Eric Wynalda takes over as Las Vegas Lights head coach and technical director for the USL club’s second season. (Photo courtesy LVLFC)
Wynalda’s Hall of Fame playing career included three World Cups (1990, 1994, 1998), and a fourth-place finish at the 1995 Copa America. In 1992, he became the first U.S. product to play in the Bundesliga, the German first division. After stints with FC Saarbruecken and VfL Bochum, Wynalda returned to the USA for the launch of MLS and famously scored the league’s first goal. He retired from MLS after playing for San Jose, Miami, New England and Chicago.
SOCCER AMERICA: How will you judge whether you’ve been successful with the Las Vegas Lights after the first season?
ERIC WYNALDA: We’re going to play to win and I think we will. There’s no reason this team, with the setup they have right now and the players I’ll be bringing in, shouldn’t expect to win more than they lose and have aspirations to be in the playoffs.
SA: What’s your impression of the Lights’ first season?
ERIC WYNALDA: I took an interest in Las Vegas a while ago. I watched all their games. They had about 35 guys put the uniform on last season, which is clearly too many. It meant they had a lot of turnover and confusion, maybe. Not a lot of stability.
Now you assess everything. You look at everything that happened in the first year. To the team. To the players. My first job is to come in and see who stays and who goes.
SA: What kind of soccer do you want to play?
ERIC WYNALDA: We’re going to be very unpredictable.
The infatuation with style and philosophy is fascinating to me. We forget to play the game we’re in. There are a lot of teams and coaches, even at the highest level, they become so predictable, the system or style of play loses its luster.
I will be the kind of coach, and I’ve always done this, who will fluctuate systems. I’ll play three in the back. Sometimes switch to three in the back right in the middle of the game, but at least my players will know we’re going to do it and will know how to make those adjustments.
We will play a very direct, possession style. The objective is to not lose the ball. At times, this is a turnover sport. The teams that make those kind of adjustments, and players who understand situational awareness are usually why your team is successful or not.
Just like our uniforms, we’re going to change colors a few times.
SA: You've had successful but short coaching stints in the past ...
ERIC WYNALDA: I was always contractually obligated to work in television. I made time to be a coach. We had early afternoon games in the UPSL and I was coming off of a 9-hour shift, because I was working the early Bundesliga games. That's really a hard thing to do. But my players know how committed I was.
This will be different, because I will be a 100 percent all in, as they say in Vegas. I'll always be available for my players. I've never had that.
SA: Your coaching stints included taking the amateur Cal FC to the Open Cup semifinals, beating the USL
Wilmington Hammerheads and MLS Portland Timbers on the way. The key to success?
ERIC WYNALDA: I studied the level. I studied the venues. I was able to find the players.
People had different phrases for them. The lost boys, the ones who fell through the cracks, the ones didn't get their chance, or whatever. You're really looking for talent that's hungry.
When I go after players, I go for the ones who other people sometimes don't want because they have circumstances in their lives that hold them back, but they're talented and they're hungry. And that usually equates to pretty good soccer.
Eric Wynalda had scored an all-time record 34 U.S. goals during his career, and is now fourth on the U.S. all-time scoring list. He scored three during the USA's fourth-place finish at the 1995 Copa America.
SA: Are there aspects of coaching a USL club that you find more attractive than being in charge of an MLS team?
ERIC WYNALDA: The USL rules are more conducive to allowing you to build your own team. The contracts can be short-term. The ability to sell your players is a lot easier. You don't have to get permission.
A certain kind of player is gravitating to the USL and it's really making the league a lot stronger.
I am going to create a much different environment in my club through not just the way we practice and the way we play, but in the way we pay our players -- incentivizing our contracts. That's something we're strongly considering. Because we want guys to work through the work week.
SA: You mean like the incentive-bonus system you were introduced to when you played in Germany, where players' pay is linked to whether they're in the lineup and to game results?
ERIC WYNALDA: Performance and winning. It's pretty easy. Its called Leistungsprämie [performance bonus].
You perform. You make the starting lineup. You get compensated for that. You come in as a sub, you get half of the compensation. You don't make the team, you're practicing on Monday and you didn't make as much money as last week.
The team wins, you make a lot more. The team ties, you make a little bit, but if the team loses, you don't get anything.
The beauty of this is when you're in the 85th minute and it's 2-2, and prudent manager is saying let's just get out of here with a tie, and you have four or five players with dollar signs in their eyes -- because of the difference in [bonuses] between a win and a tie. And you have to manage it. That's when you're really managing. That's hard. But nine guys behind ball watching the clock wind down with tie? Sitting on a tie is boring. I won't be that manager.
