Welcome to our continuing series of Meet the USASA features where we annually profile the clubs representing the United States Adult Soccer Association in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Advancing from the four regional tournaments, these often unknown clubs have great stories to tell and each year, our goal is to allow fans to get to know them as they attempt to become this year’s Cinderella story.
On Tuesday evening, the well-established reigning USL Premier Development League champion Kitsap Pumas will play host to an unknown club built by a famous face, a team about second chances. That team is Cal FC.
A lot of American soccer fans may picture Eric Wynalda as a brash, outspoken former US international star striker turned television personality. But in reality, he is a busy man these days.
Just take two weekends ago. On Friday and Saturday he was coaching the club team, Cal FC, that he has built over the past year as it was making its debut at the USASA Region IV tournament. On Sunday he had to turn the reigns over to his friend and assistant coach Nick Webster for the Final while he saw to his broadcast responsibilities.
When TheCup.us caught up with him Friday to discuss the development of Cal FC, he was in a cab, having just landed in Houston for the Dynamo stadium opening. On Tuesday, he will miss his club’s opening match of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup due to travel to Germany for the Champions League.
It’s not something you would expect from a head coach of elite caliber team or club, but Cal FC is not about the career of Eric Wynalda. The club is about finding and developing local talent, giving players that have been missed by the system a first chance or giving a select few a second or third opportunity to prove themselves. You could almost compare it to a handful of the reality talent competition shows on network television.
“If we get to August and all of these guys are still playing for me, I did something wrong,” he said.
Based out of Thousand Oaks, Calif. and playing in La Gran Liga (Oxnard), the club has been operational for about a year and things are going well, to say the least.
“We are doing pretty good. We went into the playoffs and fared well,” said the club’s President and manager Michael Friedman about the team’s league performance prior to the Region IV tournament. For the Open Cup process though, it is “a whole different squad, an ongoing process.
“We have a number of players that have been in the camps of MLS squads and Eric has been able to corral them into this squad and put together a pretty good team.”
And Friedman was not kidding. Among the notable names that traveled to Ontario for the USASA tournament included Pablo Cruz, Eder Arreola, Artur Aghasyan, Mike Randolph and the Barrera brothers Diego and Danny.
Cruz and the Barreras accounted for all four goals in the team’s most important win in the regional tournament, a 4-3 event-opening victory over the defending Region IV champion Doxa Italia, the only other competitive side in what turned out to be a three-team group with the fourth not arriving. Cal FC notched a 7-0 win and Doxa an 8-0 victory against The Internationalists.
A missed penalty kick and a Randolph red card started the club’s descent in the final, which was compounded by the injuries the side was taking on.
“I made a couple mistakes as a manager; I did not bring enough guys,” said Wynalda. “We took some injuries and ran out of gas. We played against Doxa tight, and it was a pretty good game.
“It was good for the guys; they felt what a loss feels likes it,” he added about the Final, a 2-0 defeat to PSA Elite, another area club with former professionals on the roster. “It was difficult. Not enough guys, key injuries; it is a testament that they qualified.”
“We still haven’t got everyone on the team that we want,” added Wynalda. “Even if we lose, we are gonna continue to move forward.”
And by that, Wynalda is referring to its role of creating opportunities for players.
“The club started because Eric and I thought a few years back there could be something better,” said Friedman. “This team is mainly formed from this local area – Thousand Oaks – that went to college and came back. Then we held a tryout recently and the players that came out surprised us. The talent is really high. Eric put all of his resources to work to put this together.”
One of those resources is his other day job. Wynalda became the President of International Operations for Mexican club Murcielago (Spanish for bats), making him the technical director and chief scout looking for Mexican-American talent between Santa Barbara and San Diego. The club, formally known as Deportivo Guamuchil FC, was founded in 2008 and plays in the third-tier Segunda Division.
“This team defines the term unique,” said Wynalda.
“I basically called numerous high schools in the area and asked, ‘who’s your local legend?” They all knew of someone, but the hard part was finding them and trying to get them on a soccer field. Everyone has difficult challenges in life, some more than others. My challenge has been to discover these kids and invite them in and see what they’ve got. The process started a few years ago, and I am still tracking kids.
“During that process I brought in other players I was very well aware of, but for whatever reason it didn’t work out for them. Guys who tried out for Chivas or Galaxy and did not fit the mold. And, I guess I am the second chance for these guys.”
And in a way, those players owe their second opportunities to Wynalda’s search for his own second chance after being rejected in bids to become the head coaches for the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA.
“I wanted the Fire and Chivas jobs, and didn’t get either. Partly, it was because I was not an assistant somewhere, but I felt I didn’t need to be an assistant anywhere.”
Wynalda had already experimented with the coaching life early after retiring, taking a position with the PDL Bakersfield Brigade, a club run by a longtime friend, in 2005. “I was aspiring to be a coach, and we talked about a lot of things. I just wanted to get my feet wet, but the television part of my life kind of took things over. I haven’t stopped coaching or being a part of the game.”
Although he will be halfway around the world when his team takes the field Tuesday evening in Bremerton, Wash. against the professional Kitsap Pumas, the reigning PDL champions, they still owe the opportunity to the National Soccer Hall of Famer.
“The ability and talent they have shown is pretty outstanding. I don’t know how far we’ll take it.” At this point for the team he says, “We are not trying to reinvent the wheel, just have fun.”
“We are really fired up about playing Kitsap. It will be a good test,” said Wynalda, who is a proponent of the tournament.
“As much as a coveted cup it has become, it could be better. As a tribute to Lamar Hunt and what that means – as a friend, – it means a lot,” commenting that it is a deserving recognition of the man’s contribution to the sport and that the tournament should keep his name forever synonymous with the event.