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June 4, 2012 at 4:03 PM

30 minutes with Cal FC coach Eric Wynalda

Cal FC head coach Eric Wynalda, you may know him from exploits with the U.S. men’s national team or as an analyst for FOX Soccer, held a teleconference with reporters from about 30 minutes Monday morning. He addressed a ton of topics, too many to break into individual posts, so here is the transcript of the interview:

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(Can you give us some background on how Cal FC came together?) “The way this all happened is a long story, so I’ll keep it short. As some of you might know, I was employed to work in Mexico as a scouting, recruiting, search-and-discover project to find Mexican-American kids living in southern California. I used the Gran Liga, for lack of a better phrase, to platform these guys and just put them on a tryout scenario, and it was just a revolving door. There would be players coming in from all over the place, all over the state and sometimes out of state — some kids came in from Arizona and Texas on a few occasions. Now I guess about three months ago, it had just gotten to the point where it was just too much fun. We had a list that we felt would really be a pretty cool representation of the project, and the next challenge was to try and get everybody in the same place at the same time. We kind of built a team around what we felt was the guys that would fit the roles and positions that we were looking for. This is late April when we were finally able to get them together, and we played a couple of games in the Gran Liga, and we played some practice matches against some college teams, and that was just to prepare for the Lamar Hunt Open Cup. So we made the decision about mid-February that we really wanted to see if we could put them in a competition that they could play as a team and not just in league play, because it was very difficult to get them in something they could all be a part of. So May 5 obviously was the qualification process — that’s about a month ago — so it’s been pretty amazing to see the group come together the way they have. The other thing I realized yesterday is we really haven’t changed the lineup at all. The same guys have virtually played in every game outside of the game in Wilmington when Pablo Cruz was coming back from a calf strain, so we made one change. But outside of that, it’s the same group, it’s the same eleven who have pretty much participated in all the games, starting wise.”

(Can you tell us about your players’ day jobs and how they manage to juggle that and soccer?) “Well, I hate to do this, but out of respect for them, they’ve asked me not to do that. They’ve asked me not to reveal what it is that they were doing just to survive. But a couple of things have come out that, yes, some of these guys (have been a) parking valet, to waiters, to doing whatever — real estate. All of them have different jobs that they do simply to earn a living, and some of them are students that still work. Two boys that I don’t think have an issue with this are Brazil twins who I first saw up in Palo Alto about a year and a half back. They were at Foothill College, then they left. They’re both 21 years old and they now live in Boston, and they’ve just been chasing teams and games. Both are now married to American girls, and they live in Boston, and I fly those guys in for every game, which is obviously an expense. But both of those guys are two kids who fell between the cracks and are chasing the game, and it didn’t work out, and they were working and living in Boston when I called them about three weeks ago. They’re from everywhere. They simply are a group of guys. One interesting story is that one of the guys on the team, I introduced myself to him when he was playing 1v1 between the goals of two games that I was supposed to be watching. There was about a 30-yard space behind the net, and I was there to see another kid play and he wasn’t good enough, and I ended up being more intrigued by the 1v1 between two Mexican kids with no shoes and ended up asking him where he lives and how I could get him into practice and if I could buy him some shoes, and that’s how he ended up on our team, and he’s currently starting for us. But I hate to do that to you. We did have a conversation about it and the guys simply said, ‘Look, I would appreciate it if you’d just leave that out of it.’ I don’t know if it was embarrassment or just that they’d rather be recognized as soccer players.”

(What was your message to team before the Portland game?) “It was kind of funny, because there was a lot of speculation about what (Timbers coach) John Spencer would do. We obviously had a really good result in Wilmington, and we had seen the results from the previous day when seven MLS teams were eliminated, and I was looking at all the rosters and seeing who played. I actually spoke to Chance Myers about it of Kansas City, and there were only two or three starters that participated for Kansas City. Chivas won their game against the Fusion and played their first team. So I was curious to know what Portland would do — if they would actually play their guys or not. So my message to them was simple: ‘This is what you wanted. It’s not a careful what you wish for. You guys want to be professional soccer players? There they are. That’s not the reserves. There will not be an excuse after this is over. That’s who you wanted to play, that’s who you got. Go get them.’ ”

