Selling soccer in the United States has never been an easy proposition. Even as Major League Soccer celebrates the close of its 25th season with 26 clubs on the map and four more on the horizon, each market still presents its own set of challenges for reaching new fans and expanding the league’s footprint into the future.
In Los Angeles, much of the task has always been about selling the sport as well as the sizzle. The influence of the entertainment industry is omnipresent in LA, and many of the truly transcendent sports figures in Southern California have straddled the barrier between the sideline and the red carpet, with soccer as no exception.
No player in league history accomplished this more impressively than David Beckham, who was enticing enough for Hollywood heavyweights from Will Ferrell to Will Smith to brave traffic on the 110 to see the Galaxy play in Carson. He regularly rubbed elbows with late-night luminaries, discussed photo shoots in his underwear on daytime television and led the team to back-to-back MLS Cup titles in 2011 and 2012.
But back when dawn broke on the league in 1996, Beckham’s arrival was more than a decade away and the league needed as much buzz as it could buy. In Los Angeles that meant star power that could somehow transcend the Rose Bowl parking lot in Pasadena — where the Galaxy sometimes trained ahead of the season opener — and find some traction in Tinseltown.
“LA is unique because it’s LA. There’s no other market in the league like it,” said Robin Fraser, who was a defender for the Galaxy from 1996-2000 and is now head coach of the Colorado Rapids. On Wednesday, Fraser was named to the league’s 25 Greatest list, recognizing the greatest MLS players of all time. “Hollywood is right there. So how do you tap into that market? In the early days when we were tiny, before David Beckham, the answer was Andrew Shue. He was the one.”
Shue starred as a prep player in a particularly soccer-mad pocket of New Jersey and then earned All-Ivy League honors at Dartmouth, but at 29 years old and six years removed from any top-flight professional soccer experience, he was never penciled in to be the Galaxy’s savior on the field in 1996. What he brought instead was a level of fame that arguably trumped every other American player in the league at the time — including heroes of the 1994 World Cup like Alexi Lalas, Tony Meola and Cobi Jones — and gave the Galaxy a lifeline to audiences well outside U.S. soccer circles.
Shue’s fame emanated not from the Rose Bowl but instead from a television set 30 miles away in Santa Clarita, site of the sudsy primetime drama Melrose Place. Centered around the lives of a collection of gorgeous, mostly straight, mostly white Los Angelinos seeking life and love in an apartment complex in West Hollywood, Melrose Place was a spinoff of FOX’s teen hit Beverly Hills 90210, aimed at 20- and 30-somethings and outfitted with some of the sexiest — and ultimately silliest — storylines on television.
Melrose Place drew 11.8 million viewers an episode when it debuted in 1992, and had nearly 15 million viewers every episode by the end of its second season in 1994, most of them hypnotized by the show’s warm-weather escapism and sex appeal, anchored by the quintessential 1990s blonde bombshell, Heather Locklear.
“It had a lot of sex in it — everyone was hooking up with everyone,” said John Garvey, Shue’s teammate on the Galaxy in 1996. “And for the young guys living in LA at the time, it gave you the underlying idea that you could start hooking up with all of your neighbors — but with really, really good looking people.”
Though it was never a critical darling, Melrose Place permeated popular culture like few other shows of the era. In 1993, Mike Myers took his iconic Saturday Night Live air-guitar hero Wayne Campbell to Melrose Place in a diddily-do, diddily-do dream sequence, and happily found himself in bed with Locklear’s Amanda Woodward character. During a 1995 episode of Seinfeld, Jerry loses his girlfriend when he won’t fess up about his secret addiction to the show. The same year, some weary jurors from the O.J. Simpson trial asked Judge Lance Ito to procure some taped episodes of Melrose Place to pass the time while sequestered.
Shue was right in the middle of it all in the role of Billy Campbell, an aspiring writer and taxi driver who in the debut season fathers a child with Amanda but later finds love with Alison Parker, played by Courtney Thorne-Smith. Shue had never seriously aspired to become an actor before the prodding of his sister Elisabeth, who herself had found fame in hit 80s films such as The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting and Cocktail. But within just months of moving to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, Andrew Shue landed the role of Billy, and by 1994 he was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly showcasing his own Beckhamesque Blue Steel gaze as one of “The Men of Melrose.”
“We weren’t idiots — we knew there was a level of fame with Andrew,” said Dan Calichman, a defender for the Galaxy from 1996-98 and has served as an assistant with Toronto FC since 2014. “I don’t know if the league executives knew how long the league would last, honestly. So if Andrew could get them any notoriety or get the Galaxy on Jay Leno, wonderful. Maybe there would be a slightly better chance for the league to survive.”
