I caught up with FOX Soccer analyst/commentator Eric Wynalda on Friday morning to talk about a number of topics. Wynalda will be on site covering the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Hull City (9 a.m. Saturday on FOX) and the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid (11 a.m. on May 24 on FOX). Gus Johnson will be his partner for both broadcasts.
I spoke with Wynalda about those games but also guys like Clint Dempsey and Brad Evans heading into the World Cup, and then David Estrada, who he coached for a few weeks while the Sounders was on loan with the Atlanta Silverbacks.
Here is a transcript:
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(One player that intrigues me is Brad Evans, who wasn’t part of the World Cup picture at all at 25 years old but is right in the mix to be on the team at 29. What do you make of Evans and his career path?) “Look, he’s always been good. I just think the old regime with Bob Bradley didn’t see it. They made up their minds about certain people like Geoff Cameron — and Brad was certainly on that list — that they weren’t good enough. They couldn’t have been more wrong. With Brad, we’re friendly but I’m not friends with him, and I know him fairly well because I’ve watched him since his days at Irvine, coached by George Kuntz and assistant coach Chris Volk, who was my college roommate and high-school buddy. Chris would contact me and I’d say, ‘Who do you got? Who’s good over there?’ This is going back a decade. He said, ‘This kid Evans. He’s the real deal. And he’s such a nice guy, and he’s a good person, and he’s a great teammate. It’s all there.’
“The reality is it’s always been there. I commend Klinsmann and just knowing what he’s looking at. I think that’s the difference between Jurgen Klinsmann and Bob Bradley. I think Jurgen actually has a better idea of what it’s supposed to look like, and that’s why he’s in the team. It will be interesting. It’s going to be difficult because they’ve bounced him around a little bit, trying him at right back. … His versatility is sometimes a curse but sometimes it’s a good thing when you go into a World Cup scenario. You catch a few injuries and you know you can rely on him at whatever spot. It’s been fun. I’m silently rooting for him. I’m not supposed to. I’m supposed to be impartial. I like him as a person and I respect him as a player. Sometimes hard work pays off.”
(What do you think about his chances of making the final 23-man roster with guys like Timmy Chandler, DeAndre Yedlin among 11 defenders getting called into training camp?) “The odd about us compared to everybody else is that everybody else has the luxury of going straight to the 23. They can because they have control over players. For the U.S., it’s still an ongoing negotiation of who’s going to play and who’s not going to play. When Yedlin made the team of 30, that to me was more of a statement that we’re going to need speed at the right-back position. Experience is one thing, but Ronaldo is running at you, you need to have the athleticism to run with him.
“Chandler surprised me a little bit. I think it’s a good fight, and I think they know that. They’re going to go into a camp and be part of a competition within a competition to see who makes those final roster spots. It’s not a challenge Brad hasn’t seen before. I think he welcomes it and understands the scenario. It’s better to not know right now and have to still work for it, then have a comfort zone and say, ‘Well, I’m in, so I don’t have to work hard.’ You don’t want to leave it up to that and have that kind of thought process. Jurgen has done a great job keeping everybody on their toes. Everybody. I think you welcome the challenge and competition, and we’ll see who wins it. A lot of people make assumptions, but Chandler hasn’t been able to stay healthy and we’ll see if he can stay healthy through this last bit.”
(Of course I have to ask about Clint Dempsey. Coming off of an underwhelming last few months of 2013, both individually and team-wide, what have you seen as being keys to this run of form he’s been on this season?) “He is my favorite. I don’t want to call him a punk, but he’s always been a bit of a punk to me. He is my favorite player on this team for a lot of reasons. A guy like me, obviously my career is over, but you look back and you look at the guys you played with and the guys now, and that’s just the one guy (I look at). I wish I was younger, or he was older, one of the two, because I would love to have played with him. He’s got so much talent, but he’s so different than anybody else we’ve ever had. The best part about it is he’s a competitor, he’s a really good man, he’s a family man, and he doesn’t like to get caught up in any of the stupid stuff. He’s still got that quirky, funny, I’m-a-rapper side to him, out of Texas, and it doesn’t make any sense. That’s the kind of personality that he has, and what he brings to a team has always been fascinating to me.
