Eric Wynalda builds coaching cred in Atlanta
By JAMES CARR
DORAVILLE, Ga. -- As Eric Wynalda sprints around the pitch at the Atlanta Silverbacks' facility, yelling instructions, calling offside and scribbling notes on his yellow notepad, he finally takes a break to sit in the stands.
He notes that it's the little things he has to fix with his struggling North American Soccer League side.
"With some of these guys, I have to tell them to get here at 8:45 just so they get here at 9,'' Wynalda said.
Nevertheless, Wynalda is reinvigorated to coach and spread his knowledge of the game. It wasn’t always that way. After twice being rejected for the head-coaching position at Chivas USA, Wynalda wondered whether coaching at a high level was in his future.
"You start to think it’s not going to happen,'' Wynalda said.
But the culture the Atlanta Silverbacks are building is difficult to ignore. People are watching practice, kicking balls around the facility and scrimmaging behind the stadium. A bar selling Carlsberg for $4 looks out over the playing surface. The team store sells fresh, newly designed hats that match the style and flavor of the city. What the players may lack in first touch they make up for in spirit, unity and effort.
The culture that Boris Jerkunica, owner of Silverbacks Park, has created is a big reason the Silverbacks were able to convince the former CONCACAF All-Decade player to coach the team.
The addition of Wynalda has brought credibility, excitement and knowledge to the program. And while the Silverbacks are happy building from the ground up and improving the image of the second-tier NASL, you can bet the MLS – and Atlanta Falcons' owner Arthur Blank, who has made no secret of his desire to bring an MLS team to the city – are paying attention.
But Wynalda's presence on the ground begs the question: Why is the Hall of Famer from the West Coast coaching a small team in Atlanta?
In part, his desire and enthusiasm for the game have waned little since his glory days on the pitch. It's also because he is a man motivated when people try to get in his way.
Wynalda was hesitant to join the Silverbacks. He already has a job with the FOX Soccer Channel, which keeps him close to the game he grew up playing. But the rejection from Chivas didn’t help either.
Apparently, Wynalda lacked the experience Chivas was looking for in a manager. Despite his laundry list of accomplishments on the pitch, Wynalda didn't have the experience on the sideline.
"What counts for experience these days? You go five places and fail, so you promise the next team you're not going to make those same mistakes?'' Wynalda asked.
Wynalda's work as a critical observer of the game may also have hindered his chances. "People may have been concerned or have fears of what he's done as a critic of the sport, because he's not going to hold back. He's a straight shooter,'' says Silverbacks general manager Andy Smith.
Though he has worked with youth teams for the past 10 years, the rejection started to eat at his psyche. "Watching all the time but not being involved, it drove me crazy,'' Wynalda said.
He said he felt "wasteful'' not being on the sideline sharing his knowledge of the game. He's a man who has accomplished almost every "first'' for America in the modern game. He became the first American to play in the German Bundesliga. He became the first American to win the Best New Comer of the Year award after scoring nine goals in his first 10 matches for FC Saarbrucken. He scored the first goal in MLS history for the San Jose Clash. Until 2007, he was the all-time leading scorer for the US National Team.
But that wasn't the experience MLS teams were looking for, so Wynalda kept plugging away.
He began scouting for the Murcielagos, a second-division team in Mexico, which he has done for the last three years while continuing his work with youth teams.
Finally, Wynalda got a chance to coach a local amateur side in California, Cal FC. As usual, Wynalda did not disappoint.
While his tenure at Cal FC didn't earn him much press coverage, his team's two victories in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup earned him a spot in history again. The first was a 4-0 destruction of the Wilmington Hammerheads, who play in the USL Professional Division. The second was a 1-0 win against the formidable Portland Timbers. With the win, Wynalda's team became the first amateur side to defeat an MLS team without needing penalty kicks to do so.
Still, his friends dissuaded him strongly from coaching the struggling Silverbacks, who were just 1-5-8 at the time Wynalda joined the team.
"Everyone told me not to take this job," Wynalda said. "I'd built all this good will with Cal FC and they thought I'd ruin it if I came here and failed.''
They might as well have signed the contract for him.
It took a few phone calls and one flight to Miami for Smith to persuade Wynalda to take the job, but once Wynalda's terms of an interim position on the sideline – so he could resume his position at FOX when the time came – and a full-time position managing player personnel were met, he accepted immediately.
Smith wasn't concerned at all about his role as a critic. “He's a straight shooter and I love that,” Smith said.
Likewise, Wynalda was hardly afraid of the challenge, defiantly responding to his doubters: “I'm not going to fail.”
"Too many coaches try to mold players into something they don't want to be,'' Wynalda said as he described his adventures throughout soccer. "I won't do that here. You don't get in their way and you don't let them get in their own way.''
One gets the impression Wynalda played under a few coaches who met that description. As a player, his blowups with coaches are well documented. He was suspended multiple times in multiple countries for his criticism of coaches. Luckily, Wynalda quickly learned from his trying times so he could stay on the pitch and keep scoring goals.
Looking back on those days, Wynalda knows those experiences far outweigh anything he could do on the sideline. "It's nice to be a guy who's made his share of mistakes,'' Wynalda said. "My job now is to take their trash and throw it out for them.''
He's already begun making progress. As GM of the Silverbacks Andy Smith describes, "Eric's done a tremendous job. Guys love waking up and getting to work.''
Though the Silverbacks lost his first game in command, his second was a 2-0 victory against the Minnesota Stars, doubling the Silverbacks' win total on the season.
To help, Wynalda signed three players from his Cal FC team. Now he has until August to leave his mark on the team from the sideline, until his assistant coach Brian Haynes takes over full time. We'll see what happens to the Silverbacks but given Wynalda's penchant for improvement wherever he lands it won't be a surprise to see them excel.
The bigger question is what lies ahead for Wynalda.
Wynalda wouldn't bite when asked hypothetically whether the U.S. Men's National Team job might be in his future, sternly noting that he was here to coach the Atlanta Silverbacks. He did, however, offer a glimpse of his thoughts surrounding the team.
"We are at the stage in the U.S. where the talent and abilities of our players now exceeds the knowledge of our coaches," Wynalda said. "To get to the next level, they need to have people who have been in the room. Who know where that next level is.''
Thus far, Wynalda hasn't been approached, let alone interviewed for the job. Certainly, his rejection from Chivas didn't help. Not that he's concerned. "I don't worry about things I can't control," Wynalda said.
Still, it's not difficult to see Wynalda on the sideline sporting the national team colors. Smith certainly believes in Wynalda's coaching ability. "He has what it takes to coach at this level and beyond, without a doubt,'' Smith said.
His passion for the game is high, his knowledge higher, his experience – albeit of a different variety than the coaching trend seems to be – higher still. And the fact that he keeps getting overlooked for jobs surely serves as further motivation for the former striker.
Perhaps his description of why he accepted the Silverbacks job in spite of warnings and advice against doing so will serve as a notice for future employers.
"It's like a penalty kick. If you see it as an opportunity to fail, you'll miss. If you see it as an opportunity to succeed, you'll be successful.''
And as he noted, Wynalda never missed a penalty kick in his entire professional career.