Not just a "pretty boy"
It’s not exactly clear who reached out to who first to bring Shue to MLS, but he was well known among MLS executives in the months leading up to the league’s debut in 1996. Shue served as an ambassador for the FIFA World Cup in 1994 and in the process met former USSF President Alan Rothenberg and longtime MLS President Mark Abbott. When it became clear that Los Angeles would be home to one of the league’s flagship clubs, Shue asked if he could not just be an ambassador for the new club, but actually try to win a spot on the roster.
His aspirations of making the team weren’t entirely unfounded. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1989, Shue spent a year living in Zimbabwe, where he taught math to high school kids and spent a season as the only white player on the Bulawayo Highlanders of the Zimbabwe Premier League. Shue earned the title of Sipho — the word for ‘gift’ in the Ndebele language — and helped the Highlanders to the B.A.T. Super League Championship.
“You can imagine the scenario. Marc Rapaport was running the Galaxy at the time and he loved the idea because of the potential publicity,” said Sunil Gulati, who served as MLS Deputy Commissioner from 1994-99. “Lothar Osiander was the head coach and he hated the idea for the same reason — the publicity.”
Shue was already in good shape when MLS and the Galaxy granted him the chance to try and make the team — he used to kick soccer balls around the set of Melrose Place during downtimes — but in the weeks leading up to the Galaxy’s preseason camp he focused on his fitness. He put a treadmill in his home and began churning up and down the streets of the Hollywood Hills where he lived to get in shape and by the time preseason camp rolled around, Shue was running the 2-mile Cooper Test in 11 minutes.
“He won every single endurance activity we had to do,” said Mark Semioli, who played for the Galaxy in 1996-97 and roomed with Shue when the team traveled to San Diego for preseason camp. “And it wasn’t close. It wasn’t like Cobi Jones was right behind him. And that earned Andrew a lot of respect from the guys — that he wasn’t there just for the show. He wanted to play.”
Fraser added, “When he shows up you think he’s this little guy who’s an actor, and maybe he’s played some soccer, but whatever. And it turns out he’s the most competitive person alive.”
It was clear that Shue likely wouldn’t ascend to a starting role by opening day, but he could fill a spot off the bench and, given the right circumstances, give the Galaxy some punch in the waning minutes of a match. He signed a contract that was effectively a player/marketing deal, which allowed him to fill a Galaxy roster spot but also asked that he serve as an ambassador for the team and the league.
Shue never told anyone on Melrose Place about his side job in professional soccer. According to Shue, they found out after reading about in the newspaper.
“I faxed a contract to Andrew’s house; three days later, it was signed and mailed back to me,” MLS Executive Vice President of Competition & Player Relations Todd Durbin told SI.com in 2015. “I open it up and I’m looking at it, and I can’t figure out what it is. I’m reading, “bill: what are you doing tonight. alison: i’m not sure.” Why am I reading the script for Melrose Place? Then I turn it over and on the other side is the contract. Apparently Andrew ran out of paper.”
The league’s gambit on Shue worked almost immediately. MLS officials trotted him out to flip the coin during the league’s inaugural match between D.C. United and the San Jose Clash on April 6, 1996, and the press pounced on the irresistible storyline of a handsome Hollywood actor pulling double duty on the set and the soccer field.
The New York Daily News called him a “jut-jawed pretty boy,” and wrote of his “torrid love affair with soccer.” Sports Illustrated’s Michael Silver described Shue cruising around Los Angeles in his sleek black Porsche and insisted that of all the players in MLS, “the face most recognizable to American audiences, and the one most likely to cause a car accident, belongs to Shue.” Shue took teammates Calichman, Fraser, Curt Onalfo and Brad Wilson with him to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where Shue schmoozed with Leno while the others juggled and booted balls into the studio audience.
Shue also taped one of ESPN’s iconic SportsCenter commercials under the guise of a trade between the sports network and the soap, putting Shue behind the anchor desk and sending Charley Steiner to be a flirtatious pool boy on the set of Melrose Place.
“Did it get the league some notoriety? Yes. Did it get us on a few pages in the Hollywood press? Absolutely,” Gulati said. “You keep players for lots of different reasons, and it was helpful to the league. We wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t helpful to the league.”
"I think soccer was really the passion of his life"
The Galaxy opened their inaugural season in the Rose Bowl against the New York/New Jersey MetroStars on April 13, 1996. Nearly 70,000 fans showed up to watch that game, some of whom were undoubtedly curious if Shue could cut it in top-flight American soccer.
