Staff Photo: Michael Buckelew Eric Wynalda is the technical director for the Atlanta Silverbacks, analyst for Fox Soccer and a former player for the U.S. men's national team.
Atlanta Silverbacks technical director Eric Wynalda is a man of many talents. In addition to his work with the Silverbacks, he is a Fox Soccer analyst. He is likely best known for his talents on the field, scoring the first goal in Major League Soccer history with the San Jose Clash in 1996 and holding the U.S. men's national team goal-scoring record with 34 until Landon Donovan broke the mark in 2008. He joined the Silverbacks last year as an interim head coach after leading amateur club Cal FC into the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup, including a win over the Portland Timbers of MLS.
In this installment of "Getting to Know ...", Wynalda talks to staff writer Michael Buckelew about how he got into soccer, splitting time between his jobs and what he thinks of the soccer talent in metro Atlanta and the state of Georgia.
MB: What kind of things do you do as the Silverbacks' technical director?
EW: My job is kind of to oversee the team, to recruit, to find new players, to communicate with other teams, try and just build a good product. I stay in constant contact with the coaching staff and the players, put out fires when necessary, start fires when necessary.
MB: How did you end up playing soccer? Was it the first sport you played growing up?
EW: It was. At 5 years old, my father, who was a three-sport (player) -- football, track and baseball. He went to Princeton. It's the last thing in the world I ever thought my dad would want me to do. But he introduced me to the game. He was fascinated by it. Our Dutch heritage helped a little bit. But I had an older brother that was playing, and I just kind of joined that team. I think I got good because I was always playing up.
MB: How hard was it for the national team to get a deep roster of skilled players without a top professional division like Major League Soccer back in the early 1990s?
EW: I think "deep roster" is a good way of putting it. I think we had, no disrespect to some of the guys who were competing at that time, I think we had nine or 10 guys that could do it at a high level. If a couple of us got hurt or were unavailable for whatever reason, our results suffered. I think the sheer numbers of how many guys we could call internationals today is somewhere in the 60s. So that's my definition of the growth in the game.
MB: Between your Fox Soccer and the Silverbacks duties, how hard is it to spend enough quality time with the family?
EW: I actually take them with me everywhere I go. These guys know that. The kids were out last summer. My son, Tim, his reward for getting an A on a test was to go to Atlanta. I didn't tell him that he was probably going to go anyway, but they loved it here. I'm fortunate. I'm blessed that I'm able to find the time. But it's a weekend job for the television stuff. And it gets compounded a bit with the soccer stuff. But I think there'll come a day when I can dedicate full time to soccer and not television. That day is coming.
MB: In Georgia, how does the soccer talent compare between now and when you were playing?
EW: I'm extremely impressed, I would go as far as to say overwhelmed. Atlanta proves that there are hot pockets in this country that are very passionate and there's a culture for the sport here. From our perspective, from my perspective, it's our responsibility to have a product that is reflective of that passion and that enthusiasm that exists here. It's an interesting relationship because the talent is here. Very much so. But there has to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, doesn't there? So we're working on that.
MB: Josh Wolff is probably the top soccer player to come from Gwinnett County. Is there anyone on the horizon around Atlanta or Georgia who might match his caliber?
EW: You never want to put that kind of expectation on anybody. It's one of those situations where you wait for it to happen, and then you say, "I told you so" or "I always knew." Just in my short time, less than a year here, it's out there. There's a lot of talent out there. Whether it finds its way into the national team programs isn't always the definition of success. We'll keep our eyes and ears open and keep going to all those places and those fields where, in my opinion, the real magic happens and see if we can tap into it.
MB: What kind of future does Brookwood grad Sean Johnson, the Chicago Fire goalkeeper, have on the club and national team level?
EW: It's hard to say. The last couple of years, not the kind of progression that you'd like to see. You'd like to see a little bit better. A couple of really difficult moments for him in his career. Some adversity that you've got to get past, and I think that will be the true test of where his career goes, whether he can bounce back from some stuff that will end up defining him in the end.
