World Serious : Westlake High Product Eric Wynalda Making a Strong Bid to Join U.S. Team for the Biggest Soccer Event of All

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His first appearance in a screaming headline occurred 12 years ago when a Thousand Oaks newspaper stretched this banner across the top of the sports page: "Eric Wynalda--Soccer Figure at 8."

At the time, Eric's father David was surprised by the size and weight of the headline and felt that Eric really didn't deserve to be singled out. Sure, Eric scored 56 goals in leading his youth soccer team to a state championship season, "but we thought he was just having fun out there. We didn't see him as special," David says.

However, the reporter who wrote the story accompanying the headline was an Irish-born soccer expert, David says, "who recognized the things in Eric that we couldn't see."

Today, it no longer takes a trained eye to determine that Wynalda is special. Always a prodigious scorer--88 goals in three varsity seasons at Westlake High, Southern Section 4-A Division Offensive Player of the Year--Wynalda is a strong candidate for the U. S. national team that will compete in the World Cup starting June 10 in Italy.

"Eric is a gifted athlete," U. S. Coach Bob Gansler says.

Currently considered the team's No. 1 striker, Wynalda started at forward in the past four exhibitions, including a 3-1 loss to the Soviets before an estimated 61,000 in Palo Alto last week, and just signed a contract with the U. S. Soccer Federation. His presence in the lineup, Gansler says, "adds some attacking flair to our team."

But despite Wynalda's scoring skills, his status is surprising--he wasn't even on the national team until January. While strikers like Peter Vermes and Brent Goulet were helping the United States to its stunning performance in World Cup qualifying last year, Wynalda was playing for the national developmental B team. Gansler noticed him, but it took six months before Wynalda was able to move up to the big team.

"Eric caught our attention when he was working with the B team," Gansler says. "We knew he was a talent."

Gansler wanted Wynalda to join the national team for a game against the Soviets in Philadelphia last August, but Wynalda came down with mononucleosis. The illness laid him up for two months and prevented him from starting the collegiate season on time at San Diego State. About Christmas, Gansler called Wynalda at his parents' Westlake Village home and asked him to attend a two-week training camp in La Jolla.

Wynalda, 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, with long sandy-colored hair, was one of 28 players Gansler brought to camp. Most of the country's top strikers--including some who play abroad professionally--were there, but Wynalda stood out "and started to shine," Gansler says. By the end of camp, Gansler felt that Wynalda was his top striker but needed international experience.

Wynalda went to Miami with the national team for the Marlboro Cup matches last January. But Gansler started a midfielder, Hugo Perez, ahead of Wynalda in the opening game against Costa Rica and Perez played the first 45 minutes in what turned into a 2-0 loss. Wynalda played the last 15 minutes, "made an impact," he says, and Gansler told him he had earned a chance to start against Colombia.

Four minutes into the Colombia match, Wynalda--at 20 the youngest U. S. starter--took a pass and went in alone on the Colombian goalkeeper, beating him with a quick shot. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.

But Wynalda doesn't have a lock on a starting job or even a guaranteed backup role on the World Cup team. Gansler isn't going to name the final 22-man roster until May, after several more exhibitions. And, according to Gansler, Wynalda still needs to improve.

"At times he looks very, very good and at times he gets caught with his concentration waning," Gansler says. "Technically, he's fine, but he has to get better on the tactical end of things." Then Gansler adds, "I'm betting that he's going to get it done."

Wynalda's next test will be March 10 against Finland in Tampa, Fla. "Coach Gansler always tells us, 'You're only as good as your last performance,' " Wynalda says. "That saying always goes off in my mind. I know if I have a bad game he'll give someone else a look."

Most experts say that the problem with American soccer is the lack of skillful finishers, players who can score goals. Wynalda is a rare exception, says Chuck Clegg, soccer coach at San Diego State.

"Eric's ability to take on a player one-on-one is the best I've ever seen in an American," Clegg says. "And to have developed this skill with a purely American experience is very unusual."

Wynalda learned to play in the American Youth Soccer Organization. When he was 5 and his brother Brandt was 7, they joined an AYSO team coached by their father. The team's assistant coach was Italian-born Tino Forino, who couldn't speak much English but knew how to play the game the European way.

"Eric was inspired by Tino," says David, who owns a soccer specialty shop in Westlake Village. "The kids didn't understand much of what he was saying, but he still taught them the basics."

In his junior year at Westlake High, Wynalda was coached by Rudi Fedimeyer, a former player from Austria who was studying American soccer for his doctorate. Fedimeyer helped refine Wynalda's techniques, and by the time he enrolled at San Diego State, he was "one of the most skillful players we've ever had," Clegg says.

Wynalda stayed at San Diego only three seasons. In his freshman year, he scored the winning goal against UCLA in the NCAA tournament quarterfinal and led the Aztecs into the final, in which they lost to Clemson, 1-0. But last December, after the season, Wynalda decided to drop out of school.

"Soccer was my reason for being there," he says, "and I really wasn't interested in academics. But I didn't think I was growing as a player. I always had a dream of being a professional soccer player, and I felt I was in a rut."

Only a handful of Americans play first-division soccer elsewhere in the world, but Wynalda "made strong connections in the pro world" when he and Aztec teammate Marcello Balboa played in a farewell game for Brazilian soccer star Zico in December in Brazil. Wynalda says he has offers to play first-division soccer in Spain and the Netherlands.

His priority, however, is making the U. S. World Cup team. "I'm very confident that I can do some very good things for the team," he says. "I think I bring an element of unpredictability to the attack."

A major underdog in the 24-nation tournament, the United States is grouped with Czechoslovakia, Austria and host Italy in the opening round. But Wynalda feels that the United States is no longer a pushover. He points out that the national team was 8-18-9 in international games in 1988 and 18-6-3 last year.

"That has a lot to do with the confidence we have in ourselves as a soccer nation," he says. "We don't go on the field any more trying just to hold our own. We expect to win and we don't feel threatened or overwhelmed. We don't say, 'Oh, we're playing Brazil' and panic.

"In the qualifying rounds we proved we could play defense. Now we have to generate a consistent attack."

And Wynalda thinks he's the man to do it.

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