February 19, 2012

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

17 Jan, 2012

By Charles Boehm and Jimmy LaRoue

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

At this point, Wynalda's increasingly animated critiques of MLS prompted MLS Director of Communications Will Kuhns to raise his hand and engage with him.

Kuhns, sitting in the back row of the spacious room at the Kansas City Convention Center, raised his hand and was called upon by Wynalda.

Kuhns: So, Eric, I’d like to invite, or suggest, that next year we combine these two panels…

Wynalda: Are you upset because [only] 26 people showed up for Nelson [MLS Executive Vice President Nelson Rodriguez, who spoke earlier in the day]?

Kuhns: No, I think it was a good tactic to get some information from Nelson first and then rebut his presentation while he wasn’t here. I think it would be more entertaining to see you challenge him with his ideas with him there in the room –

Wynalda: The problem is that this is not an idea, Will – your idea is an opinion. I am not re-inventing the wheel, this is the way the rest of the world does it. If you engage with the rest of the world –

Kuhns: But you don’t have any facts, that’s the problem. There’s no facts.

Wynalda: I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong.
Kuhns: There’s no facts, though.

Wynalda: I didn’t even need to hear what Nelson had to say. I’ve heard it 16 times…

Kuhns: You’ve repeated several parts of it incorrectly so far.

Wynalda: Which parts?

Kuhns: Transfer fees. So transfer fees do not go 100 percent back to the league. That was not one of the 100 percent things he was talking about that’s a league –

Wynalda: Thank you for correcting me. But 100 percent of zero is zero.

Kuhns: My point is that I think it would be a more useful about the state of our league if it were – and we can have a vote, it would be good way to find out afterwards who won the debate, Eric or Nelson.

Wynalda: Ooooh, I’m in. Actually, I don’t want Nelson, I want Don. Don’ll do that.

Kuhns: OK. All yours.

Wynalda: I’m not trying to be an *ss hole, Will. I’m just pointing out -- Will works for Major League Soccer, by the way, for the kids in the back. He’s kinda doing what I just did, I listened to [MLS Executive Vice President] Nelson Rodriguez…

Kuhns: I would throw out that maybe the thing that’s holding our league back, more than anything else, is our own inferiority complex, the fact that we assume that our league is worse on every level, and every decision we make is wrong. We look across the pond and we say, ‘Well, it’s doing great over there. The atmosphere is great, or the salaries are huge. Why don’t we replicate what they’re doing, or copy what they’re doing? Whether it’s the schedule or the – I just think that in general, and I’m not saying you, Eric, I’m saying in general, there’s a culture of self-loathing in our country. We know that as Americans –

Wynalda: Wait a second, stop, what country are we talking about? This is the United States of America.

Kuhns: Right!

Wynalda: I’m not scared of anybody, and if you’re scared of an inferiority complex, if that’s something you want to actually bring this into the conversation, you’ve just become the problem. This is the United States of f*cking America. [to audience] You’re supposed to clap at this point. [audience claps]

Kuhns: That’s exactly my point. I think if what we stop looking at what the league ISN’T, and really focusing on that, then maybe we can take it to another level, still, than where it’s already come.

Wynalda: Look, let me get this straight. I am your biggest fan. What you have accomplished and where the sport is right now, I love the game. If anything – if you leave here with any other thought outside the fact that WE ALL WANT THE SAME THING. The reason why we’re here is we want to win the World Cup. I don’t even like track and field! But when I watch the Olympics, you know what I do? I go, ‘Hey, China’s beating us! How did they get more gold medals than us? What’s wrong here?!?'

We don’t want to go over there, and we don’t want them to come over here – no offense to the English, but 250 years ago we got in boats to get away from you. This is our deal, all right? I am extremely proud to be a representative of Major League Soccer, and be a player. I’m just pointing out what you’re not doing, simply because you’re not doing it. 100 percent of zero IS zero. Not engaging in a $2 billion business is BAD. BUSINESS.

