This Sunday the U.S. will play Trinidad and Tobago again, this time on the road. The Americans will be attempting to win their third consecutive World Cup qualifying match. There was a time, not so long ago, that the thought of the U.S. winning three straight World Cup qualifying matches would have been absurd. Now it's standard newspaper copy. "People may not realize it yet," Wynalda says, "but we're a very good, very experienced team."
In 1994 the U.S. got into the World Cup on a handout—as host country it received an automatic berth—but this time the Americans want to make it on merit. By winning their first two games, they should have no difficulty advancing to the final round of qualifying.
Wynalda, 27, is a trim man, a thumbnail over six feet and 180 pounds, with reddish-blond hair, midear-length sideburns and a skiable nose. He often wears Doc Martens, with frayed laces. "On any given day," he says, "we can beat anybody."
Wynalda makes this declaration on the day after his round of golf with Earl and Damien. He's at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa on a short vacation before the Trinidad and Tobago game. He's in the exercise room of the spa, sitting on the sliding seat of a rowing machine. His wife of five months, Amy, a certified personal trainer, is on a treadmill on another side of the room, going nowhere fast. Wynalda is exceptionally well-conditioned. His speed—he runs the 40 in 4.4 seconds; dribbling a ball, he's barely slower—is a function of his fitness and is central to his success.
At this moment, however, Wynalda is taking a slide, reading about the U.S. team in The New York Times. Such press is not unusual these days. The media bigfoots have started to treat U.S. soccer more seriously. The Times story was accompanied by a picture of Wynalda, an action shot, and it pleases him. "He's flying," Wynalda says of a turf-bound defender in the photograph. Wynalda had sent his opponent to this unintended meeting with terra firma with one clean hand shove. "And I look so calm." He does. His arms are spread parallel to the ground, his back is erect, his eyes are on the ball, his every hair is in place. Wynalda is a picture of serenity.
That's a new picture for him. During his three years at San Diego State, from 1987 to '89, the school's athletic department received dozens of letters complaining about his on-field behavior. Wynalda would taunt opposing players and fans, incite mischief. He left college to concentrate on making the national team and to play professionally for the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks of the now defunct American Professional Soccer League. His brattiness—borne of his lavish skill—continued unabated. In the space of two years he became the first American thrown out of a World Cup game (on June 10, 1990, for stepping on another player's foot during a game against Czechoslovakia), was suspended from the U.S. national team (on May 27, 1992, for a tantrum during a scrimmage that unintentionally resulted in a teammate's broken nose) and was released by the Blackhawks (on June 9, 1992, his 23rd birthday, for sustained petulance).
"Eric would come in from the national team and have a hard time showing allegiance to the club and to the guys," says Laurie Calloway, the man who coached the Blackhawks, the man who dumped Wynalda and the man who now calls Wynalda the most important player on the U.S. national team. "When things didn't go his way, he showed a lot of disdain. I said, 'This level of aggravation is not worth it for a player we're seeing only occasionally.' "
Wynalda didn't know it then, but his birthday present from Calloway was the most significant gift of his career. Wynalda continued his formal soccer education, and he did it in the classical European tradition. Soon after being cut by the Blackhawks, Wynalda was recruited to become the first American-born player to perform in Germany's elite Bundesliga, for FC Saarbrücken. The Saarbrücken management knew that Wynalda was a problem child but also that he was immensely skilled. He quickly captivated German soccer buffs, which is to say the country's citizenry. He was a good-looking Southern Californian of Dutch ancestry who scored goals at a dizzying (by soccer's spasmodic standards) rate. He became a national figure.
Over the course of three years in Germany, playing for two teams, Wynalda became rich and famous, earning more than $2 million. After matches he would receive notes by the score: marriage proposals, threats of violence, tips for improving his play. He changed cars every six weeks, trying to keep one step ahead of the soccer hooligans. He resided just over the border, in Forbach, France. He lived in a fishbowl. The German gossip columnists suggested that he was dating Miss Germany, even though he was living with Amy. He never paid for a meal, never paid for a hotel room, never got a speeding ticket. But if he spilled a glass of wine in a restaurant, it made the newspapers. He loved it, and he hated it.
"I don't think Americans can understand the intensity of soccer in the rest of the world," says Wynalda, for whom Las Vegas is officially home. "We have so many different things. Everywhere else all there is, is soccer." After one loss of particular importance, the people of Saarbrücken, tens of thousands of them, sat in their stadium seats for an hour and consoled themselves with song.