Eric Wynalda: A journey from the pitch to the corner office of US Soccer

Eric Wynalda was the bad boy of American football a couple of decades back. Now, with suits and ties replacing shin-pads and anklets in his locker, he’s running for the president of the US Soccer Federation.

We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” – Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia

Eric Wynalda is a distinctly American figure in US soccer. He grew up, like me, in California playing youth soccer. The first goal I remember seeing on television was his free kick against Switzerland during the 1994 World Cup; I spent the rest of the day trying to recreate it against the side of my house, complete with his joyous goal celebration.

The southern California native also played in an influential role in the newly founded Major League Soccer. Rising from the ashes of the old National American Soccer League, MLS attempted to rein in the excesses that destroyed the old top-flight league. Instead of splashing cash on flashy superstars like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and George Best of the 70’s, MLS bet homegrown talents would inspire the next generation after the success of the 1994 World Cup.

It was a strategy that worked, or at least it worked on me. Wynalda went on to play for my local professional team, the San Jose Clash and even scored MLS’s first goal. I had posters of him all over my wall. I liked his goal scoring, but I also was drawn to his persona.

From the beginning, Eric Wynalda was marketed as the bad boy of American soccer. His competitiveness, impetuous nature, and fantastic early 90’s soccer mullet made for compelling viewing. His temper often got the better of him. The wider world got its first glimpse of this in Italy at the 1990 World Cup.

The United States had qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years and was drawn with Czechoslovakia, Austria, and the hosts in the group stages.  The US struggled in its first game against Czechoslovakia, going down 3-0 by the 50th minute. Wynalda’s frustration boiled over, and he petulantly shoved an opponent resulting in straight red card in the 52nd minute. The US went on to lose 5-1. His suspension for the following games meant he missed the match against Italy, and he would only manage a substitute appearance in the final match against Austria.

He has struggled to distance himself from that image. He described being sent off that day as a “world-scale [?] nightmare” and something that still haunted him almost a decade later. His reputation was not helped by incidents such as clashing with coaches and being sent home from the national team camp after an incident where he broke a teammate’s nose.

A move to Germany in 1992 allowed him to take his game to the next level, but there were other factors as well. Wynalda said he wanted to go overseas because he felt he had unfairly acquired a bad reputation and wanted a fresh start. The damage was already done, however. No matter how successful he was in his career, he would always be seen as the wild-eyed id of the American game.

He went on to have a successful spell in the first and second division of the Bundesliga before returning for MLS’s inaugural season. Injuries defined the latter part of his career, but he still picked up 106 caps and 34 goals with the national team, retiring as its leading goal scorer. One would hope to say he let his game speak for himself, but Wynalda was never one to hesitate when it came to voicing his opinion.

After retiring, Wynalda naturally turned to punditry. He was always opinionated, but the television camera seemed to make him exceptionally forthright. He became the self-styled “Charles Barkley of soccer.

The role of opinionated ex-pro willing to stir the pot worked well enough for television, but was not as popular with the power brokers of the American game. Wynalda simply lacked a filter. Perhaps the most famous example was his telling another sports personality to suck his dick and vaguely threatening to “club his ass.” He also made headlines for being the most vocal critic of whoever was managing the national team at the time. 

OAKLAND, UNITED STATES: United States Eric Wynalda celebrates after scoring a goal against Cuba during the first round of the Concacaf Gold Cup in Oakland, California, 01 February. The United States defeated Cuba, 3-0. AFP PHOTO Monica M. DAVEY (Photo credit should read MONICA M. DAVEY/AFP/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, UNITED STATES: United States’ Eric Wynalda celebrates after scoring a goal against Cuba during the first round of the Concacaf Gold Cup in Oakland, California, 01 February. The United States defeated Cuba, 3-0. AFP PHOTO Monica M. DAVEY (Photo credit should read MONICA M. DAVEY/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, Wynalda has spoken loudly about his desire to be one of the guys in charge rather than talking about the guys in the charge. His honest and forthright views most certainly did not help him during his unsuccessful interviews to manage Chivas USA or the Chicago Fire. Now, however, he is aiming for an even bigger role: president of the United States Soccer Federation.

