Hello and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times weekly soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer. We’ve got a lot to get to today, including updates involving the Galaxy, the Los Angeles Football Club, the U.S. national team’s 13-month search for a permanent head coach and Diego Maradona’s astonishing success as manager of a second-tier club in Mexico.
But we start with former World Cup star Eric Wynalda, whose family was among the hundreds that had their lives turned upside down by the Woolsey fire. The blaze swept through their Westlake Village neighborhood with scant warning, leaving them time to evacuate with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few important documents.
On Sunday, Wynalda returned to his home for the first time since the fire to find his house and his possessions had been mostly reduced to ash.
“Gone,” he said. “Everything’s gone.”
It was the only house in his neighborhood that was completely lost, sacrificed to protect the others around it.
“From what I’m told they had to let the house burn. They needed to keep that fire central so it didn’t spread to other houses,” Wynalda said Monday. “So we took one for the team.”
Wynalda said he also found something else when he turned up the cul de sac to what had been a five-bedroom hilltop home: Looters, combing through the debris for anything of value that had survived the inferno. But with the bad there was also some good, like the family that offered the Wynaldas their home and others who offered money or material help.
“Complete strangers,” he marveled. “They said, ‘We just want to help.’ How’s that?
“It’s things like this that bring out the best and worst in people, I guess. We’ve seen more of the best. There has just been an outpouring of support. People have been phenomenal. I really don’t know how else to put it.”
It’s been a tough couple of weeks for the Wynaldas and many in their community. Just hours before the fire broke out, a shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill claimed 12 lives, including two friends of Wynalda’s daughter Brooke.
Just after midnight the following day, after a voluntary evacuation order was issued, Wynalda’s wife Amanda retrieved some important documents, loaded the couple’s kids in the family Yukon and left. Eric stayed behind to gather some other things but he, too, left when someone he describes as a “mystery man,” chased by flames, came running up the side of the hill screaming, “Get out of here now!”
On his way out Wynalda grabbed a photo of his wife and their 9-year-old son Braeden when he was just a baby.
“It was always my favorite picture. I just looked at it and said, ‘If this is really going to happen I’m not losing this,’” he said.
A couple of hours later the family watched their house burn on the local news. Destroyed were mementos from a Hall of Fame career and three World Cup appearances, among them a priceless collection of soccer jerseys from the likes of Pele, Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Landon Donovan, only recently taken out of storage.
Still, Wynalda remains upbeat, counting himself and his family among the lucky ones.
“You really take stock of what you have,” he said. “We could have lost our family.”
Wynalda hasn’t told his two preschool-aged children about their home, though he’s bracing for that conversation. Instead, a day after the fire, he bundled them into the car and drove to Las Vegas, where he recently became coach of the Las Vegas Lights, a team in the second-division USL. It’s the job Wynalda has long dreamed of and he wasn’t going to let a fire deny him that.
The next morning he attended a tryout and signed two players. His kids stayed back at the resort they were in, thinking they were on vacation.
“It’s been a great distraction because it’s work and I really get to pour myself into a coaching position for once,” he said. “When something like this happens you’ve just got to roll with it. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to keep going. And that’s kind of what our plan is at this point.”
Wynalda is drawing on his soccer experience to make that happen. In my time as a sportswriter I’ve heard dozens and dozens of athletes say they don’t worry about circumstances they can’t control. That’s always been a foreign concept to me because I always worry about things I can’t control.
But in this case the fire came, did its business and left. Wynalda couldn’t control that. The only thing undetermined at this point is how he will respond.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” he said. “But it’s kind of a mentality you have to have. There’s nothing I can do about changing what happened. You have to move forward.
“I feel like I’m in mid-game. The ball came across and I had a header from three feet out and I missed it. I can either let that destroy the game for me or I can smile about it, laugh it off, keep my confidence and keep the belief in myself that I am going to score. That was always the way I treated the way I played. The next play is always the most important play.”
Another thing great athletes do is they think of the team first. Wynalda’s team now is his community, so that was where his focus was when he closed our conversation with a request.
“Just keep praying for the people that have really, truly been hit harder,” he said. “They’ve lost lives.”
My friend and colleague Mark Zeigler was the first to report on Wynalda’s situation in the pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune. His story is worth reading.
No news is…well, it’s not good
The Galaxy remain rudderless, without a full-time head coach or director of soccer operations less than a week from the start of what promises to be another busy offseason.
