ISAAC HEATH - Monday, November 16, 2009
When it comes to firsts, Eric Wynalda has had a great deal of experience in that department throughout his career.
He was part of the national team that qualified the US for its first World Cup in over forty years, as well as on the team that hosted the first ever World Cup on US soil four years later. He drew a red card in his first game of his first World Cup, was the first American national teamer to play in the German Bundesliga, scored the first goal in MLS history, was once first on the list of all time scorers for the US national team, and finally he is often the first person to tell you exactly how feels about something.
One of the most important accomplishments for him was qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, a feat that not only changed Wynalda's life and career, but also thrust the sport into the center stage of the soccer deprived nation of the United States, bringing in an influx of money and recognition.
"To this day people don't realize how important Paul Caligiuri's goal was against Trinidad," Wynalda explained to Yanks Abroad. "Everything changed after that, and the program really started to grow from that point on."
The 1990 World Cup provided the US players an opportunity to show the world they could play, and ultimately enabled the United States to have a successful showing as host of the 1994 World Cup.
The event also introduced a fiery and passionate person and player to the soccer world in Wynalda, a reputation that would stick with the California native forever.
"I always played better mad," said Wynalda. "Other countries in CONCACAF would always call me the 'fighting forward' because I was always in a fight with someone, but those guys didn't want to mark me. That's just the way I played."
That passion was seen in his first game ever on the biggest stage, as the then 21-year old forward was red carded against Czechoslovakia for retaliating after he was fouled by Czech midfielder Lubomir Moravcik.
"When I look back at the incident, I felt like I was at war and I wanted to fight and was going to go down swinging. I wasn't just going to walk off the field and shake these guys hands and pretend it was ok to get beat up that bad."
The media was highly critical of Wynalda for his lack of maturity in that game, and the card has been something that he has been judged for, perhaps unjustly, for a large portion of his career.
Not to justify his actions that led to him being sent off, but after the third goal of the game scored by Czechoslovakia there was an incident that most certainly fueled Wynalda's anger that was not caught on tape, nor spoken much about.
"Tomas Skuhravy scored a goal at the near post on a corner kick and ran by me and slapped me on the face, as if to say 'There you go little kid'. I got the red card five minutes later."
"I was angry and under an enormous amount of pressure. The proudest thing I can say is that it's the only red card I got in my professional career."
Wynalda rebounded well from the disappointment of the 1990 World Cup, as his talent did not go unnoticed and the USSF received several inquiries about the gifted young player.
After weighing his options, he decided on small club FC Saarbrucken of the German Bundesliga, making him the first American to play in the top division of Germany.
"When I first got there it was great because I didn't know what anybody was saying," joked the former San Diego State Aztec. "But I learned quickly that just because they are smiling doesn't mean they are saying something nice."
With the US struggling mightily in its first World Cup in forty years combined with the fact that there were basically no US players playing in professional leagues, the idea of an American being a quality soccer player was a foreign thought in Germany as well as around the globe.
Being the first American to play in the German first division, there was a great sense of pride and pressure for Wynalda to perform well. Feeling that he was carrying the torch for the American soccer player in Europe, he knew that how he was perceived would have an impact on the perception of American soccer.
"It was extremely important that I put everything that I had into it. I felt like I was still playing for my country, and would have felt like I let everybody down if I would have failed."
In his first home game with Saarbrucken, his team faced off against legendary German coach Winnie Schafer and Karlsruher SC. In the paper the day before the game was to be played there was a picture of Wynalda with Mickey Mouse ears on, and Schafer was quoted as saying that he wasn't afraid of the "Mickey Mouse" player.
"We went on to beat them 2-0 and I scored both goals," he recalled. "After the game I went into the press conference and made sure I shook his hand and said, 'Who is wearing the ears now?'"
The forward was certainly on a mission to prove he belonged, and even though his team would flounder towards the end of the 92/93 season and be relegated, the American turned heads with several of his performances en route to netting 21 goals over his two seasons with the club.
"The start of that first season, scoring goals and changing people's minds about the perception of the American player was probably the most important part of my career," Wynalda reflected.
After a great World Cup '94 for the US in which he scored a breathtaking free-kick goal against Switzerland, Wynalda was transferred to second division club VFL Bochum. At Bochum he did not experience the same level of success he achieved at Saarbrucken, and decided to head home for the start of MLS in 1996.
He desired a move to MLS because he wanted to be a part of something special in his home country, but the current co-host of Fox Football Fone-In now regrets the decision, feeling that in the end the move ruined him.
"Professionally and personally it might have been the biggest mistake of my career," Wynalda admitted. "When I came back and played I was taken advantage of, and it did not help me financially nor help my career as a player at all."
At the start of MLS, players that were part of the 1994 World Cup team were allocated to different teams in hopes of creating some parity in the league. Wynalda was sent to San Jose to play for the Clash, and in the league's inaugural game he scored the first goal in league history in a 1-0 victory for the San Jose Clash over DC United.
Wynalda had a solid career in MLS, scoring 34 goals in six seasons while playing for San Jose, Miami, New England, and Chicago. Despite his achievements in MLS, and the emotions of being a part of the development of soccer in the United States, the forward remains regretful of the move.
"I think about it all the time. I should have stayed in Europe. It was great to score the first goal in MLS history, but for what the league did to some of us and what it is still doing today, it is a really sad thing and a bittersweet feeling for me."
Part two will be posted next Monday...