“I watch because of him, mainly. And I pay attention to Seattle to see how he’s doing, because he’s worth watching. All the pressure of the money and all the other stuff that came with it, God bless him. It’s great, it’s great for everybody that we’re in a position where we can reward players with what they’re worth. He’s handled it well. He’s starting to find his form at the right time. I know Jurgen Klinsmann had said that he didn’t think it was a good move to come back to the league, that he would’ve rather him stayed in Europe, and I’m not trying to disagree with Jurgen, but Clint is one of the few people who can walk into any room and figure it out and raise his level to whatever he needs to be. I’m not worried about him. People say, ‘Well, you can’t play here and then go there.’ Yeah, he can, because he is that good. There are two arguments to that, and we often stereotypically put people in the same place, that, ‘If you’re playing here, well that’s the level that you’re at.’ Clint, in 15 minutes, figures out the game, figures out the opponent, and raises his level to wherever it needs to go, because he can get there. He is that good. That’s the mark of a really talented player.
“I’m a fan, obviously. I’ve been a fan since he came into New England. I had an argument with Paul Mariner and Stevie Nicol. I think I dubbed him the best player pound-for-pound when he was making $35,000 a year. People called my crazy then. I don’t think I’m so crazy. It’s nice to be right every once in a while, and he’s worth every penny he gets.”
(Obviously there are a lot a potentially game-changers on the USMNT roster, but how important do you feel Dempsey will be the team’s success in Brazil?) “He’s always been the unsung hero, if you will. Everybody wants to go back to that goal against Algeria. If there’s a different guy on the field, I don’t even know if that goal happens. His commitment to that near-post run and the desire that he showed on that play made that goal happen. Clint made that goal happen. He made it easy for everybody. It could’ve gone three yards to the left and it’d be Edson Buddle we were talking about. Those are the little kind of plays that he does consistently that go unnoticed. It bothers me at times because I see it and I think Jurgen see it and at times maybe he can be taken for granted. As long as he continues to play the right way for the right reasons, we’re a better team with him on the field. He makes everybody on the team look better. Even when they hit a bad pass, he makes it look good. We can talk about Bradley and Landon and Jozy all you want, but in my opinion, if Clint’s on, we’re going to be fine.”
(You didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time with David Estrada, but did you have any impressions of him during his time on loan with the Atlanta Silverbacks?) “My situation in Atlanta is very different than the standard manager you’ll find … but he was the one guy out of everybody that I wanted, for all the same reasons that I like Clint and I like Brad. They’re very good people. They’re very unselfish pros and they want to work hard and they want to play the game the right way. I’ve known him since his days at UCLA. I was there when he had a pretty good semifinal and final, I think in St. Louis, many days back. I’ve been a fan ever since then.
“It got to the point where I’d say, ‘You have to stop.’ He’d only say to me, ‘Yes, sir.’ I said, ‘My name’s Eric. Call me Eric.’ He’d say, ‘Yes, sir.’ He’s so polite and he’s such a good human being that that stayed with me. Obviously I’ve followed his career and everything. I remember sending him a text message to the wrong number and finally got in touch with him after he got the hat trick against Toronto way back. The bottom line was we don’t have enough guys like that who just put their heads down at work, put a smile on their face, put a smile on their heart, they love the game and they just want to do well.
“If you talked to him — and I hope we left on good terms, I feel like we did — is I think communication is everything between a manager and player. Guys just want to know where they are and where they’re going. I just really enjoyed having him in as a player and really enjoyed talking to him, about life, about what he wants out of this, what his ambitions are. I get sad because I feel he needs more time, but I understand the situation that he’s in. Chad Barrett doesn’t score on opening day and maybe things are a little bit different for him. Maybe he gets more of an opportunity. The second Chad scored, I called Chris Henderson and said, ‘Hey, if you don’t need Estrada, I’ll take him.’ That was literally how that went down. I said, ‘I’ll take him temporarily. I don’t care. I’ll take him. I don’t care what it takes. You guys make all the rules. You can pull the carpet out from underneath me at the last second, I don’t care. If I get him for one game, two games, three games — great.’ I made that negotiation as easy as possible.
“There are a couple new teams coming in the league and he left a wonderful impression here in Atlanta, despite the fact that we weren’t able to win when he was with us. It doesn’t matter. I think people in Atlanta saw his talent, and maybe with a new franchise in Atlanta he can get a fresh start and get a chance to play on a regular basis, because that’s all he wants. We don’t have the resources that Seattle has, but I think there’s a part of him that enjoys playing and knowing that he’s going to play and having my trust and really focusing on his job and not worrying about some other stuff. It’s not a criticism of Sigi, because Sigi has a lot going on, but Sigi hasn’t always been one to leave a player with a direct message. I’ve played for Sigi, I’ve known Sigi for 30 years, but Sigi is the kind of manager who will let you drive home and talk to your steering wheel, and you’re wondering what the hell happened. You don’t know what to do sometimes. … Whatever my function is, I do know what players expect, what they need and what they want.
