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Eric Wynalda spreads soccer sunshine for Las Vegas Lights

Updated March 7, 2019 - 1:05 pm

It was a bleak and chilly Tuesday afternoon — raining, and ominous clouds were building. Like it might even snow. This was clearly not soccer weather, unless, perhaps, one played for the Norwegian national team.

At the Crown &Anchor British Pub on Tropicana Avenue near Maryland Parkway, television sets were tuned to World Cup skiing. This was highly unusual, because the TVs at the Crown &Anchor always are tuned to soccer games, replays of soccer games or, every once in a while, rugby.

Lights FC coach Eric Wynalda came bursting through the old wooden door spreading soccer sunshine.

There was a time when Wynalda bursting through that door would have been a special occasion. Until 2008, he was the U.S. Men’s National Team all-time leading goal scorer with 34 in 106 appearances — a “shifty, dynamic player off the dribble with a heavy shot,” according to the scouting reports.

In the 1994 World Cup, Wynalda scored on a free kick from 28 yards that helped the U.S. tie Switzerland. People wearing American flags like capes went crazy in the pub, and in the tent out back set up to handle the overflow crowd.

During the next soccer quadrennial, Wynalda played in his third World Cup. At the time, he was one of only three Americans to have played in three. He would become a soccer analyst on TV. The TV people wanted him to be opinionated. Eric Wynalda was opinionated.

Last October, he was named head coach — or manager, if you’re from the other side of the pond — and technical director of Lights FC, Las Vegas’ entry in the United Soccer League, the next-to-highest rung on the domestic professional soccer ladder. But still a 28-yard free kick, minimum, from Major League Soccer.

Wynalda had agreed to meet over lunch. Can’t go wrong with the shepherd’s pie, he was told. Our server had pen in hand when Wynalda, rarely one to act on the advice of others, switched to chicken fingers with tangy barbecue sauce.

Closing in on his 50th birthday in June, he might not be as dynamic off the dribble as when he roamed the 18-yard box for the USMNT.

But he’s still pretty shifty.

Thumbing noses

Before the fingers arrived, Wynalda talked about how he was mellowed. The brashness, the bombast — all done for TV, he said. He also said he gets made fun of because he looks like Raiders coach Jon Gruden.

He sort of does.

“I’m done screaming at the room,” he said. “I don’t give interviews about the U.S. national team. Everybody thinks I’m trying to thumb my nose at the system.

“It would make sense if I was the same person in reality as I was on television.”

He believes his analyst persona explains why he isn’t coaching in Major League Soccer. And why he didn’t receive stronger consideration from U.S. Soccer when he sought its presidency last year.

He said the federation’s youth system is misguided if not broken. The federation didn’t want to hear it, he said. Carlos Cordeiro, a domestic soccer insider and former executive at Goldman Sachs, was named president. The player development system won’t get fixed under Cordeiro, Wynalda said. More losses to Trinidad and Tobago may follow.

“I’m not trying to be critical here, but the guy has been a part of the two biggest blunders of my life — when the real estate bubble burst and he got bailed out and that’s where he made all his money, and then the U.S. National Team fails to qualify for the (2018) World Cup. Somehow, that’s good on your resume,” Wynalda said.

“All these people who have occupied positions that I wasn’t able to get — is that any different from somebody trying to move up the corporate ladder?”

It’s hard to move up the ladder when you’re constantly bashing the corporation on national TV, Wynalda said.

“If you are true to the profession, to journalism, you will never get hired as a head coach. But somehow this has happened,” he said of being named coach and technical director of the Lights, who kick off their second season against Austin Bold FC Saturday at Cashman Field.

“So I’ve got to take everything that somebody (thinks they) know about me, put it on a shelf and say ‘This is the real me.’ Maybe it’s not what you expected. I really don’t care.

“At the end of it all, my objective is I want my players to succeed. But do I want to coach the national team? Absolutely. Do you know why? Do you want me to be an arrogant (expletive)? Because I want to win the World Cup, and I don’t think anybody else can do it.

Eric Wynalda may be done screaming at the room, but he still can express a strong opinion over lunch should the situation warrant.

Las Vegas redux

His candor notwithstanding, there are soccer people who are mystified that someone of Wynalda’s stature within the sport would put his media career in mothballs to coach and manage the fortunes — or lack of same — of a fledgling USL team.

What is Eric Wynalda doing in Las Vegas this time, they want to know.

The first time was during the early 1990s, when he was playing association football in Germany and living in Las Vegas made logistical sense. One can get almost anywhere from Las Vegas at relatively short notice, including Saarbrucken in Germany near the French border, home of FC Saarbrucken — the side for which Wynalda scored 21 goals in 61 matches from 1992-94.

As for this time, credit daughter, Brooke, Lights owner Brett Lashbrook and, to a slighter lesser extent, those in the U.S soccer community who suggested he wasn’t qualified to coach in MLS.

After managerial gigs with the lower level Bakersfield Brigade, Cal FC in his adopted hometown of Ventura, California, and the Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League, Wynalda was methodically acquiring the managerial experience he was told to acquire. But when the NASL went dormant in 2017, his coaching career stalled.

“(Before) I took the job in Atlanta, I was complaining about — hell, I don’t know what I was complaining about,” said Wynalda, who grew up in Westlake Village, California, and was a college star at San Diego State. “I was driving my daughter to school, on speaker (phone), and we’re pretty much at school and I realize I haven’t even spoken to my daughter yet.”

Dad apologized. Daughter said it was OK. Brooke Wynalda mentioned that dad initially had turned down the Atlanta job because he feared he might lose touch with his family, and that perhaps he should reconsider.

“She said I should follow my own advice: ‘Do what you love and love what you do,’ ” dad recalled.

Sharing the vision

Wynalda appears to love what he’s doing for Brett Lashbrook. Within weeks after getting the job, he had put together the nucleus of a team comprised of his former players. He wrote down their names in the old-school ledger he carries. It is a team so young that a couple of teenagers on tryouts were sent onto the pitch during a preseason game against Toronto of MLS.

One, 19-year-old Santiago Hechavarria, was credited with an assist the first time he touched the ball.

The Lights won 5-1. It could have been 10-1, Wynalda said.

It was the kind of result Lashrook envisioned when he hired Wynalda to replace Jose Luis Sanchez Sola — a man even more controversial than Wynalda — as Lights coach.

“He ran for U.S. Soccer president, he was kind of shunned,” Lashbrook said. “He wanted a job in MLS, he didn’t get it. But he’s no longer trying to change the soccer world. He’s just trying to change the room he’s in.”

To which Wynalda says: “I don’t think there are a lot of MLS teams that would have considered me to coach their team.

“I think Brett Lashbrook is an outside of the box thinker. He’s incredibly astute when it comes to the soccer side. He did his homework — learned some things, maybe, from the mistakes they made the first year. We met. It was the first time I got a real interview and a sitdown with an owner.

“But it wasn’t like I was Red from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and just sign the paperwork and get it over with. He asked questions, I gave answers. He started talking about his vision. It was interesting and different. I have been been extremely critical of people who, for lack of a better phrase, take this too damn seriously.”

Eric Wynalda said when he and Brett Lashbrook realized they were on the same page about most soccer things, then it finally was like Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding from “The Shawshank Redemption” when he went before the parole board one last time:

APPROVED.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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