Eric Wynalda was dining out last September in Saarbrücken, Germany, when the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d' rushed to his window table and herded him and his friend to the back of the restaurant. A phalanx of waiters stood guard around Wynalda while other waiters scrambled to the doorway to keep tabs on the sloshed citizens wobbling along the cobblestone street. Earlier that day Wynalda had scored both goals for FC Saarbrücken in a 2-1 victory over Kaiserslautern, breaking the club's 18-year losing streak in that soccer rivalry, and the local populace was reveling. "My friend finally explained what was going on," Wynalda says. "He said if our fans had seen me, there wouldn't be a restaurant left."
Since arriving in Germany last summer, Wynalda, a 23-year-old forward from Westlake Village, Calif., has taken the nation by Sturm. The first U.S.-born player to suit up in Germany's first division, he has eight goals in 19 games. Such output by an American—and a temperamental one at that—in the Bundesliga was about as expected as a '73 Gremlin setting the pace on the autobahn. Wynalda has been called Bademeister (lifeguard) for his beachboy upbringing, Eis Engel (ice angel) for his nerve at the net and absoluter Volltreffer (direct hit) for his talent.
Blond and blue-eyed, Wynalda is 6'1" and 173 pounds of self-assurance. "He has a scorer's mentality," says UCLA coach Sigi Schmid, who is also an assistant for the U.S. team, on which Wynalda has played for the past three years. "Eric's willing to try things others might not think about. He's never thinking, How am I going to get by this guy? He's thinking, I'm going to do you."
On his birthday last June 9, the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks of the American Professional Soccer League released Wynalda, whose behavior had added to his reputation as a thin-skinned prima donna with a hair-trigger temper. While at San Diego State from 1987 to '89 Wynalda's outbursts incited 34 letters to the athletic department. He has been suspended twice in his three years with the U.S. team, and he became the first American to earn a red-card ejection from the World Cup when he elbowed one Czech and pushed another during a 5-1 loss in 1990.
Wynalda admits he has often been his own worst enemy. But a goal scorer, however erratic, is always worth a gamble. Saarbrücken coach Peter Neururer had glimpsed Wynalda's potential in 1990 when Neururer's former team, Shalke, played the U.S. Last July he paid the U.S. Soccer Federation $50,000 to borrow Wynalda for a tryout. With proven Europeans available, this import made as much sense to Germans as light beer. But after the Bademeister's 14-goal blitzkrieg in 10 exhibition games, the club forked over an additional $375,000 last September to the USSF to buy his rights.
In addition to getting a two-year contract worth $400,000, a car and an apartment, Wynalda has received a much-needed dose of discipline. The club fines players 500 marks (about $300) for drinking soda. And when Wynalda missed several practices for medical treatment, his teammates tagged him Captain Holiday. Being away from his girlfriend in California, his language and his native surf in a produce-or-perish crucible has forced him to mature. With Saarbrücken this season, Eric the Red Card has received just one yellow.
His continued development is vital for the U.S. in the 1994 World Cup. "I don't think anybody's happier than his teammates that Eric's growing up as a person and getting better as a player," says U.S. sweeper Marcelo Balboa. Though he played in only seven of 24 games for the U.S. in 1992, Wynalda led the team with five goals and won the Honda Player of the Year Award.
"I'm an opportunist," he says. "That's what the sport is all about."