Sporting KC celebrates the club's 25th season this year as one of 10 original teams when Major League Soccer kicked off in April 1996. SportingKC.com is looking back at 25 moments that led up to our inaugural match in a seven-part special series: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V.
January 5-15, 1996
“It's very challenging and very rewarding to put a team together from scratch,” Ron Newman remarked.
The Kansas City Wiz head coach was off to a strong start with U.S. MNT teammates Mike Sorber and Frank Klopas added to KC’s roster as the club’s first of four allocated players.
Now came the tough part. Preparing for three upcoming drafts – the Inaugural Player Draft, the College Draft and the Supplemental Draft – to build the remainder of his squad.
“In the NASL or MISL or CISL, you might draft four or five players,” said Newman. “Now, we're drafting an entire team.”
With the start of preseason two months away, Newman flew to Irvine, California to scout more than 200 players participating in the 11-day MLS Combine.
Heading into the event - which featured exhibition matches against the U.S. Under-23 National Team that was preparing for the Olympics – he told the Kansas City Star…
“This is an excellent chance for everyone in the league to get together and look at what we have. Everyone is starting with a clean sheet, and now we can start putting the pieces together. I look forward to this part of the season.”
…but afterward, his tone was a touch more tempered.
“It didn't do all that much good for me, frankly. It's very hard for players to really show what they can do under these conditions. Is so-and-so a bad player, or does he just not fit, or is he on a bad team?
“What we saw at the combine were mostly average players. But those are the players that will make you or break you, and those will be the most difficult choices, because there's not a lot of difference between the players.”
One of the players who did stand out?
Mark Chung, the Continental Indoor Soccer League’s reigning Rookie of the Year and Kansas City’s soon-to-be first round draft pick.
“In the combine, he was outstanding. He was streaks ahead of any other player there,” Newman said. “He was our No. 1-rated player coming out of the combine…no question about it.”
The Kansas City Attack trio of Brian Haynes, Goran Hunjak and Kevin Koetters all participated in the combine, as did soon-to-be Wiz teammates Garth Lagerwey and Pat Harrington.
“It was fun,” said Haynes, one of approximately 50 NPSL players to attend. “I was glad to hear the MLS say that, when NPSL players showed up, the quality of play picked up. I think it was good for the Attack, good for the NPSL. All three of us played well.”
“You were literally going from like one small-sided game to another, almost like stations in this huge open field, and I think we just rolled out the balls for small-sided games,” Lagerwey recalled for ESPN this week. “I still have the t-shirt from that combine, because you got a number usually like a three-digit number, so the scouts can tell you apart. I saved that t-shirt. I still have it.”
One of the scouts was former Ajax, Barcelona and Netherlands manager Rinus Michels, who was on hand as an MLS consultant, and one of noteworthy names in the player pool was 18-year-old Ramiro Corrales. The San Jose Clash draftee would play in Major League Soccer until 2013 and remarkably, at age 42, remained active last summer as a player-coach with the Santa Cruz Breakers in USL League Two.
Newman had two American internationals on his roster. Next he would add a former U.S. Men’s National Team player to his coaching staff with the hiring of Alan Mayer as the team’s first goalkeeper coach on Jan. 25, 1996.
A two-sport athlete in tennis and soccer at James Madison, Mayer’s decorated playing career began in 1974 as a first round draft pick of the Baltimore Comets in the NASL.
He would make his first of six U.S. MNT appearances in Nov. 1976, becoming the only goalkeeper in more than 50 years to record a shutout in his national team debut.
Over the course of a 19-season (10 indoors, nine outdoors) pro career, Mayer won back-to-back championships in San Diego with Newman and was the first goalkeeper to be named MISL Most Valuable Player.
Not bad for a guy who doctors said wouldn’t walk again after a hit-and-run accident as a young boy in New York.
“When I was four years old, I was hit by a car and I was knocked unconscious for about four days,” said Mayer, now the goalkeeper coach for the Kansas City Comets. “I was walking to the movies with my brother and a car came out from an intersection, went through a stop sign, hit me, and just kept going. I went about 20 feet in the air and landed on my head. I broke a leg and the doctors told me I would never walk again, that my one leg would be four inches shorter than the other. I got with a doctor who believed in old-fashion type medicine. I had my femur broken in seven places and he took each bone and set it in place.”