(Does the fact that teams don’t have much film on your help?) “The bottom line is they can talk and talk and talk before and after and make excuses after it’s over or try to prepare the best you can before, but at some point they’re going to put the ball down and they’re going to blow the whistle and we’re going to play. In my opinion, talent is the great equalizer. If you can play the game at a high level, you’re going to have success. That has been what they’re all about. Now that the story has kind of unfolded, what has been really annoying to me is that all of these ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ answers that we’d been getting over the past couple months have now become, ‘Oh, I always thought that guy was great.’ And everybody has a very different opinion now. ‘I always thought that guy was great a player. I know who that is.’ If you really know who he is, why are you admitting it? Just play dumb, because you look stupid if you actually knew how this kid was and you never brought him in. It’s not an advantage outside of the fact that when we play, we can play at a high level. I think there were moments in the Portland game when we were able to show that. It was not an easy game for us because Portland is a very physical team, but they’re very fit. We are not fit. We are not the kind of team that can run with you for 90 minutes, let alone 120. Playing against a team that is going to make a very extended effort to get the ball forward quickly, and get it in, get it around us, get it in the box, get their opportunities and with some extremely motivated ball boys to get the ball back in. I don’t think the ball was off the field for more than half a second. I was watching the tape and the idea was to just wear us down. We were very fortunate not to get scored on, but I think you look at Seattle and it will be a different game. It will be a different style of play. It will be a different way that they address it. They play the game simply a different way. We are probably far more suited to play against Seattle than Portland.”

(How much of this is a chance show off your coaching and how much is the talent of the players?) “I said this before, when you have talented guys, there’s not a lot of coaching going on. I’m not doing a lot of coaching, guys. I’m not. I think the simplicity of all this really is a better way to showcase these guys’ talents. I think they’ve embraced it. I think when you sit down with these kids and look into their eyes and you start to talk to them for the first time — now it’s a very different conversation because I think they trust me — but when I first started this, I just felt like they were so beat up and so in doubt of whether this was going to happen for them. I think that believing in them and being one of the guys that actually believed that this could happen was one part of it, but the fact that they believe in themselves now is probably the coolest part about all of this. I’m really excited for them, just to have the opportunity and play in a game of this magnitude. And of course with my affiliation with FOX — true to form, with FOX Soccer always serving the fans and they do it through the most compelling games and best stories, and we’re just thrilled that we fit the bill. We’re going to give these kids an opportunity to play in front of a national audience and show this country what they’re capable of. I think they’ll deliver. I really do. I think they are really excited about the opportunity to play. But it’s about them and it always has been about them. The fact that I just had the follow-through to make this happen, doesn’t make me the hero.”

(Can you talk about your relationship with Sigi Schmid?) “If you want to talk about probably the most ironic part of all of this, I don’t have a career without Sigi Schmid. I would have never been a soccer player if he didn’t show up on a Saturday morning in Simi Valley in 1986, sit in a lawn chair and watch me play. He walked up to me and my dad after the game was over and he said, ‘Hi, I’m Sigi Schmid.’ I said, ‘I know who you are.’ He said, ‘Where’s your dad?’ and I said, ‘He’s over there.’ He said, ‘I guess I’ll see you at the state tryouts’ and I said ‘Coach, I didn’t make my district team.’ And he said, ‘You just did. I’m the state team coach. Where’s your dad?’ And that was the beginning. That was the very beginning of my career. You take all of that, the things you learn as a player, the good the bad, and what’s important. If there was any lesson I ever learned from Sigi Schmid it was to trust your instincts, never give up on people and never stop looking because they’re out there.”

(What’s your relationship with Schmid like today?) “It’s great. I always take the time. I’d even get to the stadium early when I was with FOX if I had a chance to visit with Sigi. I don’t know what level of friendship he would call it, but he’s always been a great friend and he cares a lot about people. I’ve always felt a connection to him because he’s just a good guy. He is where he is and he continues to have success and win because he’s just a good man. It’s good to call him a friend. I got to see him a couple times last year. This will be strange, a strange game for me personally on that level, but once the game starts, I don’t think I’ll be thinking about it. I hold nothing but the utmost respect for Sigi Schmid.”

