As a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Eric Wynalda ‘87 is one of WHS’s most successful alumni. With over 100 appearances for the U.S. Men’s National Team and 34 goals to his name, Wynalda is a household name among U.S. soccer fans.
Wynalda was a television commentator for FOX Sports 1 covering soccer games, and even hosted his own radio show, WTF: Wynalda Talks Football on SiriusXM.
Currently the head coach and technical director for the Division II professional team, the Las Vegas Lights, Wynalda still reminisces about his high school days as a Warrior.
“Being on the soccer team was really a special time for all of us, and we did have a really good team in my senior year that we’re still proud of,” said Wynalda. “We were ranked number one in CIF at one point and back in 1987, the whole school got behind us and supported us.”
After graduating from WHS, Wynalda moved on to further his playing career at San Diego State University and in his first year, the Aztecs reached the National Championship, narrowly losing to Clemson 2-0.
“The game was closer than the score reflects,” said Wynalda with a chuckle.
The year Wynalda left high school and began college was a crazy year, as he made an almost immediate step from the high school level to the national team.
“It was a really quick jump,” said Wynalda. “It was a bit of a fast track but going through it all, I think I realized that the players that are constantly put in situations where they have to raise their level are the ones that have greater success quicker, because it’s such a sink or swim situation.”
I asked Wynalda about his career in the German top division, the Bundesliga, and he implored me to research the 1995 Bosman Ruling, which made it possible for European union members to transfer teams easier. Europeans were no longer considered foreigners to each other, so they a Spaniard could play for a French team with ease. As an American, Wynalda believes it was a tougher road.
“As an American, when I went to Germany in 1992, only three foreign players were allowed to be on each team,” explained Wynalda. “That was throughout Europe so even big teams like Barcelona were only allowed to field three foreign players in a match. This made it really hard to get into a team.”
With persistence, however, Wynalda broke through into the FC Saarbrücken squad and made a big splash.
“I was the first American to play in the German Bundesliga, so I felt I was carrying the flag for so many young players,” said Wynalda. “Everything that I did was under scrutiny so It was important for me to do well.”
He scored eight goals in his first 17 matches with the German side and solidified his place as a professional.
“I’m glad I didn’t screw up,” jokes Wynalda.
More and more young American players are now going to the Bundesliga to develop their talents. Christian Pulisic from Hershey, PA has made headlines in recent years when he moved to German powerhouse, Borussia Dortmund, in 2015 as a 16 year-old and has since signed with English Premier League side Chelsea FC, becoming the most expensive American soccer player in history, reports the Washington Post.
Amongst these headlines, Wynalda sees this as a disadvantage for the state of U.S. Soccer.
“Christian Pulisic wouldn’t have got a chance in the MLS,” said Wynalda defiantly. “He got an opportunity to play as a teenager for a massive club in Europe because they recognized his talent. I think that’s sad that he had to go there, but I’m proud and happy for him. There are so many more kids like him, but we need to be able to provide the platform for them here.”
Before the U.S. can compete with the European and South American soccer powerhouses of the world, Wynalda believes things need to change in the culture and infrastructure for future American talent.
“Soccer never has been the number one sport. It’s always been fourth or fifth,” said Wynalda. “I think the culture of it all is a very difficult thing to challenge. It dominates the youth levels as so many kids are put into youth soccer leagues and then the most talented athletes are really after the money, so our best players go to Europe.”
To challenge the system and follow his own passion, with some nudges from his family, Wynalda went into coaching and management in 2010 and wants to help young players put their dreams into reality.
“When I select my team, talent is important but character is more important,” said Wynalda. “I pick the person first and the player second. Talent is something that is very misunderstood in our country. It doesn’t seem to be so confusing in other places. I don’t care what school you went to or what your history is. I do care, but just because a couple of bad things happened in your life doesn’t mean you have to throw it all away. It doesn’t have to be a perfect résumé or fit the mold.”
Ultimately, Wynalda hopes he can make a difference with U.S. Soccer as a whole, but he’s starting the change with the Lights in Las Vegas.
“I think what’s cool is the opportunity to give some of these guys a new opportunity and the right platform to show off their skills and hopefully make the jump to MLS from the second division,” said Wynalda. “I love it when you can have an impact on someone’s life and change their course for the better.”