Putting together a roster for a team that didn’t exist 25 years ago is a little tricky. Chances are most people reading this were either too young to remember or recognize the names of many of the MLS originals or weren’t paying close enough attention to domestic soccer at the time.
Aside from international stars like Carlos Valderrama, Marcelo Balboa, Brian McBride, Alexi Lalas, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Marco Etcheverry, Cobi Jones, Eric Wynalda, etc. many of the names that are recognizable now are because of the contributions they’ve made beyond their playing careers.
To put together a roster, I decided the main rule was I couldn’t take more than one player from an MLS original roster unless the additional player is from the greater Philadelphia region. The MetroStars, for example, had three players from the area with a Philadelphia native, Medford, N.J. native and Delran, N.J. native on their roster.
In real life, MLS teams were constructed through a variety of mechanisms. The first was a simple allocation of marquee players: each team was allocated four such players right off the top in some cases before teams even had head coaches. Then there was an inaugural player draft, the first college draft and a supplemental draft, followed by open tryouts.
Picking four players to be allocated to the Ringers was a bit of a challenge because it’s less an exercise in finding marquee players at the time as it is finding players who could have been persuaded to join the new league. USMNT and aging veterans fit that profile so I went with a couple of active national team players at the time and two guys who played in the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. who would have been far enough along in their careers to at least consider a move to the new league.
Earnie Stewart, Midfielder, USMNT, Willem II in the Netherlands
Stewart of course found his way to Philadelphia after his playing career had ended and was responsible for setting into motion many of the changes that led to last season’s success for the Union before leaving for U.S. Soccer. Stewart as a player didn’t come to MLS until he was well into his 30s but as an MLS original he could have been an early star of the new league. Where better than Philadelphia?
Thomas Dooley, Defender, USMNT, Schalke 04 in Germany
Dooley isn’t one of the big name USMNT guys from the era but he was a steady performer both for club and country who earned 81 caps and served as a captain for the U.S. The German-born center back and defensive midfielder came to the U.S. to play for the Crew in 1997 after playing the bulk of his career in his native Germany.
John Aldridge, Forward, Republic of Ireland, Tranmere Rovers in England
The Republic of Ireland forward was crucial for his country in the 1994 World Cup despite his age (35) and was an insanely prolific scorer over his long career, which lasted through 1998. He scored 363 goals in 673 appearances and had 19 goals in 69 caps for Ireland.
Dimitris Saravakos, Winger/Midfielder, Greece, AEK Athens
This was sort of a random selection because I wanted to find another player from the 1994 World Cup and needed a right winger, Dimitris would have been 32 at the time so he’s in the right age range at least and would have brought veteran European experience and creativity to the squad. He was the captain for the Greek team in the country’s first World Cup in 1994 and finished his international career with 22 goals in 78 appearances while also helping to lead AEK Athens to the group stage of the Champions League in 1994, a first for a team in Greece.
Inaugural Player Draft
Of all the mechanisms to get players into the league, the Inaugural Player Draft was by far the largest with 160 players being dispersed — sorry, their rights being dispersed — to the 10 MLS originals.
I picked and chose a little bit in all of the rounds, but mostly focused on filling positions and giving the team local flavor. This meant I went heavy on guys with local ties, picking up Philadelphia native Matt Knowles, Delran, N.J. native Peter Vermes (current Sporting Kansas City head coach and technical director), Medford, N.J. native and current FC Delco Academy Director Jeff Zaun and former Reading Rage midfielder Eric Puls. I also added Northern Ireland defender Jimmy McGeough Jr., who played for the Philadelphia Kixx in 1996 and Cameroon defender Samuel Ekemé as a two-decade precursor to Oliver Mbaizo. Former Mercer County Community College goalkeeper Jim Adams is also in the bunch. Four of the seven players I picked in the draft ended up being on the opening day starting XI so it was a productive draft for the Ringers.
Matt Knowles, Defender, Philadelphia, Pa., MetroStars, Wake Forest
Peter Vermes, Defender, Delran, N.J., USMNT, MetroStars, Rutgers
Jeff Zaun, Defender, Medford, N.J., MetroStars, Rutgers
Jimmy McGeough Jr., Defender, Northern Ireland, Philadelphia Kixx
Jim Adams, GK, Hamilton Township, NJ, New England Revolution, Mercer County/Monmouth
Eric Puls, Midfielder, Reading Rage, Syracuse
Samuel Ekemé, Defender, Cameroon, Kansas City Wizards
With only 10 teams in the league the inaugural College Draft included just 30 players and while there were some noticeable names it took a season or two for many to find their footing in the new league.
