By Ridge Mahoney
The scene was the San Jose location of Gordon Biersch bar and restaurant near the Fairmont Hotel, where visiting MLS teams usually stay when they play the Quakes, and the topic was Eric Wynalda.
It was July 14, 2012, and despite being fresh off a 5-0 lashing by the Quakes in which captain Kyle Beckerman had been sent off, RSL representatives had gathered with a few members of the TV broadcast crew to, as is the custom, solve the problems of American soccer.
A few head coaching jobs figured to be in play sooner or later, so of course up came references to Wynalda, the tallest of all lightning rods when coaching and controversy are buzzing about. His coaching credentials were skimpy at best, but a nice U.S. Open Cup run by Cal FC, a Southern California amateur team he helped coach, and his typically bold proclamations about the languid state of affairs regarding MLS and U.S. Soccer player development had brought forth his name once again.
Just five days earlier, the Portland Timbers had jettisoned John Spencer, and majority owner Merritt Paulson, tightly wired into social media and fan interaction, seemed perhaps enough of an outlier to consider Waldo. On May 31, Cal FC had embarrassed the Timbers, 1-0, in the Open Cup, a defeat that helped usher Spencer out the door.
Wynalda had just been hired as interim head coach by the NASL Atlanta Silverbacks, who had cut loose one of his former Fusion teammates, Alex Pineda Chacon.Still, Wynalda seemed a candidate for the Timbers job, as the Atlanta gig was a short-term deal. From the assembled RSL representatives and broadcast-crew members came the following comments (identities concealed since comments were not for attribution):
“Is this it? Is somebody finally going to hire him?”
“What about Merritt Paulson?”
“Yeah, maybe. He thinks outside the box. So does Eric.”
“There’s no way! Paulson hates Wynalda!”
“Well, at some point, somebody is going to take the risk and give him a chance.”
Teams and ownership groups and their likelihood of handing control to the brazen ex-U.S. international were thus discussed. My contribution ran along the lines of, “It’s a sign of the times we live in that this even a topic of discussion,” and a few of those gathered at the table chuckled and nodded in response.
Having carved a reputation as a player, analyst and rattler of cages, Wynalda wanted more. For years, he’d been shamelessly lobbying for an MLS gig. He shoved his name in the mix for jobs in Toronto and Chicago and Chivas USA, among others, and been soundly rebuffed each time. Now he has been hired, albeit not by an MLS team.
As the technical director of the NASL Atlanta Silverbacks, for which he served as technical director and briefly led as interim head coach in 2012 before being succeeded by Brian Haynes, who left the team last month, Wynalda is pushing in his chips. This gig is on his terms. He will retain his TV job as FOX analyst and commute like a crazy man between Atlanta and the family home in Southern California.
This bizarre arrangement, somewhat counterintuitively, fits Wynalda perfectly. He’s always done things differently, not always to his benefit. As a player, he marked the first U.S. World Cup game in 40 years by getting sent off in the 1990 opener against Czechoslovakia for stomping an opponent’s foot. Before the advent of MLS, he responded to taunts from opposing fans in Germany by prancing around mockingly as the pretty boy they said he was -- after scoring a goal against their team, of course. He's forever famous for scoring the first goal in MLS history, with the San Jose Clash, the first of several MLS clubs to employ him.
As a coach, he’s got an eye for talent, no question, and the world can thank him largely for the progression of Rapids left back Chris Klute from NASL reserve to MLS starter and national team prospect. His track record as a head coach is greatly limited. The Silverbacks with Wynalda as interim head coach won three of seven games, which is too small a sample size and too restrictive condition to draw conclusions. Cal FC’s downing of the troubled Timbers was impressive but a one-off. (In the next round a week later, Seattle inflicted a 5-0 lesson.)
Aside from racking up 10 goals in 21 games in 2001 for Chicago, then coached by Bob Bradley, Wynalda’s club stints were as often as vituperative as they were productive. A serious knee injury suffered while playing on loan with Leon in 1999 impaired his club form, and only with the Fire did he resemble the slashing, daring, stop-me-if-you-can Wynalda of the previous decade.
His run-ins with coaches at most of the teams for which he played -- which number nearly a dozen if you count a loan spell in Mexico, in addition to his German stints and those in MLS and the U.S. lower divisions -- are well-known. “If he couldn’t handle himself as a player, how can he handle a team as a head coach?” runs the Wynalda thinking in many circles. Very seldom does a coach’s nightmare blossom into a dream hire.
On the surface, this assignment looks bad for both Wynalda and Atlanta. He’s not committing fully to coaching, and will split time between home and Atlanta. The Silverbacks get a big name with some past connection to the team who might well bolt after one season; they’ve made this hire a month after booting the coach, Haynes, who led them to a title. (The Silverbacks won the 2013 NASL spring season and in November fell to the Cosmos in the championship game, slumping badly in the fall campaign.)
But, arguing the other side, Wynalda may be doing the best he can to make his case for coaching. As the father of four children, an NASL job just doesn’t pay the bills, so leaving FOX -- he’s in the middle of a three-year contract -- is out of the question. Whatever else he is, Waldo is a devoted dad, and how he can possibly juggle domestic duties with coaching and television commitments is completely beyond me.
Yet immersion in the game is what he cherishes and for all the zingers and barbs and insights and quips he can launch on TV, he’s still an observer on the quiet side of the camera. In the trenches and on the benches is where the action is. His energy, along with his penchant for piercing observations, is extensive, and he’s not willing to be outworked.
The nuts and bolts –-- planning preseason, selecting players, instilling a system, organizing training sessions, building progressions and nuances into training sessions, plotting game strategy -- will certainly test him, as they do of coaches at any professional level. Critics will agree he’s got the ego of an outspoken head coach; they will question his staying power, the drive and determination and depth of knowledge to crank out results over a full season.
He’ll relish sparring with media and jousting with fans but, most of all, finding and crafting those class players he zealously believes this country can and should produce.