(By Christopher Wilson)
If Bandai's 1996 set of MLS figures was a musical artist, it would be a one-hit wonder.
Released for Major League Soccer's inaugural season, it was the first officially-licensed set of figures . . . and after 20 MLS seasons, it has still been the only set.
Major League Soccer began with 10 teams, and the set featured one player from each team.
Eastern Conferences players included Doctor Khumalo (Columbus Crew), John Harkes (D.C. United), Alexi Lalas (New England Revolution), Tab Ramos (New York/New Jersey MetroStars) and Carlos Valderrama (Tampa Bay Mutiny).
Western Conference players included Marcello Balboa (Colorado Rapids), Hugo Sanchez (Dallas Burn), Frank Klopas (Kansas City Wizards), Cobi Jones (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Eric Wynalda (San Jose Clash).
Clarification may be needed to verify that those were actual MLS teams and players, considering half of the teams have either been renamed or dissolved. And I don't want to do the research to determine if Columbus' best player was a practicing physician, because it is much more exciting to live under that delusion. Regardless, the Crew's PA announcer should definitely have made "Paging Doctor Khumalo" a thing.
Each of the figures came with an Upper Deck trading card. I own four of the figures (Harkes, Jones, Lalas and Valderrama), which I specifically remember buying at Kay Bee Toys.
The toys were advertised as "totally realistic articulated figures in awesome action poses," and that "collectors will value the extraordinary attention to detail." And I concur! One look at Alexi Lalas' hands was all it took. He's wearing a wristband and two rings. There is no knuckle hair, but I've never shaken hands with Lalas to determine if this is an accurate omission or not.
Bandai was clearly inspired by Kenner, which had been making Starting Lineup figures since 1988. Kenner sold soccer figures, known as Sportstars, in the United Kingdom, but the only soccer figure they ever made to be sold in the United States was a 1998 figure of Pele in his Brazil uniform.
Knowing how Kenner made new sets for the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL each season, I could not wait for Bandai's 1997 set of MLS figures. Unfortunately, I'm still waiting for their next set.
The good news is that Bandai is still in business, and since MLS is a much more profitable league today, I hope Doctor Khumalo sees fit to write a prescription for a refill of figures.