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Eric Wynalda Discusses His Financial Problems — and Everything Else

Eric Wynalda Discusses His Financial Problems — and Everything Else


It is the rest of the résumé his detractors say is lacking. Wynalda’s critics point out his campaign is being financed in part by a minor-league owner who is locked in a legal battle with U.S. Soccer, and they say he has little experience to prepare him for the task of running an organization with more than 170 employees and multi-million-dollar contracts with some of the biggest entities in sports, including Nike and ESPN.

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Eric Wynalda with fans of the Columbus Crew, a Major League Soccer team that is threatening to move to Texas. In a crowded race for the U.S. Soccer presidency, Wynalda has positioned himself as a voice of frustrated supporters.

Credit
Andrew Spear for The New York Times

According to public records, Wynalda filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, and subsequently had significant liens placed against his assets as recently as three years ago. He said the liens were filed in error and were discharged without his having to pay any additional taxes or penalties.

In interviews, Wynalda said the roots of his financial problems dated to 2003, when he separated from his wife. Wynalda moved out and, he said, he expected her to pay the mortgage and taxes on their Southern California home.

His former wife did not respond to a request for comment.

The couple divorced in 2008. In 2009, Wynalda’s personal bankruptcy filings showed him owing nearly $90,000 in mortgage and tax payments. The next year, Wynalda sold the house to satisfy creditors, with the proceeds going to pay off his mortgage and back taxes.

According to bankruptcy filings, he reported annual business income ranging from $14,000 to $135,000. He later had to revise the report, explaining to the bankruptcy court, “Upon further review it is now clear to me that I drastically overestimated my income.”

Wynalda has also run an eponymous soccer academy, which “never made any profit,” according to his bankruptcy filings, and he worked as an independent fruit drink sales representative for the now-defunct distribution company MonaVie. He stopped selling the product in 2010.

“When you have an ex-wife that is attached to you financially, there is a lot of stuff you’ve got to go through,” he said. “People have gone through divorces. I think they get it.”

Wynalda said the focus should be on the problems at U.S. Soccer, rather than on personal financial problems he insisted are in his past. He dismissed concerns about what may appear to be a lack of business experience as failures of the imagination, rooted in an inability to conceive of a different sort of U.S. Soccer presidency, one in which the president prioritizes development of the sport above profit.

Besides, he said, most of the federation’s revenue comes from television and the national teams, areas in which he has some experience.

“Understanding those two components of the revenue that come into the federation is in my wheelhouse,” he said.

On the campaign trail, he has pulled no punches, and it seems there is nothing and nobody Wynalda will not take aim at.

On the current U.S. Soccer president, Sunil Gulati, an economist who teaches at Columbia University: “He’s a lecturer, O.K. Some people buy it, and some people don’t.”

On fellow candidate Carlos Cordeiro, a semiretired partner at the investment bank Goldman Sachs: “I’m pretty sure Carlos Cordeiro knows nothing about television, and he certainly knows nothing about putting shoes on and playing in a World Cup.”

On the business acumen of the board members and paid staff members currently running the federation: “They are a group of accountants moving money around and tripping on themselves, and falling in a bucket of TV money and calling themselves businessmen.”

Gulati and U.S. Soccer declined to comment. In a statement, Cordeiro said he was the only candidate with “the skills to help oversee an organization with a 170 person staff, a $110 million budget, a $150 million surplus, and more than four million players, coaches, and referees.”

Between the insults, though, Wynalda delivers a rousing pitch about American soccer, with enough internal logic to allow him to point to it as the solution for whichever particular problem one thinks ails the sport.

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Wynalda played in three World Cups for the United States, including a match against Colombia in 1994.

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Mike Powell/Getty Images

“I propose a threat to a monopoly,” he said, “because that’s what this is.”

His sharpest criticisms often are saved for those at the highest level of the federation. He argues that U.S. Soccer, in concert with M.L.S. and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, has for years propped up soccer in the 18 American cities with M.L.S. franchises, to the detriment of clubs and youth players elsewhere.

His solution is a three-step process as simple to explain as it is difficult to implement. All soccer leagues in America should move to the same schedule that much of the world follows; M.L.S. should transform from a single-entity structure to individually run clubs; and the league and the lower divisions of soccer should also adopt a system of promotion and relegation — in which teams move up and down between division based upon their results.

In Wynalda’s estimation, the changes would produce a flood of television and sponsorship dollars in the sport. They also would improve the national team by forcing players into stronger competition for playing time, and give lower-level clubs an incentive to invest more heavily in youth development by giving them something more vital to play for.

An added benefit, he said, is that it would improve U.S. Soccer’s relationship with FIFA, the sport’s global governing body which has criticized the U.S. for sticking to a March-through-December schedule rather than the August through May schedule used in Europe.

Some of his language and proposals mirror the claims of those who have taken their grievances against U.S. Soccer, and M.L.S., to federal court. M.L.S. and its owners counter that a plan like Wynalda’s would crater the country’s top division and waste the hundreds of millions of dollars they have invested in it since it began play in 1996.

To Wynalda, this misses the larger point. When the federation talks about business, “soccer gets lost in the shuffle,” he said. “You end up failing to make a World Cup, and then nobody knows who’s to blame. But the people who run the machine, if you will, will continue to tell you everything is just fine.”

For those in the audience in Columbus, Wynalda’s challenge to the soccer hierarchy was music to their ears. Many fans of the local M.L.S. team, the Columbus Crew, believe they are suffering the brunt of what they see as their club’s decision to prioritize profits over its connection to the city. Anthony Precourt, the owner of the Crew, has said he will move the team to Austin, Texas, next year unless an agreement can be reached on the construction of a downtown stadium.

Wynalda spoke to their grievances. He also speaks to the grievances of those in charge of the second-division North American Soccer League, many of whom believe U.S. Soccer has stymied them from legitimately competing with M.L.S.

In early January, responding to speculation that he did not have the resources to mount a campaign, Wynalda told Sports Illustrated that he had received financial support from Riccardo Silva. Silva owns Miami F.C. in the North American Soccer League and is one of U.S. Soccer’s loudest antagonists. The N.A.S.L. has sued U.S. Soccer in federal court over its second-tier status. Miami F.C. has filed a claim at the Court of Arbitration for sport, arguing that FIFA’s rules mandate the implementation of promotion and relegation. A victory potentially could be worth tens of millions of dollars to Silva, enabling his team to rise into the top division without paying an expansion fee.

“We are very aligned with Mr. Silva and his belief system,” Wynalda said, “and he wants, clearly, to see change in this country.”

With a byzantine election process that involves allocating shares of votes to U.S. Soccer’s various councils, Wynalda faces the difficult task of winning votes from an electorate that consists of many of the insiders he so publicly criticizes.

The election for president of U.S. Soccer is not so much a popularity contest as it is a coalition-building proposition. U.S. Soccer’s president is elected in a vote of representatives of its various councils: 25 percent shares for the youth, adult and pro councils; 20 percent to an athletes council; and the rest to a small group that includes board members, life members and even a fan representative.

Yet in at least one way, Wynalda has already won. There is talk of a circumscribed role for the next president and of the hiring of a permanent general manager to oversee the national team programs. Topics that previously were rarely addressed — like promotion and relegation and whether Soccer United Marketing’s long-term relationship with the federation is good for the broader interests of American soccer — are at the heart of the election.

Wynalda’s campaign has set the election’s agenda, even if he eventually loses to a more well-connected candidate.

“The reasoning for choosing to select somebody from within would be fear,” he said.

“Fear of the unknown.”



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