Wynalda, Silverbacks forge new approach to club soccer management

Eric Wynalda

By DAN KARELL

Is this position necessary?

That was the question that Atlanta Silverbacks owner Boris Jerkunica, co-owner Henry Hardin, and technical director Eric Wynalda kept coming back to when they began discussions last month about who should take charge of the Silverbacks in 2014.

The Silverbacks made history on Jan. 7 with the announcement that they were eliminating the head coaching position and moving towards a management style they claim is strongly influenced by what is seen in Europe. Wynalda will manage the team throughout the entire 2014 season, splitting time between his job at Fox Sports in Los Angeles and his job with the Silverbacks in Atlanta.

While the decision was derided by many soccer fans on multiple social media platforms, Wynalda and Silverbacks management believe that a move to this managing style in America is long overdue.

“We went through numerous different scenarios and we kept coming back to certain questions (that Jerkunica would ask), ‘well you can do that from California right?’ and I didn’t really have a lot of no answers,” Wynalda told SBI in a phone interview. “The way they like to run businesses is very similar to the way we’re going to run this deal. Specific roles for specific people on certain days that allow everybody to do all of their jobs, not a piece of it or a part of it. We feel it’s a very task-oriented way of doing things. It seems a little bit out of the box but the more you talk about the more it made sense.”

Jerkunica, who in addition to being the co-owner of the club is also its chairman, is no stranger to soccer. The Croatian-born businessman, who set multiple records as a player at Emory University before making millions in the communications industry, says that this kind of management style is already being used in businesses around the world.

“In today’s world, you can do a lot of stuff remotely,” Jerkunica told SBI in a phone interview this month. “There’s this added advantage that we figured out after all these conversations that the person that picks the team doesn’t have to be there every single day. (Right now) you have the general manager that finds and signs the players and then you have a coach that works with them on the field, we just looked at that model and said that in today’s world that’s not necessary anymore.

“The organization can be flatter,” added Jerkunica. “One person can accomplish more things.”

The 44-year-old Wynalda, a former U.S. Men’s National Team forward and inaugural MLS player, cites the experiences he gained while playing at home and abroad during his 11-year professional career as one of the reasons the Silverbacks came to their decision.

Wynalda picked up important details on the European management style and the best muscle recovery techniques while playing for four years in Germany with FC Saarbrucken and VfL Bochum. He even learned a little about the English style while on a three-week trial with Sheffield Wednesday. But Wynalda also believes that he learned valuable lessons from playing for long-time American coaches Sigi Schmid, Bob Bradley, and Bruce Arena.

“I think management is the lost word here,” Wynalda said. “In my experience (in the USA), whether it’s Bruce, Bob, or Sigi, you watch that part of it, the insertion of the idea that a head coach has to do this or that, it becomes too much (for the players to listen to) at times.

“But stepping outside of the box a little bit and just viewing it from the outside is what makes you a good manager and you’re able to really see the problem, as opposed to you’re just so far into the woods that you can’t see the trees.”

So does Wynalda think that Bradley, Arena, and Schmid have it all wrong? Not exactly.

One of Wynalda’s main beliefs at this stage of his career is that there’s only so much a player can hear from a head coach before he tunes them out. Wynalda believes that with him spending part of the week away from the players, they’ll respond better to hearing one voice during the week and a different one on the weekend.

“I think breaks are good, breaks are imperative,” Wynalda explained. “We have a saying (in soccer), ‘put the ball away.’ Everybody assumes that it’s all about working hard every day, being emotionally invested, but that’s really unhealthy. It’s really not a healthy way to go about life.

“I think when the voice changes a little bit, when it’s a different voice on a different day, it’s a different reason to listen. When you’re constantly listening to the same rhetoric from the same guy about the same thing, when your job becomes that redundant and that monotonous, nobody wants to be there. That’s one of the experiences I have had in the United States and I’m trying to alleviate that.”

