As we count down the days until the MLS season begins, we will be looking at 25 players from greater Philadelphia who have made an impact on the league 25 years after the first ball was kicked. Read the rest of the series at brotherlygame.com/philly-mls-25.
The career window for a professional soccer player doesn’t stay open long.
Before Major League Soccer, Philadelphia’s Matt Knowles spent most of his career grinding between the American Professional Soccer League and the National Professional Soccer League, both attempts at re-creating the early success of the NASL and MISL. In the early 1990s, American players bounced around the country from season to season, from baseball fields to astroturf, chasing the dream, which Knowles accomplished for over a decade. Unfortunately, following a string of major injuries, his MLS window closed faster than he would have liked.
In 1996, ten MLS clubs started from scratch, building rosters from four allocated players and the initial Player Entry Draft. With the ninth pick of the first round, the New York/New Jersey Metrostars selected Knowles, who was entering the prime of his then seven-year pro career. Prior to being drafted, he’d been named the NPSL’s Defender of the Year with the Milwaukee Wave, his second time with that distinction, and began his MLS career as the backbone of the Metrostars defense alongside Delran, New Jersey’s Peter Vermes. For Knowles, the opportunity to play a role in MLS was the experience of his lifetime.
“Before my first MLS Game,” he said in a recent interview with the Brotherly Game, “I was in the playoffs with Milwaukee. We played Friday and Sunday, and went to a Game Three on Tuesday. There were fifteen hundred fans. It was a school night.” The day after Milwaukee lost the deciding game to the St. Louis Ambush 14-12, Knowles flew east, met his Metrostars teammates, then practiced for three days ahead of the MLS opener. “Eddie Firmani was the coach. He told me I wasn’t starting because I’d just come in, and he wanted to make sure I was fit. We go to the Rose Bowl to play the Galaxy, and there were 70,000 people at the game.”
The Metrostars lost 2-1 and Knowles played the final thirty minutes in the second half, but he still cherishes that moment. “It was a great experience. I knew after that game that the league was going to make it.”
In New York, Knowles found the potential just as motivating even if the league still had its pitfalls. “We played New England in Giants Stadium in front of close to 50,000. They’d bring trays of grass from outside and put it on top of the turf in 3 x 3 sections.” The portable grass had been a solution for creating a professional natural surface inside the multipurpose stadiums prior to the 1994 World Cup and was one of many oddities of the league in its first few seasons.
“I wish kids knew what the league was like,” he said. “We trained at Kean College. We had a little locker room and shared lockers.” In New York, Knowles was surrounded by stars like Vermes, Tab Ramos, Tony Meola, and Giovanni Savarese, but the biggest name in the locker room was Italian international Roberto Donadoni, one of the most decorated players in his nation’s illustrious history, who also endured the hardships of the club’s infrastructure. “I wondered what he was thinking. Donadoni was coming from AC Milan, and he’s getting dressed in Kean College. We’d be shooting baskets before training in the gym.”
In his first season with Metrostars, Knowles spent a lot of time around Vermes and Ramos, who are now head coaches at Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo respectively. “Pete was a good player, very smart, and knew what he was going to do with the ball before it came to him. He was strong on the ball and very technical.” Knowles and Vermes commuted from their hometowns and often drove together for training or to the airport ahead of road trips. “He was a great communicator, which is why he’s a great coach. Tab was the best player I ever played with, and I played with Valderamma.”
Knowles played 24 games his first season in New York and logged over 1,700 minutes. He also appeared in all three playoff games as the Metrostars fell to D.C. United 1-0 in the deciding game of the quarterfinals. In many ways, Knowles was a product of the era prior to MLS in which career development was defined by the sink or swim mentality and players did whatever they could to get meaningful minutes. That work ethic started when he was in high school.
On this day in 1996, MLS held day 1 of its Inaugural Draft. The MetroStars picked 8 players—6 of whom would make the squad. Among them: Matt Knowles, Jeff Zaun, AJ Wood, Ted Gillen, Zach Thornton, and Peter Vermes, longtime Sporting KC boss (seen below beating DC in the playoffs) pic.twitter.com/CE1ZoazqnT— Today In RBNY History (@RBNY_History) February 6, 2021
Prior to his pro career, Knowles attended Archbishop Ryan, following in the footsteps of his older brothers Ernie, Dennis, and Tim, who along with the Stackhouses, the Bradbys, and the DiRenzis, among other soccer families, formed one of the top high school programs in the area under George Todt in the 1980s. Ryan won four-straight Catholic League championships in Knowles’ four years, going unbeaten in his final three, and Knowles scored 28 goals his senior year and was named the Catholic League MVP. He also kicked two field goals in Ryan’s 6-0 win over Archbishop Carroll in the PCL championship game in 1988.
