have its roots in 1996. It’s something that Lalas is proud to have been a part of.
"It was very exciting," Lalas said. "You don’t get many chances in life to be a part of something from the start that, if it goes right, will not only outlast your career but also your lifetime."
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While the Revs were finding success in building a fan base, the same can’t be said about their play on the field. The team struggled with consistency as wins were typically followed by losses. Though frustration levels were high, the players remained united as they tried to navigate through the uncertainties of a growing league.
"Through it all, I cared about those guys and I have still a great fondness for the moment, despite the wins and losses, or in our case many more losses, because we were just figuring it out," Lalas explained.
Everything was so new that there were more questions than answers. Even small details were hard to pin down as the team sometimes wasn’t sure where training would take place or who would even show up.
Lalas, one of the most experienced players on the roster, would often get into shouting matches with head coach Frank Stapleton. Noting that he himself was the "cocky, young type," Lalas often challenged his inexperienced coach.
The end result was a team that missed the playoffs with a 15-17 record. It was disappointing for Lalas, but that doesn’t mean that he wants to forget about his time in New England.
"I’m certainly proud of the time that I spent there, being part of the start of that team," Lalas said. "We had a good time. I played a lot of music and we had wonderful times out, but we didn’t couple it with a successful team.
"Those types of things fade away and you remember the times that you laughed and the times you had wonderful moments out and silly situations."
Lalas doesn’t get hung up on the wins and losses from that first season, but he does believe that the fans deserved more. Even with a product that he described as "mediocre," the supporters showed up in big numbers. Their reward should’ve been a winning team.
"I was disappointed that we couldn’t give the fan base there that supported us a better team to cheer right off the bat," Lalas said. "But it was all new. It was very Wild West. Everything that we did, both as the Revolution and as the league, we were making it up as we went along to a certain extent."
Although there are times when it appears that MLS is still "making it up" (think blind draw), there’s no question that the league is now in a more stable place. MLS is home to international stars like Kaka, Steven Gerrard, and Andrea Pirlo and soccer specific stadiums are popping up all around the country. Soon, the number of teams will grow to 24, though more will certainly be added. All of these details are a far cry from "the beautiful mess" that was 1996.
"It was a beautiful mess," Lalas concluded. "I look back and I shake my head and marvel that we made it through and at some of the realities that were going on in terms of how we were going about our business.
"When I talk about being proud, one of the things that I’m most proud of is that there’s a whole generation now that has no idea how this league was started. I’m glad that they don’t know a time when you worried about whether the league was going to even by there the next year. Or you didn’t know from day to day where you were going to be training. To me, that’s progress. To me, that’s success."