That First MLS Season / The 1997 Upper Deck MLS Collection- Official PSA Thread
The year was 1997. As a father of two young children, a lifelong recreational soccer player, and a season ticket holder to the first-ever Major League Soccer season in 1996, I worked with a local sports card shop to find every card in the first national collection to feature ‘That First MLS Season’, the 1997 Upper Deck MLS collection.
MLS was founded in 1993 as part of the United States' successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. These Upper Deck MLS cards perfectly captured those 1996 original teams, the players, uniforms, logos and vibe of that first season. I remember thinking to myself at the time ‘Hey self, imagine having the first set of cards for MLB, NBA, NHL or NFL? Did they even have cards for those first seasons? I wonder if I can find that out on Alta Vista?’
We managed to find 124 of 125 cards, carefully inspected each one, and slid them into a protective album sheet to stand the test of time. With a fledgling league came meager sales for Upper Deck and their new MLS product. Later that year, they abandoned plans to extend the collection with an additional 50 card base set and more inserts. So unimpressed with soccer cards, Upper Deck cancelled plans to produce MLS cards the following season. ‘Wait, WHAT, there were no cards that feature the 1997 MLS season?’ You are correct sir. Upper Deck eventually returned with an MLS product in 1999. Unfortunately, with that one-year lag, I never regained interest in pursuing additional MLS cards. Other than my baseball cards, my football cards, and my comic books, which my mom threw away in 1967, this was the only card collection I now owned.
Ten years later, Sweet Mother of God, I found an online seller who happened to have my missing holy grail card – the S5 Gold Signature Jorge Campos! My card life was now complete.
Meanwhile, cards began appearing on the PSA Set Registry in March of 2011, when a collector from Maine published his 51-card base set. In 2012 that same registry member added the first base gold border parallel set and two of the insert sets. In 2018, a new registry member from Texas published the same two insert sets overtaking the original registry member in the rankings. In 2019, another new registry member from Florida appears with a higher-ranking base and gold base set. Gotta love the Set Registry.
Then IT happened. Twenty-five years after ‘That First MLS Season’, the Great Pandemic Card Corroboree swept across the globe in 2020. I just happen to be sheltering in place as instructed by my government overlords when I rediscovered my old MLS sports memorabilia – a first-year team signed game ball, a first-year Alexi Lalas autographed game jersey, and my complete first-year MLS card collection. Apparently, I was now one of 36 million people trying to decide if they should send their sports cards off to PSA for grading.
I scoured YouTube and the PSA Forums to discover how collectors evaluate and ready their cards for grading. While I had hoped to borrow my friend’s electron transmission microscope, I opted for a bench mounted magnifying glass, hi-powered light, and archive gloves. I carefully reviewed each corner, edge, and angle of every surface, grading them on a 1-10 scale in a spreadsheet for every card. Once complete, I readied the entire collection and shipped it coast to coast to sunny downtown Newport Beach on August 15, 2020.
After an astounding 45 weeks, my graded collection finally returned home – where I waited an additional 24 weeks for the last two sets to be added to the Set Registry.
Now you might be asking yourself, were my cards graded on the same scale as yesteryears slabs, given the higher-tech, new grader hiring binge, and the avalanche of cardboard backlog demand pressures, or did those seasoned submitters of long ago simply have a better ‘card-eye’ than this newbie know-nothing first time submitter? We’ll likely never know, but of course we know.
In the end, I’m glad to have made the journey, and look forward to submitting new cards to better my grades, if that ever becomes an affordable option. I’m also grateful to have the only complete PSA Graded, 125 card, 1997 Upper Deck MLS Collection, featuring 15 Hall of Famers and all five of the rare Gold Signature cards. Happy as well to see the PSA base and PSA base gold sets that were recently sold on eBay for a handsome price. Here’s hoping the new buyer returns to compete in the registry.
As for these cards, they bring back tons of great memories with my soccer playing friends who shared my tickets to those early games, along with meeting so many of the very accessible 1996 players at season ticket holder events, supporter group meetings, and attending the very first MLS Cup championship game at old Foxboro Stadium in a Nor’easter hurricane.
As for MLS, it’s flourishing in its 28th season, with 29 teams –26 in the US and 3 in Canada. Soccer’s momentum should build even further as the FIFA World Cup returns to the world stage in 2022 and then comes to the US in the summer of 2026, where it will be shared with Canada and Mexico!
In the ‘things to look forward to’ department -- I have 48 of the 50 base cards, autographed by those 1996 pioneers of American soccer, currently winding their way to PSA for authentication and encapsulation. Patience is a virtue.
Wishing you all the best in your own collectors’ universe!
Alexi Lalas, 'The most recognizable US Soccer player ever' according to his Upper Deck card in 1996 -- But somehow, they errored by inserting the player position, height, weight, birthdate and team of card #1, Marcelo Balboa, on to the back of every base and parallel Alexi Lalas card ever printed. The correct stats for Alexi Lalas only appear on his hard-to-find unnumbered promo card, a two-card set shared with Carlos Valderrama, that was issued the year before this national set was sold.
Recently submitted my autographed 1997 Upper Deck MLS regular cards to PSA for authentication through a PSA Forum group submission. This 50-card set, of which I have 48 autos, depicts five players each from the original 10 teams in their 1996 inaugural season. As expected, all 48 were returned as authentic! Couldn't be happier as most of these autographs were personally obtained. The rest came from a verified local autograph seeker who would go to the visiting team's hotel lobby back in the day. Now if I could just locate the final two cards ...
A friend recently shared this wonderful 8.5 x 11 sales sheet of 'That First MLS Season' cards. A valiant effort by Upper Deck to boost sales and awareness for their new sports card product and this fledgling league. They also spelled inaugural wrong
A four month turnaround on this 27 year old beauty. It wasn't until I started submitting my entire collection to PSA that I realized 'pack grading' was even a thing. Happy to get a Mint 9 ...
Interesting read. Thank you for sharing!
What would this collection be without a UD logo shrink-wrapped sealed box of 1997 Upper Deck MLS?
Likely very few boxes left. I know of only one other ...