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Former U.S. international Eric Wynalda speaks out at NSCAA: Part I

By Charles Boehm and Jimmy LaRoue

Eric Wynalda was a classic hitman during his playing days, scoring goals at nearly every stop on a pioneering career that ranged from San Diego State to Germany to the founding days of Major League Soccer and even the Mexican first division, with three FIFA World Cup tournaments along the way as a U.S. Men’s National Team star.

Now an analyst and color commentator for Fox Soccer, Wynalda is clearly still wearing his shooting boots.

The outspoken Californian holds nothing back in his match commentaries, nor his evaluations of the American soccer landscape, and his lecture session on Friday afternoon at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Convention in Kansas City, Mo. – titled “Why Not US?” — more than fulfilled the widespread anticipation that preceded it.

Alternately charming and haranguing a sizable crowd for well over an hour, Wynalda held forth on a range of topics, taking questions, recounting colorful anecdotes and at one point even engaging with MLS Director of Communications Will Kuhns, who took in the session at the Kansas City Convention Center.

Two Potomac Soccer Wire correspondents were present for the majority of Wynalda’s remarks, which were also attended, and excellently reported on, by Philly.com’s Jonathan Tannenwald. The session has stirred up a storm of interest among the U.S. soccer community online, so in the interest of awareness and debate, we’re presenting as much of it as we can in three parts, starting here. All three sections contain some strong language and may not be suitable for all readers.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to our coverage of the 2012 WPS Draft, our transcription begins about 15 minutes into the scheduled 4 p.m. start time of Wynalda’s talk, where he’s advocating for greater incentives for MLS players. We’ve used ellipses where the sound was muddled, the crowd was laughing or if part of the recording was unclear. Thus this is not a full transcript, but a strong majority of Wynalda’s remarks are contained here.

Eric Wynalda: [talking about incentives for players to actually play] …I’m not talking a lot of money. The right number is about 600, 700 bucks a point. A player’s making $60 grand up to 150; incrementally, pay them to get on the field. Pay them to bullsh*t their manager that they deserve to play. You see how the kid sprints back? I’m not making this up. ‘My coach doesn’t like me. I’m going to call my agent. Maybe if I pretend like my calf hurts, I can get out of Monday.’

That’s unprofessional. But, that’s not their fault. We put way too much into product. I’m sorry. We do. Isn’t it Gordon Gecko who said that greed is good? I’ll say it again. It is. There’s some people in this room who know what that’s really like. Who saw Tottenham-Everton [in the English Premier League] the other day? Right? Did you see the [Roman] Pavlyuchenko substitution? Where’s my Man City boy? Alright. Man City’s here by the way. He’s probably really enjoying this, ‘cause he knows what this is. You know what this is? Pavlyuchenko’s been grinding and b*tching and moaning about [how] he needs to move [clubs], because he’s not getting enough [playing] time. [Tottenham manager] Harry Redknapp goes, ‘Get Pavs up. Now, shut up in the papers, here’s £25 grand, go.’

That’s really what happened. You know the best part was, that the director immediately put it on the chairman, and, here’s £25 grand. But that’s real. That’s management. That’s keeping that guy on board. That’s, ‘I saw you work this week. I saw it. This is the reward. I know it’s not the way you want it today, but I need you on this team. I need you not to be a bad guy. So here’s £25 grand, go get ‘em.’

I will throw some people under the bus. This is the way it goes. I’m not trying to be an *ss. I’m being honest. I’ve been to enough Landon Donovan practices to watch him walk out on a Wednesday or Thursday. You’re like, really? You try that in Europe. Go ahead. Try that one on for size. Superstar’s going to walk off. Yeah, you’re part of that equation, guy. Because if people are making money together, that’s the first time Todd Dunivant has the right to say, ‘Hey superstar, get your *ss back here.’

As a professional, you don’t stop running. Again, accountability. I don’t want to go in that locker room and have to explain myself, why I didn’t run back when we lost the game. ‘Cause everybody makes mistakes. Sometimes [the ball] goes through the keeper’s hands. He’s got to live with that. That’s all a part of it too. How he reacts to it makes him a better player. It does NOT exist in Major League Soccer. It doesn’t. So if you get frustrated, or you complain about the level of play, now you know. That’s it. When players get there, and it’s just one more step, or another part of the equation, or ‘Hey, I’m a Generation adidas player. I deserve to be here because of all the hard work.’

Prove it, kid. Prove it. Test them. Test their character. Everybody was saying, ‘Well, that’s not going to make development better.’

I was in a heated debate with [Montreal Impact assistant coach and former U.S. international] Mike Sorber last night. Our former assistant coach on the national team. And I finally just – and Clint Mathis was sitting next to me, the one right there [he points to Mathis leaning against the wall]. ‘He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get it. Stop talking. He doesn’t get it. Eric, shut up. He doesn’t get it. ‘Cause he’s telling me that it’s not going to help the development of the players.’