“We used to joke that here was this guy who was getting paid all this money to keep his face on TV, but he had absolutely no regard for his body. He played with this real zeal and reckless abandon,” Fraser said. “But he was actually a good finisher and a good crosser. He could get the ball in the right spots, he could put the ball on goal and he definitely scored a lot of goals in training.”
With the Galaxy leading comfortably in the 65th minute, Shue hopped off the bench and replaced Harut Karapetyan on the left side of the Galaxy’s formation. It was a largely uneventful 25-minute run other than a lightning-quick chance just minutes after he came on the field, but his shot on MetroStars goalkeeper Tony Meola was deflected out for a corner kick. The Galaxy ultimately won 2-1, and Shue’s career was off and running in earnest.
The creators of Melrose Place, meanwhile, were hard at work on scripting its fifth season, and Shue was still central to the plot. Though the show was still pulling between 11 to 13 million viewers an episode, by that point it was clear the program had reached its peak audience years before, and the storylines began skewing into bona fide soap opera silliness. Shue’s character Billy had his heart broken when Alison slept with biker and bar owner Jake Hanson, and Billy eventually married the beautiful, devious and controlling advertising executive Brooke Armstrong (played by Kristin Davis of Sex and the City fame).
But their relationship fell apart after Brooke trashed Alison’s apartment and threw a dish of pasta at Billy’s head, and then during Season 4 Brooke got drunk, slipped on the edge of the apartment complex pool and drowned.
“I never watched that show,” said Osiander, who served as the Galaxy’s head coach in 1996 after previously leading the US Olympic squad in 1992, among other teams. “But I liked Shue, he was a good man and an interesting man. He missed some training sessions from time to time but he always had a valid excuse. He would tell me he was shooting his show at the beach so I said, ‘How come you never take us along?’”
Shue endeared himself to Osiander and new teammates through hard work and a remarkable amount of humility — “he had zero ego,” Calichman said — but his fame was inescapable. When Shue played golf with his teammates at a local public course in Pasadena, fans would spot him and hound him for autographs. When he ate lunch with Fraser at a local sandwich shop, Shue would wear sunglasses and pull his New York Yankees baseball cap low over his brow to avoid being spotted.
When the Yankees played the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series, Fox television executives flew Shue back east to attend a game and be spotted in the crowd at Yankee Stadium. Shue, a die-hard Yankees fan from his days growing up in New Jersey, happily obliged.
“I asked him if he wanted to play golf one day and he said he couldn’t, because he was going to the World Series,” Garvey said. “They weren’t flying the B-level stars on the Fox programs, they wanted the A-listers in the crowd. The next night I’m watching the game and there’s his ugly mug on TV! That’s how big he was. He was huge.”
Shue’s teammates were happy to indulge in some of the trappings of his fame. Periodically Shue took Fraser, Semioli and Garvey to the Melrose Place set to watch a taping and to meet some of the cast’s celebrated femme fatales. Fraser was an MLS Best XI defender in 1996, but he insisted that meeting actress Brooke Langton was the highlight of his year. Garvey put his trip to the Melrose Place set bluntly: “I saw Heather [expletive] Locklear up close.”
“If you were a young soccer player, there was no better line than to ask a girl if she wanted to cruise up to Santa Clarita and watch them film Melrose Place,” Garvey added. “I did that a couple times — I’m sure I got a few more dates than I deserved.”
And at some point, they all got to meet Shue’s sister, Elisabeth. After first making her name in Hollywood in approachable girl-next-door roles a decade before, she received an Academy Award nomination in 1996 for a steamy turn as a streetwise sex worker opposite Nicolas Cage in the critically acclaimed drama Leaving Las Vegas.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen [Melrose Place] when we signed Andrew, but I knew who he was. And I’d certainly seen Cocktail, and I was in love with his sister,” Gulati said. “Most of us were.”
Added Osiander: “We liked [Andrew Shue] because his sister could come now and then. Everybody was happy when she showed up.”
On the field Shue kept plugging along, and picked up his second appearance of the season against the San Jose Clash on May 12, 1996. He logged just 14 minutes off the bench but managed to set up the game-winning goal in a 2-1 Galaxy win, teeing up teammate and former Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney on a centering pass that deflected off a Clash defender. Because of that deflection, Shue was never awarded the assist.
His only recorded point of the season came on June 9 against the MetroStars. The game was a bit of a homecoming for Shue, who grew up less than 20 miles west of the now-defunct Giants Stadium in South Orange, N.J. Shue came on in the 56th minute in front of 53,250 fans and with the Galaxy leading 2-0, he eventually picked up the secondary assist on the first career goal from striker Ante Razov, now an assistant coach at LAFC.