By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 8, 2019) US Soccer Players - It’s been a strange year or so for Eric Wynalda. The USMNT legend entered 2018 as a central figure in the bruising US Soccer presidential election, defiantly running as the anti-establishment candidate in what turned out to be a landslide victory for US Soccer Federation VP Carlos Cordeiro. Fall brought the career breakthrough he’d long been looking for when USL side Las Vegas Lights FC hired him as their coach and technical director.
A month later, he and his family were forced to flee their home when the Woolsey fire swept across Westlake Village, California, and later watched the house burn to the ground on a local television news broadcast. With the speed and ferocity of the fire and the brutal triage of overwhelmed firefighters, their place was allowed to burn to save others in the area. As Wynalda told the LA Times, “We took one for the team.”
He and his wife Amanda, who practices law, elected to rent a home nearby to minimize disruption to their kids’ lives. Though with Eric’s new job, that too had consequences. A father of six, he’s now separated from most of his family for days at a time by the 300 miles of desert, mountain and scrub between LA and Las Vegas.
Yet he sounds pretty darned happy when he calls me this week on his way home from another long day of preseason work at Cashman Field, the old minor-league baseball park that Lights FC has inherited a few miles north of the Vegas Strip.
“It’s weird how the world works. My house burned down, I thought that was going to end the debate with my wife whether we’re moving or not,” Wynalda wisecracked. “When you take that leap of faith, I guess, when you want to become a coach, you’ve just married yourself to the idea that you could be a nomad and you’re going to just keep chasing the job … [but] I would love to start and finish here. I love it here, I always have, and we’re already, I think, laying the foundation for many years to come... of really building something special.”
Though he FaceTimes with his family back in SoCal twice a day, he’s not alone in Vegas. His oldest son Tim, age 17, is the Lights’ equipment manager, a special experience for both, even if they “put on our pro face while we’re working,” in Eric’s words.
A mercurial striker in his playing days, Wynalda has since earned a reputation as a maverick, from his outspoken persona as a television commentator to his iconoclastic USSF presidential campaign. It’s hard not to conclude that it stunted his efforts to build a coaching career in the insular world of MLS.
In 2012 he led a semipro team called Cal FC on one of the more impressive Cinderella runs in modern US Open Cup history. Then he navigated the old Atlanta Silverbacks to NASL success on a shoestring. Still the bigger jobs eluded him.
“I do have a way about me that’s certainly going to rub some people the wrong way,” he admitted. “Because in this country, we have already identified who we think our geniuses are. And I’m not impressed. Sorry, I’m not. And I’m not trying to be a jerk, I’m just saying, we define success in so many different ways and we address this job in this country, specifically this country, a certain way. And that’s why I think it was very difficult for me to get hired.
“I could’ve taken several jobs as an assistant. And everybody said the same thing: ‘well, you need to be an assistant somewhere,’ and I kept thinking, ‘so I need to go walk behind and set up cones for another guy just to watch him screw it up?’” he added with a chuckle. “It’s not for me.”
At Lights FC he seems to have found kindred spirits. It's a place where he can set aside the arguments and take action. It's building his vision rather than talking about it on big stages.
“You guys can continue to scream at the rain if you want. I’m done,” Wynalda told SiriusXM and USSoccerPlayers.com’s Jason Davis in a radio appearance this week. “As far as taking on the establishment and trying to invoke some sort of change, as much as you guys think that this country is ready for change, we’re not. We’re not. So getting back into coaching and management and just being able to change the room I’m in for once, and not concern myself with all that other stuff, is a good feeling.”
That includes scouring for hidden local talent in open tryouts. Calling in lower-division players he had tabbed for NASL expansion side Cal United FC before that league’s shuttering. It's about embracing a grassroots mindset with a Latino-centric playing style. All of which dovetails in the burgeoning, if isolated, Vegas scene, which he compares favorably to even the famed SoCal soccer hotbed.
“You essentially are on this island and we’re all connected in some way shape or form,” he said of his adopted city. “It’s been fun, man. We did our tryouts, we had 400 kids show up, we picked 23, on merit, and eight of them were under the age of 18. It blew me away. We had kids out there, 16, 17 years old, who have every chance to be a pro someday.”
