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Interview: Wynalda wants to bring “real competition” to US Soccer

The USSF presidential candidate opened up to DSS about his assessment and plans for soccer in America

MLS: D.C. United at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Wynalda, the former US men’s national team player, technical director, coach, and television analyst, did not always dream of becoming president of the United States Soccer Federation.

”I’ve waited for somebody to step up. I thought that somebody else would have taken this role,” Wynalda told Dirty South Soccer in a telephone interview in late December. “I really never thought that it would be a role that I would ask for or even aspire to have. It’s just one of those situations where it’s almost out of necessity.”

Wynalda is not content with soccer in the United States, and he isn’t alone. Players, coaches, team owners, and fans have expressed their disappointment with the current system from youth to professional and on the international stage.

US Soccer has floundered in recent years. The USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. After winning the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, the USWNT struggled in the 2016 Olympics, losing in the quarterfinals to Sweden on penalty kicks. Professional soccer is simultaneously in a state of growth and decline as teams are created, change leagues, fold, and/or relocate.

After much speculation, long-time USSF president Sunil Gulati announced last year that he would not seek reelection in 2018. His decision opened the door for eight new candidates for president: Paul Caligiuri, Kathy Carter, Carlos Cordeiro, Steve Gans, Kyle Martino, Hope Solo, Michael Winograd, and Eric Wynalda.

Drawing on his experience at every level of soccer in the US, Wynalda is convinced that dramatic change necessary. “This country needs heart surgery,” he said. “We’ve created a structure and a way of doing things that isn’t conducive to real competition. And it’s the reason why we didn’t qualify, and it’s the reason why we’re mediocre right now.”

“But that doesn’t mean our players are mediocre,” he assured. “That just means that they’re conditioned into playing a speed and a certain way that just isn’t relevant enough.

“The talents and the abilities of our players is not the problem. We could have just as much talent as any other country on the planet. Christian Pulisic proves that. Environments, climates: They change players.”

Wynalda believes that this climate is the most important element to developing talent. “Not having a nice stadium and some nice grass, or some fans that are yelling at you. That’s not what makes you a good soccer player,” he said. “It’s the internal environment of the club, and it’s the pressure to perform that we’re so afraid of that makes players, that turns a good player into a great player.”

Wynalda provided the example of a young man that he brought to Germany to train with a 3. Bundesliga club. After missing out of the first team match at the end of the first week, the player went out to blow off some steam the night before a reserve game. When asked about it the next morning, the player said “It’s the day after the game; it’s an easy practice.” Wynalda was quick to correct him: “Today is going to be the hardest practice of your life. You’re practicing with all the guys who didn’t play.” And it was.

That player learned that he would need to fight for a spot every practice if he wanted to play for the first team. Wynalda wants to bring that fighting mentality to American soccer.

To do that, Wynalda has targeted a few areas that the next president of US soccer will need to address in the coming months.

“The Women’s National Team needs to be a focal point simply because they are the next World Cup that we’ll play in,” he said. Wynalda has voiced his support for equal pay for the USWNT players and even criticized the latest player deal for not going far enough.

On the men’s side, Wynalda wants to identify the pool of young talented players who will comprise the 2020 Olympic squad. “For the first time, we have an unique opportunity to focus solely on them,” Wynalda said. “It’s not a secondary tournament right now, is it? It’s important.”

Wynalda also wants to improve the youth soccer system in the United States. A father of six, Wynalda is familiar with the current system that charges parents high prices to provide coaching opportunities for their kids. “It’s a money grab. That whole structure needs to change at the youth level,” Wynalda said. He wants youth, club, and academy systems to represent the best players, not just the ones from wealthy families.

Wynalda wouldn’t stop at youth soccer; he believes the professional game in the United States needs to change too. “Major League Soccer needs to be a whole new reboot,” Wynalda said. “If I became president, I would immediately ask Major League Soccer to comply with FIFA guidelines, with FIFA bylaws, with FIFA scheduling.”

FIFA rules require sanctioned professional leagues to implement a promotion and relegation system and operate in a traditional August-May calendar, though exceptions can be made in certain circumstances. Wynalda has been a vocal supporter of both changes.

Wynalda acknowledges that it won’t be easy. “That’s probably the toughest conversation,” he said. “If Major League Soccer said that they were not willing to comply, I would separate them completely, and create a structure that makes sense in this country.

“Everyone’s arguing about ‘What’s second-division sanctioning?’ Well, I think the sanctioning needs to be a league that’s based on competitive merit, not what’s in your wallet.

“We are the only country that does not comply with FIFA bylaws,” Wynalda said. “Now, there’s some different beliefs out there that the United States got an exemption from FIFA. But, the truth is, that exemption is expired. So, we are in a ‘What do we do now?’ scenario.

“There will be conversations in the very near future, instigated by FIFA, to ask Major League Soccer if they have any intention to comply with the FIFA bylaws. And in the event that they do not, they may very well not be sanctioned by FIFA any more,” Wynalda said. “That’s not my idea, that’s the reality of what’s coming.

“I just spent a week in Dubai [December 2017] with some of the leaders in the game,” Wynalda said. “They’re not laughing at us, but they’ve given up on us. They don’t take us seriously.

“And why would they help us? Why would they want us to get our act together? The fact that they’re sitting back and letting us do the American thing is the smart move on their end. If this country ever really got its act together, we would blow all the competition away. And they know that. So they’re perfectly comfortable with allowing us to continue down the wrong road.”

Wynalda wants to be the leader that takes US Soccer down the right one. “We have a real fight here,” he said. “I just feel that this country has immense potential and it’s being run in a way that might make sense to some, but in the end it’s going to be a recipe for disaster. I think it’s going to take a strong-willed person to make the kind of necessary changes for this country to prosper.”

The USSF Presidential election will be held today at US Soccer’s Annual General Meeting at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. A live stream will be available starting at 8:00AM.

Candidates will receive weighted votes from the Professional, Adult, Youth, and Athlete Councils, national associations and affiliates, federation board members, life members, and two fan representatives. The candidate who receives a majority of the weighted votes becomes President of US Soccer.

An abstract of the voting parties and weighting system is available from US Soccer.