Mayer, nicknamed “kamikaze” for his aggressive playing style, was one of the most recognizable goalkeepers of his era for the helmet he wore the final 10 years of his career, which concluded with four seasons on the Kansas City Comets from 1985-1989.
“This is a great opportunity for me,” Mayer said. “Kansas City has been my home for over 10 years now, and I think the Wiz are a great addition to the city. It’s going to be quite a challenge to build the team from scratch, but I’m really looking forward to being involved with the game at its highest level again.”
The Kansas City Wiz’s first websites, built by University of Kansas student Sam Pierron, were falcon.cc.ukans.edu/~pnkfreud/wiz and www.sky.net/~KCWIZ.
It was a primitive era for the club and the internet alike. What better a time for a player nicknamed Digital to burst onto the scene.
In a six-day span, Kansas City would secure the team’s final two allocated players – and ultimately the team’s top two scorers that season – beginning with the addition of 23-year-old Zimbabwe international Vitalis Takawira on Jan. 31, 1996.
“When they told me there'd be a major league in the United States, I told them I'd be interested,” said Takawira, who saw snow for the first time on his flight to KC. “Coming to America has been a goal of mine. It is a big step to leave my home country, but I'm ready and excited to test my abilities in America. I am raring to go. My feet are itching for goals.”
Nicknamed Digital by the supporters of his former club, purportedly for his computerlike precision dribbling and shooting, Takawira lived up to the billing.
Take the 300 players with the most shots in Major League Soccer history -- a list that currently starts with Kei Kamara and ends with David Beckham -- and none put a higher percentage of those shots on goal than Takawira’s 62.6% over four seasons in KC.
But Digital – a two-time MLS All-Star – is most remembered in club folklore for his signature celebration, the Digital crawl, which he started in Africa after getting the inspiration from watching broadcasts of Italian soccer matches.
“I have a feeling he’s going to be one of the league’s more flamboyant players, and I know the fans of Kansas City are going to love him,” Newman said at his introduction. “Digital is a one of Africa’s craftiest players. He is very speedy and tricky with the ball, and should make an immediate impact for the Wiz in Major League Soccer.”
He made an immediate impact, alright.
First with five goals in four preseason games. Then with a brace in his MLS debut, including the club’s first-ever goal.
“The thing I will always remember is that I was the first one to score the first goal for the club — in the history of the club. That will always be in my heart, and I will always cherish that moment.”
February 5, 1996
Saving the best for last. In Kansas City’s case, the cliché certainly holds true in hindsight.
On the eve of the Inaugural Player Draft, MLS announced the league’s final batch of allocated players on Feb. 5, 1996.
However, at the time, the news that 32-year-old Predrag “Preki” Radosavljevic was assigned to Kansas City didn’t exactly garner a front page headline.
Not that he needed an introduction.
He was an MISL MVP in 1989. He played two years for Everton in the English Premier League from 1992-1994. He had been named the CISL MVP in October and trained with the U.S. Men’s National Team a month earlier, while awaiting his citizenship.
Moreover, Preki – born in in Belgrade, Yugoslavia – had first come to Kansas City 10 years earlier and would be a frequent visitor to Kemper Arena throughout an indoor soccer career in which he logged an astonishing 399 goals and 384 assists over nine indoor seasons with the Tacoma Stars (1985-1990), St. Louis Storm (1990-1992) and San Jose Grizzlies (1994-1995).
Kansas City Comets striker Dale Mitchell called him the “Michael Jordan of the MISL” – an appropriate comparison for Preki, whose “first real love” was basketball.
“I think he's, without a doubt, the greatest player ever indoors,” Newman, arguably the most qualified individual in America to make that assessment, said at the time. “The only way to defend this lad is to lock him in the lavatory before the game. He has a left foot he can pick your pocket with.”
