Who is Eric Wynalda? Get to know U.S. Soccer's presidential candidates
[Editor's note: FourFourTwo is profiling each of the declared candidates in the U.S. Soccer presidential race. For the latest updates, check our guide to the election, which links out to each person's profile.]
Eric Wynalda is the candidate for U.S. Soccer president that everyone thinks they know, and that's not necessarily a good thing.
He was a brash, outspoken forward — and one of the best talents on the U.S. men’s national team — during his playing days and is best known to a generation of new fans as an acerbic critic of the American game from his perch as analyst on Fox Sports soccer telecasts.
That's not the real Wynalda, he says.
“I don't think my role as a pundit has served me well [in terms of public perception],” Wynalda told FourFourTwo. “I think most people would assume that I'm volatile or I'm a little quick to make a decision. Look, I've been paid the last 15 year to have a hot take on something. But that's not what this position is about. Nor is it what I've been doing on the management side.
“You are a level-headed decision-maker — that's what the job is, and I think a lot of my challenge is there may be a lot of people who will struggle with the idea that I'm capable of that. Because what they've seen on television represents all they know. And anybody who does know me knows that's not really the case. It's actually an opportunity for me to finally be the person that I am, as opposed to somebody I've been asked to be.”
Wynalda has experience at all levels and in nearly every phase of the sport and clear views on what needs to be changed and how to do it. He's just not yet ready to spill his plans.
“I have kept things close to my chest, and I'm going to have private conversations with people who really matter, as far as the decision-makers. I have to,” he says. “Because sharing my ideas at this point would be very naïve. ... I'm not entirely sure how this is going to turn out, but if I win, soccer wins, and that's what really matters to me.”
Wynalda is among seven candidates who have declared their intention to challenge three-term president Sunil Gulati, who ran unopposed in 2006, 2010 and 2014 and has not yet announced an expected re-election bid. The vote will take place Feb. 10 at U.S. Soccer's Annual General Meeting in Orlando, Florida.
Let's take a brief look at Wynalda and his thoughts on the most important issues.
Who is he?
Wynalda, 48, is the biggest name in the race, thanks to a Hall-of-Fame playing career in Europe and MLS and with the U.S. and his work as a television analyst since his retirement. He's been involved with soccer in a vast array of responsibilities — on the technical and management sides — and is among American soccer's strongest and most biting voices.
I completely hated my experience with USSF from 1989 until now. There hasn't been a time in any of that that I trusted their motives, where I didn't feel that I was being manipulated or deceived or lied to or essentially ruled by fear.
Wynalda played in three World Cups and played a key role in the Americans' run to the 1995 Copa America semifinals. He was the men’s national team's all-time goals leader, with 34 in 106 caps, until Landon Donovan netted his 35th in 2008. He was Honda's U.S. Player of the Decade for the 1990s and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2004.
He was among the more successful Americans in Europe, where he played from 1992 through 1996 with FC Saarbrücken and VfL Bochum, and he spent five seasons in MLS, scoring the league's first goal for the the San Jose Clash and also seeing time with the Miami Fusion, New England Revolution and Chicago Fire.
Wynalda was head coach and technical director of the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks, guided amateur side Cal FC past the Portland Timbers in a memorable U.S. Open Cup run, and in 2017 coached the LA Wolves to a UPSL championship and into the final four of the National Amateur Cup. He's been involved in the creation of California United, the Fullerton-based NASL club slated to kick off in 2018.
After a storied playing career, Wynalda coached and served as technical director at the youth, amateur and professional levels, was a youth-club director of coaching, has refereed youth games, and has guided his children through the youth landscape. He's been involved in ownership, with Cal FC, and with his wife, who operates Fletcher Wynalda, a soccer consulting company with a wide clientele.
Wynalda also works as a scout, has organized tournaments and fundraisers, and has put on camps and worked individually with young forwards. His television experience includes work as a producer and with his own production company.
“I think that there are things that need to get fixed,” he said. “It's going to take some very difficult, hard decisions. It's going to take some cooperation. I think [the other candidates are] screaming for change, but they have no execution plan. It's noble and it's nice to know that everyone cares, but these are important soccer decisions, and we need real soccer people to make them.”
Which issues are most important?
Wynalda’s overarching concern, under which nearly every other problem falls, is Major League Soccer's (and, thus, American soccer's) reluctance to embrace the July/August-to-May/June schedule that governs the world's most prominent leagues and the FIFA calendar. It impacts how business is done in the American game and, along with MLS' failure to fully engage in the world transfer market, restricts opportunities for American players to seek new experiences and grow their games.
