Inspired by the recent story at The Sporting News regarding Eric Wynalda, his engagements over Twitter and some small parallels between Kasey Keller and Wynalda as vocal players, Sounder at Heart conducted a 30-odd-minute conversation with the US Player of the Decade for the 1990s. It quickly became apparent that the topics would be far reaching, circling back and then shooting off in another direction. Like so many who leave the game they loved as a player, Wynalda is willing to have conversations about the sport, and not just about his noted issues over Twitter (follow him @Wynalda11).
The current Fox Soccer analyst is accessible to fans through social media, his podcast and the various television roles (studio host, analyst, color man) he's held. He knows what he says isn't always popular with American soccer supporters, but he also feels that personal honesty about the game adds to the conversation.
When you dodge the truth, when you dance around, when you pretend like the 800-pound gorilla isn't in the room you lose a lot of credibility with people.
His assessment of players and coaches over the air is quite similar to his assessment of league structual issues through other mediums. He knows he will be held accountable for statements he makes, but feels his authenticity is part of what makes for a good broadcast. Asked if Keller could be similar, Wynalda states:
It will be interesting to see how Kasey will handle it. I haven't offered him any advice up to this point and I don't think he'd take it if I do. It will be interesting to see how he does. There are things that will frustrate you. There are ways that we do things in this country that are not what are considered the norm.
Unlike most American athletes' broadcast-booth transitions, Wynalda does not soften his stances against players. Instead he focuses on calling or analyzing the game as he sees it.
His honest player assessments nearly cost him the Player of the Decade Award. He notes that many players had scribbled out other votes and changed them to instead say Eric Wynalda. Those were players that he had critiqued from within locker rooms or on the field. He relays conversations that a couple players had with him after winning the award.
They said 'I really didn't want to vote for you at first because I felt like we left it on bad terms, or you said something that I didn't want to hear. And then I thought about it and all the things that you ever said they weren't counter productive to your team. They probably weren't what I wanted to hear, but they were probably the message I needed to hear.' And they appreciated that. That's part of the obligation that you have as a commentator or an analyst or any kind of person put in the position that I've been put in is to be honest. That's all I've ever tried to be.
He admits his difficulties with Twitter. "The only person that's got it worse than me is Piers Morgan." Some of the engagements with this very site's editors have been brusque at best. Wynalda says to this point that nothing he's said via the social medium he wishes he'd could take back, but "I've got to get better at it."
He notes that sometimes being on local broadcasts can change the tenor or tone of a broadcast, and, while there are markets where that may be necessary, Wynalda does not feel that the Seattle Sounders are one of the teams where that is true (Seattle isn't the only team mentioned, he included Portland and others). Using a broad definition of supporters, he compares them to fans and notes that supporters of the Sounders love the team in ways that neither weather nor an honest analysis of the team will change.
That is a very interesting situation. Of course you've got the situation where a lot of people expect you to be a homer, but I don't think those supporters, again I'll call them supporters because they are not fans. Fans are people who read the paper and say 'come on kids you want to go? Oh, look it's raining maybe we shouldn't.' That's not the kind of people who really show up to watch the Sounders. Those people are real. They're as real as you can get. The vibe that you get when you walk into that stadium -- and God I wish it was grass and wasn't turf -- but the truth is they are going to support their team no matter what. I think that being legitimate and sticking to the story when the story unfolds if it comes down to poor performance you can say it.
Wynalda wants an honest discussion throughout all aspects of American soccer. Whether it's about player performance, coaching decisions, the calendar or player pay, words like authenticity, honesty or "keeping it real" continue to pop-up. He notes a league, and an American media culture, that is maturing and desires discussions about the game to continue on that path.
Eliminating excuses should lead to more honest converstations and, ideally, improved play. He says he isn't offering advice to Keller toward his transition to the booth because his advice is broader than that, it is to everyone involved in the game -- from the USSF to Don Garber to team owners to coaches to players to supporters to fans. Be honest, be true to yourself.
It's also notable that a conversation on the phone is a different version of Eric Wynalda than over Twitter, listening to a broadcast or, assumedly, watching a game on a bar stool next to him. Maybe that's a lesson as well. To refer back to statements about Twitter, where the Wynalda v the American Soccer World conflict shows up the most, he said at one point:
People don't know when you're joking. It can be a very dangerous medium to say the least.
And yet, even after those terse conversations he hasn't blocked this site and still uses the medium. In the end, for all the criticisms thrown at Eric Wynalda, or those thrown at the average athlete-turned-broadcaster, those siding with authenticity seem to be getting more popular than their team or sport would justify.
If there's a lesson for Kasey Keller, and others making the transition, it may be just that. Or it could be in the closing words of our conversation with Wynalda (regarding supporters/fans):
If I have any agenda, it's to make it better for them.