(Have you exceeded expectations or did you think this is what your team could do?) “It’s a tough question man. This is where you put your foot in your mouth. I think that they’re not done. I don’t think they’re done. I think that they’re going to embrace this opportunity. Obviously Seattle is a fantastic team. It’s not that I’m saying that we’re better. What I’m saying is that on the day, we could possibly win. Staying true to that, I’m not going to give up on them. The reality is I always knew they were capable of something great. As a group, they stick together. It was really cool yesterday, where I trained the team on Saturday morning and we had to scramble to get a field in Santa Monica, but I had to jump on a plane. I’m currently in Monterey, Calif., at a golf event, essentially raising money for my team. I called yesterday to the manager, Michael Friedman, and I said, ‘Hey listen, how did it go today? Where is everybody?’ And he said, ‘They’re all here.’ That’s the first time I’ve called and I didn’t have to make 18 calls. I made one. I said, ‘What do you mean they are all there?’ They decided to have a barbeque and spend the day together as a group. I was thrilled that they’ve really come together as a group. They’re flying in right now. I think they land in about an hour up in Seattle and we’ll see how the rest of the preparation goes. Bu I think they are ready.”

(How have the logistics of this worked with guys being all over and having to raise money?) “I really got to say the United States Soccer Federation has been brilliant with helping us, giving us a stipend to travel. Cal South, who is on our shirt and will continue to be on our shirt, helped us with some of the expenses. The USASA — the amateurs’ association — chipped in a little bit to see what they can do, if they have a little bit of budget that they can throw at us to allow us to pay for stuff. Let’s face it, a lot of it — not a lot of it, but some of it — has come out of my own pocket. There are things that you’ve got to pay for. I’ve just basically told my agent, ‘Just book me,’ so I can get appearances that can allow me to generate some income that I can dump into this team. That’s the way we’ve handled it. But it’s been brilliant. Everyone has really come together. We’ve done the best we can to figure out a way to assimilate. It’s amateur, but as professional an atmosphere as we can, whether that’s buying water or having a trainer there. I think Richie Menjivar’s sister is getting some volunteer minutes as our trainer. We’re just trying as hard as we can to patch this thing together to make sure that the guys are ready. Again, we’ve gotten a lot of help from a lot of people. We have a partnership now with the San Diego Flash and their partners, who contacted us through my friendship with Warren Barton. Their CEO called us and said, ‘How can we help you raise the money? I’ve been through this, I know how hard it is. We support you.’ And that was a great call, and there have been several fundraisers that are on Twitter that people have actually just contributed money. They’ve figured out the link and been very generous. There’s a lady, I think she donated $2,000 to our cause. I wanted to call her personally and tell her, ‘You have no idea how much this means.’ It’s been cool. A lot of people have been really helpful.”

(What might this run do for the game in this country?) “We do have a way of doing things, and sometimes the system overlooks some talent (of) the kids that do need a second chance. I think if anything, at times when you look at the way that players are discovered in this country and their progression, I just think that the game is always going to be about the players. It’s always about their abilities. I think that if we can as a league — let’s not get lazy. Let’s not make the assumption that just because the kid went to this college or that college or that that means that’s the best that’s out there. I think we really need to peel back one more layer, consistent with Sigi Schmid, who decided that he was going to not just rely on a piece of paper that someone sent him that said these are the players that we have to look at. He took it upon himself to go out and find them. That’s the message: Let’s not be lazy here. As good as things appear to be, we’re not there yet. We’re not. So, work a little harder. And then once you get the talent, work a little less. Let these kids show us who they are. The game is about personality. It’s not about anything else than good, bad or indifferent. When they play, they get to be themselves, not who we want them to be. The one analogy that I guess I’ll give you (is) somebody asked me this week about Danny Barrera: Can you explain why he’s had this resurgence, and he’s become a player that people are really taking seriously now and maybe they hadn’t taken him seriously before? How is it possible that he’s playing the way that he’s playing now, but not before? And the answer is simple: If you take a player like Danny, and I spend all my time yelling at him for making mistakes or giving the ball away, I’m cheating myself out of the pass that’s going to win the game for me — because he won’t do it. You look at the pass to Artur in the last game, I don’t think there are five people in this country who can make that pass. But when you’ve got a player with that kind of talent, again, you don’t spend a lot of time telling them what not to do. You just try to keep them on the tracks. Our little slogan is: My job is to stay out of their way, but don’t let them get in their own way. And as long as I do that, my team will be just fine.”

