There is no soccer holy war being waged by Eric Wynalda. The ostensible head coach of Cal FC is not trying to rip down the United States soccer pyramid one MLS team at a time. He is not on a quixotic quest, fighting on the side that represents all that is right and good in the world of soccer.
The National Soccer Hall of Famer, national television pundit and former aspiring head coach just wants to make sure a group of players that no one wanted gets at least one more chance to show they have the goods.
"It’s about them, it always has been about them," Wynalda told us during a conference call with reporters on Monday. "The fact that I just had the follow-through to make this happen doesn’t make me the hero."
There are surely plenty of observers who will scoff at that notion. After all, Wynalda has made a career out of becoming the center of attention, both as a player (showing that Americans could keep up in the Bundesliga, leading the U.S. to a surprising run into the knockout stages of the 1994 World Cup, helping launch MLS back in 1996) and in his post-playing career as a commentator, aspiring coach and outspoken critic.
You get the drift. Wynalda has never hidden from the spotlight.
In a sense, he's not hiding here, either; he did answer reporters' questions for more than 30 minutes. But there's something different about what's going on with Cal FC, the team he helped assemble for the express purpose of showcasing players that he says have not gotten a fair shake. The roster is filled with soccer rejects, after all -- players who were too small, too slow or just not good enough in so many coaches' eyes.
Wynalda saw something in each of them. He says they are all examples of how the American soccer development system has failed, or at least not been as thorough as it could be.
"I think we really need to peel back one more layer," Wynalda said. "That’s the message: Let’s not be lazy here. As good as things appear to be, we’re not there yet. We’re not. So, work a little harder. And then once you get the talent, work a little less. Let these kids show us who they are. The game is about personality."
Wynalda gushes about the talents of players like Danny Barrera, his central midfielder around whom any semblance of a game plan is built. Barrera is generously listed as "5-foot-9 1/2" on his Wikipedia page, which is curious, considering he was listed as 5-foot-7 way back in 2011 when he was at UC Santa Barbara. "Professional athlete" is not a phrase that springs to mind when you see Barrera in street clothes. But so few soccer players cut that kind of figure, really, or at least not until they get proper training with a professional team.
Wynalda is entirely uninterested in Barrera's physique. What he sees is a player capable of doing something very few who are born or bred into the U.S. system are.
"If you take a player like Danny, and I spend all my time yelling at him for making mistakes or giving the ball away, I’m cheating myself out of the pass that’s going to win the game for me – because he won’t do it," Wynalda said. "You look at the pass to Artur (Aghasyan) in the last game, I don’t think there’s five people in this country who can make that pass. But when you’ve got a player with that kind of talent, again, you don’t spend a lot of time telling them what not to do."
Wynalda openly talks about not doing much coaching. He describes his defensive "structure" as a Slip 'N Slide. He admits to having no idea what will happen once Cal FC enters the offensive third. The team rarely trains under Wynalda's guidance, as he seems to be spending more time trying to raise money through various bookings than he does on the sidelines.
Say what you will about Wynalda, but that's probably not how he should be talking if his goal is to showcase what an amazing job he's done coaching Cal FC. His desire to make this about people other than himself seems genuine.
The movie version of the Cal FC story will gloss over some of these facts, I have no doubt. If anything, Wynalda will likely be cast as some kind of football Jesus, prepared to sacrifice his career for the system's sins.
More likely than not, Tuesday's game against the three-time defending U.S. Open Cup champion Seattle Sounders will be the climax of Cal FC's fairytale. David rarely beats Goliath, after all, and the Sounders have a bit of a habit of not overlooking opponents like this one. Maybe a nice bow gets tied on at the end, where Wynalda is granted some kind of salvation, as a talent scout or even a head coach. (By the way, I think George Clooney would make a great Eric Wynalda.)
But the lasting story, at least from a soccer perspective, deserves to be about the players Wynalda found. Barrera, Aghasyan, goalkeeper Derby Carrillo, defenders Mike Randolph and Jesus Gonzalez, and Brazilian twins Pedro and Paulo Ferreira-Mendes all seem to be compelling characters who are now poised to receive second chances.
Unfortunately, not much is known about many of those guys. If we're all doing our jobs right, we'll get around to telling their stories, too.