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.
Twenty-five years before the Kansas City Wiz stepped foot onto the field at Arrowhead Stadium for the first time, KC lost its only previous professional outdoor soccer franchise. The 1969 NASL champion Kansas City Spurs played their final home game on Aug. 16, 1970 at Pembroke Stadium (51st & Ward Pkwy) and folded on Feb. 4, 1971.
“We still think the sport will go. I think it has a future,” said Spurs president and part-owner John Latshaw. “We still think this could be a good soccer area.”
Twenty-five years after the Kansas City Wiz stepped foot onto the field at Arrowhead Stadium for the first time, KC now has two professional outdoor soccer franchises. Each training in world-class facilities and playing at state-of-the-art Children’s Mercy Park.
Soccer in KC has come a long way. From the Digital crawl to painting the wall.
Now let’s look back at the final five moments of our 25th season retrospective series as SportingKC.com reflects on 25 moments that set the stage for Kansas City's MLS debut on April 13, 1996.
February 15, 1996
This was what soccer purists around the world feared the most, the day Americans messed with their sacred sport.
Major League Soccer’s Management Committee met in Dallas on Feb. 15, 1996 and considered implementing a wide range of ideas for the league’s inaugural season.
First and foremost, they announced that teams would be allocated a fifth player on their roster. For Kansas City, that proved to be 33-year-old Scottish World Cup veteran -- and future Sporting Legend -- Mo Johnston, who would score twice in his MLS debut and was named an MLS All-Star in his first three seasons.
Among the other items on the agenda for the Management Committee meeting were competition-related matters, in particular the universal Laws of the Game and how closely to adhere to the global guidelines.
“The people in the league were trying to find the best way to attract the fans and the best way to put an attractive product on the field at the same time,” said Preki. “From that standpoint, you can’t really blame them. It was a new product and everybody was trying to make the best out of it.”
This wasn’t a new discussion for MLS stakeholders.
Since 1994, MLS had been working closely with the third division United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues – a developmental league for MLS in 1996, including KC affiliate Sioux City Breeze – to experiment with rules modifications in their various divisions. Trials included:
- Moving corner kicks to the edge of the penalty area
- Hockey-style penalty shootouts with attackers dribbling from 35 yards out
- Larger goals (25.5’ x 8.5’ and 28’ x 8.5’) than 8’ x 24’
- Player ejections for committing five fouls in a match
- Awarding free kicks, without a wall, at the top of penalty arc after a set number of team fouls
- Fifteen-yard distance for defenders on all free kicks rather than 10 yards
- Live penalty shootout for opponent after a team’s seventh foul of half
- Live penalty shootout for a foul outside penalty area to prevent scoring opportunity
- A 60-minute start-stop clock controlled by a timekeeper
- Increasing the number of substitutes
- Only enforcing offside infractions within 35 yards of goal
- A 15-yard penalty arc rather than an 18-yard penalty area
- Bonus points in standings for goals scored
In January 1995, MLS petitioned U.S. Soccer and FIFA to permit two rule changes:
- Restarting play from the touchline with a throw-in or kick-in
- Punishing encroachment on free kicks with a yellow card and moving the wall an additional five yards back on re-take
And now, weeks before the start of preseason, the MLS Management Committee voted 6-3 in favor of moving forward with increasing the size of goals used in MLS matches.
“We will pursue this possibility and engage in a dialogue with FIFA. The management committee feels that the rewards of doing this are worth the risk,” said MLS Commissioner Doug Logan. “We are prepared to institute the change this season. But we have to work out a lot of issues, including the exact size.”
The idea would next go to the International Football Association Board, responsible for the sport’s worldwide rule book, at their Annual General Meeting on March 9 at Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.
And no further.
“There has been a lot of reaction around the world to what was no more than a tentative suggestion,” IFAB board member Graham Kelly said. “The reaction was such that the board felt it was inappropriate to even consider the matter in more detail.”
However, FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter did indulge MLS with the option to adopt kick-ins, a concept in use in lower levels of England, Belgium and Hungary.
MLS opted to stick with the traditional throw-in, but the league would institute three adaptations for its American audience:
- Each half would start with the clock at 45:00 and countdown to 0:00. The referee could signal the timekeeper to stop the clock. There would be no stoppage time.
- Matches ending in a tie would be decided by best-of-five penalty shootouts. With the ball 35 yards from goal, each shooter would have five seconds to score.
- Teams would be awarded three points for a win in regulation and one point for a win via penalty shootout.
“The point system will reward very strongly teams playing for a win,” said Sunil Gulati, deputy commissioner for MLS – which also provided cash incentives for winning teams based on the margin of victory. “And it will discourage teams from playing for a draw. We think there will be a lot of frantic activity at the end of games.”