On Monday the team has to notify MLS which players it intends to retain for next season. Last year the Galaxy declined options on a dozen players and the team is likely facing a similar number of decisions this year.
On Dec. 9 comes the league’s half-day trade window, followed two days later by the expansion draft and the start of free agency. Earlier this month, after firing Pete Vagenas as vice president of soccer operations, Galaxy President Chris Klein said he hoped to place all those offseason decisions – including the hiring of a new coach – in the hands of new soccer operations head.
Two weeks later that position hasn’t been filled and the clock continues ticking.
The Galaxy’s top choice appears to be Dennis Te Kloese, the former soccer director for Chivas USA and now director of Mexico’s national team program. One person close to the situation said the Galaxy went as far as to offer Te Kloese the job two weeks ago.
But Te Kloese has demurred, telling reporters in Mexico he is content with his job there. In a series of emails and text messages I exchanged with him last weekend, he said there “is not anything completely formal yet” and no doors have been closed.
“I first have to get my head around some things at FMF,” he said, using the initials for the Mexican soccer federation. “I have been working there since 2011 and will need a couple of weeks to see where we stand.”
Chief among the issues facing the Galaxy is the MLS future of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is signed for next season but has indicated he may not return without a new contract and assurances the team will contend for the league title.
Addressing the former is likely to require a trade or some other personnel move to clear a designated player spot, allowing the Galaxy to increase Ibrahimovic’s $1.5-million salary. Addressing the latter probably means hiring a coach and re-signing players Ibrahimovic considers valuable.
And since it’s likely none of those things happen without a new director of soccer operations, the Galaxy are on the clock.
LAFC, by the way, faces the same MLS deadline regarding player options but they have a soccer operations chief in place in John Thorrington and a coach in Bob Bradley. The team also faces far fewer decisions.
At the top of the team’s to-do list are decisions about free agents Benny Feilhaber, Jordan Harvey and Walker Zimmerman. The team also holds options on others, including Marco Urena, and is negotiating to sign defender Danilo Silva, who joined the team on a midseason loan from Brazilian club Internacional.
In addition, goalkeeper Tyler Miller is due a substantial raise from the $68,915 he made this season. To finance that raise the team may have to move Luis Lopez, the Honduran national team keeper who was penciled in as the LAFC starter before reporting for training camp in February with a stress fracture in his right leg. Lopez made $147,500 this year, a budget-busting amount for a backup keeper.
Dave Sarachan’s reign as interim coach of the U.S. national team probably ended with Tuesday’s friendly with Italy in Belgium. The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team has been without a permanent manager since Bruce Arena resigned following World Cup qualifying 13 months ago.
Sarachan, Arena’s longtime assistant with the Galaxy and the national team, has done a good job reenergizing the roster and introducing the next generation of players – including teenagers Tyler Adams, Tim Weah and Josh Sargent – to international play on the senior level. But for the U.S. to truly build a foundation heading into the next World Cup, the players need to know who they’ll be answering to.
“It's tough. Dave's doing what he can. He wants to win these games just like we do,” Christian Pulisic told Yahoo Sports’ Doug McIntyre. “It’s going to help a lot when we get a permanent head coach moving forward, a guy who has a real plan and a style of how we want to play."
That problem could be rectified in the next week with Earnie Stewart, general manager of the U.S. national team, expected to announce that Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter will lead the Americans going forward.
Pulisic’s future isn’t as certain. Rumors out of Europe last week had the midfielder moving from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea during the January transfer window. But Dortmund sporting director Michael Zorc appeared to nix that Monday, saying that Pulisic will remain with the Bundesliga leaders through the end of the season.
Diego Maradona’s renaissance continued at Sinaloa last weekend with the former Argentine great coaching the Dorados into the semifinals of Mexico’s Liga de Ascenso playoffs.
Maradona has struggled with drug and alcohol abuse – nearly dying twice as a result – since retiring as a player in 1997. He took over a winless Sinaloa team in mid-September and led it to a 7-1-2 record. Next up is Juarez in the two-leg playoff semifinals beginning Wednesday.
“He’s a very good coach because he motivates us a lot and we understand what he wants in the game,” midfielder Fernando Arce Jr. said. “He knows how to talk to a soccer player. He knows how to treat us correctly. He knows how to talk to motivate the players.
“We are pretty good with him.”
Indeed. It’s as if they had been touched by the hand of God.
Until next time