Eric Wynalda believes his time spent with the Atlanta Silverbacks in leadership roles from 2012-14 are why his platform as a candidate for U.S. Soccer Federation president is strong.
“What is the country asking for right now?” he said. “Someone with an ability to assess problems, make adjustments, hire a coach, and have success.”
Wynalda’s work with the Silverbacks, who were arguably the worst professional soccer franchise in the U.S. when he was hired as interim coach and adviser in 2012, was impressive and provide conversational and concrete examples of his skills as a potential leader of a broad, complex organization like USSF.
“Atlanta was a malfunctioning organization, it had overextended itself, had a lack of identity, and was floundering,” he said.
Wynalda doesn’t describe the Silverbacks in that way to be critical. He’s being factual.
The franchise left USL to join the re-started NASL in 2009. The franchise began playing when the league was given sanctioning in 2011.
Things didn’t go well.
The Silverbacks went 4-20-4 and averaged less than 3,000 fans their first season.
The team had another poor spring in 2012, prompting team co-owner Boris Jerkunica, general manager Andy Smith and others to sit down with Wynalda that summer.
The meeting, as Wynalda remembers it, went like this:
The team, going back to when it was in the A League in 1995, had gone through many coaches. Many would ask for a two-year contract: one year to clean things up and one year to implement a style. Wynalda said that is a standard request but seems to him to be geared more toward self-preservation than franchise improvement.
Wynalda, as many people may know, isn’t one to think about getting results in standard ways. That determination and ethic can be traced to his dad telling him that the worst thing anyone can say about someone is that they had potential. It’s a belief that has pushed Wynalda throughout his soccer career.
“I said give me a week,” Wynalda said.
“You need a week to think about it?” Wynalda remembers Jerkunica asking.
“I need a week to fix it,” Wynalda said. “You know I’ll be here on an interim basis. I’ll assess your players, assess your coach, and create a new culture in the organization.”
“That’s exactly what happened,” Smith said.
Wynalda fired 12 players in the first week. He brought in eight players and hired a coach, Brian Haynes.
“We couldn’t fix it using money, we needed to fix it finding talent that other people didn’t find,” Jerkunica said. “That’s what Eric did.”
Wynalda said the Silverbacks were the best team in the winter and they won the NASL’s 2013 Spring season with a 6-3-3 record, which guaranteed a spot in the season-ending championship game. The team didn’t do as well in the Fall season, going 4-6-4, which may have been a result of the players knowing they had already locked in a spot in the title game.
Though the team was beaten 1-0 by the Cosmos for the championship, Wynalda had assessed the problems, made adjustments, hired a coach, and experienced success. Those are the same things that USSF’s new leader must do.
“Reason I think a lot of people in Atlanta appreciate it, small scale or not, it does demonstrate that I know how to fix things,” he said.
The team struggled again in 2013, finishing eighth in the spring and 10th in the fall, with Wynalda still serving in an advisory role from his home in California, where he managed another club and also worked as an analyst for Fox Sports.
In 2014, Wynalda became the full-time manager and technical director of the Silverbacks, but would do so from California.
Why did he and the club agree to do this?
Wynalda said the team’s budget was such that it didn’t have enough money to have a manager and technical director, so he told the owners to put that money into the players’ meager salaries and he would do both roles.
Wynalda was criticized by many on social media for his plan to manage the team from California. He would fly from his home, or from Europe if that was where he was with Fox Sports, to Atlanta to manage practices on Thursday and Friday and to be there for Saturday’s games. Sometimes he was able to be there for those three days. Sometimes he couldn’t.
He resigned as manager in July 2014, saying he needed to spend more time with his family, but remained as technical director through the end of the season.
What Wynalda hasn’t shared until Friday is that for the final nine months he was with the Silverbacks he didn’t get paid. Only his travel was covered. He said the money for his salary wasn’t in the team budget and the franchise and players knew their futures were cloudy with the imminent arrival of what would become Atlanta United.
Smith said Wynalda lost money working for the team. Smith also shared that Wynalda also helped the players by giving them some of his own money to take care of their families.
“The reason why I stuck around is I had made a commitment to the players,” Wynalda said. “I didn’t want to give up on their careers.
“For pain to my family, my life and my relationship to Fox, I chose not to quit, even though it was expensive, even though it didn’t make sense.
“Anybody else would be forced to quit. I said I’m not giving up on you guys. When I didn’t give up. That provided someone like Kwadwo Poku, Efraim Burgos, Junior Chavez to have a continuation of a career. Those guys have done great things since.
“Even though all logic was saying this makes no sense privately, personally and professionally those guys deserved it.”
Wynalda brings this anecdote up because of the criticisms leveled at him by Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, among others.
“I think it exuded more commitment than any other coach in other country,” Wynalda said. “To be unpaid to fly across the country every week to see that the players weren’t forgotten.
“I’ve let it go until now. I took the hit and didn’t feel it necessary until now.”
Those are some of the reasons why Wynalda believes he is he the best candidate for USSF Presidency.
“I think experiences I have are relevant,” he said. “They show an ability to lead, administrate and organize. A lot of people don’t see that side of me. Don’t expect that of me. What they see is a guy who was forced to have a hot take in 15 seconds.
“Being level-headed and making good soccer decisions is what I’m good at.”
Jerkunica and Smith endorsed Wynalda’s candidacy for the USSF presidency.
“I think It would be really good to have Eric in there,” Jerkunica said. “I think he has completely different view of the soccer world of what it takes to get the U.S. to a competitive level. Let’s call it top 10 in the world, compared to the established guard that have failed at that over all these years.”