That skillful left foot and his signature cutback move, the Preki chop, would dazzle fans in KC and across Major League Soccer for the next 10 seasons, highlighted by a laundry list of accolades and accomplishments:
- 2000 MLS Cup and Supporters Shield winner
- 2004 U.S. Open Cup champion
- Only two-time MLS MVP
- Four-time MLS Best XI selection
- Only eight-time MLS All-Star Game starter
- Club's all-time leader with 79 goals and 102 assists
- Only MLS player with 10+ assists in 8 straight seasons
- Most seasons (4) in MLS with 10+ goals and 10+ assists
All of that in addition to 28 caps with the U.S. Men’s National Team, highlighted by two goals in the 1998 Concacaf Gold Cup – scoring late against Costa Rica to send the U.S. to the semifinals, where he scored again in a historic 1-0 victory over Brazil – and two appearances at the 1988 FIFA World Cup.
“When I first signed with the league, I really didn’t have any expectations because it was really hard to expect something when you don’t know what it’s going to be, something that you haven’t seen,” Preki, the club’s first captain, said this week.
Suffice to say, Preki far exceeded expectations despite a slow start with no goals or assists in either of the team’s first two matches.
“I think I'll be strongest at the end of the season,” Preki told The Star. “The more you play, the fitter you become. The legs get stronger. Obviously, people want to see some goals.”
Sure enough, Preki not only led the league with 31 combined goals and assists in the regular season, he also contributed four goals and an assist in KC’s five playoff matches.
All told, Preki played every single minute in all 38 matches for the club across all competitions in the team’s inaugural season.
In fitting fashion, Preki would finally walk away from the game at age 42 after scoring a 90th minute equalizer in his final match for Kansas City on Oct. 15, 2005. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010 and was part of the Sporting Legends inaugural class in 2013.
February 6-7, 1996
“After a long gestation period, now we’re giving birth and it feels wonderful,” proclaimed MLS Chairman Alan Rothenberg. “It’s a real milestone. The culmination of all the plans that went into MLS. It’s a realization of the dream.”
Two months prior to Major League Soccer’s opening match, 40 players had been allocated and 160 more were about to be placed on rosters during the Inaugural Player Draft from Feb. 6-7 at the Astor Ballroom in New York City’s Inter-Continental Hotel.
Eight rounds would be held each day and the draft order had been specifically set by Major League Soccer with Kansas City positioned sixth in line.
“The 10 teams have been assigned a draft order based in part on the perceived quality of players the league already has assigned to them and the time frame when those players will be available,” wrote the LA Times. “MLS wants to maintain a competitive balance and believes some teams already have a slight edge.”
At 12:02 p.m. CT, the Columbus Crew selected Brian McBride as the first draft pick in Major League Soccer history and “for the next four hours, amidst ringing phones, scurrying messengers, incessant announcements and constant interviews, the league’s franchises set about stocking their rosters in preparation for the league’s first season.”
Kansas City’s 16 selections (listed below) began with the aforementioned 25-year-old Chung.
“I can honestly tell you that I didn't think we would have a shot at him. I'm just thrilled that we were able to grab him,” Newman said.
Chung and fourth round-selection Eric Eichmann would go into the record books with the first two assists in team history as six players from the Inaugural Player Draft started in the first Kansas City Wiz match the following month.
“This is like coming full circle for me,” said Eichmann. “I’m going to be playing for Ron Newman, who was coaching the Fort Lauderdale Strikers when I was just starting to play. He kind of inspired me when I was young.”
- MID Mark Chung
- FWD Peter Isaacs (released 4/29)
- DEF Sean Bowers
- FWD Eric Eichmann
- GK Jeff Causey
- DEF Tommy Reasoner
- DEF Scott Uderitz
- FWD Nyanforth Peters*
- DEF Uche Okafor
- FWD Alan Prampin
- GK Phil Wellington (released 3/24)
- MID Kevin Koetters
- MID Billy Baumhoff*
- MID Terry Woodberry (released 3/24)
- DEF Samuel Ekeme
- FWD Ken Snow (released on 3/24)
*Added to developmental roster on 4/15 along with Ayo Peters and Brian Jones
“I know we had a pretty good offensive team heading into the draft,” said Newman. “But I couldn’t stop myself from taking some of these players. It was like I was an overweight fellow in a pastry shop. I know I shouldn’t have gone for that last donut, but I couldn’t resist.”