SA: How do you think players will respond to that kind of bonus system?
ERIC WYNALDA: You're going to have to earn your spot. When you get to the end of the week, Friday afternoon or Saturday, and the starting lineup gets on the board, I expect four or five guys to be angry with me. I took money off of their table. It's their livelihood I made a decision about, and I want them to be mad about it. Because that will drive them next week when they have to prove to me that they deserve to make my team.
SA: You had quite an array of coaches as a player. Anything in particular that you picked up from them for your coaching approach?
ERIC WYNALDA: I've had so many different styles and personalities as coaches. ... As coach and manager you want a clear idea of what the end goal is. You want to have a good plan. But I'm pretty flexible, and will deviate from the plan when necessary.
Coaches can get so caught up in executing a plan, that they're not engaging in the game that they're in.
I also think that if you're trying to be a teacher of players, you're looking at it the wrong way. Your job is not to teach players how to play soccer. Your job is to facilitate the learning that the game provides.
SA: I remember when we spoke, after you'd been in the Bundesliga for a while in the early 1990s, you told me the practices were short and intense ...
ERIC WYNALDA: They explain what you're going to do. They expect you to pay attention. They think you're stupid if you didn't pay attention to the three-minute speech at the beginning of practice, which was all the information you were supposed to gather. And then it was go time.
Practice wasn't going to go very long. It's going to go 70 minutes. There were times when it wasn't going well and we were glad it was over. There were times when we were playing so well, having so much fun, and he's like, "It's over. Go shower." And we're like, 'Come on let us keep playing.' He knew we would wake up tomorrow and come back to work eagerly and start where we finished off.
It was much more intense. Not a whole lot of down time. Those are still attributes I bring to my practices. We're here to work. It's going to be quick, intense, so let's go, let's move.
Eric Wynalda's Favorite Goals
1994 World Cup: USA 1 Switzerland 1
A tie in its 1994 World Cup opener led to the USA's first second-round appearance at a World Cup since 1930. Wynalda equalized with a 45th minute free kick.
1995 Copa America:
USA 2 Chile 1
The USA won its first game against a South American team on that continent in the its Copa America opener. Wynalda scored both goals. The first: "Was such a great team goal. Everybody got a touch." Paul Caligiuri, Mike Burns, Thomas Dooley, Earnie Stewart, Claudio Reyna and John Harkes were all involved in the buildup, which also included a Wynalda back-heel pass.
1995 Copa America: USA 3 Argentina 0
With the score 2-0 at halftime, Tab Ramos reminded his teammates that USA needed a three-goal win over Argentina to win its group, stay in Paysandu, and meet Mexico in the quarterfinals (instead of world champion Brazil in Rivera). In the 59th minute, Wynalda beat a defender and passed to Joe-Max Moore, whose shot keeper Carlos Bossio lunged for near the goal line as Wynalda poked it in. "Sliding in, I only had to move the ball six inches. Joe-Max Moore still thinks that goal should be his. And I'd be fine with that. I'd take the assist," said Wynalda. The USA finished fourth after beating Mexico and falling to Brazil in the third-place game.
1996 MLS: San Jose 1 D.C. United 0
The inaugural game of Major League Soccer was headed to a scoreless tie when in the 87th minute Wynalda nutmegged Jeff Agoos and beat Jeff Causey to the far post. "Victor Mella should have scored and I would have been fine with that, too. Causey made a great save on me earlier in the game. I was proud of myself and that goal, because I calmed down, everything slowed down -- and the eruption of that stadium was just relief.
1992 Bundesliga: Saarbruecken 2 Karlsruhe 1
"My first goal in the Bundesliga was against Oliver Kahn. It's identical to the MLS inaugural game goal."
1990 APSL: San Francisco Bay Blackhawks 1 LA Heat 1
"I want this one on the list. The APSL semifinals. Mike Littman punches the ball out and I hit left-footed volley from 28 yards out on the fly into the right top corner right over Danny Pena's head. I can't hit a ball better than that."
SA: We're still waiting for U.S. Soccer to name the men's national team coach. Your thoughts?
ERIC WYNALDA: Whoever the next U.S. national team coach is -- I know this might sound weird -- but it's an easy job. Because right now, you have nine or 10 players to build off.
Are we sure the young crop of talent is good enough? I think we're pretty sure. You've already got eight guys who are probably going to play in the Olympics and the World Cup, if you do it right. If we do this right, we'll be celebrating the hell out of them in a few years.