Our players – we don’t even know how good they can be before we find out. It’s worth finding out. Because I believe in the American player. I think the next Lionel Messi lives right here inside our borders! I think he’s out there. Well, not Lionel Messi, hold on…

Audience member: "Tab Ramos."

Wynalda: Tab Ramos is out there! And he was special. And he got screwed, too. We grew up in the wrong era. [crowd chuckles] That’s not bitter or anything [wryly]. But, here is my point to you [to Kuhns]: You have built an amazing car, and it’s got a great engine. And I love the paint job, and the wheels look good. But can we put some freakin’ gas in it and see what we can do now? How’s that for you?

Audience member: […audio unclear, question about "pay to play" model.]

Wynalda: Look, don’t bite the hand that feeds you, buddy. Players pay to play – who gets money from this, by the way? Who gets paid as a coach to train players? [gestures in the general direction of the convention center building] This is an industry. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t exist, because it does. It does. And a lot of the way we do things is different. It’s not like Germany or Brazil, where some guy goes, ‘Hey kid, do that again. Do you have a family? No? Really? Here, come with us…’

That’s how it works over there. It’s different for us. So comparing ourselves to the rest of the world is apples and oranges. [Pay to play] is a lot more. It shouldn’t be that much. I told you I have four kids. Do you know how much I’m freakin’ paying? I don’t like it, either. But, it’s part of the experience. It’s part of being part of the team. All of us – I hope all of us love this game. I hope that’s the way it is for you, because that’s the way it is for me.

I LOVE IT. This game has taught me more about myself, more about other people, more about life, than anything else that I could’ve ever gotten involved in. I have a much – eight years old, teacher asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I said, ‘I want to be a soccer player – or an orthopedist!’ [laughs] That guy with crutches over there – I can’t help you, because I’m not an orthopedist. But I love the game. And I’m not trying to discount what this league has accomplished – good god, don’t think that. Don’t do that. I hope you heard  the comment about being an architect – because there’s a ceiling that doesn’t need to be there. We don’t need to bounce off of it. It can go higher. It should.

Audience member: […audio unclear, question about incentivizing the game.]

Wynalda: You have a national team that is excelling. That’s how you incentivize it. It’s called national pride. Money is not the problem at our lower levels – if I’m talking about professional levels, the youth level kids today want to get better. You have to study – it’s what they’re wearing, what they’re watching, and what they’re playing.

What they’re wearing, what they’re watching, what they’re playing. More people are playing soccer than any other sport. What are they wearing? They’re wearing 25 percent baseball, 30 percent basketball, 40 percent football – even though it’s the lowest participatory sport, they make the money, because that’s marketing. Three percent are wearing soccer stuff – 85 percent of that is not Major League Soccer. My kids have three shirts…So you can incentivize it. What incentivizes it to all of us is when we get better. I’m giving you the solution on how to make the pro game better. The product on the field, better. Every day. The environment every day. People show up and want to work, because there’s something at stake. That makes it better. That makes the product better. That makes our national team better – not 30-something in the world. What the hell is that all about?! It pisses me off. Anybody else [have questions]? Because I think we’re out of time.

Audience member: […audio unclear, question about MLS marketing.]

Wynalda: Did everybody hear that? …I think the marketing does a great job. I think they do. But we’ve got to make this happen. We can’t sit around and wait for it to happen. It’s not happening yet, and that’s the environment they’re in – that’s the problem, it has nothing to do with anything else. Why would we put a big face on somebody who can’t do it? Freddy Adu – can’t do it. We compared the poor kid to Pele, and he hadn’t even touched a ball yet. He wasn’t good enough for the Olympic team but all of a sudden he was going to play in Major League Soccer and sign a million-dollar deal with Nike. We’ve got to be careful with them, you know what I mean? Let’s let them progress in the right way or we’ll end up with a bunch of [Carlos] Tevezes. One more question…

Audience member: "Now I watch European soccer in the wintertime. My question really is, if MLS or another league decides they’re going to go to the international schedule like you’re proposing, from a business point of view, would it be financially viable to survive for the first two to three years because in the fall of this country, as you well know, you’re going to compete with NCAA football, compete with the NFL – that’s enough – can it do it now that MLS has got a foothold? I’m excited that we’re number three attendance…would Fox still continue to support MLS on an international schedule in the United States?"

