Grimes Reflects On 25th Anniversary Of MLS Opener
BERKELEY – Kevin Grimes had always wanted to become a professional soccer player.
Now the head coach of the California men's soccer team, Kevin Grimes the player earned five caps with the U.S. men's national team, was a two-time All-American at SMU and was a veteran of several U.S. youth national teams. His path seemed destined to lead to the pro ranks. And it did, as Grimes played for several years in the APSL and in Iceland for one year with Tindastóll.
His path also took a turn towards the United States' fledgling, First Division league in Major League Soccer. The San Jose Clash selected the midfielder in the 16th round in the first draft in 1996. (The franchise changed its name to the San Jose Earthquakes in 2000.)
Grimes was a fixture in the Clash lineup for most of the preseason that inaugural year. But a leg injury left him sidelined for one of the most important moments in Major League Soccer history.
Twenty five years ago today, on April 6, 1996, the San Jose Clash defeated D.C. United, 1-0, in the league's first game at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, California, and a 28-year-old Grimes had a great view of all the action.
He relishes his memories of that day.
"Even though it was 25 years ago, the memory of the opening game of MLS is very vivid for me," Grimes said. "What stood out for me the most was pulling up to the game in our team bus about two hours before kickoff and seeing thousands of fans in the street outside of Spartan Stadium cheering, waving flags and singing and chanting. Our bus had to stop a couple times before we got into the entrance with so many fans flooding the street. You could feel the electricity of the fans through the metal of the bus. It was surreal."
The game was a sell-out, with 31,000 fans packing Spartan Stadium, which was also the home to the San Jose State football team.
"That was my first real memory of coming into a stadium and witnessing all that energy and an incredible fan base in what was just the start of what we see today in Major League Soccer," Grimes said. "The next thing that I remember were player introductions and how loud it was there. I looked over at one of my teammates on the bench, and he said, 'Man, I think I'm going to cry,' and I was the same way. This league, which we as young professional players had hoped would come to be, was finally happening."
His last memory of the game was the 87th-minute, gamewinning goal from Clash and U.S. national team forward Eric Wynalda.
"The play started along our sideline where our bench was, and I remember him cutting it back to his right foot and saying, 'Oh my God, he's going to hit it far post.' And it was a perfect finish to the back post, side netting, and everyone on bench ran down the sideline and piled on him. The fans were so loud! I hadn't heard decibels that loud at any event in my life.
"And a league was born. It's 25 years later, and crowds similar to what we had for that game are showing up on a weekly basis in MLS markets around the country. I didn't know this would get to the level it is today with almost 30 teams and soccer-specific stadiums, huge fan bases and players all over the world signing with MLS teams. It's just incredible. Certainly the position I'm in right now – being able to put my players in the league 25 years later – is pretty rewarding."
Due to his injury, Grimes never played for the Clash. He caught on with the Orange County Zodiac in the A-League and earned a spot in the 1997 A-League All-Star Game. Grimes – who had previously coached at the club and high school levels – soon retired to become an assistant coach at SMU. He worked at his alma mater for three seasons (1997-99) before Cal hired him as head coach in 2000.
"I had played some of the best soccer in my life in that preseason in 1996, but the timing of it was just not meant to be," Grimes said. "I cherished the three and a half months I had with the Clash and being part of the opening game. I certainly am glad for the way things turned out, though, because I turned to coaching at a young age."
Coaching has been good to Grimes, a five-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year who has mentored 14 former Bears who are current pro players.
In 2016, the Earthquakes commemorated the 20th anniversary of the MLS opener during a game between San Jose and D.C. United at the Quakes' Avaya Stadium. Grimes and his Clash teammates were honored at halftime of that game, which featured a former Grimes protégé on each team – David Bingham with San Jose and Steven Birnbaum with United.
"I gave them a hug at halftime," Grimes said. "It was really cool being at the 20th anniversary game and walking out there at halftime. And having two of my former players starting that game, that tells me I was meant to do what I'm doing. My path was not to play 5-7 years in MLS because in the 20th anniversary of that first game, two players I'd like to think I had a strong influence on were playing in MLS. If I had any doubts about my career, that told me everything I needed to know about my fate."
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