When the U.S. under-20 team heads to Mexico later this month for the first competitive matches of the cycle leading up to the 2011 world championships, it will be accompanied by an assistant coach who, during his playing career, had his issues with coaches.
Eric Wynalda. Yep, the same.
"He expressed an interest to me about getting involved," says U-20 head coach Thomas Rongen Monday, just minutes before he left home to attend the second day of action at the MLS Player Combine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla."That's one thing I've tried to do, and Sigi [Schmid] tried to do when he was the Under-20 coach, is to bring in as many of those guys as possible and use their experience."
The list of former national team players who have served as U-20 assistant coaches includes John Harkes, Peter Vermes, Mike Lapper, Marcelo Balboa and Hugo Perez, all contemporaries of Wynalda, who played for the U.S. from 1990 to 2000 and until Landon Donovan passed him two years ago held the U.S. all-time scoring record of 34 goals (in 106 appearances). He joined the commentating staff of Fox Soccer Channel last year after parting ways with ESPN in February 2008.
This seems a natural progression for a top-level player, to use his expertise and accomplishments as teaching tools for players at a very important stage of their development. And it makes more sense than an MLS team hiring him as a head coach, as Wynalda suggested to Fire majority investor Andrew Hauptmann when the pair met last month during the coaching search that eventually resulted in the hiring of Carlos de los Cobos.
"This is a crucial time for these players," says Wynalda, who passed the USSF 'A' coaching license course in 2005 but has not coached at the national team, college, or professional level. "I think too often we come out with guys who are average at everything instead of making them great at what they're good at. At this age, they have to be able to figure out who they are, what they bring to the table, and stay true to it.
"I was very bad at that and didn't always handle it well, so I think we can help these players not lose focus of why they've been chosen in the first place. I can point to the year I spent with Paul Mariner. Those discussions will remain private, but he was very clear about telling me what I was good at and how to get better."
Mariner, a former England international and assistant coach of New England up until his departure last fall to join the staff of Plymouth, coached Wynalda with the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks of the American Professonal Soccer League in 1991 and 1992, just prior to Wynalda's initial foray overseas to start his stint in Germany with Saarbruecken. Says Wynalda, "I think it was Paul who gave that famous quote, 'If you don't know where you're going, you end up somewhere else.'
"First and foremost, my job is to help Thomas. I think he's a fantastic coach, very organized, and if anything, I want these guys to know exactly what they need to do to get ready for the next level. I went to see them train when they were in San Diego [in December], and it's pretty obvious to me we have a lot of good players.
"I really like Amobi Okugo, I've seen his games at UCLA, and we've all heard about Luis Gil, and you can get carried away with that, but I'll tell you, he's maybe the most talented player I've seen in a long time."
Wynalda has not been hired as a full-time assistant coach. On the Mexico trip will be former Dallas head coach Dave Dir and goalkeeping coach Tim Mulqueen, who have assisted with U.S. youth teams before, including at last year's U-20 World Cup. Wynalda is being auditioned, or tested, as the case may be.
Yet Rongen knows what he's getting in more ways than one; when asked two years ago how the Galaxy might respond to fellow countryman Ruud Gullit and vice versa, he admitted, "We think different. We're a bit off."
Maybe it can work. Maybe the way to cultivate and nurture the quirks and instincts inherent in talented players is to guide them with one of their own. It's worth a shot.
"I think we'll get along great, maybe because it's because we're both Dutch, I don't know," laughs Wynalda of his ancestry. "We'll see how it goes, but this is a real honor and I'm very grateful to Thomas and U.S. Soccer for the opportunity. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time and have been excluded from for whatever reason. This is pretty cool."
And that is vintage Wynalda.