A chat with Eric Wynalda about Christian Pulisic, Julian Green and Alejandro Bedoya
Eric Wynalda does not need much of an invitation to share his thoughts on just about anything going on in the soccer world. Whether as a television analyst for Fox Sports or a radio show host on SiriusXM, he always has plenty to say.
Eric Wynalda does not need much of an invitation to share his thoughts on just about anything going on in the soccer world. Whether as a television analyst for Fox Sports or a radio show host on SiriusXM, he always has plenty to say.
Wynalda has a particular expertise in Germany's Bundesliga, and a particular eye on the Americans playing there. As the new season is set to start later this month, I recently threw a few questions at him on those subjects.
I also couldn't help asking what he thinks of Alejandro Bedoya's move to the Philadelphia Union from French cub Nantes. You might be interested in his answer.
I don't necessarily agree with everything Eric says here. I am certain many of you won't agree with everything Eric says either. But while I suspect some of you rolled your eyes upon reading this post's headline, I think a lot of what's here will at least make you think a bit.
You recently opined on Twitter that there is a "distinct difference" between the Bundesliga and the English Premier League. Could you expand on that?
I field a lot of these questions, especially on Twitter, and it's hard to get your point across in 140 characters. A lot of people just fell in love with, or only know, the English Premier League. For various reasons - because it is a very exciting league for a lot of tactical reasons. When you watch the Bundesliga, there is a distinct difference that you'll recognize immediately.
In England, teams try very diligently to keep things very compact - to not allow space to happen. Space seems to be their biggest enemy. Meaning, somebody with any kind of talent gets the ball, surround him and don't let him dribble, really. As analysts we watch this kind of stuff all the time, and as an ex-player, I remember my experiences playing against English sides, or an English mentality: play fast, get [the ball] off your feet and keep the ball moving.
Which is a tactic you'll see in Germany, France, Spain and Italy, but for the most part, Germany allows the one-on-one battles to happen. The game is much more open, it's much more, I would say, individualistic - in the sense that you know who you're up against as a player. Most teams in England will defend in numbers. In Germany, the reason why it opens up and allows certain players to show a little bit more flair at times is because the one-on-one battles are far more defined.
We saw that the other day, I thought, with the Super Cup in Germany, with Bayern and Dortmund. Dortmund was fantastic in the first half, but Bayern's talent came shining through...
All the numbers would indicate that you'll get more goals, that the games are just more wide open [in Germany]. Far more goals are scored in England on set pieces, and not really in the run of play. The main difference is in England, many of the opponents are trying to deter the other team from playing, as opposed to trying to play themselves. That's "park the bus" and all those little defensive clichés that we come up with. But it's just [that] German games are far more open.
Say you're advising young Americans who want to play in Europe on which of the two leagues they should want to play in. It sounds to me like the more open league would be a little more conducive to developing skill and creativity.
That's spot-on. There's a reason why the Germans are once again world champions. And if you watch the Olympics and the youth product they produce, they totally and completely dismantled a very good Portuguese side the other day [4-0 in the quarterfinals].
Watching that, it's just - in this country, or maybe it's just a buzzword - it's possession. It's one of the reasons why a lot of people were hesitant to see the likes of Pep Guardiola go to Bayern [he left this summer to move to Manchester City].
He is obsessed with possession. He wants the ball all the time. His mindset - maybe through [Johan] Cruyff and his work at Barcelona - is to let the ball do the work, let the opponents tire themselves out by chasing, and through situational awareness create those opportunities to go when the time is right. But sometimes it demands a lot of patience.
Watching Bayern play [against Dortmund in its first official game under new manager Carlo Ancelotti], they did not have the majority of the possession. In fact, at times it was in the 30th percentile. The reason for that is that it's a different way of thinking. Ancelotti, being Italian, is very methodical in the way that he goes about it.
But the end result was still a 2-0 victory. