"Hi, I'm Eric!"
This is an article from the Nov. 25, 1996 issue
Eric Wynalda, the explosive forward for the U.S. national soccer
team, was extending his right hand in all directions, seeking to
join a twosome that was idling on the 11th tee of a jammed-up
golf course in Miami last week.
"Earl, nice to meet you."
Wynalda's father was a salesman.
"Damien, good to meet you."
So was his father's father.
"We'll all move faster this way."
And so is he.
Wynalda sells himself, and his sport, at every chance,
cheerfully and expertly. Earl and Damien, Eric's new buddies,
didn't know their golf game now included the most prolific
scorer in U.S. national team history. But they knew they were in
the presence of someone. To display his wit, his charm and his
affability, along with his athleticism and competitiveness and
hubris, Wynalda needs maybe seven minutes, eight tops. By the
12th hole Earl was watching Wynalda's golf swing, powerful but
unschooled, and asking, "Who is this guy?" By the 18th
hole--where Wynalda skanked his first two shots on the par-5 and
then declared, "I will absolutely, definitely par this
hole"--Earl knew this: Wynalda is a force, whether he's
butchering the home hole on a day off (he made a double-bogey 7)
or leading the American team in its bid to qualify for the 1998
World Cup in France.
In the past few weeks two solid soccer teams have felt the full
brunt of the force. On Nov. 3 the U.S. defeated Guatemala 2-0 in
Washington, D.C., and Wynalda, attacking ruthlessly for 90
minutes, scored the first goal and had an assist on the second.
A week later the Americans beat Trinidad and Tobago in Richmond
by the same score, and Wynalda scored the insurance,
you-may-breathe-now goal with six minutes left.
This Sunday the U.S. will play Trinidad and Tobago again, this
time on the road. The Americans will be attempting to win their
third consecutive World Cup qualifying match. There was a time,
not so long ago, that the thought of the U.S. winning three
straight World Cup qualifying matches would have been absurd.
Now it's standard newspaper copy. "People may not realize it
yet," Wynalda says, "but we're a very good, very experienced
In 1994 the U.S. got into the World Cup on a handout--as host
country it received an automatic berth--but this time the
Americans want to make it on merit. By winning their first two
games, they should have no difficulty advancing to the final
round of qualifying.
Wynalda, 27, is a trim man, a thumbnail over six feet and 180
pounds, with reddish-blond hair, midear-length sideburns and a
skiable nose. He often wears Doc Martens, with frayed laces. "On
any given day," he says, "we can beat anybody."
Wynalda makes this declaration on the day after his round of
golf with Earl and Damien. He's at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa
on a short vacation before the Trinidad and Tobago game. He's in
the exercise room of the spa, sitting on the sliding seat of a
rowing machine. His wife of five months, Amy, a certified
personal trainer, is on a treadmill on another side of the room,
going nowhere fast. Wynalda is exceptionally well-conditioned.
His speed--he runs the 40 in 4.4 seconds; dribbling a ball, he's
barely slower--is a function of his fitness and is central to
At this moment, however, Wynalda is taking a slide, reading
about the U.S. team in The New York Times. Such press is not
unusual these days. The media bigfoots have started to treat
U.S. soccer more seriously. The Times story was accompanied by a
picture of Wynalda, an action shot, and it pleases him. "He's
flying," Wynalda says of a turf-bound defender in the
photograph. Wynalda had sent his opponent to this unintended
meeting with terra firma with one clean hand shove. "And I look
so calm." He does. His arms are spread parallel to the ground,
his back is erect, his eyes are on the ball, his every hair is
in place. Wynalda is a picture of serenity.
That's a new picture for him. During his three years at San
Diego State, from 1987 to '89, the school's athletic department
received dozens of letters complaining about his on-field
behavior. Wynalda would taunt opposing players and fans, incite
mischief. He left college to concentrate on making the national
team and to play professionally for the San Francisco Bay
Blackhawks of the now defunct American Professional Soccer
League. His brattiness--borne of his lavish skill--continued
unabated. In the space of two years he became the first American
thrown out of a World Cup game (on June 10, 1990, for stepping
on another player's foot during a game against Czechoslovakia),
was suspended from the U.S. national team (on May 27, 1992, for
a tantrum during a scrimmage that unintentionally resulted in a
teammate's broken nose) and was released by the Blackhawks (on
June 9, 1992, his 23rd birthday, for sustained petulance).
"Eric would come in from the national team and have a hard time
showing allegiance to the club and to the guys," says Laurie
Calloway, the man who coached the Blackhawks, the man who dumped
Wynalda and the man who now calls Wynalda the most important
player on the U.S. national team. "When things didn't go his
way, he showed a lot of disdain. I said, 'This level of
aggravation is not worth it for a player we're seeing only
Wynalda didn't know it then, but his birthday present from
Calloway was the most significant gift of his career. Wynalda
continued his formal soccer education, and he did it in the
classical European tradition. Soon after being cut by the
Blackhawks, Wynalda was recruited to become the first
American-born player to perform in Germany's elite Bundesliga,
for FC Saarbrucken. The Saarbrucken management knew that Wynalda
was a problem child but also that he was immensely skilled. He
quickly captivated German soccer buffs, which is to say the
country's citizenry. He was a good-looking Southern Californian
of Dutch ancestry who scored goals at a dizzying (by soccer's
spasmodic standards) rate. He became a national figure.
Over the course of three years in Germany, playing for two
teams, Wynalda became rich and famous, earning more than $2
million. After matches he would receive notes by the score:
marriage proposals, threats of violence, tips for improving his
play. He changed cars every six weeks, trying to keep one step
ahead of the soccer hooligans. He resided just over the border,
in Forbach, France. He lived in a fishbowl. The German gossip
columnists suggested that he was dating Miss Germany, even
though he was living with Amy. He never paid for a meal, never
paid for a hotel room, never got a speeding ticket. But if he
spilled a glass of wine in a restaurant, it made the newspapers.