(Can this continue after the Open Cup or are guys going to move on?) “What I’ve said previously, and I’m going to stick to that, is if these guys aren’t with professional teams in August, then I didn’t do my job. The idea was to showcase them. Well, first to find them, give them a chance and then let them play. Let them show us what they can do. And lots of times I do this when we talk about players in Major League Soccer, and I’ve been very critical of that. This is not the best addressed on the planet and it’s not something that we should be embarrassed about, but if you as a manager have a great player, and someone calls you up and says I want to pay this guy three times more money that you’re paying him and have a new life experience, you pat them on the back, you shakes their hand, you look them in the eye and say, ‘Great job kid. Good luck.’ You can’t hold people down. If we do this right… And we’ve already had numerous offers. I’m not at liberty to talk about it just yet, but there are six or seven players who have standing offers to be pros when this is over, and I have every intention of letting that happen.”

(If Cal FC stays together, guys can quit their day jobs, have good facilities/staff, how might they do in MLS?) “Well, we’d need to get bigger in a hurry, wouldn’t we? That’s a big part of it. Look, I think this team would be very competitive in a week-in and week-out schedule. Obviously we’d need a little bit more depth, and that’s part of it, but our group and our total list of players that are available for selection is 29 at the moment. And yeah, if I had the resources to pay these guys what they deserve, this could and should be an MLS team.”

(Can you tell us about the slip-and-slide tactics we’ve read about with your team?) “Well, I think the slip and slide is in reference to the defensive set-up that we have. I’ve been asked 100 times, ‘What’s the formation you guys play?’ And my answer has pretty much been, ‘I’m not too sure, but it works.’ It really became a conversation when we sat down. Like I said, we haven’t changed the lineup at all, but within certain games we will mutate the way we address the game positionally, and that comes to matchups. If you look at Seattle, if they play their guys — if Rosales plays on the right and Fernandez plays on the left and Montero gets in the game or it’s Ochoa or Estrada, I don’t know. If it’s Rose, Evans and Alonso who play, that set up kind of allows us to not just absorb some pressure, but to be able to push one more numbers into the attack than we did against Portland, which allows us to get a little bit more of the ball and trying to overload and allow these guys to create the triangles that they like to create. If you’re looking for expectations, to be dead honest, once the ball gets in the final third, I have no idea what they’re going to do, but I trust them. Sometimes they get a little bit ahead of themselves. Sometimes they try the killer pass a little bit too often, but if you go back and watch that Portland game, we missed the final pass by about a foot six times. The game could’ve been very different. But because of fitness, we spent the last 40 minutes breathing out of both ends. It was a tough game for them.”

(How does this run affect your coaching ambitions?) “I’ll address it this way. I’m always available to help. Does that mean that I want a job in MLS? Not right now. I think about two years ago I was completely committed to that and I was devastated when I didn’t get the job. I’m not going to lie about that. I was nothing short of heartbroken. I just thought, ‘OK, it’s not going to happen.’ The way I’m addressing it now is simple. Whether it’s calling Richie Williams and Jim Rooney who are part of the youth. Or whether that’s maintaining my relationship with Tab Ramos, were still friends. I’m always looking for players who can help or help his team, because I really want Tab to be successful. That’s the way I’m going to address it. I’m going to continue to do what I do and keep rolling up and help these kids who might need a second chance and hopefully find a home for them. That’s really what Cal FC is trying to do. It’s not all these big broad statements that everyone would like to believe — that I’m out to prove the world wrong. It’s just trying to do the right thing. Sometimes you’ve got to do a little bit more and be a little bit more aggressive to help these kids find homes. I haven’t thought about it. Obviously in order to entertain it, you would have to have an offer, and I do not. And most of these guys are my friends, so I’m uncomfortable talking about it. But I’m always there. I’m always there to help and I’m pretty open. Everybody’s got my phone number and it’s been cool. It’s been great because a lot of the coaches in the league and a lot of the managers have called or they’ve asked, and that’s a good starting point, that there’s at least a line of communication and some people that normally don’t call are there now. I’m not trying to get somebody else’s job, I’m just trying to help everybody do a better job of what they’re doing.”

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[View the story ” ” on Storify]


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