DURHAM — His decision, undeniably, is a statement of faith in second-division soccer in America, no matter what name it currently goes by.
Eric Wynalda played in what was then called the APSL before going on to bigger and better things, and his willingness now to take over the Atlanta Silverbacks he made his debut as interim coach Tuesday night against the RailHawks may be a sign of bigger and better things for the NASL.
I wouldnt have done it if I didnt believe in what the NASL is and what it stands for, said Wynalda, 43. A part of that, of course, is personal. My progression as a player started in a very similar league, in a very similar situation. I was told numerous times I wasnt good enough when I was playing in the APSL.
Now three years removed from its nasty divorce from the USL, where the RailHawks started out, the NASL is starting to find its legs. Despite losing some of its strongest franchises to MLS most recently Montreal new teams in San Antonio and Edmonton have broadened the leagues geographic reach, and Ottawas arrival in 2014 could be the beginning of continued expansion.
Back in the U.S. Open Cup after a one-year hiatus, NASL teams went 9-6, knocking off three MLS teams along the way. And now, the league will benefit from the decision by one of the highest-profile personalities to take control of the leagues worst team, even while he continues his studio work for Fox Soccer Channel.
Wynalda, unquestionably, is the biggest name associated with second-division soccer, whatever its name, since Miami FC brought in Brazilian superstar Romario as a 40-year-old. As a former U.S. Mens National Team star and, now, an outspoken-to-say-the-least commentator for FSC, Wynalda remains one of the most visible, if polarizing, figures in American soccer.
That visibility has helped deny him a management job in MLS for reasons both official (a general lack of coaching experience) and unofficial (his tendency, as a broadcaster, to speak his mind no matter how powerful the toes he might trample).
So in 2010, he took a job advising a low-level Mexican team, which led him to start a Southern California amateur team, Cal FC, for the non-Mexican talent he discovered. This summer, with Wynalda coaching, the amateurs went on a miraculous run in the Open Cup, knocking off the third-division Wilmington Hammerheads and Portland Timbers of MLS before falling, as the RailHawks did, in the Round of 16.
Now he has been asked by the Silverbacks to turn their operation around. Despite an offseason retooling, Atlanta was 1-5-8 going into Tuesday nights game at WakeMed Soccer Park, so theres plenty of work to be done.
Wynalda has somewhat undefined responsibilities with the team, the most concrete of which are serving as interim coach, at a time when he has few TV commitments, before hiring his own replacement. When he returns to his on-air work with FSC in August, hell continue to serve as an adviser to the Silverbacks, which will include funneling them talent from Cal FC.
Im not trying to be arrogant, but Im good at it, Wynalda said. When I see a guy who can do certain things at whats called a lower level, that doesnt mean hes a lower-level player.
The NASL is still far enough from the hallways of American soccer power that a firebrand like Wynalda is welcomed, but growing quickly enough that its a logical next step as he attempts to strengthen his coaching resume. Both would benefit if he finds success.
DeCock: email@example.com, (919) 829-8947, Twitter: @LukeDeCock