“It was like playing in a pro team,” he said of Ryan under Todt. “They ran a program that wasn’t like high school. It was a step above.”
After high school, Knowles spent one season at Mercer County Community College, then signed an amateur contract with the Penn-Jersey Spirit in the APSL, playing for his mentor Dave MacWilliams. In his first five years as a pro, he played year-round. “The indoor contracts lasted six months,” he said, “so I had to go play for six months.” Knowles played two seasons with Penn-Jersey and three with the Illinois/Denver Thunder in the NPSL where he was among the league statistical leaders and earned his first Defender of the Year award in 1991-92. He also played a season apiece with the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers and the Tampa Bay Rowdies before three more with the Milwaukee Wave prior to the Metrostars.
As a full-time pro, Knowles embraced the grind. “In the NPSL, every team had one long road weekend. We used to play Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We’d bus from Milwaukee to Chicago, then right after the game get on the bus. We’d get in to Cleveland by 4:30 a.m., sleep, then play that night.”
In the indoor game, Knowles earned the reputation as a tough defender who could also attack, which led to him being drafted during a time when MLS teams only had eighteen roster spots and limited alternates. Clubs had no reserve team nor affiliate clubs, so his future appeared set after a solid first season with the Metrostars. But Knowles had been used to the life of a pro, where low salaries meant a need to play more games to survive, so he went back to indoor doing what he loved. But after 1996, the playing load started to catch up with him.
“I tore my ACL three times from 1996-2000,” he said. “First time was in ’94. Every time I’d tear it, I’d be a step slower. By the end of ’96, I was fit and healthy. Charlie (Stillitano) said he wanted me back, didn’t want me to play indoor. I probably should have never gone back.” Knowles returned to Milwaukee despite a request to be traded to the Philadelphia Kixx for its inaugural season, but after the Wave sent him to Cleveland mid-season, he tore his ACL three games in and missed the rest of the indoor season as well as the first half of the 1997 MLS season. “I had surgery in January and was out until June. It was hard to focus but I had to. I wanted to play and prove myself.”
The Metrostars also had four coaches in Knowles’ two and half seasons, adding to the instability. Eddie Firmani, who coached Pele with the Cosmos, left eight games into the 1996 season and was replaced by Carlos Quieroz, who later coached at Manchester United and Real Madrid, led the Portugal, Iran, and Colombia national teams, and is often credited with discovering Cristiano Ronaldo. In 1997, Carlos Alberto Parreira, the World-Cup-winning coach with Brazil in 1994, took over the Metrostars and still had Knowles in his plans.
Knowles appeared four times during the 1997 season, and after the Metrostars missed the playoffs, he tried again indoors to stay fit after the Kixx and Metrostars bought his rights from Cleveland. In his first season with the Kixx, he earned First Team All-League honors and was named Defender of the Year for the third time in his career, and the Kixx finished first in the Eastern Division before losing in the American Conference finals.
In 1998, the Metrostars hired Alfonso Mondelo as head coach, and he brought his own philosophies and players. Knowles made four appearances then was traded to the Miami Fusion, and he suffered another ACL tear after three games, ending his season and his MLS career. “It was too much,” he said, “playing MLS and indoor. I needed a few months of rest. My body started to break down.”
Rejoining the Kixx in the 1998-99 season, Knowles earned First Team All-League again, and the Kixx lost in the conference finals for the second straight season. For the next several years, he stayed indoors, playing two years with the Detroit Rockers, one with the Harrisburg Heat, and eventually finished his career with the Kixx in 2002.
“I could have had a better career in MLS,” he said. “It still bothers me that I didn’t get the chance to prove myself. I knew I could play with the top guys in the country. I felt like I was never getting into game fitness, felt behind. It was frustrating. I’m grateful for being drafted, for the Metrostars. I wish I would have played better.”
In total, Knowles appeared in 35 MLS games, including playoffs, and played 2,666 minutes, most of them as a starter. Though he may be most remembered for his indoor success, he excelled outdoors, and had he not battled so many successive injuries, he could have had a prolonged career and possibly been a fringe national team player. But he’ll always be remembered as the first Philadelphia-born player in MLS and is still regarded as one of the best defenders of his era.