Wynalda: I can answer that. You stop for two months – you take a break. You start when the kids go back to school, maybe August 15, Labor Day, and then you finish and you go away, because it’s too cold to play. That’s what Germany does, that’s the right thing to do. You can’t play in the snow, it’s too damn cold. We have enough teams on the west coast now – we have some of the best teams. The Pacific Northwest, again, I encourage you to go check it out. Yeah, I know it’s going to rain, but you ask ANY player in this room: heat, or cold? It does matter. Cold is better. Now that we finally have supporters, not fans, not dads and moms going, ‘Want to go to the game? I saw it in the paper!’

Supporters are going to be there. Yeah, the numbers are going to suffer a little bit, but you know what Fox said? ‘Change your schedule, and as soon as football goes away in February, Valentine’s Day shows up, we’ll put your product on the network, because it does get numbers.'

Our numbers with the EPL right now, at times, exceed the numbers for ESPN College Football GameDay, and they’re getting $25 million for that deal. Sponsors will back it. We finish our games with relevance, that matters, we won’t go into a World Cup limping, or at least pretending that we’re playing. It’s going to matter all the way to the end, if we hit the World Cup running. Fox will do that. Fox will give us all the money we need, if we get into a situation where we can promote the game and we’re not going up against the cash cow. The cash cow is – our ratings for our final, what was it, Will? Was it 0.5?

Kuhns: This past final? 0.9 on ESPN.

Wynalda: So that’s 900,000 people watched our FINAL. 900,000. We threw up Tottenham vs. Arsenal, and there’s 6 million people watching.

Audience member: […audio unclear…question about USMNT World Cup qualifying.]

Wynalda: Well, it’s got to be better than it is now, buddy. Look, I believe Jurgen Klinsmann is going to be able to do this. He’s too experienced, he’s got a lot going on, he’s got good people around him – a lot of people are going to say, ‘Andreas Hertzog, where did this guy come from?’

The bottom line is that you’ve got to have your buddy next to you. You’ve got to have your guy, that you trust. Anything else is a forced friendship. But now we’ve got somebody he can trust to do this together with. I like the team, I like our talent. The only concern that I have when we go into qualification is, if we’re trying to play – you don’t ‘play’ in Honduras. You don’t. You figure out a way to play the game you’re in.

I’ll leave you with this: when we beat Brazil in 1998, the media – which I am now a part of – could not figure out a way to be collectively happy about the fact that we just beat one of the best teams in the world. I was on the stage with preki, who scored that great goal – how many people have seen that? I was just happy to be there because on the statistics, I passed it to the guy who did something great. His English wasn’t too great, so I kinda helped out in that regard. After the sixth time they asked, ‘are you guys upset that no one is here to see you guys beat Brazil?’

And going back to the United States of America comment, my comment to him was, ‘If you’re a gladiator and you go into an arena and the other guy’s trying to kill you, does it really f*cking matter who’s watching?’ Now, when we play in the qualifications, it doesn’t matter how we play. So the next time he tries to sell me the idea that results aren’t important, he’s going to hear it. He’s going to hear it. The hell they don’t.

Every game matters, whether you’re dealing with the perception of reality or if the game does matter. If you’re dealing with perception of reality, treat each time like it matters. Put the best 11 on the field, win the game, beat the people that are in front of you. THAT’s how you change, that’s how you build a winning mentality. I don’t like what’s happening right now and I expect it will change – [Klinsmann] has ASSURED me that it will change.  So we’ll see.

[ +Click here to return to Part I of Wynalda's remarks ]

[ +Click here to return to Part II of Wynalda's remarks ]

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