February 18, 1996
“The shootout was very important, I think, in those days. People didn’t want to see a tie. The shootout was very exciting. When people talk about the shootout and how crazy it was, it was essential for us promoting the game at that time. Everything was all about entertainment. The job of promoting the game and entertaining the fans was critical.”
The job for Guy Newman, appointed on Feb. 18 as the club’s first (and only) assistant coach in 1996, was also a chance to once again work with his father, head coach Ron Newman, after the pair first served on the same coaching staff with the San Diego Sockers in 1993.
Guy, 38, played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Miami Americans and San Diego Sockers from 1978-1986 – winning five indoor titles – and had been coaching for 10 years since a knee injury ended his playing career. In 1994, he led the expansion Las Vegas Dustdevils to claim the Continental Indoor Soccer League championship and now he was in KC for another team’s maiden season.
“There was a lot of good memories of those first years (in KC),” Guy said this week. “Everybody was just so excited about this league. The excitement was there because we were starting something that we thought was going to be very special.
“The first game was one of the great memories. It was such a great feeling. Everybody was so excited about getting the game off.”
Joining the Newmans on the sideline and on the Kansas City Wiz technical staff were the following individuals:
- Goalkeeper Coach Alan Mayer
- Coaching Assistant: Chico Borja
- Equipment Manager: Micky Catano
- Trainers: Kurt Driver and Chet North
- Doctors: Scott Luallin and Neal Erickson
Now in the team’s 25th season, Erickson, Luallin and North –the Sports Lab and Research Director at Pinnacle – all still work with the club today.
March 3, 1996
The first trade in club history brought two players to Kansas City with vastly different draft experiences in 1996.
One was Matt McKeon, the first overall pick in the MLS College Draft.
The other was, well, “the MLS version of Mr. Irrelevant.”
“I went to the (Inaugural Player) Draft and was picked 150th out of 160 picks,” Garth Lagerwey recalled for ESPN this week.
On March 3, 1996, the Kansas City Wiz traded goalkeeper Jeff Causey to D.C. United in exchange for Lagerway and the No. 1 pick in the MLS College Draft taking place the next day.
The Kansas City Wiz had apparently liked what they saw in McKeon at the Umbro Select College All-Star Classic, a showcase for 130 NCAA and NAIA seniors that was held March 1-2 in Fort Lauderdale.
McKeon, the recent recipient of the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player, had been named MVP with two goals and an assist in the event’s All-Star Game, and the next day, the Wiz traded for the No. 1 spot to draft him.
The St. Louis native – also drafted by the Kansas City Attack in the NPSL Amateur Draft three months earlier – would go on to spend six stellar seasons in KC, twice earning MLS All-Star recognition. He scored the game-winning goal in the first Wiz playoff game in September 1996 and he assisted both KC goals in the team’s Supporters’ Shield clinching regular season finale in 2000.
Oh, and he also scored against the Wiz in 1996. And no, not an own goal.
McKeon, who played in the first FIFA U-17 World Championship in 1991, was a member of the U.S. Olympic team – coached by Bruce Arena – that played against KC at Arrowhead Stadium on July 3 in a tune-up for the Summer Games.
“I've canned him. He's fired,'' Newman joked, when asked about McKeon’s goal, assisted by Claudio Reyna, after the U.S. U-23 National Team’s 2-1 win.
While McKeon would go on to represent the U.S. at both the 1996 Olympics and 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup, the other player KC acquired in the trade would become a “Cinderella story at goalkeeper” for KC.
“When I first got traded here,'' Lagerwey said, “my heart kind of sank because I was going into a situation where there'd be four good goalkeepers.”
Kansas City had drafted two goalkeepers in the Inaugural Player Draft. They’d just traded one away and the other, Phil Wellington, would suffer a season-ending back injury at the start of preseason.
After making the move for Lagerwey, Ron Newman would draft two more goalkeepers the next day: Pat Harrington in the first round of the Supplemental Draft and Chris Snitko in the first round of the College Draft.
However, Harrington’s indoor season in Buffalo wouldn’t end until early April and Snitko would play with the U.S. Olympic Team until August.
Up stepped Lagerwey, winning the starting spot and playing in 28 MLS matches – including all five postseason games – for the club in 1996.
“The kid's come in, had an opportunity and grabbed it with both hands,'' said Newman, who also called him “nondescript” and “not flashy.”
Lagerwey, now the Seattle Sounders GM and President, would end the year with 14 braids in his hair.