And I finally said, ‘Mike, have you ever played for money?’ No, he hasn’t. The guys who sit on this board, this competition committee, that makes decisions about Major League Soccer, God bless ‘em but that’s all they know. They’re trying to make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t [laughter in room]. They don’t know any better. There’s three kinds of know: Either you don’t know you don’t know, which is really scary. You think you know you don’t know, which is a little dangerous. Or you know you know. Making this league better changes everything. Jurgen Klinsmann is doing the tryouts. He’s trying to figure out who can handle this and who can’t.

You have any idea how impossible our national team coach’s job is right now? How impossible it is when you have everybody who’s never been in a real professional environment in their whole lives, and he’s going, ‘Ah, how comes he get it?’ and, ‘What’s wrong with him, and why didn’t he show up today?’ What’s wrong with this? It’s Not. His. Fault. Now, the other things I have problems with — him saying that winning isn’t important.

Sorry Clint, I didn’t know you were there. Clint Mathis is over there in the corner. I won’t talk about you, I promise. Now, as a national team, and I know what’s that like. I’m not just making this stuff up. When we tried to prepare for the World Cup in 1998 -– we’re trying to forget it. Everybody else hate that one? That was fun to watch, right? 3-6-1? I was one by the way [loud laughter in the room]. I was looking for a palm tree on that island. I think I found it. His name is Jurgen Koller. That was horrible. Anyway, I do this sometimes, I just go off on tangents, but I think you guys get the point.

We’re trying so hard to develop players. I keep using that word. But it’s about who’s going to be able to inspire us to be better. How do we test their character? How do we make them better professionally? How do we make somebody a better professional when the whole damn thing isn’t professional to start with? It’s not possible. I sat in the room with these people, with Nelson Rodriguez and Don Garber. And I played with Jeff Agoos, who’s won five [MLS Cup] championships. Is that correct, five? He’s won four, he won five. [laughter]. That was a joke. […audio unclear as Wynalda mentions Jeff Agoos]. Of course, he’s making decisions about what’s best for our players, and how we develop, and how do we get better, and how are we going to get there. And how much of our […audio unclear…inclusion?] is Major League Soccer? I don’t know about that. I don’t know about that. What if I do know? Because you don’t. And that’s not his fault. He’s never been over to Europe. Never played somewhere. Never been there. This is all he knows. Eddie Pope – great player, biggest waste of talent. Never had a chance to know how good he really was. […audio unclear…]

The second part of this equation: the schedule. Minnesota guy, where’s the Minnesota guy? Good thing you don’t have a franchise over there because the weather, ‘We can’t do thaaat.’ One of the biggest points outside of the incentives that don’t exist is the other part of the equation, which is the schedule, which, by the way, is the other part of the incentive. They made a big spiel, man. They said, ‘This is a business. Major League Soccer is a business.’

Who was there? Who heard him say that? I started laughing. Sorry, because $3 billion has been spent and invested on Major League Soccer in like 16 years. Three billion dollars. I mean, he said it three times. Okay, last summer, $2.2 billion dollars was spent in six weeks in the transfer market. Our inclusion in that was negative $11.4 [million], because our schedule doesn’t fit in with the rest of the world. And outside of being a national team player, playing in MLS, preparing for a World Cup, I’ll tell you right now, anybody who’s playing in MLS and getting ready to play in the World Cup is playing not to get hurt. And then when you get on the world stage and you go sleep to sprint, excuse my French, you’ll f*cking lose bad. And it takes a long time to catch up.

Our games, and our schedule, the way it is, he says it’s going to cost more money. Alright, sorry, we just disengaged out of a $2 billion dollar marketplace. What are we going to do with that? Go find some people in the hallways. Go find the Taylor Twellmans of the world, who are offered $3.5 million dollars to leave, and it didn’t work with our schedule. He gets punched in the head three games later by a goalkeeper and his career’s over, and now he’s a speaker telling people about concussions. Tell me about the psyche of a player who’s playing in Major League Soccer, and he can’t get out no matter how good he plays. DaMarcus Beasley, in 2002, had an offer from Lazio, and then he had an offer from Inter. One of our players had an offer to go to Inter Milan, and we passed, because there was an inner-city exchange program where he was the star, and he was going to show up and tell all of these kids, ‘You can be a professional soccer player one day.’

Just pick up the paper or look on the internet. He was making $48 grand a year. I was standing next to a gentleman, an African-American guy who had a kid, and he was there to see DaMarcus Beasley, and this is his words, not mine. ‘I don’t get it. I mean, go on kids, play soccer, be just as f*cking poor as I am.’ [chuckles in audience].

And we’re saying, ‘This is a welcome home party for our players. Come on back and claim that these are our stars. You know who a star is? A star is that, when somebody comes and writes a big check and then all of your work paid off. But we don’t do it, ‘cause it’s too expensive to change to an international schedule.

