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'I water the grass': Wynalda on U.S. Open Cup runs, hidden gems and his next step

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Four years ago, he built a team of players nobody wanted and made magical cup run. So what's next for Eric Wynalda? Paul Tenorio finds out:

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The U.S. Open Cup semifinals are on Tuesday, and that got me feeling nostalgic.

The Open Cup is such an underappreciated tournament in the U.S. soccer universe. The longest-standing tournament of its kind in the country, it’s the only stage in which we see every division of soccer in this country compete against each other, from the amateur levels through the top teams in MLS.

There is no better recent example of the beauty of the tournament (at least not since the Rochester Rhinos won it in 1999) than amateur side Cal FC beating the Portland Timbers in 2012. U.S. soccer legend Eric Wynalda coached that team, and he did so to prove a point.

“The whole reason I did Cal FC in the first place was because I felt there are so many young players out there, or players who were overlooked, or players that had a chance and someone gave up on them,” Wynalda tells FourFourTwo. “I felt like they could be something special. It was just an idea my friend Mike Friedman had and it was a, ‘Why not? Why can’t we?’”

The stories behind the Cal FC team still resonate. Wynalda pulled the players from every different place, including men’s leagues in California, and put together a team that would down the Wilmington Hammerheads and Timbers on its way to the fourth round of the Open Cup in 2012. That run was eventually stopped by the Seattle Sounders.

Wynalda recalled sitting at a restaurant trying to convince Jaime Chavez to join the Atlanta Silverbacks, the team which Wynalda coached in the NASL in 2014, after Chavez helped Cal FC during that run.

“He was unbelievable on a Sunday and he is fixing air conditioning units as his job,” Wynalda said. “I said to him, ‘This is all I can offer you.’ He said, ‘I make three times that.’ I asked him, ‘Do you want this or not?’ He walked out of the restaurant. I paid the check and chased him down and he was already running back and he met me in the middle and I told him, ‘You can do this. I know you’re going to take a hit now, but I believe in you. To impress people, you just have to be on a stage. Nobody is watching you on Sunday. You scored a great goal, but nobody saw it.’”

It’s Hollywood script stuff. Wynalda took Chavez with him to Atlanta, and the 29-year-old now plays for Miami FC, where he has scored four goals this season. The opportunity started with someone giving Chavez a chance, and the Open Cup giving him a stage.

The truth is I water the grass. Sometimes it needs watering, but I’ll also soak the sand. I’ll water dirt because I want to know what’s underneath there."

- Eric Wynalda

Wynalda explained the Cal FC experiment as only he could: “The truth is I water the grass. Sometimes it needs watering, but I’ll also soak the sand. I’ll water dirt because I want to know what’s underneath there. If we’ve missed something and that little spot over there has gone dead on grass, if you put grass [seed] on there what happens? Everyone has given up on the dirt.”

Finding those players – or at least looking for them – is a blind spot in American soccer. Of course, in a country that’s trying to find the best solutions for identifying youth talent, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Jaime Chavez with Atlanta. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s clear talking to Wynalda that the passion to coach is still there. He said he has given up on his chances to coach in MLS – “They say I’m too outspoken or too volatile or too this or that. Those are all parts of my TV persona you have to be when you’re trying to entertain. I’m very different as a coach.” – but he hopes to potentially coach in Germany if the right job comes along in the future.

Wynalda also has plans to create and coach another Cal FC team, though he is looking for a sponsor to help offset the costs. Wynalda said he spent $50,000 during Cal FC’s run in 2012.

“We will have to wait until the draft is over, wait until players make their life decisions or they get overlooked completely,” Wynalda said. “The team we put together, we’ll find nobodies and we’ll have to take players that everybody else didn’t think was good enough. It’s a unique situation to be in. Your talent pool has been ruined, they say, and that’s why a lot of people would give up. But I’ll find six or seven guys on Sunday morning in Oxnard, [Calif.] in six months from now. People may say, ‘How can you base your business plan on that?’ But that’s the way this is going to go down.”

The U.S. soccer scene will be better for it if Wynalda can do it again.

In the meantime, the Open Cup will get some much-deserved national TV love this week. Chicago plays New England in a semifinal on Tuesday night and the LA Galaxy play FC Dallas on Wednesday night. Both games are on ESPN2, the first time both semifinals have been broadcast nationally.

O’Connor has Louisville atop USL

Louisville City is in just its second season of existence, but in the rapidly expanding league it feels almost like a USL stalwart.

Under coach James O’Connor, the former Orlando City affiliates have charged to the top of the table in the third-division league, maintaining the momentum of an inaugural year in which they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.

They’ve seen the success roll over from year to year despite losing the reigning league MVP and golden boot winner, Matt Fondy, who was transferred to the NASL’s Jacksonville Armada; and defender of the year and league assist leader, Bryan Burke, who also signed with Jacksonville.

It’s a tribute to the work of O’Connor and his staff, who replaced seven players with 10 new faces and have continued to play the possession-oriented, attacking-style the former Orlando City midfielder expects.

“We lost key pieces for us, so it’s was about making sure the recruitment was good,” O’Connor said. “And the players that came in, we had to get them to buy into our philosophy and thankfully they have. … We’ve come away really pleased with their attitude and performance.”

USL is in the midst of continued rapid expansion, and one of the newest teams has rightly drawn many of the headlines: FC Cincinnati. Louisville’s neighbors to the north have averaged nearly 17,000 fans per game in their inaugural season, and recently downed Louisville 2-0. The John Harkes-led club sits in third in the East, just four points behind Louisville with a game in hand.

But while Cincinnati’s amazing fan support has drawn more attention this year, Louisville’s fan base has been another example of strong local support in the lower divisions of U.S. and Canadian soccer. Louisville City has averaged around 7,400 fans per game at Slugger Field in downtown Louisville, and a recent feasibility study called for a 10,000-seat soccer-specific stadium to be built by 2020 to ensure the continued growth of the club.

The support has been a key ingredient for a team that has been one of the most entertaining in the USL over the past two seasons. Louisville led the league in scoring last year, and is tied atop that category again this season.

“We like to pass out of back quickly and play attacking football,” O’Connor said. “It’s important to me and to the players. … We want to play football well and want players to enjoy their football and express themselves and show how good they are. We have good players and we are trusting them to go and showcase that talent and show what they’ve got.”

Louisville broke out of what can be considered a “rut” in its season thus far – a two-game losing streak – with a 2-1 win over Pittsburgh on Friday night. The team has three games in the next nine days, and a narrow lead to protect in the East. O’Connor seemed confident in his team’s ability to respond to its nearest rivals – Richmond, Cincinnati and New York Red Bulls II.

“It’s always control what you can control,” O’Connor said. “There’s no control over what goes on in New York or in Cincy or Richmond. For me it’s making sure our guys are focused on what they can control. We’ve got tremendous belief in our guys and we’re focused on things we can effect and control and our own performances. After that you can’t do much more.”

CONTINUE: How bad is Chicago?