February 19, 2012

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

17 Jan, 2012

By Charles Boehm and Jimmy LaRoue

[continued from Part I, which can be found here.]

Eric Wynalda spent the majority of his NSCAA session taking questions from the audience, which soon developed into a freewheeling dialogue that was at turns both compelling and audacious. Our recording equipment was unable to pick up all audience questions but we've attempted to summarize their content here.

Audience member: "Can you talk about Freddy Adu?"

Wynalda: He wasn’t ready then [when drafted into MLS in 2004]; it was too early then. And it’s a big waste of talent. Will he be great someday? Probably not. Regardless of how old you think he is, or how old he really is [laughter], one of his teammates said the hardest thing about being Freddy Adu is that you have to wait until you’re 26 to get a drink legally [laughter]. We all know that story, but that was unfair. That was unfair. I was on ESPN; I got in trouble. [D.C. United assistant coach at the time] Tom Soehn asked me what do I think of his play and I said, ‘He’s playing so bad he might really be 13.’

It’s a great example, though, of how it can go wrong. It’s having an environment – I don’t think there’s been anybody that’s ever really pushed that kid the right way. The environment never pushed him. And then the expectation part, it’s the same thing that happened with Jozy [Altidore] […audio unclear…] The first time you don’t make a pass, or the first time you don’t deliver, you don’t perform, ‘Hey, I think you’re great too. but how about, prove to me this week, prove it to me all week. Prove it to me for two weeks. I’m not sold on this.’ It’s a rough dilemma.

Audience member: "What do you think of the coaching in MLS?" [After a pause, the questioner adds] “No bullsh*tting, remember?"

Wynalda: I don’t have a filter, but I have a strainer. I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed, but I don’t blame that on them either. If they want to get better, change the environment they’re in. Guys like Peter Vermes would welcome it now. He’s got strong character and he’s got a very good mind. Dominic Kinnear’s the best coach we’ve ever had. If you leave these [MLS executive] guys to their devices, they’ll hire the wrong guy.

Two of the best coaches in this league were hired by default – did you guys know that? Jason Kreis and Dominic Kinnear. 'Sh*t, things are going down the hill in San Jose. Now we’re going to Houston. We lost Frank Yallop. You want the job?' "Sure, yes." Three championships later, it’s like, ‘That was a really great idea.’

[With Jason Kreis], ’You know what? I’m going to make a gut decision. This kid wants to do this. He looks confident. He looks like he wants it. You got it. You’re my coach. [He won MLS Cup] what is it, two years later?

Coaching is pretty much about communication. The hard part about it, for me, as an analyst, I’m very disappointed when I say this, I travel, I go to the venue and I sit in the lobby, and I say, ‘Hey guys, how are you doing?’

Guys like Steve Ralston would come down, and I’d say, ‘What’s up? How ya doing?’

And he’d say, ‘I don’t know.’

I’d say, ‘What? What? What did your coach say?’

‘He didn’t talk to me.’

‘What do you mean?!?’

What I realized is that, the coaching mentality sometimes is, if I’m a coach, and I engage in a conversation with you, and at some point, you prove to me that you know more than I do, there’s a good reason to stay the hell out of that conversation, isn’t it? You’ll lose respect for me in a hurry. The best coaches are the ones who recognize the talent. They are facilitators, nothing more. Managers of people. We celebrate the existence of Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena, Schellas Hyndman, all great people, good coaches, […audio unclear, then laughter]. Great guys. Sigi Schmid. We celebrate those guys because that’s all we know. What if there was more? But we don’t know that.

Just as we’ve haven’t tested our players and we don’t even know yet how good they can be, they don’t know how good our coaches are because […audio unclear…]. There’s a lot of those games where we’re 85 minutes in, it’s 115 degrees in Dallas, or whatever it is. ‘Let’s just finish this thing. Let’s get it over with. 1-to-1, fine, we’ll shake hands and get on the bus.’

Incentivize it. That’s going to be a crazy last five minutes. That’s when the players have to play, and they want to play, and the coaches have to coach. You’ll see them jumping up, and maybe Sigi will lose a few pounds. He gets up. ‘Get back!’ [Wynalda raises his voice there, to laughter]. I like Sigi. Sigi’s actually the guy who discovered me and the guy that ended my career. I like how that worked.