It’s too expensive not to. These guys made a big spiel about Soccer United Marketing and how they cornered the market, and that’s the only business that’s actually going in the right direction. Right? Isn’t that what they said? How about in June and July and August, let’s bring A.C. Milan over here, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United? Bring ‘em on. Let’s play ‘em, all the while, showcasing your players and promoting the start of your season. That’s how you make money. You want to engage some businessmen? Engage in the real business of soccer. Right now, in my guesstimation I think there’s about $65 million worth of talent that real people would be interested in, real magnates, people who are doing things differently. And they beat us to our players, and they take them over there and they would get better.

Let’s take the top three teams in the world, last World Cup, who were they? Alright, alright, stop talking about Spain right now. It’s just not fair [chuckles]. It’s true. It’s like, there should be a beacon to the rest of the world, and to America, I swear to God, they have the top five players in the world and they’re all this big [holds hand about five feet high, drawing laughter from the crowd]. And one of them [David Silva] plays for Man City in my opinion. Spanish midfield – that other guy who tweezes his eyebrows. There’s your top five. Bring ‘em over. And as an MLS manager, or an MLS general manager, you don’t have to say, ‘Okay, how do we squeeze these guys in on the schedule.’ Because you don’t have one. You pick up the phone, you say, ‘When do you guys want to play? We’ll promote it. Let’s go. Let’s play a game.’

And we’ll start our season when we’re supposed to. We’ll take a break. They keep saying – I know, I get it. You can’t play in January, look outside, you can’t play in February. It’s exactly the way Germany does things. It’s exactly the German thing.

Who else saw that ratings thing? That red line that hasn’t moved since 1996? Anybody see that? That was kind of – [makes dropping-off gesture]. Is this like a shock? There’s more to it, and it gets worse. I work for Fox. Fox just spent $500 million to buy the rights to the World Cup. I was listening to Nelson Rodriguez saying, ‘Wow, isn’t that great? They just splintered themselves from our league but they bought the whole banana.’

Our CEO and president, David Hill, he’s an Aussie guy. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him? Have you seen him? He’s […audio unclear…]. I realized one thing in my life, it’s that when big businessman talk, the billionaires, they kind of talk the way I talk. Direct. This was his message to Don Garber: ‘Change your schedule. Because having a 0.3 rating in November for your final doesn’t impress us. Nobody is watching because you’re up against NFL, NCAA football and the end of baseball. Our games are relevant.’

Our biggest showcase, show to our players, whether you really believe in the playoffs or not – I personally think that it’s stupid – however, if that’s what we’re going to play, at the end of our season, and this is when it matters, no one’s watching, no one’s going. Ratings stink. Who saw it, New York versus Dallas? They didn’t admit this, but they were out on the streets, begging people to please come to the game, because no one was watching. No one wanted to be there. They were at the World Series. My point is, play games of relevance in nice weather. Let’s play in May. Let’s go up against hockey and basketball. I think we can beat them. And the big thing is that we’re proving it. We’ve got better attendance – the third-biggest attended sport in the United States of America. But no one’s watching, and no one cares. That’s not acceptable to me.

That incentive part for any player, any player anywhere, the season’s over, and you’ve got a chance to go somewhere else. I sat with a very high profile player in this league…[…audio unclear…]If you figure it out, you figure it out. And I sat with him, and I said, ‘Where do you want to play? When you dreams, where do you want to be?’ ‘I want to be here. I love it here. This is the best.’

Wrong answer. I’m not trying to say everybody’s got to go, but my message to MLS officials is that, ‘Are you afraid of losing all your talent, or are you afraid you can’t replace them? Which one is it?’

Talk about that World Cup again. Holland, population, anybody know it? How about Uruguay? Uruguay is one-third of Manhattan, and they came in third in the World Cup. How’d that happen? Think about it. You’re pretty good. Italy knows. See you later. Forlan, the best player in the World Cup, was from Uruguay. It’s not hard to figure out. Suarez, I like him. I think he has some cultural differences – that’s a big debate we need to talk about another time – but I would [take a guy] like that any day. […audio unclear…] I don’t think he’s said a bad word. You want to hit me in the hallway, later, that’s fine. […audio unclear…]

But when we talk about Americans, we’re not there yet, we haven’t started yet. We haven’t started. A friend of mine back there (pointing to the back of the room), John Duffy, I think he’s left, and he said, ‘What’s the one message you want to give people today?’ I’m an architect, and I hate ceilings. It’s time to get out of here. I said something about Bob Bradley and I got in big trouble. I said, ‘So you, Bob Bradley and his assistant coaches get on a plane. Now, I love Bob Bradley. We’re friends. I played for him. And we take off, flying, and he turns to you and says, ‘Wanna take the wheel for awhile?’ And you say, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ And he answers and says, ‘Neither have I.’ [chuckles].

Not funny, ‘cause you’re going to crash. And our solution is, buy a new plane. And that’s kind of a weird deal. Now what happens where we get into a scenario when the message doesn’t come clear. Sometimes you have to realize that the environment you put them in, these beautiful stadiums, these beautiful complexes, and great fields to play on, the competitive nature of the group, dictates the development of the player. That’s it. It doesn’t exist here.

[Wynalda asks how long he’s spoken, and starts to take questions.]