MB: The Silverbacks have done a good job of drawing fans the past couple of seasons, regularly filling all 5,000 seats. What is drawing fans to the games with so much sports competition?
EW: There is a real, what I would call a very real soccer base here. People that really not just understand the game, but they live it and they love it. We're at a stage now where it's not the soccer moms. It's the soccer mom's mom. It's now a stage where the soccer moms of today played themselves. They were players. They love the game, too. ... And now there's a culture of people who have grown up in the game, especially in this town. If you come to Silverbacks Park any night of the week, pick a night. There will be over 1,000 people here. I was here last night. I played -- I pulled my hamstring. But I enjoyed every second of it. ...
The thing that I've recognized, and I'm not trying to say this in a self-serving or Narcissistic way, but when I'm in California, nobody knows who I am. If I go to an L.A. Galaxy game -- if I go to an L.A. Galaxy game -- a lot of people don't have a clue who I am because they're not real soccer people. They're not. But if you come to Silverbacks Park, if I try to walk around, I can't make it 10 feet. ... It's awesome that a place like Atlanta would have more of a connection to the game than possibly the town that I live in. You go to an L.A. Galaxy game, and it's a demographic of people who have been targeted because they have money and they're just going to come to a game.
MB: It's kind of an event more than a soccer game.
EW: Right. "Oh, you've got that soccer thing. Some famous guy from England with tattoos is going to play." That's what it was. That's what it is. But it's not Portland, and it ain't Seattle. That's real. That's as real as you can get. We have, in Atlanta, an opportunity to probably build and create something just as special.
I have a buddy I went to high school with and played with the Braves -- Matt Franco. He was here for many years. And I said to him, "Hey, you're never going to believe this, but I'm going to Atlanta, and I'm going to be working there." He says, "You are going to love that town. I'll tell you this, there's more soccer people there than there are baseball people." Because he's a former soccer guy. And I said, "That ain't true." And he said, "You watch. You watch. You're going to love it." And I said OK, and I was inspired by that.
I called Clint Mathis before I came here, I called Josh (Wolff). I called a few people. I think that what's happening here in Atlanta is real. I'm excited. I feel the pressure, if you will, to create something special here, because I think the people that come to our games deserve it. They really do.
MB: I went to high school with Josh for three years and was a manager/trainer for the team. They played Heritage a couple of times when Mathis was there, and those were some good games.
EW: Yeah. I was teammates with Josh very briefly. We used to be golf buddies in Chicago. He was going through a rough time with an ankle injury. I kind of replaced him on the season. I was like a fill-in, if you will. And I think it would be great to see Josh get involved with Atlanta soccer. It really would. It would be really good to have him come home and really roll his sleeves up and see what he can do. He's trying to get into coaching now obviously with D.C. (United). He's a smart guy. He's got great experience. He's one of those guys who you would hope ends up coming back to his roots.
MB: The team has made an obvious turnaround since you and Brian Haynes came into the organization. What has been the key factor in making the club a contender?
EW: We are proud to look back and say how much better things have been since we've been here. I think Brian's knowledge of the game, I think Brian's knowledge of people and how to communicate -- I remember when a couple of people asked me about Brian Haynes, they asked me, "Brian Haynes? Why did you pick him to be coach of this team?"
There's nothing disingenuous about him. He is a man of faith, a man with a lot of experience. He has been down a road where on most occasions where a former player, a person like him would end up doing something else because he would get pushed out because of his quality, if that makes any sense. You would think in this business we would be looking for more Brian Hayneses. But in the current political nature of things, someone like Brian is almost more of a threat. He was one of the first guys I thought of.
We had a great conversation, and the reason why we've been able to turn this thing around is because we know what good soccer looks like. We know how to build a team with people with two kinds of character: We want characters, but we want them to have character. This is the best job in the world, but you have to do it in the right way. If you don't have people who know how to create that environment, it'll never happen. The guys that are on this team were not just selected because they have good soccer qualities, but because they're quality individuals, they're quality human beings. That's how you build a team. You want to build any healthy organization, you make it about the people, not the players. Players are always going to let us down. People, those friendships will last forever.
