Eric Wynalda, one of the finest strikers America ever produced, has built a team somewhat in his own image, and it's taking on America's soccer establishment with impressive results.
Thousand Oaks' Cal FC, a collection of misfit players with undeniable talent, have already conquered two better-fancied clubs in the 99th edition of the U.S. Open Cup, and Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers, on Wednesday night, could be next.
Wynalda, a first-ballot National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee who played in three World Cups, starred in Germany and scored the first goal in MLS history, knows that it's possible.
“We didn't enter this competition because we thought this would be fun,” the former goal-getter from Westlake Village, known to a new generation of fans as an at-times acerbic commentator on Fox's soccer coverage, told ESPN Los Angeles. “We really have high hopes. We set goals, we achieve them and we re-set.”
Wynalda's got, as he puts it, “a bunch of guys that everybody knows who they are.” There's former UC Santa Barbara star Danny Barrera (Thousand Oaks/Westlake HS), who trialed with the Chicago Fire during MLS's preseason after a stint in Serbia. And there's Artur Aghasyan, who has played with Real Salt Lake and been on trial a couple of times with Chivas USA. And Richard Menjivar (Panorama City/Monroe HS), a Cal State Bakersfield standout who impressed with El Salvador's U-23s during CONCACAF's Olympic qualifiers.
UCLA alum Eder Arreola (Chino Hills/Chino Hills HS), who was drafted in January by the Houston Dynamo and trained with Chivas USA, is with the club. So is former Galaxy/L.A. Blues defender Mike Randolph (Chino Hills/Ayala HS) and Cesar Rivera (Pomona/Garey HS and Mt. San Antonio College), who led the Blues in scoring last year. And goalkeeper Derby Carrillo (La Mirada/St. John Bosco HS and Cal State Dominguez Hills), whom El Salvador's national team has targeted.
And hopefuls such as Danny's brother, Diego (Thousand Oaks HS/Loyola Marymount), former U.S. youth national-teamer Pablo Cruz (Azusa), defenders Hector Espinoza (Garden Grove/Santiago HS and Santa Ana College) and Beto Navarro, and others.
They're all good players who have been overlooked or dismissed or something, and Wynalda's goal is to showcase their talents and help them find paths to the professional careers he thinks they deserve.
That's the whole point of Cal FC, which grew out of Wynalda's experiences the past couple of years working with Mexican third-tier club Murcielagos, which employed for a time current Chivas USA forward Cesar Romero.
“I think the one thing I could say,” Wynalda said, “is I have a very high opinion of some of these guys, but I'm the minority when it comes to that. People just aren't seeing what I see.”
He's been told, he says, that he has players with “attitude problems” -- his response: “No, we have a bunch of guys with attituide, we don't have an attitude problem” -- and it's as if he were describing his own brash self almost 25 years ago.
“There's a lot of parallels,” he said. “I was told I wasn't good enough 100 times. Everyone said I was too brash, I was too all of these things, and Sigi [Schmid, in the late '80s the U.S. national B team coach, whom Wynalda credits with igniting his career] said, 'Isn't that kind of what we're looking for?' ”
Wynalda has rather intensive thoughts on the development of players in America -- he shared many of them during a compelling session at January's National Socccer Coaches Association of America convention -- and he thinks too many of his players haven't been given the opportunity to show what they can really do.
“They have this pent up anger as to 'why, why, why?' ” Wynalda said. “ 'Why doesn't anybody appreciate me?' And when you constantly get hit like that, you lose your confidence in how you play. ... Going on trial is hard, unless you have a manager who is looking for something specific and you fit that role in their minds. [They're great] when they play, when they just let it go, when they don't have somebody else's thoughts in their head -- a lot of these guys have just turned into players that are trying so hard to appease a coach that they end up forgetting who they are. That's the biggest thing I see, that they're trying so hard to impress that they forget who they are and why they were special in the first place.”
Wynalda, who considers himself a manager more than a coach at Cal FC, is providing a landscape for them to rediscover themselves. It seems to be working.
The team has only been playing together since February, in Ventura County's La Gran Liga, and didn't finalize its roster until after qualifying for the Open Cup by reaching the title game in the U.S. Adult Soccer Association Region IV championship. They snuffed defending USL Premier Development League titlist Kitsap Pumas in the first round of the Open Cup, in Bremerton, Wash., and last week dominated a professional club, USL Pro's Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads. Danny Barrera was chosen Player of the Round for the tournament after both victories.
The Timbers are something else, and they'll surely draw a large, intimidating crowd at Jeld-Wen Field just west of downtown Portland.
“Look, I think Portland is a good team,” Wynalda said. “I think it will be interesting. It will be fun. It's a great occasion for [our players]. When you play games like this -- and we're amateurs -- people think we're going to be overwhelmed by the occasion. I just don't think that will be the case.
“I just think they'll look around and go, 'All right! This is going to be fun!' That kind of stuff doesn't really get into their heads. It's all the other stuff, the chip on their shoulder. Just corraling that into something positive is pretty much all I'm doing.”
WORTH NOTING: The winner will play the winner of Wednesday night's Seattle Sounders-Atlanta Silverbacks clash. Cal FC would play at Seattle, the three-time defending tournament champion, but a home team and site has not been announced should it meet the Silverbacks, who play in the second-division North American Soccer League. ... Cal FC wears replica jerseys from the Chicago Fire, the last of four MLS clubs Wynalda played for. ... Wynalda scored 34 goals in 107 international appearances and was the all-time leading U.S. goalscorer before Landon Donovan.