As part of the deal, Wynalda will leave the day-to-day coaching and training from the day after the game until a day or two before the next one to his coaching staff, all while keeping an eye on the practices from his home in Los Angeles. Thanks to modern technology, Wynalda will receive either live streaming video of the team’s training sessions or archived footage so he can identify mistakes and issues.

The Silverbacks announced their coaching staff for the upcoming season on Tuesday, a group that includes long-time Silverbacks reserve coach Ricardo Montoya, Alejandro Pombo, strength and conditioning coach Juan Castellanos and Eduardo “Lalo” Liza.

“If you really want to give somebody credit for Chris Klute, it’s Ricardo Montoya,” declared Wynalda. “He’s been there for a long time, knows the landscape of Atlanta better than anybody, knows the local talent, he’s a wonderful person to be around. He’s just a wonderful asset and he has a team of guys that work with him.”

There are a number of signs that the Silverbacks experiment isn’t actually so far away from what some soccer teams are doing here in the U.S. Just this offseason, the Columbus Crew (Gregg Berhalter) and Chicago Fire (Frank Yallop) both hired people with European roots or experience to be the head coach and director of soccer, and the New York Cosmos recently added the title of director of soccer to head coach Giovanni Savarese.

Both Wynalda and Jerkunica conceded that they can’t predict that the team will make the NASL Soccer Bowl for the second year in a row, but they’re both confident that they have a better system in place to make it happen now than in the past.

“Will it work, can it work?” Wynalda asked rhetorically. “Well, we’re going to find out, because we’re married to it.”

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50 Responses to Wynalda, Silverbacks forge new approach to club soccer management

  1. TheFrenchOne says:

    or maybe the players will resent the fact that the guy coaching them in games didn’t spend time on the practice field, doesn’t understand the team dynamics, and hasn’t earned their respect. but what do i know, i’m just a caveman…

    • eric wynalda says:

      yep

      • SoccerSchool says:

        Eric – keep your eye out for young talent and sign them before MLS. Don’t let the Cosmos have all the fun. Out of the box, baby! Soccer in this country will stagnate unless pressure is applied to the current MLS model.

    • go euro or go home says:

      There are many many coaches/managers who are very hands off in training. As long as he is in touch with his staff when he is not there, and he is good with the players when he is there, there is little risk outside of the normal performance related pressures.

    • solles says:

      maybe but then again maybe not. just speculation.

    • Neal says:

      Phil Hartman SNL reference?
      If so, love it!

  2. beto says:

    its really interesting, especially they way he broke it down on the SBI show. it could be revolutionary or disastrous.. i think Atlanta & Wynalda is making a good decision rolling the dice.

    i guess fsc is only doing mid week champions league games so it could work. if they pick up MLS or another weekend league could that be an issue.

    • The Imperative Voice says:

      I think Atlanta wants him as their coach and all the revolutionary balderdash is an attempt to turn the facts of life in the arrangement into some sort of planned philosophy. The tail is wagging the dog. No one sat down and said, I want a coach who watches practices on streaming video and then parachutes in on weekends. It was a workaround.

      I think the key thing is it mediates his relationship and observation of the players, as well as his understanding of their value at any point in the game. He can’t see whether a player looks lively or dog tired, precisely how sharp a sub looks, etc. He can trust in the assistants but then they need to be super qualified too and you get into a multiple voices issue. When I had strong assistants in college sometimes I got contradictory advice between them and the head coach. I can only do one thing on game day, and if I’m hearing two things I may just act confused.

      • TomG says:

        As fond as I am of the old school, I have to regretfully vote against continued usage of the word balderdash on soccer bogs except in the following 2 circumstances:

        1) you find yourself in Victorian England
        2) you are HL Mencken

        Im also going to decry the further mention of HL Mencken. He’s too obscure. The fact that I needed to use him to make my point just further makes my point.

      • Joamiq says:

        This is a very good point.

  3. slowleftarm says:

    So the European management style is to have the manager spend most of his time halfway across the country doing a different job?

    • beto says:

      not sure that its the European way but its the idea that the Manager stays removed (above) the day-to-day training and watches over the progress. On game day he steps in and calls the shots.

      In the SBI podcast Wynalda noted that a lot of high level coaches, i think he mentioned SAF, would watch practices & training from their offices as they work on transfers, contracts and game plans..

      The cross-country other job thing is what is new and ridiculous – something for us to watch and see. Its not as crazy as it sounds if you think outside of a sports team context, i mean how many bosses or managers in the business world spend every day standing behind all of their employees? We are all just so accustom to seeing the coach running around the practice field every day with a whistle.. also its worth noting that both Wynalda and Barton (FSC tv guys) have been coaching lower division teams on the side for a while..

  4. Tony says:

    What team in Europe has a coach that is only there on weekends? This crazy talk! Wynalda may have been a superstar and may have shown some coaching iq with his us open run be he is not that elite to say he can pull off a a Phil Jackson. I think he needs to make a choice either become a good coach or keep working at becoming a better commentator! Sorry wynalda but you can’t have your cake and eat it to applies here.

    • go euro or go home says:

      Most European coaches do not train the team — that is why they are called managers and there are several trainers who have the responsibilities that we associate with a head coach. The trainers job is to keep the players sharp so that the manager can use them however he wants to tactically.

  5. Bill Brasky says:

    This setup seems to work really well with divorced couples who have kids who split time between them so I would expect this to work just as well in NASL.

  6. bottlcaps says:

    A disaster waiting to happen. Call it what you want; eCoaching, tele-coaching, remote management, coaching by proxy or coaching by a board of supervisors, unless a coach is with the players watching them train, giving instructions, encouragement and just generally bonding with the players, you cannot get the max on what you need from them.You cannot know of their strengths and weaknesses an make in-game decisions that are practical.

  7. RP says:

    So Wynalda is basically a figurehead.. This work if you have a strong assistant who is willing to let Wynalda take all the credit.

    • beto says:

      that is one cynical way of looking at it. But Atlanta has some real confidence in their coaches for allowing them to basically run the team all week! if it works these coaches will certainly have some interesting resumes.

    • solles says:

      a.k.a. “a manager”

  8. Landon Klinsman says:

    wake me up when its all over.

  9. This seems like an attempt by Ownership to keep Wynalda when they don’t have enough to pay him to coach. I’m an Atlanta native and It feels like they’re trying to hold on to someone who is worth too much.

  10. Esteban de la Sexface says:

    This is an awesome idea as it’s an experiment w/a different paradigm of managing a soccer club, and trying new things and taking risks are the hallmark of transformative organizations and people. Also there is zero downside unless you’re attached to the Atlanta Silverbacks: whether they fail or succeed, all will learn valuable lessons on managing a soccer/sports team. So serious kudos to Boris Jerkunica, Henry Hardin and Eric Wynalda for being will to take a risk on a revolutionary idea.

  11. jrxl says:

    Wynalda has a point about players tuning out the rhetoric. I’m only a fan, but I am tired of listening to anything that comes out of Sigi’s mouth at this point. I can only imagine how bad it is for the players.

  12. MMV says:

    You never know until you try. That’s always been my philosophy. You don’t grow; you don’t learn without trial and error. I can’t believe all the negativity that surrounds this idea. I think it’s so hypocritical that we Americans scream about wanting to be innovative and out-the-box but when someone is actually willing to do that — we shudder and dismiss the idea. Shameful. I have no idea if this concept will or won’t work. We just have to sit back, observe, and then decide if this is a successful concept. I applaud the forward-thinking by Wynalda and Atlanta. It takes a certain amount of balls to even contemplate the idea, let alone pull it off. In the corporate world, regional managers often have a pulse on their business and how they operate while on the road or in a separate location. If they can do it remotely who take say it can’t happen in Atlanta??