Following the disastrous failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, USSF’s long serving president Sunil Gulati is not running for reelection. Wynalda, a long time critic of the outgoing administration, put his hat into the ring to succeed him. For years, he has shared with anyone who would listen what he believed was wrong with US soccer. His list of complaints is well documented through the years, and he has never hesitated to name names.

It is a crowded field of candidates. There are USSF insiders, business types, and ex-pros. Wynalda’s platform has a number of interesting ideas such as introducing promotion/relegation to the United States soccer pyramid and shifting the MLS season to align with European leagues. Unfortunately for him, it almost does not matter what the substance of his candidacy is. His temperament will continue to define him.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest characters, Wynalda’s past has an inordinate effect on his present and future. His arc reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia. For 188 minutes, the audience watches an ensemble cast living out Fitzgerald’s iconic quote: “There are no second acts in American lives.” The characters are stuck in their own dysfunction, struggling to move on and find resolution. It is not hard to picture Wynalda, after realizing he has lost the election, singing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” in the iconic sequence from Magnolia.

If it is not in the stars for Wynalda to be a decision maker in the American game, he could fall back on an acting career. His story is perfect for a P. T. Anderson directed biopic. He displayed some serious acting chops in Reebok’s “Other Careers” ads, which also featured Ryan Giggs, Dennis Bergkamp, Peter Schmeichel, and Andy Cole. Indeed, his spot, in which he played an alternate reality version of himself that became a used car salesman instead of a footballer, already felt very much like an Anderson film.

Of course, there is also the compelling story line of Wynalda’s friend and national teammate John Harkes, having an affair with his wife in the lead up to the 1998 World Cup. Harkes, the team’s captain, was removed from the team – against Wynalda’s wishes – and missed the US’s embarrassing performances in France that summer. It would be easy to make a Boogie Nights reference here, but let’s rise above that, shall we?

I was at Spartan Stadium when DC United came to town and beat the San Jose Clash 4-0 around the same time. I was one of the kids that rushed to the front pre-match to get Harkes’ autograph. He obliged, and, as he was signing my programme, I told him I was sorry to hear he wasn’t going to France with the rest of the national team. He jerked his head up, and it felt like time stopped as he stared at me. At the time nobody knew why he had been dropped; there were rumors about breaking curfew before a match, but that didn’t seem like a good enough reason to leave the team’s captain home. I had wanted to tell Harkes that I was on his side and that the coach was an idiot who was making a huge mistake, but there was something in his look that I could not read. It stopped me dead in my tracks. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the tension lifted when he said, “I’m sorry too.

Bizarrely, the two former teammates ended up working together at ESPN as analysts in 2006. That must have led to some awkward meetings. I picture a working environment with all the mutual antagonism and antipathy of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. How could Wynalda work with a friend and teammate that had betrayed him so completely? There is a clue in an old interview right before he left for Germany. He told a reporter, “If people still want to remind me of all my mishaps, it doesn’t bother me. I’m a here-and-now guy.

Wynalda might be done with the past, but the past might not be done with him. It will be interesting to see if voters are able to move past all of his baggage. Perhaps, just perhaps, his time has come though. There is a moment in American political life in general where temperament is no longer an important consideration.

There is one notable, recent example in American politics of an iconoclast with a penchant for speaking his mind that has capitalized on the anger of the electorate. Perhaps you have heard? It is easy to see similarities. One satirical article even reported that Wynalda called on FIFA to hack an opponent’s emails. The presidential hopeful has tried to distance himself from those comparisons, but the narrative is simply too appealing to resist.

As the February 10 election day creeps closer, I cannot help but root for my childhood hero. I want him to break free from the first act that has defined him to this point, skip the second, and arrive nicely in the third at a tidy resolution. I am sure P.T. Anderson could turn it into one hell of a closing scene.