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Lights FC coach Eric Wynalda fired for rules violation

Updated June 18, 2020 - 5:19 pm

Lights FC coach Eric Wynalda was fired Wednesday for violating rules related to the United Soccer League Championship’s return-to-play guidelines, owner Brett Lashbrook said Thursday.

Lashbrook said there was a “violation of club rules, league rules and (USL players association) protocol.” He declined to specify what rule was broken after initially not providing an explanation for his decision Wednesday.

Wynalda did not return phone calls seeking comment. He said during an interview with Review-Journal columnist Ed Graney on his ESPN radio show that he didn’t know the exact cause of his firing but accepted culpability if his team violated protocols.

“In all probability, something did happen,” Wynalda said. “And that’s where the ax fell: On me. I’m sure it’s something where I’ll get an explanation as to what exactly happened or what rules were violated. I take responsibility for it.”

USL Championship clubs have the option to hold voluntary noncontact practices on outdoor fields in groups of up to 10 as of June 9, with no more than one trainer and one member of the technical staff present. All workouts must comply with local and state health authority guidelines.

Lashbrook, however, did not want the players doing more than individual workouts yet. The Lights train at Kellogg Zaher Soccer Complex, and Lashbrook wanted the players to sign liability waivers to take part in group activities. The waivers would protect the team if any players became infected while practicing before the USL and the players association had an official return-to-play agreement. The deal is expected to be approved in the coming days.

As of Thursday morning, the players had not signed the waivers, so formal team activities were prohibited at Cashman Field or Kellogg Zaher.

“What I told our players was, ‘We’re practicing in a public park at Kellogg Zaher. I have liability there,’” Lashbrook said. “(The USL and players association are) still negotiating what this liability exposure is. If you want to do formal, small-team training, you have to sign a waiver that you’re acknowledging the risk.”

Wynalda said on ESPN radio he did not grant the players access to a field they weren’t supposed to be on Wednesday.

Lashbrook made clear that the coach’s dismissal was unrelated to any financial difficulties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. He said the club has had to furlough and terminate employees, but all players have been paid their full salaries. He added that the players will be paid in full even if they feel uncomfortable practicing, playing or traveling with the Lights if the season resumes.

Lashbrook said Wynalda was being paid his original salary, but had accepted a blended pay cut that would equate to a 15 percent decrease over the entire season. Wynalda would have been paid his full salary again starting in the offseason, Lashbrook said.

“Yesterday’s incident had absolutely nothing to do with money,” Lashbrook said. “I understand why the two can be convoluted because we’re in a unique time because of the pandemic and an extended stop in play in the middle of the season. But I can’t be more clear that this had nothing to do with money.”

Wynalda also said on ESPN radio that his firing wasn’t financially motivated.

Lashbrook now is forced to quickly search for his fourth coach and technical director in less than three seasons before the USL Championship’s targeted restart date of July 11. He said he will vet internal and external candidates, as none of Wynalda’s four assistants was fired.

The club’s first coach, the colorful Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, left the Lights with six games remaining in their first season in 2018. His son Isidro Sanchez finished the year as coach. The team went 8-19-7 and finished 15th in the 17-team Western Conference.

Wynalda, a former U.S. national team striker and outspoken TV commentator, improved the Lights’ record to 11-15-8 in 2019. He also led the team to a draw in its only 2020 match.

The 51-year-old, a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, expressed frustration with the club’s philosophies in an interview with ESPN on Wednesday night. The Lights are known for their outlandish team promotions, which have included dropping cash from a helicopter.

“In Las Vegas, for Brett Lashbrook, it’s never been about soccer,” Wynalda told ESPN. “I’m a soccer guy, and that’s the reason why we parted ways.”

Lashbrook did not apologize for pushing the envelope marketingwise. He also said he has never made a soccer decision besides hiring coaches and setting a player budget.

He acknowledged, however, the need to look inward after his latest coaching change.

“Clearly, having four coaches in three seasons is not the model, the blueprint or the business plan that I’ve laid out,” Lashbrook said. “That lays at my feet. I need to make sure that I do a better job to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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