Last weekend Eric Wynalda woke up around 4 a.m., crept down the stairs of his Los Angeles-area home and flipped on the Chelsea/Tottenham Premier League match. A few minutes later his daughter, Brooke, joined him on the couch.
“She said, ‘Dad, Why didn’t you wake me up?,’” Wynalda told me over the phone from the Fox Sports 1 studio during Wednesday afternoon’s Champions League action. “This is cool, we get to watch together.”
Wynalda, 44, is living the good life in his native California. He’s working for Fox Sports 1 as part of their soccer coverage, which is highlighted by the midweek Champions League matches. He also finds time to coach Cal FC, which last summer became the first fifth division club to score against and beat an MLS team in the Lamar Hunt Open Cup, while serving as a consultant to teams in America, Mexico and Europe.
He gets to play dad to his children and talk about soccer on television everyday on “FOX Soccer Daily.” By all accounts Wynalda is living the life.
But Wynalda doesn’t simply want to talk about soccer. He wants to influence American soccer with a role coaching in MLS or beyond.
And most of all the ever-outspoken Wynalda doesn’t care whose feathers he ruffles trying to do so.
“I really don’t care anymore,” Wynalda said. “I’m in a position in my life I can sit here and do nothing or if someone asks a question, the unfortunate truth is, you’ll get an answer.”
Last summer Wynalda worked, on an interim basis, as head coach of the Atlanta Silverbacks in the second-tier NASL. He remains the club’s technical director, juggling it along with his television duties.
“At some point, I’d like to stop talking about the people who are involved and actually be involved. I’d like to be a person with a direct effect,” he said. “In the last year I’ve been able to prove that. If anyone’s paying attention, it’s clear I know what I’m doing so we’ll see.”
This sort of honest, if blunt, approach has given Wynalda, in his opinion, a stigma when he interviewed for jobs at MLS clubs Chivas USA and the Chicago Fire. Wynalda earned 107 caps during his U.S. career that ended in 2000, retiring as the U.S. all-time leading scorer until Landon Donovan passed him. He played professionally in Germany and scored the first goal in MLS history for the then-San Jose Clash.
In his mind a player with his sterling resume would be leaned on by the decision-makers in U.S. soccer and MLS, not shunned.
“If you’re me, or a guy like me — there’s a little circle of us who discuss this — guys who have been pushed aside or not allowed to be a part of this,” Wynalda said. “We all want the same thing. We want to be a better soccer nation. We want the league to improve. It’s stagnated a bit.”
Wynalda ticked off many of the usual problems facing American soccer: troublesome youth development, over reliance on college coaches, and general poor decision-making. He cited the U-20 team cutting defender Nevan Subotic, who starts for Champions League runner-up Borussia Dortmund and elected to play for Serbia internationally. He also brought up Real Salt Lake letting Yura Movsisyan, making only $48,000, leave for Europe, where he recently signed a deal with Spartak Moscow which pays him close to $2 million per season. (Movsisyan is another player who could have represented the U.S. but elected to play for Armenia, the nation of his birth.)
The development of young American players is of particular interest to Wynalda.
“The age group between 16 and 20, we spent a lot of time trying to almost in a forced way to turn these soccer players into something we want to be,” Wynalda said. “In that process we don’t let them find themselves.”
Wynalda played in three World Cups (1990, 1994, 1998) and became one of the first Americans in the modern era to have club success in Europe when he moved to German club FC Saarbrücken in 1992. Many of his peers from that era have gone on to work in MLS or the U.S. Soccer Federation. Tab Ramos is the current U.S. U-20 coach, while Claudio Reyna was appointed Director of Football for the expansion New York City FC.
Most of all, Wynalda is ticked off at what he perceives to be an old boys’ network that favors conservative college coaches over guys who’ve played the game at a high level. Or even worse, American coaches who remain overly reliant on “rah rah” tactics.
“I’ll pick on (former U.S. National Team coach) Bob Bradley. I know Bob. I played for Bob. Some of these guys have never had soccer shoes on in a locker room that matters,” Wynalda said. “There’s a thought you wouldn’t have to play at a high level to be a good coach. That’s an American thing. Sure, (two-time Champions League winner) Jose Mourinho went from translator to manager. That’s different. He is a special person, but it’s created a belief it’s possible.”
On that front, Wynalda is encouraged by the direction the National Team has taken under Jurgen Klinsmann. The tenor of the conversation about Klinsmann in the span of six months went from “he doesn’t know what he’s doing” to “maybe we can go pretty far in the World Cup.” Wynalda cautions that unless the U.S. can find permanent world-class players at right and left back there’s only so far the U.S. can go. Even so Klinsmann’s experience as a World Cup-winning player with Germany in 1990 has potential to take Americans to new heights.
“The good news here is the National Team manager is no longer defined by ability to qualify the team because, that simply isn’t acceptable,” Wynalda said. “The logic to bringing in Jurgen Klinsmann is if you actually want to win a World Cup, doesn’t it make sense to bring in someone who has? No disrespect to Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena, they’re college coaches. They’re not international brains. Their experience is from the sidelines. They’ve never been in a game like that. For me that’s not good enough. I’m happy we have someone who’s been there, done that and can help our team get better.”
He adds, “The logic with Klinsmann, he’s probably the only guy who has the key to the room we’ve never been in as a soccer nation. I hope it works out.”
Despite Wynalda’s criticisms, under Arena the U.S. had its best-ever showing at a World Cup, reaching the quarterfinals in 2002. Under Bradley the U.S. defeated Spain 2-0 at the Confederations Cup. Bradley has also guided Egypt to African World Cup playoff stage in the face of unprecedented turmoil thanks to the country’s on-going political unrest.
Wynalda’s point that there’s probably a ceiling for the collegiate-type coaches without high-level professional experience isn’t without merits, but to dismiss the accomplishments of Bradley, Arena and others in that mold might be taking it to an extreme. When guys like Arena and Bradley began coaching, Bradley at Ohio University in 1981 and Arena at Virginia in 1978, MLS didn’t exist. Even with the NASL still active, soccer was mostly an afterthought or associated with foreign players and coaches. The climate isn’t anything like it is today.
Even with the steps forward by U.S. Soccer this decade, Wynalda still thinks too many of the wrong people are still in positions of power.
“We have guys who weren’t good enough to be professionals, to make professional decisions,” he said.
Wynalda remained candid on soccer’s current hot-button topic, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Fox Sports owns the rights to the 2022 event. There’s been talk of moving it to the winter or elsewhere, Wynalda doesn’t even think it will get that far even if FIFA boss Sepp Blatter reiterated on Friday the event will be played in Qatar.
“No way it’s ever going to happen in Qatar. There’s too many forces that will flex their muscle by the time we get to 2019,” Wynalda said. “I understand their principles to expand to new places where the sport can grow. Nothing can grow in Qatar. It’s sand. It’s impossible to play in 120 degrees. It shouldn’t have happened. A lot of people who made the decision probably won’t be alive in 2022.”
At this point in his career, that also included a stint as ESPN’s lead soccer analyst, Wynalda isn’t worried about burning bridges or getting himself into trouble for speaking his mind. Inside that mind he stands by his convictions and believes his opinions are the correct ones.
That same brash attitude that helped him score 34 times for the U.S. was on display throughout our conversation.
“I know Sir Alex (Ferguson) is in New York watching this with a friend of mine,” Wynalda said. “He said the only guy who knows what he’s talking about is the guy with the glasses (Wynalda).”