A switch to the world calendar would better enable American players, and foreigners who come to MLS, to participate in the summer transfer window. That in turn would encourage more young talents to consider MLS rather than seeking to start their careers in Europe, and that ultimately will lead to superior development among players in their teens.
They're all watching Christian Pulisic and saying, 'That's the way to go, that's how to do it,' and this is a huge problem for Don Garber.
“MLS hasn't done itself any favors, for two reasons,” he says. “They sign one year with three-year options, and the money's not great. They treat it like a developmental situation, but they're not providing enough opportunity, because they've got these $6 million, 30-some-odd-old superstars playing, and there's not a spot for them. Everybody knows this league does not engage in the transfer market, so in the event that a young player starts to do well [he's not likely to move on to a bigger club abroad].
“They're all watching Christian Pulisic and saying, 'That's the way to go, that's how to do it,' and this is a huge problem for [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber.”
The MLS playoffs get lost among the World Series, the NFL and college football seasons and the start of the NBA and NHL seasons, and that's true also in the fight for commercial dollars.
“We're having a hard time selling our final,” Wynalda says. “And what we've found in many discussions with people that are in charge of the commercial side of this is that they're struggling. They cannot sell an MLS Cup final because those monies are allocated to other sports. ... Ideally, you'd like to see a final, a signature final, at the end of May, the first part of June. Which would be a much easier sell on the commercial side and allow us to maybe own a weekend with far, far less conflict than what we’re experiencing right now.”
He'd like to create a coherent structure that connects MLS to the lower-division leagues and look into establishing promotion/relegation among the divisions.
Wynalda most wants to build an inclusive culture within the federation and repair the federation's relationships with nearly every party — the men's and women's national teams, the referees, and the adult and youth associations — while instilling greater transparency within the USSF, and laboring to improve the structure and eliminate division in the youth game.
What does the men’s national team need?
Blow it all up and start again? No, not at all. The needed fixes are simple but can be effective, Wynalda says.
“The [problem with the] national team, in my opinion, right now, is not a talent issue,” he says. “Under no circumstances should we start believing that the players that we have — whether they play domestically or abroad — aren't good enough. We have a very good team. We underperform, sure, but there's mechanisms that exist within Major League Soccer that if we fix them, we immediately create a much more competitive environment for our players. We create a scenario where there's more visibility for the league itself.”
Wynalda says the “boldest” move Garber has made was contracting the imperiled league to 10 teams in 2001, a virtual restart for MLS that led to the phenomenal growth in the past decade. Now, he says, it's “time for another big, bold move”: adhering to the FIFA schedule.
And that helps the national team? “Absolutely,” he says.
“What we need to understand is that the job of our league is to develop players,” Wynalda says. “It is not the federation's job to develop talent. Now the federation is a resource — it's a road map, it's guidance, it's help when deemed necessary — but it's certainly not the responsibility of the federation to develop talent. We need to help our clubs understand what their role is. And what that means is all of the players that play in this country and abroad need to be constantly trying to seek the best, that they'll find the best that they can be.”
For many, that will mean a move to Europe at some point. And MLS and its clubs need to facilitate that.
“You don't stifle growth and prohibit the kid from having a new experience, especially when there's a financial gain that can be reallocated to the next player,” he says. “It doesn't make sense any more for us to be paying a player $80,000-$100,000 who has found his form and is garnering interest from somewhere in Europe [for] a couple of million dollars. We need to recognize that as the opportunity to cash in, to let that player go, and go find the next one. Go find the next three. That's how we grow and add to the player pool.”
What does the women’s national team need?
The U.S. women are in many ways the standard-bearer for U.S. Soccer, the program that not only competes among the world's best but consistently reigns above everyone else. Competition is becoming fiercer in every cycle, and the federation needs to make the right decisions — in development and improving the NWSL — that will keep the Americans on top.
The first step toward that, Wynalda says, is creating a new culture within the federation that respects the women's program and works to foster an amiable relationship.
“The rest of the world is catching up. That's clear,” says Wynalda, who has four daughters. “The women's game is growing still in the United States; it's going to have its challenges, and the culture and the relationship that exists between our women and the federation is toxic, and that's unfair to everybody involved. Our women have accomplished more in this game and they have never been, in my opinion, really honored for it.
“I think the [collective-bargaining] deal they signed is not a reflection of the relationship they should have with their federation. They've earned it. It's our way of saying thank you for giving us some history that we can be proud of. The fed has always been, in my opinion, a take-it-or-leave-it, rule-by-fear organization that has taken advantage of and manipulated our women, and I don't like it. It needs to be fixed.”