Few can forget the scenes of the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™. President Bill Clinton, Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl and the Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada watched as a jam-packed Soldier Field in Chicago anticipated the world’s game debut in unprecedented territory. Pop star Diana Ross ushered in the 24 teams by kicking a ceremonial penalty only for the goalposts to split and collapse while Oprah Winfrey’s voice reverberated around the pitch.
The country’s expectations for the USA national team were anything but high. USA had crashed out of the 1990 World Cup, losing all of their group stage matches. Leading coach Bora Milutinovic’s forward line was the fiery 25-year-old, Eric Wynalda, who had just been named the German second division’s best player with Saarbrucken.
“It was crazy,” Wynalda recalls in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “We weren’t ready for it. At the time it was awesome to see the American people receive the sport the right way. It was the first flame, the first spark of people getting behind their team.”
USA qualified for the knockout stages after drawing with Switzerland in the opener, beating Colombia at the Rose Bowl, and losing narrowly to Romania, booking a Round of 16 clash with Brazil on 4 July at Stanford Stadium in San Francisco. A 72nd-minute winner from Bebeto would eventually be enough to knock the hosts out.
“Back then it was just a riot,” Wynalda explains. “We were young and trying to do the best we could. But we almost pulled it off. We almost beat one of the best teams in the world on the fourth of July. If we play that game now, we beat them.”
By the time Wynalda hung up his boots, he was the leading scorer in USA national team history. That title was his until 2008, when Landon Donovan tucked away a penalty against Sweden in an international friendly.
Life after football
Today, Wynalda finds himself living and breathing football in several capacities: TV broadcaster, technical director, and father. However, his re-entry into the world of football did not come without adversity.
“This is more than just a passion for me,” he explains. “I thought I was done. I thought I'd fallen out of love and that was that. These [Atlanta Silverbacks] players made me realise I’ve never loved it more. When you’re passionate about something, when you love something, when it’s a part of you, and you really, truly love something, it’s unhealthy to keep it away from you.”
Wynalda was given the role of interim head coach and team adviser of the Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in July 2012, but it was advice from an unlikely source that convinced him to take the position.
“This was my daughter’s assessment,” Wynalda says. “She said, 'You know you need to take your own advice, Dad. Remember when we had the conversation whether I should be in music or soccer? You need to love what you do and do what you love'.”
Wynalda is relishing his role as team adviser, overseeing the Silverbacks’ most successful season in which they won the 2013 NASL spring season.
“You can’t imagine how excited I was,” Wynalda recalls the moment he realised he was back in the game. “It’s all management, it’s what I’ve always loved to do. It’s the part that I’ve loved about the game almost as much as I’ve loved to play it. It’s being a part of the team and figuring out how guys tick. The problem solving, the ‘figuring it out’ because every game is not the same.”
Wynalda has found his experiences playing at the top level helps motivate and encourage the Silverbacks players. Speaking before their NASL title encounter with the New York Cosmos, he related the levels of anticipation ahead a World Cup on home soil.
"It's the feeling where you go, 'Oh my God I'm going to play in a World Cup'", he says. "You wait, and you wait, and you study, you study, and you play a bunch of friendlies, and then all of a sudden, there you are at the World Cup, and all the emotions hit you. Nobody can prepare themselves fully for that feeling. It's how you deal with it in the moment that defines you. It's the little moments that define you."
From the pitch to the broadcast studio
As much as Wynalda's career experiences are helping to instil a winning culture into the Silverbacks, he found nothing could prepare him for life in the broadcasting booth.
"They are very different preparations," he said. "Playing was so much easier, it’s painful. Even when you have the utmost confidence, when you watch, you have no control. It’s hard to watch as a fan. I feel for the fans, because I am a fan right there with you. It’s a hard thing to watch.
"Playing is different. The guys that played with me will tell you I was very intense. I unfortunately treated it like war at times. I took things personal. I knew that those things made me better. If I got angry, or if somebody aggravated me, or forced me to get angry, usually the soccer got better. My team-mates used to love to get me angry for whatever reason because it was a part of who I was as a player. I can’t afford to do that anymore. I’ve got to do my job."
Heading into the NASL title match, Wynalda explained how he would give his pre-match speech to the Silverbacks' players. "This game will be defined by a total of eight to ten seconds. That’s all you're going to remember. But in that moment that matters, who are you?"
He was right. The championship was eventually decided by one moment, and unfortunately for Wynalda and the Silverbacks, that moment belonged to former Spain international and Cosmos midfielder Marcos Senna, who struck a stunning volley after a free-kick early in the second half in front of a stunned Silverbacks Park.
Despite the Silverbacks not pulling off a surprise victory against the Cosmos, Wynalda himself has been on the victorious side in a shock win. The USA pulled off one of the most significant wins in their 100-year footballing history, a 3-0 triumph over Argentina in the 1995 Copa America.
"You’re never going to forget that. Maradona (who was at the match as a spectator) walked into our locker room and cried. Everybody stopped. We all looked at him and we were going, ‘Oh my God that’s Maradona and why is he crying?' He said, 'I’m not crying because Argentina lost. I’m crying because the Americans played so beautifully'."
Wynalda's life in football can be charted by moments, some heart-breaking and some heart-stopping, but he says it's what one does with these moments that determines history.
"Defining moments in our life happen all the time, it’s our responsibility to recognise them. That’s it."