I don’t want you to go away thinking that I don’t like Don Garber. I don’t want you to think that. Don Garber has done a tremendous job. One of the things they said that was very important was contraction. I am a casualty of contraction. My career ended the day we went to 10 teams. That was it for me. I still recognize it as the smartest business decision ever made. Wait ‘til we change the schedule, we can go back to Florida. Has anybody been to Fort Lauderdale in the middle of July? Some of those mosquitos could possibly carry you away [chuckles]. Nobody wants to play soccer. Nobody wants to sit in the stands and sweat through [a game].

Audience member: "Do you have to be a high level player to be a high level coach?"

Wynalda: I think Jose Mourinho has proven to us, to everybody, that that’s not true. I tell everybody that I sucked. I was a horrible player, a terrible player…[…audio unclear…]

Audience member: "Why aren't more non-high level players becoming high level coaches?

Wynalda: There’s only so many jobs. Mancini’s got one of the most celebrated players in Italy, in […audio unclear…]. It’s about people. You can’t put people and good players with bad players and good coaches and bad coaches. You hire the right people. That’s it. And let’s go back to Jason Kreis and [Real Salt Lake owner] Dave Checketts and his gut decision: 'I don’t care about the resume.'

It’s about people. If you hire the right people, you can figure out which guys can do the job, which guys you can trust – with your life.

Audience member: "Talking about incentives for the players, wouldn't promotion and relegation provide an incentive?"

Wynalda: I left a building under the stadium three times in my life in the trunk of a car – twice for good reasons, and once for a bad reason. Serious, we made it, we stayed in, you know, and I came back and the field manager handed me a steering wheel. I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘That’s your car.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, that’s my car?’ He said, ‘Ah, the fans are happy.’ [laughter in room]

Am I right? Four of our players came off the field and we were naked. They had everything but our underwear. And they were going to take the clothes that we had in the locker room, too, if we let them, so we had to sneak out in trunks. Look, relegation and promotion is a massive, massive, component of this. It’s like a few injuries and a couple of bad business deals with the New York Yankees, and next year, they’re playing in triple-A ball. Our American mentality can’t figure that out. It can’t. I don’t see it happening simply because the MLS is a very, very NFL-driven mentality.

It’s why we have conferences and trophies. We created more trophies -- really? … I’m in favor of one table. I don’t need any playoffs. I don’t want playoffs. Play the schedule. If you think that the games won’t have any relevance, incentivize the contracts and those teams that are still playing at the bottom are going to play. The game’s going to happen. It’s not just going to happen. These guys are going to kill one another. Because look, I’ve always said this, in the NBA, you throw $10,000 on the table, and they all go, ‘Whose is that?’

You do that in soccer, someone’s going to lose a finger [laughter]. It’s not about the money, always. Not only is it about the amount of money, but if you don’t incentivize it, you won’t get better.

Audience member: "What is your opinion about U.S. Club Soccer, [Development] Academy and all that stuff?"

Wynalda: I am actually going to say this, I have listened to their spiel. I think that the academies are doing something that’s unprecedented. As long as this is a fully-funded deal, and they’re paying for those players to be there, to get a better player, then I’m in favor of it, because it’s a natural part of the equation. You want to see the best players, see what they can do. Then again, you see a player like Cobi Jones, he went to high school. My buddy Chris Volk, an assistant coach at UC-Irvine, he was on my high school team. And he said, ‘When the level gets this low, I rise to it.’ [laughter]

When you play with great players, and they’re all good, you get lazy. You get lazy. The ball comes to you, and you go, ‘He’s good, good luck with that.’ That’s what happens. The next level of thought is when, in a split second, you realize, ‘He’s slow, he’s fast.’ And you make a decision on what you’re going to do based on your surroundings in a millisecond. That’s the next level of thought. I’m more into that. But sometimes it’s a tricky equation. It comes down to challenging those kids and trying to figure out how to get better on a daily basis. I like the academy idea. I didn’t think I would. I didn’t think I would.

