World Soccer Talk’s Bo McMillan recently sat down with Eric Wynalda, the third all-time leading goal scorer for the United States National Team and current FOX Sports soccer analyst and co-commentator. Wynalda is also the Technical Director of the NASL (US Second Division) Atlanta Silverbacks.
Here’s the transcript of the interview ahead of USA’s game against Ghana:
Bo: How important is the United States’ performance in this World Cup in terms of the popularity of the sport here? How will their performance affect the growth of soccer in the US?
Eric: We are judged every four years on where we are as a soccer nation. Most countries aren’t on this fast track of growth. Most countries have maybe even hit the ceiling already in terms of fan support. But what ends up happening is their countries get excited at the idea of having a wonderful World Cup. For us, we’re always kind of just sitting there waiting to see what happens. I’ve never seen this country this excited about the game. I’ve never seen this kind of fan support. But you’re talking about the casual fan? Americans don’t get it if we don’t win the whole thing. That’s just the mentality. Jurgen’s quote didn’t help, “We’re not going to win the World Cup.” That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say to the American people, especially the casual fan.
Bo: With the difficult group that we were drawn into, does Klinsmann get a free pass for this World Cup?
Eric: No. No he doesn’t. And he shouldn’t. If you notice, as soon as we saw the draw, his argument was it was that it was unfair for him to be evaluated with his group. So what did he do? He immediately negotiated for four more years, and changed things around quite a bit. He has his people around him now. It is a whole-new look federation. I mean, we all have different opinions on what will make this a successful World Cup. I’ll just tell you this. If we don’t get a win, if we do not win a World Cup game, he will probably be let go.
Bo: With this roster, we have a mixture of veteran players and young talent. Who will need to step up and shoulder more of the weight in this tournament?
Eric: You look at a guy like Graham Zusi who’s a bit older, but playing in his first World Cup. That’s got to be invigorating for him. He’s going to go through a whole slew of emotions. He’s going to run a little faster, he’s going to be a little quicker. We’ll find out in a hurry how good we’re going to be. I actually think this team will play a lot better than expected, especially in that first game. Because, one, we need to. And two, right down the spine, we do have enough experience. Guys like Dempsey, Bradley, and Howard will be the calming voice in the locker room and probably get us through those first 20 minutes.
Bo: The current system of finding young talent in the United States relies heavily on colleges and young travel team programs. Do you think this current system is adequate to discover that next big talent?
Eric: No. We’re nowhere near it. The infrastructure that you see in Europe is far more organized than what we have. My argument is, instead of looking oversees to see what players we can find, it might be more advantageous to start looking into some backyards here in America. There are a lot of possibilities we’re overlooking on a continual basis. I’ve got a kid on my team (Atlanta Silverbacks) right now, and I’m not afraid to talk about him. His name is Poku and he’s from Ghana and he got married to an American girl. Poku is American. He’s 21, 6’1”, and he’s one of the best soccer players, obviously in this league (NASL), but he might be too good for the MLS too. He can play anywhere. He literally lives down the street in Atlanta. He happens to be living here because he had a school visa that expired and he had to figure out a way to stay in this country. Now he’s here, and he’s legal, and he’s good.
Bo: So what changes do we make?
Eric: You hire the right people and you stop being lazy. Stop being afraid. Just because you got an email that said you have to put your jacket on and go to some division one game, don’t be afraid to talk to people. Watch that division three game, or the Mexican league game in East LA that happens to have a 20-year old kid who looks pretty good. People will say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and give you a million reasons not to give him a chance. But there are a million reasons TO give him a chance. We’ve missed the boat a lot. Our coaching in this country is not good. Let’s just say that. The moment that we finally discover a player, the moment he’s been discovered by the powers that be in this country, is the moment we start destroying him. That’s what happens. Nobody wants to admit it, but we’ve got a bunch of coaches that over-coach and turn players into what they want them to be as opposed to letting them become who they are. Power trips and PowerPoint presentations are dictating the show right now. There aren’t enough soccer minds out there making soccer decisions.
Bo: You’ve seen a lot of success in your career both on and off the pitch. What kind of legacy do you want to leave with United States soccer?
Eric: To be fair, I think I can have a far greater effect on the game in the next 10 years than I’ve had in the last 20. What I was able to accomplish as a player… well, it has its good moments, and it has its bad moments. It’s all experience that, if I don’t use it, if I don’t pass it on, it’s useless. The frustration for me has been exclusion. Maybe people don’t like the truth. Maybe people don’t like to…. I don’t know, maybe people don’t like solutions. Because if you come in with a solution, what does that mean? It means you’ve probably just got 10 people fired. So those people are going to protect their jobs. It’s a dangerous path that you walk if you’re a guy like me who just wants to make a difference. You kind of have to play ball and play that political game of not saying anything to make sure that people trust you enough that they’ll be able to put you in a position where you can help but know you won’t say or do the wrong thing in the wrong moment. If anyone has been paying attention to my career as a coach, I don’t think I’ve had very many missteps.
Eric Wynalda spoke to World Soccer Talk on behalf of Sony’s sponsorship of the 2014 World Cup.