Fernando Ruiz has no remembrance of how the first-ever home match in MetroStars history went down, a now infamous Nicola Caricola own-goal in the game’s final seconds dooming the club in a 1-0 loss to the New England Revolution. He was underneath Giants Stadium, somewhere inside its cavernous bowels.
The team’s longtime equipment manager, Ruiz was thankfully spared the memory of the own-goal although he has seen nearly every up-and-down since then. It was 20 years ago this week that the MetroStars took to the field at Giants Stadium before over 46,000 fans, and it will be that ’96 team that the New York Red Bulls remember this Sunday at Red Bull Arena. The likes of Tab Ramos and Miles Joseph will be on hand from that team.
At that time, Ruiz was a game day volunteer, doing everything from moving signs outside the stadium to getting towels ready in the locker room. He remembers the anticipation of the game on April 20, 1996. He arrived at the stadium at 9:00 AM for a game that kicked off 10 hours later. He was the first person there.
“I remember the excitement,” Ruiz recalled.
“I was just excited to be there. I didn’t even think about the next game,” Ruiz continued. “I worked the World Cup in 1994. I really didn’t think we were going to have a pro league. I remember thinking ‘Man, this is a huge step.’ And there I was for the first game of the MetroStars. It went by so fast. I remember the game starting and then next thing, it was over.”
Now, MLS is something that is just assumed for the next generation of soccer stars. Many grew up at a time with no recollection of this country not having a first division soccer league. But for many of the league’s rising crop of stars, MLS was always there.
But it was a risk back in those days and Ruiz remembers the constant turnover of players and management as the MetroStars tried to find stable footing but instead were in constant upheaval.
The league was smaller back then with teams playing in NFL or college football stadiums. Sometimes it worked, such as the MetroStars home-opener when the third-tier of Giants Stadium was opened for the crowd. But more often than not, it was a couple thousand fans in a sea of empty seats.
These players today know nothing of a world where the MetroStars used to train at local Kean College, utilizing a tiny locker room and having to walk across a baseball field covered in goose excrement to practice. There were days, later on, when the team would practice in the parking lot at Giants Stadium or take vans to utilize a park in a nearby city.
Today, the Red Bulls train on three beautiful fields kept in pristine condition and their home matches are at the country’s best soccer-specific stadium.
Tyler Adams, the Red Bulls’ midfielder who turned 17-years-old this February, wasn’t even born when MLS started. Alex Muyl, who made his first MLS start for New York last weekend at the Colorado Rapids, was seven months old when the MetroStars played their first home match. Neither player can remember a time when MLS didn’t exist and wasn’t a viable league.
Both players now are part of a team with its own soccer-specific stadium, their very own training facility, a reserve team playing in the third division and a full-fledged academy system. In the league’s inaugural year, no team in MLS had those four key components as part of their own franchise.
In fact, no team in MLS had any of those things until the Columbus Crew built their own stadium in 1999.
“I think we have a lot to be thankful for. How far the league has come,” Muyl said. “How great a situation this is for us now is all thanks to the players who came before us. The dedication, the care they showed – we’re reaping the benefits of that.”
“Growing up in this city as well, being from New York, it strikes close to home.”
As for Ruiz, he sits back in a chair at the team’s facility, sipping on a soda and smiling. There is a twinkle in his eye, the sparkle of a man who has seen 20 years of history fade from the MetroStars black-and-red to the Red Bulls colors of today. He has stories, some of which he can’t tell but only laugh about.
“There have been a lot of players,” Ruiz said. “A lot of coaches, a lot of people who have come through that door.”
But through it all, there has been just one Fernando Ruiz and still just one MLS.