    • whoop-whoop says:

      Very rarely do I hear American soccer fans complaining because they are wanting to be innovative and think outside the box. As different as the parameters are here in many respects, I’d say it is a much more common thing to hear lament over us not being exactly like European Leagues…. single table, promotion/relegation, balanced schedule, FIFA schedule, draft, single entity, team names, college influence….. etc., etc., etc…

      On some issues I agree, others not so much, but, “because everyone else does it that way” should never be the bulk of the argument/deciding factor.

  13. H-town says:

    This is a similar set up to many college and professional American football teams, the CEO coach… They make the executive decisions, and let their assistants do the coaching. Doing it from the other side of the country will be the test that I have never seen before.

    • TimbersGary says:

      Not sure that’s an appropriate analogy, though. In pointyball, you can have an assistant who is basically the head coach of their own smaller team–the defense, the offense, the special teams. They don’t have anything to do with each other during the game, so an assistant having primary responsibility for each facet makes some sense. You can, and they do, even slice it further with e.g. a linebackers coach, but obviously the linebacksers and linemen have a much closer in-game relationship. But letting the assistants coach in soccer is reallya different concept, as you still have to have one coach coordinating the entire team, not parsing it up.

  14. D says:

    What they all seem to be forgetting is that teams and businesses have Bosses that manage from afar because they have other duties for another part of THAT organization! It’s all BS. Wynalda doesn’t really want to coach and ATL wants a name. Why anyone would want him for A coach is beyond me.

    • patrick says:

      im not sure there’s been anyone more desperate to coach in the US than Wynalda, so saying he doesn’t want to coach seems silly. I think it comes down more to them not being able to pay him what he’s been making at Fox, and so this idea was born. it’s interesting, and I actually think it will work. He’ll be there to install the “game plan” a couple of days before the game, and he’ll see some practices live, and some streamed. He’ll basically be in LA 4 days a week and Atl/game location 3 days. Given the day after a game is regen for players and tape watching for coaches, it’s really more like he’ll miss 3 days of practice. Being at a distance may even give Wynalda some perspective that other coaches don’t have.

      In the end, whether this works or not I think speaks more to the people involved than it does the set up.

    • eric wynalda says:

      Beyond you doesnt seem to far- you might catch up

  15. Zerg says:

    Which SBI episode had the interview with Boris? Anyone know?

  16. TomG says:

    Seems like it has a very slim chance of working out, but it should be interesting drama. Maybe they can all wear google glasses and play virtual soccer together.

  17. obxfly says:

    Gotta a friend playing for them…be interesting what he says in a couple months.

  18. german bbq says:

    eric wynalda?

    he was a striker right in the 90′s?

    he scored goals in Germany or the world cup or something?

  19. solles says:

    I think its really interesting and I’m curious to see how it turns out. It does go to the whole coach v manager argument that is happening not just in the USA. With respect to Wynalda’s amazing playing career, I think he does sometimes say a little too much about other personalities in the game, but you can’t ever call him dull.

  20. Long Distance says:

    You all are forgetting that Wynalda is no good at management. The further he is from the team, the better.

  21. ATL says:

    I believe that what will make this work is finding players who believe it will work. I think it will work. Eric is a very talented individual who is invested in making this work. He is also a smart individual who has made his desires to coach at the higher levels well known. So I can’t imagine him hitching his wagon to an idea or system that doesn’t have a pretty high chance of succeeding. I’m looking forward to this season!

  22. JP says:

    This is nice PR and a way to keep someone you could not otherwise afford. May be ok for the soccer team but it is certainly an astute business move. Think about it, would we be discussing Atlanta in the NASL under normal circumstances?

  23. Free beer says:

    Maybe Atlanta is Harke’s turf?

    • eric wynalda says:

      Lets face it, that guys been everywhere! lol

      Didn’t appreciate the “bad Manager” comment. I love it when people talk about things they don’t understand, its pretty funny actually. You guys are all making good points but some of you are talking out of you a**.

  24. Joamiq says:

    I applaud them for giving it a shot, but you can count me amongst the skeptics. I do not think running a soccer team is one of those businesses suited to remote management.