"When I went to the Lollapalooza concert, Rancid was on the stage - it's a punk band - and I saw a guy in the mosh pit (with the hairstyle) and I said, 'That's for me!’”
March 4, 1996
"Ninety-nine percent of the game has to do with what's in your head," 18-year-old Diego Gutierrez told the KC Star in 1991, being profiled as a one of the area’s top prep players as a senior at Blue Springs High School. "If you concentrate, you can do anything."
Suffice to say, Gutierrez – who moved to the United States from Colombia in 1990 – was laser focused.
“In the long run I'm going to graduate from a good college, then see if I can play professional soccer,” Gutierrez said after signing his National Letter of Intent in March 1992.
"That's my goal: professional soccer,” Gutierrez reiterated in October 1994, now starring at Rockhurst University. “I'm happy because I get a chance to go to school, and I'll get a chance to play professional soccer. That's ideal.”
That goal was accomplished on March 4, 1996 when the Kansas City Wiz drafted Gutierrez in the second round of the MLS College Draft, one of seven draft selections for the club on the day.
1996 MLS College Draft
Matt McKeon – 1st round (1st overall)
Chris Snitko – 1st round (5th overall)
Diego Gutierrez – 2nd round (15th overall)
Dion Sebwe* – 3rd round (25th overall)
1996 MLS Supplemental Draft
Pat Harrington – 1st round (5th overall)
David Moxom* – 2nd round (15th overall)
Paul Wright – 3rd round (25th overall)
*Released on 4/15
Gutierrez would spend six seasons in Kansas City, being named the team’s Defender of the Year in 2003, during a 13-year MLS career highlighted by his goal in Chicago’s 1998 MLS Cup victory, four U.S. Open Cup trophies and MLS Humanitarian of the Year honors in 2007.
“I finished my high school here and I went to college here,” Gutierrez said this week, “so for me, getting to play at home and being able to contribute to what we were trying to do as a team and trying to do as a league, that for me was a tremendous feeling.”
With Kansas City’s seven final draftees, the inaugural Wiz roster was officially set.
“Ron was very good at putting teams together,” Gutierrez recalled. “He knew talent, he knew talented guys. He knew who would play well next to another player.”
March 5, 1996
Even so, Newman knew the challenge that lay ahead.
“(This training camp) is more unique than others I've been involved with,'' Newman said. “They're totally unfamiliar with each other. It'll take a while to jell.”
That chemistry was formed over the course of a 39-day preseason that kicked off on March 5, 1996 with the club’s first training session at UMKC – one of several training grounds the club would utilize in its inaugural season.
“We were like nomads going from one place to another looking for good training facilities. Sometimes the grass was up to your ankles,” remembers Sean Bowers, Kansas City’s Defender of the Year in 1996 and 1997. “(Ron) always had a way with players. He was one of the best coaches I ever had in terms of connecting players and having team chemistry.”
Major League Soccer organized two preseason destinations for its 10 clubs with five working out in Del Mar, California and five meeting up in Boca Raton, Florida.
KC traveled to Boca Raton for 12 days from March 13-24, playing six exhibitions against MLS opponents – winning one, losing one and drawing four – in addition to scrimmaging local club and college competition.
March 14: 1-1 T vs Tampa Bay (Takawira)
March 16: 1-1 T vs Tampa Bay (Prampin)
March 17: 1-0 W vs New York/New Jersey (Eichmann)
March 18: 3-3 T vs New England (Klopas 2, Takawira)
March 19: 3-2 L vs Columbus (Ekeme, Snow)
March 23: 1-1 T vs Columbus (Takawira)
“The funniest thing about (Ron) was that we always showed up to training not ever knowing what we were actually going to do,” Bowers said. “There were some things like, ‘Oh my gosh, are we really doing this?’ And then it actually worked and translated into our games.
“It was fun. It was really fun to be part of a group of guys that didn’t know each other at the start, but really came together. We had a really good first year.”
“Is this soccer’s last chance?” read the KC Star headline the day after a sellout crowd of more than 31,000 fans attended Major League Soccer’s inaugural match in San Jose.
Club founder Lamar Hunt, ever the visionary, summed it up best.
“We’ll have to go through a growing stage. We’ll be looking at some lean days at first, but we’ll have some big days, too.”
Now in year 25, MLS has grown to 26 teams.
“When you build a new league, you build it piece by piece,” said MLS Chairman Alan Rothenberg on the eve of the league’s historic opener. “The real key to me is if we run into the next century. Because if we’ve made it that far, we’re going to succeed.”
Major League Soccer, of course, did make it to a fifth season in 2000 with Kansas City – and Hunt – celebrating the occasion in fitting fashion: by hoisting MLS Cup.