“We made it as enjoyable as we could. He got to hang out with Blair Gavin, which was great, his buddy. But it was nine-hour bus rides to Tampa; it wasn’t first-class travel. I think he enjoyed that. It’s almost like a back-to-your-roots kind of thing. Some guys don’t handle that well. Some guys say, ‘Well, I don’t belong here. I’m too good for this.’ He was like, ‘Come on, let’s play. I’m going to bring work ethic every day to practice.’ He was a great example to every single player on the team. After he left, there was a practice and the level went down. I brought everybody in and said, ‘Do I need to bring Estrada back so you know what a pro looks like?’ I said, ‘Let’s get back at it,’ and everybody went back to practice and it was like, ‘Man, he’s right. Estrada did always bring it.’ He brought pace, speed, attitude, everything to practice — every day. Those guys needed a reminder of that. I said, ‘I know you guys don’t want to be here. You want to be where he is. You want to be somewhere else. But not the way you’re acting.’ David was a great guy to bring in because, even at that young age, he served as a great role model for the guys who want to make the jump. Love that kid. I don’t think I could love a player more, but he’s got to stop calling me ‘sir.’
(To the games you’ll be covering, obviously the hardcore soccer fans will be tuning into the FA Cup final no matter what. But for the casual fan, what intrigues you most about Saturday’s game between Arsenal and Hull City?) “First of all, the FA Cup is always such a wonderful event. It’s not just the pageantry of it all. I’ve grown to love the event a lot more over the years. I played my professional football in Germany, but it was still something that, whether you like English football or not, if you had to pick one game that you were going to watch all year, it would be the FA Cup final, regardless of who’s in it.
“There are a whole bunch of storylines, obviously, with Arsenal looking to win a trophy for the first time in a decade and all that stuff, but the bottom line is it’s such a great story. We try to emulate the FA Cup in the United States with the Lamar Hunt Open Cup because of the possibility of having a David versus Goliath. We had it last year. We don’t quite have it this year. I expect Arsenal to win this one, but still, it’s just one of those things. It’s like the Wimbledon final. Americans get up to watch that, so they should get up and watch this the same way.”
(And to next week with the Champions League final. Everyone knows about Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo. What can you tell people that they might not know about Atletico Madrid?) “Very seldom do you get to see the beginning of a wonderful career as a manager, and that’s what (we’re getting with) Simeone. He’s a fiery guy, a competitor, but the circumstances of that club and the players that they’ve lost over the years would give people the idea that maybe they can’t stand up to the likes of a Real Madrid or a Barcelona. They have basically personified their manager. It’s just awesome to see players put that much into every single game. The only issue I had all year was wondering about the sustainability of bringing that much energy to every single game. Somehow he has inspired those guys to do that. They’re terrific to watch. It’s awesome.
“The last time we were here in Europe, we were waiting for the Real Madrid-Bayern game and I got to go to see Atletico-Chelsea live. … The fans of Atletico, they are passion. And he is the perfect manager for that club. They’ve had some great performances from Gabi and Koke and obviously Diego Costa has been great. The left back (Filipe Luis), let’s see if they can hold onto him because he’s fantastic. He was like an unknown commodity, but I think everyone has figured out how good some of these guys really are. God, it was awesome. I’ve been everywhere in the world and I’ve watched a lot of games, but that was really awesome — that’s the perfect word to describe.
“Look, you’re in Seattle. I think as Americans, when you see 60,000 fans fill in for something like Kasey Keller’s farewell game or whatnot, people haven’t really seen that before, haven’t seen that many people excited about the sport. They just have a different way of going about being a fan — the songs, the scarves. It’s just a different fan experience. Atletico is probably among the top three for me, and that’s saying a lot because I’ve been everywhere. It was really amazing, even though the result was poor and it was a 0-0 game; Jose Mourinho did his thing parking the bus in front of goal and didn’t allow them to play.
“It’s the people’s team. It’s really amazing. The other thing is I was in about 10 cabs during that trip and eight out of 10 drivers were Atletico fans. The guys who were Real Madrid fans were almost apologetic about it. They were. ‘I support Real Madrid,’ and then they were very quiet. ‘I support Real Madrid,’ and then they stared forward and drove. We told them what we did, saying, ‘We’re here to cover the game,’ and the other guys were like, ‘Oh! I support Atletico!’ and then they couldn’t drive. They almost got in three accidents since they spent half the time looking in the rear-view mirror at us and engaging and talking about the team. The fans are just as passionate as their manager, and their players play up to it. It’s worth watching. The fact that they’re playing against Real Madrid makes it that much more special, but I think the real story this year is Simeone and his crew. As a soccer guy, I’ve really enjoyed watching it.”