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Q&A: Esse Baharmast reflects on the opening MLS game from 1996

The current Director of Referees for Colorado Soccer Association and FIFA technical instructor Esse Baharmast was the referee when San Jose Clash hosted D.C. United in the inaugural game of Major League Soccer 25 years ago today.

In 1996, having already refereed at the Concacaf Gold Cup (including one of the semifinals between Mexico and Guatemala), Baharmast went on to referee the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, the A-League Final and the MLS Cup Final, as well as officiating at the Olympic Games in Atlanta during the summer, which also included a semifinal assignment between Argentina and Portugal.

Here he recalls the build-up to the opening MLS game and the day itself.

When did you find out that you had been assigned to the opening game?

I was informed about a week before. I had refereed domestically in the American Professional Soccer League and A-League, but this was something different. I was looking forward to a professional league coming in at a major league level.

We had Colorado Foxes, which was a very good team in Denver where I live, and there were strong teams in Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area and Rochester. That was about the extent of it, so we needed something nationwide.

There was a vacuum of professional outdoor soccer in our own country throughout the 1980s and then we finally qualified for the World Cup in Italy in 1990, and we got the World Cup here in 1994.

Part of the agreement for that was a professional league would be set up in the USA, and the nation was looking forward to it starting and have football day in and day out.

What did the arrival of Major League Soccer mean to you as a referee and a fan of the sport?

I just wanted the game that I love, and I have grown up with since I was a little kid, to finally take a foothold in this country. We put on a great show in ’94; the stadiums were full no matter where matches were played. I knew we had the people, the capability and the know-how in this country to make this happen.

We had all the right ingredients to make this game grow and we had been waiting and waiting. MLS was finally here and the Olympics were coming to Atlanta in the summer. It was an exciting time in the US and we were ready.

How did you approach gameday? What was the atmosphere leading up to the game like?

To start, it was a pleasure and an honor for me to be a part of history. I would usually go to the stadium the day before to check the field. I like to make sure that I know where I’m going, where the locker rooms are, what the field looks like – basically to make sure there are going to be no surprises. Things that are par for the course these days.

When I got there, they were painting a huge MLS logo in the center circle however, no markings are allowed on the field, other than the lines. One of the first things I had to do was to let them know that this was not allowed unless they could show me a letter giving them permission from FIFA. Without that, I explained I couldn’t referee the game. When you watch the game online, you can see in the center circle where they painted over the logo in green paint. The ball still rolled pretty well so it wasn’t a problem.

When I talk to referees at the World Cup, I always say to them, there is an opening game and a final game, and every game in between. A game is a game, whether it’s number one or number 64. Don’t let the pressure of the crowd, of television or anything else, wear you down. It’s the same players [you’ve refereed before], no-one has arrived from another planet – just go out there and enjoy. That was my mentality and this was no different.

The rest of the crew came in the day of the game because they were from near the Bay Area.

Levon [Baladjanian, Assistant Referee] was also a FIFA official and he was from Fresno, California, and we’d worked together many times, so I asked him to arrive early so we could have plenty of time to discuss the game during lunch. Reggie [Rutty, Assistant Referee] and Joe Pimentel [4th Official] joined us and we relaxed together, before heading to the stadium as a team.

There was hardly anything between the teams on the day, and it was two minutes from time before Eric Wynalda scored the first goal in MLS history – did you sense you might be overseeing a tiebreak shootout in the opening game as the clocked ticked down?

I wasn’t thinking that far. I was too busy reacting to the game and the players. Perhaps looking back, it was to my relief, being a soccer person, that we had a goal and it was a beautiful goal, too.

I’d played and coached before becoming a referee so football runs in my blood. A goalless draw was the last thing anybody would have wanted.

Did the game go as you’d hoped it would? There were 27 fouls and five yellow cards, the first coming just five minutes into the game…

If it’s a yellow card, it’s a yellow card, whether it is seconds into the game or the 89th minute. Referees evaluate on merit [of the challenge], not the time, not the score or who the team is.

Of course, we did our homework as referees, same as they do today. You look at the teams, the players, tactics, set plays, etc. It’s about doing your research and being ready.

The players were all happy; I sensed more of a feeling of excitement rather than nervousness. A lot of these players I knew, and they knew me. I always felt I had a good relationship as a player’s referee – the players could feel I loved the game and had played so I like to think they could relax and enjoy games when I was the referee.

Can you remember the uniform you wore that day – what did you make of that?

Oh yes [laughs]. We saw it for the first time when we arrived at the stadium. We didn’t have our own, they had them in the locker room waiting for us.

We had to leave it there at the end of the game for the next crew. Fortunately, we were all in pretty good physical shape so there were no problems with the sizes.

It was always my belief I should be as fit as the players, if not more. A player can get substituted in the 70th minute but I cannot. With international tournaments, some games could run for 120+ minutes with extra and added time. We need to be ready to run and do our job for more than two hours.

I felt the refereeing team looked fit – not much different from the players.

What was your next MLS assignment after the opening game?

I did two of the home openers later in April 1996. One for Colorado Rapids [versus Dallas Burn at Mile High Stadium] and then New England Revolution’s home opener against D.C. United at Foxboro.

When you look back at that day, and consider where MLS is now, what moments stand out for you from the start of the competition?

I would like to tip my hat to the early investors: to know where you are going, we have to know our past. I would hope there will be recognition for the people who were instrumental in getting MLS off the ground.

People like Philip Anschutz and Lamar Hunt standout; without such pioneers with great fortitude, this league would not exist – at one point, I believe Anschutz owned six teams keeping the league moving forward.

I must also recognize all the players, coaches, referees, administrators and the fans who stood by our game and are the reason for our success. I am grateful to every one of them for the wonderful memories they have created and will continue to do so for the next generation.

What is it they say about overnight sensations? They never happen overnight. This one has been 40 years in the making.

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