Former U.S. men's national team great Eric Wynalda explains how he'll try to improve U.S. Soccer and addresses the other storylines swirling around him as he campaigns for president of the federation.
The Planet Fútbol podcast is back this week, and over the next few weeks we’ll be interviewing the candidates for U.S. Soccer president. This week, former U.S. men’s national team forward and Fox Sports analyst Eric Wynalda joins us for a wide-ranging interview.
You can subscribe to the Planet Fútbol Podcast here and listen to the full interview in the console below:
Here are some of the highlights:
Planet Fútbol: Maybe it’s due to that there’s a populist appeal to your candidacy. Maybe it’s due to the promise of change. Your campaign has been compared to Donald Trump’s campaign. How do you feel about that characterization?
Wynalda: I don’t like it at all. But I do think that change is good. Appropriate change is necessary right now for us. I do think that when you try and evaluate what happened in [Trump’s] election and what is happening right now, there’s one consistent thing there, and that’s angry people. That’s people that want change and they want answers and they want solutions. Connecting with the factions of U.S. Soccer in this voting bloc and understanding what their problems are, I’m not standing on the podium telling people in a Donald Trump way, ‘This is what we’re gonna do and this is gonna work!’
No. That’s not how this works. I learned something a couple weeks ago, that the first step to love is to listen. And the second step to love is to listen some more. That’s what I’ve learned in this campaign. That Washington’s problems are different than Arizona’s, and Arizona has different challenges than Ohio. And Illinois has a completely new set of rules, and guess what, Florida is their own animal. So the idea of just saying ‘I have all the answers’ is not the way this works. You have to provide from the federation standpoint a resource to allow people to continue to do the business within their own structure. And that’s unfortunately what’s not happening.
Planet Fútbol: At times in your post-playing career, I know you have wanted to coach in MLS. It hasn’t happened. Have you been blackballed by MLS owners?
Wynalda: I met with [MLS commissioner] Don Garber [in mid-November]. He assured me that is not the case, so I’ll take his word for it. Look, I think the opportunity never really came about. I think when you really dive into the deeper issue here with all of that, there’s a lot of people who don’t understand me. This process, going through a campaign and meeting people, I would say 90% or maybe even more than that, when I sit with somebody and I talk to them or I listen to them or the phone call or whatever the meeting is about, the same thing keeps happening: It’s ‘You’re nothing like what I thought you were going to be like.’ And part of that persona that I think people expect from me, maybe it’s like you even alluded to, like a Donald Trump who thinks he’s just going to walk in the room and have a certain way of doing things and be arrogant, and that’s not me.
I’ve been really encouraged by that. This reintroduction of maybe who I really am, when people really get to the bottom of it, who am I? I’m a guy who’s had an unbelievable experience through the game. I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a family guy. I care about people, and I think that resonates with a lot of people after they recognize that’s the reason why I’m doing this. I care about p, and I care about the game. I love this game, I can’t say more than anybody, but more than anybody I know. If we can get the message across that we can finally start believing in ourselves again for the right reasons, we can be a better soccer nation.
Planet Fútbol: I wanted to ask you about a specific statement that came out from [Portland Timbers owner] Merritt Paulson. [He] said something recently here. I know you and Paulson have had sort of an up and down past. But I wanted to get your response to this. This is what Paulson said: “There’s sort of a just burn-it-all-down mentality that exists [in the campaign]. So much so that you’ve got candidates to run a federation who aren’t even emotionally and mentally stable, let alone have ever run an organization in their life. And you’ve got intelligent media not pointing that out.” Based on my knowledge, there’s a 99.9% chance Paulson is referring to you in that statement. What would you say in response?
Wynalda: I’d love to sit with the guy and meet him for the first time. I’ve never ever met him. This is part of the problem. This is someone who maybe views a guy who has been paid to have a hot take on things because I’ve been in the television business, and he’s never seen a level-headed businessman or never seen a level-headed manager or the coach that I am or the influence that I am for the people I work with or for. I think the owners that I’ve worked with would probably have a very different take. And that’s simply because, back to the initial point, Merritt Paulson has no idea who I am. He’s making assumptions, and that’s kind of the way he goes about his …
I never started this war. It was his initial tweets that I unfortunately reacted to. And that’s where it started. And of course my amateur team embarrassed his team, beating them in the Open Cup, and he’s been bitter ever since. Look, I have to go visit my daughter, who’s in Seattle. I plan on seeing [Seattle owner] Adrian Hanauer. I’m really looking forward to that, because I have a ton of respect for hm. And I have a ton of respect for Merritt Paulson.
The part that’s missing here is Merritt Paulson is probably one of the better owners in Major League Soccer. He’s enthusiastic, he’s passionate and he’s engaged. Those are three things that are sometimes missing if we’re being honest here. If that’s really his belief system, it’s a little unfair, because we’ve never really met. I’ve never sat in a room, I’ve never shook his hand. My mom used to say, when somebody says something like that about you, you say: ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ Because that’s really all I can say to the man.