Let them play.
That has basically become Eric Wynalda’s mantra, as he leads Cal FC into the fourth round of the US Open Cup where they will face the three-time defending champion Seattle Sounders on Tuesday at Starfire Sports Complex (10:30 pm ET, Fox Soccer).
“I said this before, when you have talented guys, there’s not a lot of coaching going on,” Wynalda said during a conference call with reporters on Monday. “I’m not doing a lot of coaching guys, I’m not. I think the simplicity of all this is a better way to showcase these guys’ talents. I think they’ve embraced it.”
The National Soccer Hall of Famer says this is exactly how he planned it when he decided to assemble this team with the express goal of entering the Open Cup. The team is made up of soccer rejects, players who were overlooked and underappreciated at various stops along the way. Although they play in the amateur United States Adult Soccer Association, they are players with very real pro aspirations.
To hear Wynalda tell it, those aspirations aren’t misplaced.
“If these guys aren’t with professional teams in August, then I didn’t do my job,” Wynalda said. “The idea was to showcase them, first find them, give them a chance and let them play, let them show us what they can do.”
The player with whom Wynalda seems most smitten is Danny Barrera, a onetime US youth international who has failed to find a home with several different pro clubs since leaving college power UC Santa Barbara in 2011. The 22-year-old seems right at home in the middle of Wynalda’s fluid attack, and picked up the game-winning assist to Artur Aghasyan in last week’s map-marking win over the Portland Timbers.
“I don’t think there’s five people in this country who can make that pass,” Wynalda said of Barrera’s through ball in the 97th minute. “But when you’ve got a player with that kind of talent, again, you don’t spend a lot of time telling them what not to do. You just try to keep them on the tracks.
“Our slogan is: ‘My job is to stay out of their way, but don’t let them get in their own way.’ And as long as I do that, my team will be just fine.”
Over the past few weeks, Wynalda has gone to great pains to point out that Cal FC’s run should be seen more as a showcase for his players than as his own coaching audition. Wynalda admitted to being “heartbroken” over failing to land a MLS head coaching job a couple years ago, but now says he’s more interested in working behind the scenes to help find talent like the players on Cal FC.
“It’s not all these big broad statements that people would like to believe about being out to prove the world wrong,” Wynalda said. “It’s just trying to do the right thing. Sometimes, you have to do a little more and be a little bit more aggressive to help these kids find homes.”
In the meantime, though, they are still playing competitive matches. Wynalda certainly isn’t ready to write the end of this little fairytale.
“I don’t think they’re done,” Wynalda said of Cal FC. “They’re going to embrace this opportunity. Obviously Seattle is a fantastic team. It’s not that I’m saying that we’re better. What I’m saying is that on the day, we could win. Staying true to that, I’m not going to give up on them. The reality is I knew they were capable of something great.”
Jeremiah Oshan covers the Seattle Sounders for MLSsoccer.com and SB Nation.