Monday, January 9, 2012

Interview: Eric Wynalda has Some Opinions on What's Wrong with American Soccer (And a Few Ideas How To Fix It)

To say Eric Wynalda is opinionated doesn't do him justice. The man has opinions about opinions! When we caught up with the former Men's National Team player and current Fox Soccer deskman he had just finished recording his podcast, "Sent Off"with fellow Fox man, Christian Miles. He still had plenty of voice to share with the Free Beer Movement.

What's really interesting in talking with Wynalda is not only his knowledge about soccer, but his passion for the American game. That's something we can admire.The former all-time USMNT scorer's passion for American soccer has also made him one of the sport's most vocal critics.

Photo Credit: John Todd / MLS
As Wynalda said himself, "I'm never a in-betweener. People love honesty and I'm full of it."

The following are four stances that Wynalda laid out in the course of our interview. They were weaved into a 45 minute conversation about his career with the National Team, getting Major League Soccer off the ground in 1996, and the direction of soccer in America.

Wednesday we'll post part two of the interview where he talks about his job at Fox Soccer, owning a professional soccer team in San Diego, what it means to wear the red, white, and blue, and (of course, we had to ask) his favorite beer.

Opinion #1: Major League Soccer Must Switch to FIFA's Calendar

Stand-Out Quote: "For all the growth of MLS, until (Don) Garber listens to the voice of reason and engages in the real world, the real business of soccer, we’re in a state of stagnation."

Context: We asked Wynalda is he was disappointed that Fox Soccer didn't retain the broadcast rights for MLS.

Photo Credit: Free Beer Movement
Wynalda's Words: "I understand it. I understand why that happened. It’s a complex issue that takes some explaining. People say, “well if they really would've cared about soccer they would done that (kept MLS).” They (Fox) justput close to half a billion dollars into the sport. They’re obviously investedin the game, but they’re businessmen and they’ve taken a hard look at ratingsand they don’t get a big audience.

"I think Fox’s inclusion in soccer will be probably the one companythat has the ability to change the whole landscape. They’re going to forceMajor League Soccer to cooperate with the rest of the world and get on the FIFA schedule. Because there is no way you’re going to convince the suits at Fox tospend a dime on MLS if MLS’ idea of promoting the game is right up with Fox’scash cow, the NFL.

"For all the growth of MLS, until (Don) Garber listens to the voice of reason and engages in the real world, the real business of soccer, we’re in a state of stagnation. Wego up against the World Series, college football, and the NFL. There’s nobody watching our sport (at playoff/Cup Final time).

"If we were smart about it we would change our schedule and put the sport in a spot where we’re promoting the games of relevance, the playoffs, the games we really see as showcasing the game in May and June…  we’ll get the viewership.

"And then Fox Soccer will then say, “How much money do you need?”

It just makes sense to me to put the sport in a spot where people can love it without having to compete with the big boys of baseball and football.

Lastly, anybody who’s preparing for a World Cup in a World Cup year and is playing in Major League Soccer in April; they’re playing not to get hurt. You’re not going into a World Cup not nearly as ready merely because you’re trying to go from sleep to sprint and that’s a hard thing to do.

I’ve played in Europe before a World Cup and I’ve played in MLS before a World Cup and the experience was night and day, polar opposites. I wasn't ready mentally or physically.

We’re one of the only leagues in the world that plays through FIFA dates. That’s just crazy. You can’t have the two biggest entities in American soccer, MLS and U.S. Soccer, not even on the same page… they’re in different books!"

Will incentives for teams increase the competitiveness and quality of play in MLS?
Opinion #2: MLS Should Incentive The Game

Stand-Out Quote: "When everyone’s playing for something and you screw up and lose your teammates' money, you’re going to hear it. That accountability doesn't exist in Major League Soccer."

Context: We asked Wynalda about how far MLS has come and where it's going. 

Wynalda's Words: "I think it’s been fascinating. The stadiums have totally and completely changed the landscape, the perception of our league. They are events. They are fun to watch, to go to games. We’re not playing in borrow stadiums on borrowed time. It’s actually a great product and that gets often overlooked.

"I hope they entertain the idea of incentivizing contracts because that will make the level go up a notch or two. Right now, the way our league is structured, and the payment of the players, there’s not a lot ofincentive to win. Win, lose, or draw… if you’re making eighty grand, you’re making eighty grand.

"There’s nothing lost. And I’ve played in Europe and when you lose a game people lose money. People are upset. And rightly so. Not because they lost the game, but because they lost money. And when people lose money, things get more serious. There’s accountability.

"When everyone’s playing for something and you screw up and lose your teammates' money, you’re going to hear it. That accountability doesn't exist in Major League Soccer.

"Everyone wants to argue about relegation and promotion. Forget it. I would like to see some kid making forty grand go into the game into the 81st minute and have a structure, let’s say five hundred bucks a point, and the game’s tied and the coach has given him instructions to kill the game. There’s going to be a point a moment in that game where that player is going to recognize that he could be a hero. That’s when coaches have to coach. When it gets real. When there’s a moment when the player says in his head, “I’m not just going to go through the motions I’m going for it. What if I win the game for us?”

