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High And Mighty
Michael Bamberger
November 25, 1996
Eric Wynalda, the volatile top scorer for the U.S. soccer team, has toned down his act but has raised his game
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November 25, 1996

High And Mighty

Eric Wynalda, the volatile top scorer for the U.S. soccer team, has toned down his act but has raised his game

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Growing up in Westlake Village, a small town northwest of Los Angeles, Wynalda was consumed by soccer. Across the street from the Wynalda house (three children, two parents, two cars, one dog) was a park and a soccer league run under the auspices of the American Youth Soccer Organization. Wynalda's father, Dave, a receiver on the freshman Princeton football team in 1961, was a soccer dad two decades before Bob Dole went trolling the Golden State for the station wagon vote. Dave, a pharmaceutical salesman, was the first coach Eric clashed with. "We had 18 kids on the team, and the rule was they all had to play," says Dave, who for a while owned a soccer equipment store called Soccer Kick. "We had three kids on the team—Eric and two other boys—who weren't just kicking the ball, they were playing soccer. I'd sit them down the first quarter of the game." Eric didn't understand it; he thought the point was to win, to star, to shine. After all, local papers were already writing about him. He was eight.

Alexi Lalas, a defenseman on the U.S. national team, didn't know Wynalda when he was eight, but he did know him when Wynalda was 23 and acted as if he were eight. Lalas has played with and against Wynalda most of this decade, and he has watched Wynalda grow up. "His reputation was always that he couldn't get along with coaches," Lalas says. "Of course, forwards are weird people. They're part of a team, but they're always thinking about scoring. They have to think egotistically. Eric believes in himself and his ability to score. He's always been a very emotional player, but he's learned that soccer is a game of composure."

Wynalda demonstrated that superbly in his most recent match. Against Trinidad he was kicked hard in the testicles. "I was in a lot of pain," Wynalda says. "I shook the guy's hand and said, 'I know you didn't mean it.' He stood there with his mouth open. After that he knew he couldn't hurt me." In the old days Wynalda would have kicked him back and drawn a yellow card, maybe a red one.

"Opponents are always trying to label him as a dirty player, get him to do stupid things," says Steve Sampson, the coach of the U.S. team. "The fact is, he's not a dirty player. Psychologically, he's become very disciplined. He's critical to our success." Since 1990, in matches in which Wynalda has scored, the Americans have gone 18-2-3. This year Wynalda has nine goals and three assists in his 11 international matches for the U.S., and the team's record is 8-2-1. The American side is ranked 25th in the world.

Wynalda knows his statistics. He knows his salaries, his incentive clauses, all the numbers that are dear to his heart. He knows how key plays unfolded, who was where when, and what they were thinking. The other day he was talking to Amy about his first international goal. "February 4, 1990, 4 p.m. game, against Colombia," he said. "It was amazing. I'll bet you can remember exactly when in the game it came. Don't you remember? The 69th second!"

That number resonates for Wynalda. He was born on June 9, 1969—6/9/69 on customs forms. Wynalda's mother's brother, Lee Boswell, died in 1969 in Hawaii from injuries sustained in a car crash, and Wynalda, who was born several months before his uncle died, believes he is his uncle's spiritual heir. They have the same eyes, the same teeth and they say the same things. Inspired by these coincidences, Wynalda has written 300 pages of a novel loosely based on his uncle. He describes the work as "Stephen King-ish."

More dates and numbers. Amy, who was a star soccer player in high school, as was her twin brother, Tim Ward, an assistant women's soccer coach at Pepperdine, was born on July 1, 1971 (7/1/71). She and Eric started dating on July 1, 1989. On July 1, 1992, Wynalda left for Germany. On Jan. 23 of this year he bade goodbye to the Bundesliga—with a steel plate in his left ankle, the result of a broken fibula he incurred in '94—and joined the San Jose Clash, a charter member of Major League Soccer.

He scored the first MLS goal, a goal that broke a scoreless San Jose-Washington, D.C. United match on the league's inaugural day. He took a significant pay cut to come home, but he's not complaining. His salary is $175,000, the league maximum. He's likely to more than double his salary with his Reebok endorsement contract. He's happy to be home. "I'd rather make $250,000 here than $1 million in Germany," he says. "You'll never understand their culture, their traditions, their life. They always think the problem for an American in Germany is the weather. But it's not the weather. It's everything."

Last week in Miami, Eric and Amy were having dinner in a restaurant at the Doral Hotel. Their waiter's nametag read HERNAN. He was an émigré from Colombia, a former soccer player, a knowledgeable fan. Hernan was thrilled to be in Wynalda's presence, eager to pose a few questions to him. But Wynalda was too busy asking Hernan questions about international players with long Spanish surnames and then answering the questions himself. Wynalda was telling Hernan about a trick of his trade. "I'll stop, put my hands on my head and say to a defender, 'I've got the worst headache,' " says Wynalda. "I'll point to the ground and say, 'It's the grass.' The guy looks down at the grass, and I'm gone. I score. You know how it is, Hernan, don't you?" The waiter nodded in awe, smiled at Eric and Amy and was flattered to hear Eric use his name. Wynalda had made a new friend, won over a fan.

That's how he plans to grow the game in the U.S., one person at a time. He plans to keep himself front and center for as long as he can.

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