Wynalda wants to help them do so. He stresses that he and Lights FC will walk the talk if and when their players break through.
“In the event that these kids go somewhere or make something for themselves, we are going to honor the solidarity payment or training compensation [to their previous clubs],” he said. “It’s the right thing to do, it’s what FIFA would expect us to do.
“I owe Cal United and Cal FC a great deal. Those are clubs that are on a shoestring budget, trying to figure out ways to afford to put a team together so that they can be competitive … [Reward] those who continue to do the real work. That’s the way this works. That’s the right thing to do. There’s nobody that’s going to be able to tell me otherwise.”
This team is Wynalda’s vision, built by his hand, from his ideals. He recounts a recent argument with a skeptical local journalist.
“He said ‘well, we don’t know who these guys are, they’re a bunch of nobodies,’” he recalled. “So you want me to hire a bunch of comedians that have been booed off the stage, but at least you’d know who they are? I know a lot of comedians that haven’t had a stage yet. So why don’t you come to the stadium and see if they’re funny? At least give them a shot.”
Only a year old, Lights FC and owner Brett Lashbrook – a former MLS executive – have earned international attention for their unorthodox ways, crafted to jibe with their city’s offbeat identity. There’s the fieldside llama mascots, a tie-in to locally-based shoe giants Zappos. The luminous neon-inspired uniforms and crest, which match nicely with a promotion that rewards high-performing players with gambling chips from a nearby casino. The sponsorship deal with a local marijuana dispensary. And then there was the “$5,000 Helicopter Cash Drop,” a wild halftime activity that was exactly what it sounds like.
“You have to embrace the culture, the culture of who we are,” said Wynalda, comparing Lights to NFL renegades the Oakland Raiders, who will move to Vegas next year. “When I made the selection process of the guys that are here now that are going to play for the Lights, that had a big part of it – were they going to be able to understand what Brett was doing? That we’re going to make appearances, that we’re going to be in the community, and it’s OK to dye your hair pink, and sometimes you might fly in a helicopter over the damn stadium and drop money on it – it would have a little bit of a show feel to it.”
This adventure is a homecoming of sorts for Wynalda. When he earned his first pro contract in Germany in the early 1990s, an advisor suggested he buy a house in Las Vegas instead of his native California, mainly because Nevada has no state income tax. He wound up using it for more than a decade.
“I never really had any intention of making it a home, it was supposed to be a tax haven, and then I ended up being introduced to how great the community is, how great for families.This life in Vegas is very different than people think. It’s not all casinos and craziness,” he explained. “And what I’m finding now is that it’s really grown into a very vibrant soccer community, with a ton of potential.”
The regular season is still a month away and Wynalda knows much work still lies ahead. But his upstart squad turned heads across the continent last weekend with a 5-1 demolition of Toronto FC in a preseason match. Switching into a high press in the middle of the game, Lights FC caught TFC unprepared, wreaking havoc on their efforts to play out of the back. That result, and the unconventional way in which he’s constructed his team, offer a tantalizing hint of what might blossom in the Nevada desert under his watch.
“I love [TFC head coach] Greg Vanney, good dude, he’s a friend. He’s going through a lot right now. There’s a lot of transition in that team. I understand that maybe we caught them at a time where they were in a little bit more disarray than they wanted to be,” said Wynalda. “But that’s the game.
“Coaches are all into expectations, and they’re all about basically managing expectations. Don’t ever say anything brash, don’t ever put yourself out there that your team’s good or you should win, or anything of that nature, because you’re setting yourself up for failure. And I just don’t understand that. I don’t understand anybody that goes into a game or a season and says, ‘well, I plan to lose half of them and if I make the playoffs, I’ll call that a success.’ It’s OK to say that I want to say that I want to win every goddamned game that I’m in. … Marrying yourself to mediocrity is not what I’m in this to do.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- USMNT coaching debut hints at Berhalter’s other mandate: to teach
- Seasoned rookie: A conversation with USMNT newcomer Daniel Lovitz
- Interesting questions for MLS and US Soccer in the player development space
- The Philly way: The Philadelphia Union plant their flag
Logo courtesy of the Las Vegas Lights