Eric Wynalda feels that the U.S. Soccer Federation was trying to cheat players back when he played for the U.S. Men's National Team. He found it difficult to separate the pride of playing for and representing his country with the pain he felt during negotiations with the federation in charge of the team. He thinks players on the national team today feel similar to how he did back then.
Wynalda, who is running for president of U.S. Soccer, wants change in the federation from the bottom up. He wants to change how the game is taught throughout the 50 states. He wants more opportunities for young players, a change in the technical instruction side and to prevent the disaster that was the 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle, where the men's team failed to qualify for the first time since 1986.
The former national team star wants change right away, and it was his days as a player that he said were alarming and have fueled his motivation with the election coming up this weekend.
'Take it or leave it'
Wynalda played for the U.S. men's national team from 1990 to 2000, playing in World Cups, Copa America and more. He was one of the very best players on the team, and while it is an honor to represent his country, it wasn't always easy. With negotiations going on over compensation for the players on various occasions, especially right after the U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup and got out of the group stage, he said that the USSF would strike fear in the players when it came to reaching a deal.
"Take it or leave it, or you are never going to play with us again," Wynalda said was the message he got from the USSF during a conversation with CBS Sports in early January.
"For us, we always felt the federation was trying to cheat us, deceive us out of something at all times. It was difficult to put on the jersey and put all that aside."
Right before the Copa America in 1995, there was a big pay dispute as players looked for improved compensation. Coming just a year after the U.S. successfully hosted the World Cup and got out of the group stage against the odds, the players felt there was a chance to get compensated in a manner commensurate with that success. A deal was tentatively reached before that Copa America held in Uruguay, but while terms were being discussed there was a threat of players not playing.
Wynalda said that the relationship between the players and the federation was rarely ever good. From what they felt was like a lack of compensation to moments of discomfort.
"There was always that disingenuous hug as if they shared in your success. It was awkward," Wynalda said.
Wynalda believes the players now feel the same way. U.S. Soccer, though, is in a much better financial situation now. In 2016, USSF total assets were calculated at $98 million.
Steve Sampson remembers it also
Steve Sampson was the coach for that 1995 Copa America squad in Uruguay. The 61-year-old, who is now back in the college ranks at Cal Poly, said he tried to stay out of the pay dispute but he admits it had a huge impact on his team from a motivation standpoint.
"I think immediately after the '94 World Cup, that because of the financial windfall, there was money for them to negotiate for," he said. "I felt it when we were in Paysandu [Uruguay]. There was an enormous amount of strife between the federation and the players."
Wynalda recalls how the players tried to prove their point during the tournament in Uruguay. And they did. The Americans shocked the world by beating Mexico, Chile and Argentina to finish fourth in the competition.
"They remained united to improve their bonuses, appearance fees," Sampson said. "I don't think they got exactly what they wanted. That was really the beginning of the players union, the players' associations."
The negotiations were tabled after the Copa America and Sampson was calling in third team players for the national team. It disrupted preparations for the 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign.
"I think that was a massive statement on their part that what they had accomplished in the '94 World Cup and in the 1995 Copa America, and prior to winning the U.S. Cup in 1995.
"I think in some totality all the disruptions prior to the 1998 World Cup had a negative impact," Sampson said.
The U.S. would go on to finish dead last, 32 out of 32, in the 1998 World Cup in France, losing all three games to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia.
When it comes to players receiving compensation from the federation, those negative moments have stained Wynalda's perspective. He feels like the federation turned its back on the players and never had its best interest at heart. Though thinking that it is like that today is purely objective, Wynalda wants all players on every level to feel like the federation has their back. That's why he is running for USSF president.
"If I do [win], all that means is soccer has won," Wynalda told CBS Sports. "And that soccer will succeed in this country and progress. I'm hoping for that and I need support and I need people to understand my message."