MB: How do the Silverbacks who graduated from Gwinnett -- Borfor Carr, Eric Ati and Jahbari Willis -- fit into the team?
EW: Fantastically. Jahbari was probably one of the more challenging because he's one of those guys who would probably fall through the cracks. But we invested in him because it was worth it. It wasn't just the right thing to do. We genuinely want Jahbari Willis on this team, and we want him to succeed. He's going to make us better.
Borfor Carr is one of the nicest people I've ever met. I can't imagine this team without him, let's put it that way. I'm not going to tell you how much he was making, but he wasn't being respected, in my eyes. They were not valuing his inclusion into this team. We had to change that. I think that kind of conversation was a good one to have. "We're going to give you more money because you're worth it."
Eric's got an unbelievable future. As soon as we figure out how to make him a little bit more consistent, he's probably one of the more valuable assets this club has in the sense that he will move on to bigger and better things. If he doesn't, that would be a tragedy.
I love those three guys. They're three of my favorite people. Jahbari and I, in a short time, have already been through a lot. He lived 45 minutes away and was having a hard time getting to practice. I cut eight people to afford to be able to bring him closer, to have an apartment right down the street so he wasn't late to practice. He wasn't acting unprofessional. There are circumstances that dictate some of these guys' actions. You make their lives a little easier and they show you who they really are. You believe in somebody, prove it, and they will always give us the effort.
MB: You've had a long broadcasting career, but you have also shown a talent for coaching soccer teams. Do you think you'll try coaching a pro team again?
EW: Yeah. I will say this, and I said this last year. I looked at it from so many different directions. I think I called 10 of my closest friends when I said I was going to come to Atlanta and take the job. Nine of them tried to talk me out of it. On most occasions, they said, "Oh, you're going to ruin all of that good vibe with Cal FC, and that was such a great thing. Don't ruin it." I just wanted to continue it.
When I got here and got the opportunity to manage -- you can go on commentating all you want and talk about all this stuff. You can say, "Well I would've this" or "That's what should be done" or "That's what he's going to do," and you can have all these opinions. But until you actually do it, no one really believes you. It's a moot point. By success, you validate a lot of things. That's what's happened here.
So back to my first point, I loved it more than I thought I would. I never thought I would be saying that, because to love this game more than I already did would be an impossibility. I fell in love with the game all over again, and that was pretty cool.
MB: How do you expect Fox's new national sports channel to affect how Fox covers soccer in the U.S. and globally?
EW: I see the big picture, and I understand where networks are coming from with ratings and how many houses they're in and all the dynamics that have to come together to make a channel work. There will be a sense of disappointment that it won't be all soccer all the time. (Fox Sports 1 will replace Speed on Aug. 17 and incorporate Fox Soccer, Fuel TV and other programming, doing away with the standalone soccer channel). But in the same breath, you'll be able to introduce the sport to more people who will be able to see the game at a high level.
It's kind of a bittersweet thing, but in the end I believe it'll be a good thing. It will be more of an ESPN kind of deal. It will be less of a focus on the (English Premier League), which has been the bread and butter of Fox since 1998 if I'm not mistaken. That's a long run. It'll be less soccer, but I still think in the end for Fox it's probably a very logical move.
MB: Would Atlanta be able to support a Major League Soccer team? How would it fit in here? Would it do better downtown near the major sports teams or in a suburb outside the perimeter?
EW: It's all a good question. First off, yes, because the support is here. I think all the money that is inserted into an endeavor like that would probably dictate what will happen from that point. I think there's a big enough net. We're here (at Silverbacks Park at Spaghetti Junction) now, and we're still considered in Atlanta. The L.A. Galaxy, they should call them the Carson Galaxy. It's not L.A. They're not even near L.A. It's got to be at least 40 miles, maybe more. Maybe 50. You're on your way past Manhattan Beach, past Redondo Beach, past Long Beach. Atlanta is a different demographic. If it was smartly put together, and there's all kinds of studies that go into that, but this is one of the cities that can pull it off. Definitely.