By J Hutcherson (Apr 7, 2020) US Soccer Players - In 1996, the Tampa Bay Mutiny surprised its new league by finishing at the top of the Eastern Conference with the best overall record in MLS. 58 points from 32 games, nine more than the Western Conference winning LA Galaxy. DC United upended Tampa's season in the Eastern Conference finals, the first and only time the Mutiny would make it that far before exiting the league following the 2001 season. Figuring out how good the Mutiny was in 1996 starts with MLS itself.
Year one in MLS
Major League Soccer missed its start date, delayed until 1996 as organizers tried to establish markets with willing investor/operators. The league started without teams in Chicago and Miami, both key soccer markets and with the league itself the investor/operator in Tampa Bay. Professional club soccer was a risk, even with the enthusiasm following the 1994 World Cup. The pro game stayed indoors following the demise of the original North American Soccer League following the 1984 season. It struggled there as well, with the glory days of the Major Indoor Soccer League long gone. MLS didn't start with the benefit of a new-look league. It carried with it the weight of American pro soccer as a series of failures. With every team making their debuts, Tampa Bay was the one separating itself throughout the 1996 season.
Thomas Rongen would win coach of the year in his only season as coach of the Mutiny. He built a squad centered around Carlos Valderrama creating opportunities and Roy Lassiter capitalizing on them. Valderrama to Lassiter took care of the offense when both were on the field in '96. Lassiter scored 27 goals in 30 games. Valderamma had 17 assists in 23 games. Tampa Bay also had emerging talent. Steve Ralston played in 31 of 32 games as a true rookie and the 18th pick in the college draft. Frankie Hejduk was two years out of college and an established member of the USMNT U-23s. That meant the Olympics that summer with Hejduk joining the Mutiny late in the season. He moved into the lineup, giving them a late spark as a capable wing player. Stabilizing the backline was USMNT player Cle Kooiman and future MLS coach Frank Yallop.
Navigating the unknown
The new league problem loomed for all 10 of the MLS teams at the start of 1996. Nobody knew what good looked like in a league of debuts. Tampa started with a 3-2 home win over New England on April 13, winning again at Columbus on the 20. They lost at home to Dallas on April 28 and lost in a shootout to the MetroStars on May 4. A four-game win streak followed with Tampa beating six of the league's ten teams six weeks into the season. As indicators go, it was a good one. They hosted Feyenoord on May 26 in a poorly attended friendly that ended 1-1. Of note was that Tampa played without Lassiter and with Valderamma only on the field for 24 minutes. Rongen used 17 players in that game while Feyenoord only made four subs.
LA in June
The LA Galaxy had Jorge Campos in goal and USMNT star Cobi Jones when they made the cross-country trip to Tampa on June 1. The Galaxy was already a strong road draw with just under 20,000 in attendance. Guillermo Jara opened the scoring in the 30th minute with Lassiter equalizing in the 35th. Harut Karapetyan scored LA's winner in the 59th. Tampa Bay responded to that 2-1 loss with back-to-back wins at Kansas City and home to Colorado. It was LA at the Rose Bowl on June 16, this time a 2-2 draw that Tampa lost in a shootout. They lost another shootout to Columbus at home on June 22. A 4-0 loss at San Jose on June 30 could've been a demoralizing cap to a run of games separating the contenders. If there was a scouting report for Tampa at this point in the season, it would've contained few surprises. Lassiter was already among the league leaders in goals. Stopping Lassiter would stop the Mutiny.
Separation in the Eastern Conference
All MLS teams went into the season knowing that four of the five teams in each conference would advance to the playoffs. Making the playoffs was a basic expectation. Colorado Rapids were the only team that would fall off the chase, eventually finishing 10 points out in the West. In the East, New England would miss the playoffs by four points. Six points separated 3rd from 5th-place. Tampa won four of their six games in July, losing at DC but finishing the month with a home win over the Galaxy. By this point, teams were figuring each other out through familiarity. August was tough for the Mutiny, losing home and away to DC United and also dropping games to the Burn and the Revolution.
Winning in September
The Mutiny shook off a disappointing August to close out the regular season by winning all five of their games in September. That included beating DC 2-0 at home on the 14 and a shutout win at San Jose on the 18. Their finale was a 4-1 home win over the MetroStars on September 21, finishing with 58 points to DC's 46 in conference and LA's 49 overall. The only cause for concern was what happened on September 7. Playing at the Rochester Rhinos in the quarterfinal round of the US Open Cup, Tampa lost 4-3 using a first-choice lineup with Valderrama and Lassiter.
Like everything else in 1996, navigating the playoffs was also new for all the clubs involved. Tampa faced Columbus in the semifinal round, winning 2-0 and 2-1 to take the series 4-1 on aggregate. DC needed penalties to knockout the MetroStars in the other half of the bracket. That set up a Tampa vs DC conference final that heavily favored the Mutiny. Instead, DC took a 4-1 lead at home on October 10. Two days later, they finished the job with a 2-1 win in Tampa. How does the best regular season team in the league exit the playoffs 6-2 on aggregate? Simple. The scouting report on Tampa was to stop Lassiter. For DC, it was stopping Raul Diaz Arce. Diaz Arce scored three goals in the first-leg and another in the second. Lassiter scored once.
So how good was the '96 Mutiny?
Valderrama, Lassiter, Kooiman, and Martin Vasquez started for the Eastern Conference All-Star team with Rongen coaching. Valderrama and Lassiter made the Best XI. Lassiter set a scoring record that didn't fall until 2018. Valderrama won the MVP award. Ralston was rookie of the year. Rongen was coach of the year. The Mutiny put together a season where they took less shots than any other team in the league and finished with the highest goal difference. DC United's rainy MLS Cup win overshadowed all of that. So did the changes to the Mutiny. Rongen was the first major piece to go, leaving for New England after the '96 season. Tampa finished 10 points behind DC in 1997 and exited the playoffs in the opening round to Columbus. Valderamma went to the Miami expansion team in 1998. A trade sent Lassiter to DC six games into that season. The Mutiny didn't get the chance to build off of 1996, in part because they may not have known how good they really were. Without benchmarks, it's tough to make meaningful comparisons. DC became the league's first dynasty in large part because their front office figured the league out quicker than others. Tampa was a league-run team with attendance problems already evident in year one. Tampa, and by extension the league that owned them, may have misread its situation. It turns out good in year one was good period, with the '96 Mutiny still among the best teams ever to play in Major League Soccer.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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