"When you have the opportunity to win something you also don’t want to be the guy who screws things up. It makes you better.

"It’s what I learned in Europe and I’d love to see implemented in the United States. It makes soccer better and it’d make it better in a hurry. People that don’t get it have never been on a team with that kind of structure; it’s forced camaraderie. You’re are not allowed to not do your job when it’s someone else’s money.

"The games will be more exciting, the coaching will be… real. Let’s see where that one goes because it’s a tough sell to the owners."

Could more of these guys have been instrumental in building American soccer?
(Photo Credit: From "The Demin Kit" blog)
Opinion #3: Bring In More Former USMNTers From the Cold and Let Them Help Build American Soccer

Stand-Out Quote: "If you come to me and say 'I've been involved in soccer for the last 20 years' I arrogantly say, 'Congratulations, that’s 20 years of failure. Do you know how much better we couldn't been without you?' That’s where we are."

Context: We asked Wynalda about being a part of MLS history (the league's first goal scorer) and building soccer in this country.

Wynalda's Words: "When the league was getting started we were all over the place. Earnie Stewart was in Holland, Tab (Ramos) was in Spain, John Harkes in England, I was in Germany, Paul Caligiuri was in Germany, Alexi (Lalas) was in Italy.

"We were all contemplating coming back and we went with our heart. It certainly wasn't what we thought it should be when we came back; we played on really bad fields, football stadiums. It was hard. There were a lot of pieces there that weren’t put together yet.

"I remember I called Tab (Ramos) when he made the decision to become the first player to sign with the league and he said, “Well, it’s one of those all-in sort of situations. Are we going to pioneers or are we going to make a business decision? Because I’m coming back to make one-sixth of what I can make here (in Europe).”

"There was a lot of frustration because there was a lot of money that didn’t go to American players. It went to foreign players like Marco Etcheverry, (Carlos) Valderrama, (Mauricio) Cienfuegos who really weren't that good. There was a lot of frustration when we first came back.

"We didn't like the structure. We didn’t like the schedule.We didn’t like anything about it, but we were still committed.

"And if you look around there aren’t a whole lot of guys whowere a part of those couple of years of frustration that are involved today (with MLS or the U.S. National Team). We don’t see some of the people that should be helping the next wave, the next Tom Dooleys of the world. We don’t see Marcelo Balboa getting involved (Editor's Note: he is currently the color commentor for the Colorado Rapids) or Paul Caligiuri.

"It bothers me sometimes because those guys could have a lot to do with the next step, but the frustration is that we’ve got a lot of peopletrying to take us somewhere they’ve never been. If we want to get to the next level we better start getting some people involved that know where that place is.

"As much as we think it’s going in the right direction I would argue that, over the last ten years, 80 to 90 percent of that success has been accidental. There really hasn’t been much of a plan and it needs to change if things are going to get much better.I hope that it will, but I’ve been living in this realm of hope for a longtime.

"I tease Alexi Lalas about it all the time. He was the oneguy to have the chance (to work in the front office of a MLS team). I call him Anakin (Skywalker) as if he was Darth Vader because he went to the Dark Side,but he basically said, without saying it, 'you have no idea what that world is like'. It’s not really about progress it’s about a paycheck.

"If you come up with a solution (to fix some of soccer problems) do you know how many people you’ve just eliminated?

"If you come to me and say “I’ve been involved in soccer for the last 20 years” I arrogantly say, “Congratulations, that’s 20 years of failure. Do you know how much better we could’ve been without you?” That’s where we are.

"Weare in a state where people that are employed to do a job that come up with a plan and if the plan doesn't work they just come up with a new plan, but they stay employed. That’s the part that’s annoying because I guarantee there are some people that are being dis-involved from this process that can fit it in a hurry."

Opinion #4: Jurgen Klinsmann Is Not The Answer

Stand-Out Quote: "If you want to teach everyone to play. If that’s the plan, to play a certain way, if he tries to do that in a qualifier, if we try and go into a qualifier and try to play, we might not qualify. We. Might. Not. Qualify"

Context: We asked Wynalda about his opinion of the current U.S. National Team and it's coach.

Wynalda's Words: "I love this whole thing with Jurgen Klinsmann; that he has this plan. Anyone that comes at you with a plan is just trying to guarantee their employment until they can figure it out. It doesn’t impress me at all. It’s something that every coach does. It’s just a stall tactic to stay employed to find a solution.

I don’t think I’m out of line in reminding people that this is the United States of America, the people that we celebrate, we like to win.We’ve always prided ourselves on that. I don’t know anything about track and field, but when the Olympics happen and the board comes up with who’s winning the medals, who’s got the golds and the silvers, I get upset when the United States isn’t in first place. Cause I’m American.

When people come at me and say, “Well results don’t matter”.The hell they don’t! They always matter!