Audience member: What do you think of the MLS loan deals -- [Thierry] Henry, [Landon] Donovan, [Robbie] Keane?"

Wynalda: If you’re paying a guy a lot of money and they’re not playing – you know how much money you just saved with Thierry Henry? Think about it. You’re making $4.5 million, you’re not playing for three months, and they’re going to pay you just so they can pay him. Robbie Keane – it shouldn’t surprise you that the heavyweights go, either, because they’re off our books. That’s all that happened there.

The problem with Landon was, Jurgen Klinsmann said, ‘Don’t sit on your *ss for five weeks and expect to come back here.’ Keep playing. I commend Landon for that. Landon’s a complex guy, but I think he’s in a situation right now where they’ve lost two games on the balance, we’re going to figure out his character. We’re going to find out what he’s all about, because those guys aren’t going to be like, ‘Hey, it’s good to have you again.’ What happens if they lose six in a row and he’s like, ‘Bye guys, gotta go.’ [Wynalda whistles].

Audience member: "Does MLS need to embrace its role as a stepping-stone league in order to become better?"

Wynalda: It’s a business. Don’t call it a business if you’re not going to do the business…You lose your player in the middle of June, and he’s gone. Now what? Trade? What do you do? The way it’s structured right now, you saw it, 100 percent of the money goes back to the league. How does the team recover that fast? How does a coach coach? They have to have that hard conversation with that player. ‘You’re not going anywhere.’

You try and manage that guy’s attitude for the next six weeks. ‘Let me get this straight, they’re offering $2.9 [million] and I’ve got to stay here and be in a good mood? You watch. Joel Lindpere is not going to play good this year. That’s not fair. I’m in favor of letting ‘em go. The other part of the equation is players won’t come here if they sign on the dotted line and they’re here for life. The contracts as they exist right now with our younger players are for a year with a three-year option. That’s borderline illegal. I’d like a legal opinion on that.

Audience member: "In Europe, players at younger ages are going to academies and playing against older players whereas here they wait until they're older and playing against kids in the same age group. Is that a hindrance?"

Wynalda: It’s different. It’s apples and oranges. The way that works is the David Beckhams of the world clean their boots…They get their asses kicked everyday and they get told that they’re sh*t. It’s a different way of life there. Our kids are told they’re the next best thing. And then when they get there and somebody  criticizes them, he doesn’t know what to do.

That puts these coaches in a horrible dilemma because they want to let them play, but they don’t want to criticize too much because they might cheat themselves out of a good player. Our dilemma is very different. That’s why it’s so damn hard. College coaches? How many college coaches we got? [Hands raise] You get a player, he’s any good, we’ll see you after your sophomore year. Bye. [Recent MLS SuperDraft pick] Kelyn Rowe – a sophomore. Come on.

I couldn’t take a coaching position at a university because I couldn’t go into a room with these parents and convince them that they’re going to come play for my university and I’m going to take care of you and you’re going to progress as a player and a person and this is his full thing and then, 'What’s up Chivas? See you, guys!' No, it’s a tough deal. Our kids are in a tough spot, and there’s big decisions to make. I think we look at this academy system, we gotta give it a few years to see what happens.

Audience member: "What do you want us grassroots people to do about this problem in the U.S.?..What can we do when we go out of this session?"

Wynalda: Those kids need - it’s always been the case in every sport – basketball, in the inner city, some kid comes from a bad home, a broken home, whatever – what’s his way out? Basketball. Why? Because he could possibly be a millionaire someday. ‘I can possibly make $42 grand someday,’ doesn’t really inspire anybody.

So what I’m saying is, this is not your fault. This is nobody’s fault. Anybody that’s trying to develop a young player right now, boy or girl – I have four kids and I got a 13-year-old who’s in a team, who’s going the wrong direction. She’s not sure what she wants to do, she’s not having fun anymore. The most important thing, the most important message all of us can always bring – it doesn’t matter where you are or at what level, if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t force anybody to do anything they don’t want to do. Your job is to make it fun.

[ +Read Part III of Wynalda's remarks here ]

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