Trial by Fire: Lights FC Coach determined to win, but ex-soccer star keeps perspective

JULY 2019 PG 48
Two decades removed from a sensational playing career,
Las Vegas Lights FC coach Erik Wynalda’s competitive fires still burn.
Photo by L.E. Baskow
Eric Wynalda saw the fireball coming.

It had nothing to do with the U.S. soccer legend having just been appointed new manager of a fledgling Lights FC minor league soccer team still trying to find its footing.
This was a literal fireball.

Wynalda saw it coming in the hills above Ventura County, California, where he and wife Amanda and their six children were living a comfortable life — a life befitting a man who held the U.S. men’s national team record for scoring goals before becoming a prominent TV analyst.

When the wind switched directions like Lionel Messi on the dribble, Wynalda knew it wouldn’t be long until the fireball engulfed everything in its path. Including his home.

Decades of family treasures.

Decades of soccer keepsakes.

All gone up in the flames of a deadly wildfire.

Three weeks after being named Lights’ manager, Wynalda watched a lifetime of memories burn on the 11 o’clock news.

“We did lose our home, but we got out in the middle of the night,” he said. “That’s the part I think about now. That it could have been a horrific night — we could have lost our family.”

As of this writing, his Las Vegas side had yet to win a road game. The Lights were mired in 14th place in the United Soccer League’s Western Division.

They are still trying to find their footing.

It’s not for lack of commitment from the coach.

Wynalda usually is the last one to leave Cashman Field, the fading ballpark that has become the Lights’ permanent home ground.

One usually can find him in a bunker behind the first-base dugout, watching film from a recent game, winding and rewinding. Trying not to mutter obscenities when linesmen who are paid even less than USL players miss an obvious offsides.

He says the Lights still can make the playoffs. If they don’t, it’ll bother him. Two decades removed from a sensational playing career, Eric Wynalda’s competitive fires still burn.

That’s probably not a metaphor he would use after seeing the fireball.

He probably wouldn’t speak of burning bridges, either, although that probably best describes what Eric Wynalda is doing in Las Vegas, coaching minor league soccer.

In his role as outspoken soccer television analyst, he had a lot to say when the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for last summer’s World Cup. Stinging criticism of a system that yields crushing defeats to middling soccer-playing nations may not have precluded the 50-year-old Wynalda from being chosen president of U.S. Soccer, a position for which he vigorously campaigned.

But it probably didn’t help his chances.

“Eventually somebody had to say, ‘What do you know? You’ve never done it. How can you be critical of a coach if you’ve never coached?’ ” said Wynalda, whose memorable free-kick goal in the 1994 World Cup gave the U.S. a 1-1 tie against Switzerland. “I took that message to heart. I tried to dedicate as much time as I could to the craft of coaching.

“What spun out of that is I just love it,” he said about guiding amateur side Cal FC to a stunning victory over Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers in the 2012 U.S. Open Cup after being ostracized by the national directors.

Said Lights owner Brett Lashbrook after bringing Wynalda on board: “He ran for U.S. Soccer president; he was kind of shunned. He wanted a job in MLS; he didn’t get it. But he’s no longer trying to change the soccer world. He’s just trying to change the room he’s in.”

When Wynalda says he’s done screaming at the room, you almost believe him. Now that he’s not on TV, a lot of things beyond his control don’t seem as important.

“I don’t give interviews about the U.S. national team,” he said. “Everybody thinks I’m trying to thumb my nose at the system. That would make sense if I was the same person in reality as I was on television.”

His candor and perceived chip on the shoulder notwithstanding, there are observers who are mystified that someone of Wynalda’s stature would put a media career in mothballs to manage in professional soccer’s hinterlands.

“I get out of bed every day, and I get to do what I love to do — and what I was meant to do,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t that lucky.”

The bright lights of Las Vegas usually do not shine on mascot llamas and helicopters dropping dollar bills from the sky.If the quality of the soccer sometimes seems secondary in building a minor league fan base, Wynalda is hoping that one day the soccer can stand on its own — especially with the city continuing to pursue a Major League Soccer facility and franchise.

Within weeks after getting the job, he had put together a young team comprised primarily of his former players who defeated MLS side Toronto FC 5-1 in an exhibition game.

But after 13 games that counted in the standings, Lights FC was 4-3-6 and had been outscored 22-18. While most around team headquarters agree progress has been made, it hasn’t been dramatic. And a third-round U.S. Open Cup defeat to Orange County FC — literally a bunch of amateurs coached by Wynalda’s former national team roommate Paul Caligiuri — raised quizzical eyebrows.

It also nullified a fourth-round home match against MLS’ Los Angeles Galaxy that might have attracted a bigger crowd than the night a helicopter dropped money from the sky.

These are losses that gnaw at Eric Wynalda. But losing 5-3 to an amateur side coached by your buddy isn’t the same as watching a fireball come barreling down the hillside.

JULY 2019 PG 47
Wynalda gets hugs from daughters Elliotte, 3, left, and Blake, 4,
following a game at Cashman Field.
Photo by L.E. Baskow