I had the chance to interview FOX Sports’ Eric Wynalda ahead of tomorrow night’s MLS Cup match. We covered his thoughts on the match earlier, but I was also able to ask him some questions about Atlanta United, his time with the Atlanta Silverbacks, and one of his former players Junior Burgos.
With Atlanta United still looking to Tuesday’s Expansion Draft, Wynalda said that it is too early to judge their progress on building a roster:
“It’s too early to tell really. They still have to go through the Expansion Draft. That’s a real unique situation. There’s a couple of players out there that I’m very curious to see whether Atlanta moves on them.
Clearly, Atlanta has already made the decision to get a young, attacking player. I’ve only seen him (Miguel Almirón) play on a couple of occasions. But the connection is obviously there with Martino. I just went on this long-winded speech (covered in the MLS Cup preview) about you don’t win anything if you don’t have a #10, that might be the thinking here to build the team around somebody who is going to make everybody else better.
We can’t really comment until we know what kind of thought process is going into the Expansion Draft and the next few signings.
I think the real meat of it, we’ll find out in the middle of the season. It will be a real transition process for Tata and the guys he brings in. Having a good understanding of what this league is all about, the demands of it, the travel, managing it, there’s going to be some challenges in there that I hope they’re ready for.”
From mid-2012 through the end of the 2014 season, Wynalda was in Atlanta while he worked with the Atlanta Silverbacks in the NASL. Wynalda spent time on the sidelines as the manager and also off the field as the technical director.
One of his former players, Junior Burgos, signed with Atlanta United earlier this year. Wynalda thinks Burgos is a player who can do well with United:
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Burgos is talented. Junior can play the game and play it at a high level. I will say this, I’ve never been harder on a player and all the guys that were there will tell you the same. I’ve never been harder on anybody. Mainly because I could see it, there’s more to him. The good news for United is that if Burgos can really aspire to do more and not get complacent, his best days are coming. I’ve never seen anyone hit a free kick like that. People can say whatever they want, but no. If you go back and watch the tape of his goal against the Cosmos from 35 yards out, Ronaldo can’t hit that. There’s not five players on the planet who can hit that shot, there just isn’t.
Junior needs to develop what I call convenient amnesia. When something bad happens, forget it. When something good happens, forget it and keep playing. Keep trying to figure out a way to be a better player. I would have him on my time. Not only because I know how to manage him, but I also know that his right foot is an asset. You want it in your team, you want it on your setpieces, you want it on your corners. You know what, if he gets free in the middle of the field, and they decide to give him a little bit of space from 30 yards out, he might score. You can’t say that about everybody in this league.”
He looks back on his time here in Atlanta with the Silverbacks fondly.
“First of all, I’m not away. My phone rings or buzzes every single day through a message or a ‘Hey, help me out,’ from the guys who went through our project. The hardest part is to fall in love with, not just your accent, but everyone else’s accent.
The work of it, that’s what I miss. I miss being a coach, I miss being a manager of a group of guys. Even though I knew every day that I would open my eyes and the anxiety levels would go to a whole new level because, while I already have six kids, I inherited 24 more when I took over that team. That’s the part that I understood the responsibility of it. I just miss it. I miss fixing things. I miss helping guys find their way.”
His favorite memory was when the Silverbacks won the first half of the 2013 NASL season:
“The best memory was when they actually gave us the trophy. You saw a bunch of guys at Silverbacks Park jumping up and down, throwing confetti. We were all wearing T-shirts that said Champions. I don’t think people realize how far we came in a short amount of time.”
Wynalda also has fond memories of his former boss, Silverbacks owner Boris Jerkunica:
“I will say this about Boris. There’s a lot of people in Atlanta that are going to be upset with him because they fell that he was a part of their demise. He was not. Boris is one of the smartest people I’ve ever been around. One of the things that we can talk about now is that he saw this coming a long time ago. The owners are on the inside and they can feel certain trends. They can feel the direction of not just the league, but the outside forces that were starting to orchestrate the demise of the NASL. I think he knew that. He put so much money, time, and effort into the club that you don’t see. He does care, even though people think he doesn’t. I owe him a lot. He gave me the opportunity to do what I love. I think it’s unfortunate that we’re sitting back here wondering what’s going to happen.
I feel bad for Atlanta because we kind of knew that we were going to get steamrolled by a MLS group that had a lot more money and actually, in my opinion, give the Atlanta people what they really deserve. A legitimate team with a great stadium and to make it a home and to make you feel like you’re important. That’s the direction it was going. Boris, deep in his heart of hearts, was like, ‘I can’t give you that. As much as I want to, that’s the one thing I can’t give you. I love what we do, but if this thing is going to grow and go to a whole new level, it’s going to be without me,’ I think he realized that a long time ago.”
Wynalda understands some fans who were hurt by the NASL version of the Silverbacks going away.
“There’s a lot of people that are going to be angry. Don’t be angry. This is one of those scenarios that when we look back at it, we just have to raise our drink and say, ‘That was fun. Boy, wasn’t that a good time.’ It was hard to say then, but it’s easy to say now, it was inevitable that this was going to happen.
If there’s anything that Atlanta Silverbacks fans have to hang their hat on, it’s that they did this. They proved that Atlanta is a hotbed for soccer in this country. They proved it to a very rich man in Arthur Blank, who probably said, ‘Everybody has been telling me that soccer might make sense. I didn’t realize that I have some of the greatest fans right under my nose in Atlanta.’ I think once those fans and we convinced someone like Arthur Blank that soccer does deserve a home, that’s when you saw Mexico play Nigeria and he was like, ’Where’s the paperwork, I’ll sign it, this is real.’ I think that is something that we should all be proud of, we should be happy about, we shouldn’t get sad about it because soccer will continue on in a great way in Atlanta.”