He loved it, and he hated it.
"I don't think Americans can understand the intensity of soccer
in the rest of the world," says Wynalda, for whom Las Vegas is
officially home. "We have so many different things. Everywhere
else all there is, is soccer." After one loss of particular
importance, the people of Saarbrucken, tens of thousands of
them, sat in their stadium seats for an hour and consoled
themselves with song.
Growing up in Westlake Village, a small town northwest of Los
Angeles, Wynalda was consumed by soccer. Across the street from
the Wynalda house (three children, two parents, two cars, one
dog) was a park and a soccer league run under the auspices of
the American Youth Soccer Organization. Wynalda's father, Dave,
a receiver on the freshman Princeton football team in 1961, was
a soccer dad two decades before Bob Dole went trolling the
Golden State for the station wagon vote. Dave, a pharmaceutical
salesman, was the first coach Eric clashed with. "We had 18 kids
on the team, and the rule was they all had to play," says Dave,
who for a while owned a soccer equipment store called Soccer
Kick. "We had three kids on the team--Eric and two other
boys--who weren't just kicking the ball, they were playing
soccer. I'd sit them down the first quarter of the game." Eric
didn't understand it; he thought the point was to win, to star,
to shine. After all, local papers were already writing about
him. He was eight.
Alexi Lalas, a defenseman on the U.S. national team, didn't know
Wynalda when he was eight, but he did know him when Wynalda was
23 and acted as if he were eight. Lalas has played with and
against Wynalda most of this decade, and he has watched Wynalda
grow up. "His reputation was always that he couldn't get along
with coaches," Lalas says. "Of course, forwards are weird
people. They're part of a team, but they're always thinking
about scoring. They have to think egotistically. Eric believes
in himself and his ability to score. He's always been a very
emotional player, but he's learned that soccer is a game of
Wynalda demonstrated that superbly in his most recent match.
Against Trinidad he was kicked hard in the testicles. "I was in
a lot of pain," Wynalda says. "I shook the guy's hand and said,
'I know you didn't mean it.' He stood there with his mouth open.
After that he knew he couldn't hurt me." In the old days Wynalda
would have kicked him back and drawn a yellow card, maybe a red
"Opponents are always trying to label him as a dirty player, get
him to do stupid things," says Steve Sampson, the coach of the
U.S. team. "The fact is, he's not a dirty player.
Psychologically, he's become very disciplined. He's critical to
our success." Since 1990, in matches in which Wynalda has
scored, the Americans have gone 18-2-3. This year Wynalda has
nine goals and three assists in his 11 international matches for
the U.S., and the team's record is 8-2-1. The American side is
ranked 25th in the world.
Wynalda knows his statistics. He knows his salaries, his
incentive clauses, all the numbers that are dear to his heart.
He knows how key plays unfolded, who was where when, and what
they were thinking. The other day he was talking to Amy about
his first international goal. "February 4, 1990, 4 p.m. game,
against Colombia," he said. "It was amazing. I'll bet you can
remember exactly when in the game it came. Don't you remember?
The 69th second!"
That number resonates for Wynalda. He was born on June 9,
1969--6/9/69 on customs forms. Wynalda's mother's brother, Lee
Boswell, died in 1969 in Hawaii from injuries sustained in a car
crash, and Wynalda, who was born several months before his uncle
died, believes he is his uncle's spiritual heir. They have the
same eyes, the same teeth and they say the same things. Inspired
by these coincidences, Wynalda has written 300 pages of a novel
loosely based on his uncle. He describes the work as "Stephen
More dates and numbers. Amy, who was a star soccer player in
high school, as was her twin brother, Tim Ward, an assistant
women's soccer coach at Pepperdine, was born on July 1, 1971
(7/1/71). She and Eric started dating on July 1, 1989. On July
1, 1992, Wynalda left for Germany. On Jan. 23 of this year he
bade goodbye to the Bundesliga--with a steel plate in his left
ankle, the result of a broken fibula he incurred in '94--and
joined the San Jose Clash, a charter member of Major League
He scored the first MLS goal, a goal that broke a scoreless San
Jose-Washington, D.C. United match on the league's inaugural
day. He took a significant pay cut to come home, but he's not
complaining. His salary is $175,000, the league maximum. He's
likely to more than double his salary with his Reebok
endorsement contract. He's happy to be home. "I'd rather make
$250,000 here than $1 million in Germany," he says. "You'll
never understand their culture, their traditions, their life.
They always think the problem for an American in Germany is the
weather. But it's not the weather. It's everything."
Last week in Miami, Eric and Amy were having dinner in a
restaurant at the Doral Hotel. Their waiter's nametag read
HERNAN. He was an emigre from Colombia, a former soccer player,
a knowledgeable fan. Hernan was thrilled to be in Wynalda's
presence, eager to pose a few questions to him. But Wynalda was
too busy asking Hernan questions about international players
with long Spanish surnames and then answering the questions
himself. Wynalda was telling Hernan about a trick of his trade.
"I'll stop, put my hands on my head and say to a defender, 'I've
got the worst headache,'" says Wynalda. "I'll point to the
ground and say, 'It's the grass.' The guy looks down at the
grass, and I'm gone. I score. You know how it is, Hernan, don't
you?" The waiter nodded in awe, smiled at Eric and Amy and was
flattered to hear Eric use his name. Wynalda had made a new
friend, won over a fan.
That's how he plans to grow the game in the U.S., one person at
a time. He plans to keep himself front and center for as long as