By Jason Davis
Let’s not mince words here. Cal FC, the United States Adult Soccer Association team out of Thousand Oaks, California, is Eric Wynalda’s carefully crafted “eff you” to American soccer. To call it anything else is to be naive, romantic, or both, and while the story of Cal FC is most certainly an uplifting tale of a bunch of second-chancers taking it to bigger, fully professional clubs in this year’s U.S. Open Cup, their success is a consciously manipulated reflection of their coach, the bombastic U.S. legend slash Fox Soccer broadcaster slash international scout for a small Mexican club. Wynalda wants to teach American soccer a harsh lesson. Cal FC is the rod with which he intends to teach it.
Wynalda formed Cal FC just over a month ago, just in time for the club to be entered into the U.S. Open Cup. The roster is made up of aspiring professionals and young soccer journeyman, politely said to be “in between” gigs. Cal FC’s best player is Danny Barerra, a former U.S. youth international who spent last year with a Serbian club, where he made a grand total of one appearance. Barerra’s two goals in Cal FC’s 4-0 thumping of third division (USL-PRO) side Wilmington earned him player of the round. Both goals were assisted by Danny’s brother Diego, a former Hammerhead and professional indoor player. It was that win, with Wynalda on the sidelines (he missed Cal FC’s first round game, a win over the reigning Premier Development League champion Kitsap Pumas, because he was on duty with Fox in Germany for the Champions League final), that sent a shiver through the American soccer establishment.
Wynalda’s soccer career—from his days in Germany contradicting conventional wisdom about American players and defying U.S. Soccer’s attempts to bring him into line for the country’s turn as World Cup hosts in 1994, to his current status as American soccer iconoclast/pariah/agitator on TV, podcast and social media—is a study in classic star athlete persona. As a player, Wynalda went about his job as men supremely confident in their abilities do, often casting any success as their result of their own will and any setback as either jealous conniving or simple stupidity on the part of others. That attitude carried over to his post-playing career, where he set himself apart with provocative pronouncements on the state of soccer in America.
After a stint as an ESPN MLS analyst that saw him fired, perhaps for inadvisably comparing flares in the stands at a Chicago Fire game to the wildfires happening in California at the time, Wynalda moved on to the less restrictive environs of Fox Soccer. There, he held court on a weekly phone-in show, letting fly with the type of opinion that marks his current status in the game. Twitter, which allows him to directly confront the status quo and butt heads with soccer figures around the country, has only grown his persona. The general tone: everyone is doing everything wrong, and I could do it better.
Hence, Cal FC. It seems Wynalda finally had enough of MLS rejection, with no club appearing too keen on bringing in a brash, rebellious American with no coaching experience and a penchant for insubordination to coach their team. It’s no secret that Wynalda covets a head coach’s job in MLS, a league to which Wynalda is forever uncomfortably tied (he scored the league’s first-ever goal in 1996) despite his stated belief that MLS ruined his playing career; the roadblocks to his gaining one of those jobs include the aforementioned lack of experience, an unwillingness on Wynalda’s part to work his way up the ladder as an assistant or coach of a team at a lower level, and the relatively small top-level professional soccer community’s dim view of Wynalda’s disruptive anti-MLS act.
Wynalda hasn’t handled the rejection all that well. Upon the hiring of the just-retired Jay Heaps as new head coach of the New England Revolution in December, Wynalda let his raw jealousy get the better of him.
“I wanna go on the record and announce that I was a HORRIBLE soccer player. Can I now be considered for an MLS coaching position?” he tweeted.
Wynalda’s filter is non-existent. He feels wronged by a league he helped build in a country for whose national team he gave his heart and soul. He’s never been one to play the game of backslaps and handshakes. He values his right to speak his mind, and while that would be laudable if he didn’t exhibit so much angst over his place in the American game, it only serves to make him an increasingly unsympathetic figure as he roams across the figurative soccerscape, vaporizing bridge after bridge with an arsenal of fiercely held opinions. It’s difficult to feel for a man who went out of his way to set himself outside of the system when he complains that he’s not being given a chance to work within it.
On Wednesday night, Wynalda’s traveling band of giant-killers heads to Portland, where Cal FC will face the first MLS opponent on Wynalda’s Eff You Tour. The game could very well be a tipping point for not just Wynalda, but for the U.S. Open Cup tournament itself; a win for Cal FC would inject immeasurable life into a competition that remains an afterthought for most MLS clubs, giving the tournament—in a concrete, rather than hypothetical sense—the David and Goliath dynamic boosters point to as one of Open Cup’s charms. As Davids go, Cal FC is quintessential.
Riding shotgun on this underdog story is Wynalda’s effort to thumb his nose at everyone that dismissed his constant ranting as hot air. Cal FC, a team put together so recently that in any other situation its success would be an indictment of American soccer on the whole (and, depending on who you talk to, it still might), is the physical representation of Wynalda’s soccer id. Coaching the team to a victory over an MLS club, especially considering his history with Timbers owner Merritt Paulson (Wynalda, in one of his more notable Twitter episodes, questioned Portland’s signing of young Colombian striker Jose Valencia when it was revealed Valencia had a pre-existing knee injury that required surgery; Paulson fired back, calling Wynalda “a frickin Twitter trainwreck”) would give Wynalda a lifetime of ammunition with which to lay waste to the community that refuses to take him seriously.
Wynalda’s words wouldn’t be just words anymore. He’d have something to point to, an achievement that spoke directly to his understanding of the game. The makeup of his team would serve as an indictment of American soccer and its scouting practices. Victory over an MLS club would demonstrate directly that Wynalda’s contention that he knows better is at least partly true. The ramifications of Cal FC advancing past Portland are almost too delicious, and at the same time horrifying, to ponder.
Still, it’s naturally difficult to root against Cal FC, underdogs that they are. Wynalda’s the story because he has the name and the simmering resentment, but there are several players in his group that might jumpstart their careers because of the cup run. Despite his apparent, but unstated, desire to turn American soccer on its head, Wynalda certainly cares about his players and believes many of them should get a chance in MLS or elsewhere. Wynalda works at dual purposes; if his team plays well on the biggest stage available to them, he sticks it to the league that won’t give him a chance to coach, while his players prove they deserve another chance to play.
It’s worth nothing the Cal FC play in old Chicago Fire jerseys. Chicago, with whom Wynalda ended his career in 2001, is one of the teams that turned him down for their head coaching vacancy a few years ago. Wynalda dresses his team of amateurs in the garb of an MLS team while he takes them across the country with a mind to teach that league a lesson. It’s too perfect to be coincidence.
On Wednesday in Portland, the most intriguing U.S. Open Cup match in years, certainly this early in the tournament, will determine if the Eric Wynalda Eff You Tour gets another date. Even if it doesn’t, don’t expect Wynalda to go silent. He’ll still be on television, providing quality analysis as part of Fox Soccer’s studio crew. He’ll still be in the American soccer conversation, advocating a season switch and declaring the powers that be incompetent in their leadership. He’ll still maintain he has the credentials to be the head coach of an MLS team.
A loss in Portland on Wednesday night won’t change much about the way Eric Wynalda relates to American soccer.
But a win? That’s one hell of an eff you.