Wynalda, LA’s Lone Wolf

It’s safe to say Eric Wynalda does things his own way. Always has. From his playing days, when he was among the first Americans to try their luck abroad, to today, spouting big opinions on TV, Wynalda’s very much his own man. But the Southern California native, a legend of the American game who can come off as smug and coarse in the pundits’ booth, has a secret. He cares. A lot. About players, those little moments in the game that can change lives, and the romance of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

“The Open Cup is about something intensely American,” said Wynalda, head-coach of ambitious amateur outfit LA Wolves. “It’s about opportunity. There are opportunities for guys who come from outside the lines. You get an opportunity to show you’re good enough to play with the best. You get to show the strength of one game and one day. One little moment in time.”

 

Wynalda seems to live for that precise moment, that instant when you either take a chance or waste it. He knows about opportunities too, having scored 34 goals for the U.S. National Team over 106 caps. Quick and rangy, he was predatory – an opportunistic striker with swagger and attitude. He lined up at all three World Cups in the 1990s and was a poster boy for that formative period in the American game.

His coaching career so far has blossomed, perhaps predictably, in the wild and unregulated spaces of the Open Cup. It’s a competition where you lose and you’re out. It’s built to be dramatic, with no draws tolerated. It’s a purist’s dream and a romantic’s delight. Wynalda, who scored the first goal in Major League Soccer’s history, never won the Open Cup as a player, but he went to a semi-final with Chicago Fire and was a runner-up with the now-defunct Miami Fusion.

Magic moments
As head coach of Cal FC in 2012, he assembled and guided his amateur side to the Fourth Round of the Open Cup. He remembers fondly one Richard Menjivar, now with NASL glamor side New York Cosmos and capped dozens of times for El Salvador. “He was just a kid in a t-shirt and old jeans who was pretty good on the ball,” Wynalda said. “And he took his chance with Cal FC with both hands.” For Wynalda, that success, which included wins over professional sides Wilmington Hammerheads (USL) and Portland Timbers (MLS), wasn’t about the broad strokes of a team “punching above their weight,” a phrase he thinks is more about marketing than soccer. “They strove to do something wonderful,” he said. “To have a day, a moment in time, that belonged only to them.”

Two years later, in 2014 with Atlanta Silverbacks, Wynalda pulled off a pair of wins over MLS teams Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids before losing in the quarter-finals to four-time champions Chicago Fire. Jaime Chavez and Kwadwo Poku were in Wynalda’s team for that wild ride and now both are cashing big paychecks with NASL giants Miami FC. “I wouldn’t trade the sound of that locker-room after we beat the Rapids for anything in the world,” said Wynalda, speaking slowly and with genuine emotion.

 

Wynalda admits his young LA Wolves don’t fully understand the power of the Open Cup and its charged moments. But they’re getting there, with two wins under their belts – the last at 1-0 squeaker against Chula Vista FC in which Wynalda took a tactical gamble that some of his own players questioned the sanity of. But he insists he won’t rest until they get it, until his players understand what it all means. After their 4-2 win over fellow amateurs San Diego Zest, he told his players to hold hands and go salute the crowd. “They looked at me like I was crazy. There were maybe 100 people there,” he said, a chuckle in his voice. “They were wondering, ‘why are we doing this?’ And my answer is: this is just the beginning. The crowds will grow if you keep going.”

What Wynalda wants most is his Wolves to “force themselves into the conversation,” like Menijvar and Chavez and Poku did before. Like Wynalda did himself so many times and on so many fields. “A day in the Open Cup can change your life,” he said. “Good things will happen if they honor the moment and live up to it. They have nothing to lose at all.”

Orange County, Galaxy on the horizon
Up next for Wynalda’s Wolves is a date with a full professional side – Orange County SC of the United Soccer League (USL). “I saw Logan Pause (former Chicago Fire star and current Orange County coach) hiding under a hat scouting us and I’ve been scouting his team too.” The part of Wynalda that’s a salesman and the part of him that’s a romantic are all tangled up and abuzz about the game and the chance to buck the system once again. “I know it’s not on TV and you don’t get a whole lot of coverage. It’s not in a big stadium,” he said. “You can’t get beer and a hot dog without leaving your seat, but pack a sandwich and get out there because you don’t want to miss this.”

The game will be a third straight at home for LA Wolves on their large field with a perfect natural grass – a circumstance Wynalda insists on. It’s a sticking point for him. “It’s like there’s no grass left anywhere anymore, especially down below the top levels.”

 

Wynalda laughs when asked what he likes better – commenting for FS1 and SiriusXM on the Real Madrids of the world or shouting from the touchline in front of a handful of fans in the Open Cup.  “People say to me, ‘that’s so much pressure talking in front of millions of people,’ but to me it’s easy. There’s more pressure in those few seconds in front of a player who’s looking to you for answers. If Real Madrid lose, that’s someone else’s ass. But here, with these players in these moments, I’m accountable.”

It’s almost game-time again for Wynalda. He’s hoping for the moments to break his Wolves’ way. A win would see them on to a date with the vaunted LA Galaxy. It would be a moment heavy with opportunity and all the things he loves – romance, upsets, realizations, futures. “I love the process,” he said. There’s no bluster in his voice now. No attitude, just appreciation. “The moment when you know you’re part of something special – a play, a team, a game, anything.”