When we say winning doesn't matter… that’s un-American. I can’t stand for that.

I’m not going to go out there and represent the United States of America, put my hand on my heart, and say that I’m just going to play today. I don’t really care if we win or lose. It’s not important.

That’s total BS. Anyone trying to sell that to me is always going to get a stiff argument.

I want to see my country win. We can all go out there and play...

Quote Mia Hamm when she said, “Anyone who says winning isn’t everything hasn't won anything.”

The girls have won the World Cup a couple of times for a couple of reasons. They made winning important.

If you want to teach everyone to play. If that’s the plan, to play a certain way, if he tries to do that in a qualifier, if we try and go into a qualifier and try to play, we might not qualify. We. Might. Not. Qualify. Because it has nothing to do withsoccer sometimes. It has to do with winning the game you’re in. If we don’t start building that winning mentality now we’ll be searching for it at the wrongtime so that could be very, very dangerous.

He’s going to sell us on something that is achievable with or without him. We’ve chosen to employ him to do a job. I’m telling him to do it.Win the games. Beat the opponent in front of you.

It’s contest. It’s a competition. The idea is to win the game.  Not to worry about who’s watching, what we think, what you think. Two teams playing each other and all we remember is who won and who lost and who scored. That’s what this is about.

Everyone keeps talking about development, teaching, and philosophies, and all that crap, but the bottom line is you’ve gotta put eleven guys on the field and you gotta stick together and you gotta win games. And if you can’t do that then you shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Our challenge is to join the rest of the world by playing the game the right way.We’re not going to prove that until we win. I don’t care how good we look playing; that doesn’t impress anyone. The Dutch learned that the hard way. 

Wednesday: Part two of our interview with Eric Wynalda.

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  1. Love how opinionated and passionate he is, even if I don't 100% agree with everything he has to say.

    Not sure if this will come up in Part II or not, but I'd love to hear his take on Preston Zimmerman's recent Twitter outburst against Jerugen's policy of calling in all of these German-Americans who aren't above and beyond what we currently have. Especially considering that photo up there includes:
    - Tab Ramos - Uraguayan by birth
    - Fernando Clavijo - Uraguayan by birth
    - Roy Wegerle - South African by birth
    - Thomas Doolet - German by birth
    - Claudio Reyna - American but could've played for Argentina (speaking in terms of family tree only)
    - Earnie Stweart - Dutch by birth

  2. Nice interview, but you guys have to start proofreading...

  3. Anon. Glad you enjoyed the interview and sorry about the typos. Not a full time gig here at the FBM so sometimes we get a bit sloppy.

    That being said we're glad you mentioned it. Keeps us honest. Went back through and hopefully cleaned most of it up.

  4. I think it's less likely that MLS doesn't want the '94 veterans involved in the league, and more that MLS doesn't want Eric Wynalda involved in the league. There are plenty of players of that generation who have been involved in MLS as a coach or in a front office, including at least half of the 1994 squad:

    Mike Lapper
    Mike Burns
    Alexi Lalas
    John Harkes
    Cobi Jones
    Frank Klopas
    Fernando Clavijo
    Marcelo Balboa
    Mike Sorber
    Cle Kooiman
    Tab Ramos

    All have had non-broadcasting jobs with an MLS team or with the U.S.

  5. He's lying about incentives. The contracts contain win bonuses. Maybe it should be higher, but "if you make 80 grand, you make 80 grand" is about as big a pile of BS that has even been paid on the American soccer landscape ... and that's saying something.

    Wynalda is a liar and phony who is just pissed people think he would be a bad coach so they won't hire him.

  6. Great interview, but yes, buy somebody a free beer for another set of eyes. Too many words run together, and it looks like those compound German words like Fahrvergnugen.

  7. Johninho - that's an HTML error from our content management system. Not an editing problem. We're working on it.

  8. Disclaimer: I got Wynalda's autograph after USA-Costa Rica in 1997, and he autographed it "To Tim, kick ass, Eric."

    I have a lot more respect for Eric Wynalda than I have for some random mouthbreather whose soccer analysis extends to thinking anyone with a British accent automatically knows everything about soccer.

    That being said, while he makes the best argument I've seen for switching to a September-May calendar on the grounds of player readiness, I still think MLS would make a huge mistake, at least right now, by switching and expecting fans to show up for February matches in Columbus, Chicago and New England, let alone Montreal and Toronto.

    Wynalda forgets that the end to the spring season would bring MLS into competition with the NBA and NHL playoffs. It's a crowded sports calendar, and soccer needs to just shrug and deal with it. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, NASCAR, golf and tennis aren't going to go away no matter how much soccerfan stomps his feet. I firmly believe that soccer can take its place with all the other sports as a part of American sports culture. I've believed that since before I got Wynalda's autograph, and the past few years are proving me right.


"Anyone who tells me soccer is boring, I'm going to punch them in the face."
- Former Dallas Burn (aka FC Dallas) coach Dave Dir

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