Jesse Marsch, Midfielder, D.C. United, Princeton
Jesse Marsch, who is currently head coach at Red Bull Salzburg is someone who would have been familiar to our Ringers assistant coach George O’Neill when he coached Penn in the Ivy League against Marsch and Princeton.
Casey Sweeney, Defender, Tampa Bay Mutiny, Butler
Initially drafted into indoor soccer by the Harrisburg Heat, he ended up in the inaugural draft pool for MLS and despite being selected by Tampa Bay Mutiny never played for them.
Eddie Lewis, Midfielder/Winger, USMNT, San Jose Clash, UCLA
Like he was in real life, Eddie Lewis was kind of a steal in the third round of the first ever college draft. The left winger had 10 goals in 82 caps for the USMNT.
The MLS Supplemental Draft was held the same day as the College Draft — and years later would be merged with the College Draft to create the SuperDraft — and featured another 30 players. Notables included Chris Armas, Paul Caligiuri and it was also the first MLS draft where a team passed on a pick (Colorado Rapids passed on the 29th pick).
The Ringers picked up a player from the First State.
Rob Smith, Midfielder, Wilmington, Del., Columbus Crew, South Carolina
Before Anthony Fontana and Mark McKenzie, there was Columbus Crew original Rob Smith from Wilmington, Del. He played for his hometown pro team the Delaware Wizards before joining the Crew, where he spent five seasons.
To round out the roster I went with some familiar names in local soccer circles. Two are current D1 men’s coaches in the area — Ian Hennessy at Delaware, Don D’Ambra at Saint Joseph’s. One, Troy Snyder, is the president of Reading United and two others are on coaching staffs at MLS teams in Todd Hoffard (RSL) and Omid Namazi (Houston Dynamo). Raimo de Vries is the father of current Union homegrown Jack de Vries and Andrew Craig is the father of Union Academy defenders Brandan Craig and Andrew Craig.
Ian Hennessy, Midfielder, Republic of Ireland, MetroStars, Seton Hall
Hennessy is currently the head coach at the University of Delaware, technical director for Delaware FC and a scout for U.S. Soccer. I talked to him for a podcast earlier this year. A
Troy Snyder, Defender/Midfielder, Fleetwood, Pa., Washington Warthogs, Penn State
Snyder is of the era of U.S. soccer when there were few options to play professionally outdoor — the period between the NASL folding and MLS starting — but did earn five U.S. caps and today is helping lead one of the top amateur teams in the country, Reading United.
Raimo de Vries, Midfielder, Netherlands, Colorado Rapids, Wake Forest
When Jack de Vries joined the Union roster in January he became the Union’s first second generation MLS player. Raimo made four appearances for the Rapids in year one before an injury kept him off the field.
Don D’Ambra, Forward, Philadelphia, Pa., Philadelphia Kixx, Saint Joseph’s
D’Ambra is a Philadelphia sports legend who doesn’t get his due. He scored almost 400 goals for the Kixx in his indoor career, was a player/manager for a time and also featured for the Hershey Wildcats in the late ‘90s. He’s the head coach at his alma mater Saint Joseph’s and very active in the youth soccer scene in South Jersey.
Omid Namazi, Defender, Philadelphia Kixx, West Virginia
Namazi is another player from the Kixx in the mid-’90s who today is an assistant coach for the Houston Dynamo. Namazi has made a lot of stops in his playing and coaching career, including a stint as director of soccer for Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals SC.
Todd Hoffard, Goalkeeper, Lancaster, Pa., Philadelphia Kixx, Hartwick College
The current goalkeeper coach for Real Salt Lake, Hoffard played for the Kixx in the mid-’90s and is the former head women’s coach at Lebanon Valley College.
Andrew Craig, Forward, Philadelphia, Pa., Philadelphia Freedom, Temple
The English-born Craig starred at Temple in the early ‘90s, was named Atlantic 10 Player of the Year in 1993 and spent time playing professionally for the short-lived Philadelphia Freedom in the USISL Pro League. His sons Brandan and Andrew are both in the academy now.
I went with a 4-2-3-1 to create a starting XI for the inaugural match with Republic of Ireland international John Aldridge up top, a midfield trio of Eddie Lewis, Earnie Stewart and Dimitris Saravakos that could easily switch positions throughout the game, the double pivot of Ian Hennessy and Rob Smith and a Philly-heavy back line with Matt Knowles at left back, Peter Vermes and captain Thomas Dooley pairing in the middle and Shawnee High School grad Jeff Zaun at right back in front of Jim Adams in goal.
On the bench for the opener: GK Todd Hoffard, defenders Jimmy McKeough Jr. and Samuel Ekemé, midfielders Raimo de Vries, Eric Puls and Troy Snyder and forward Don D’Ambra.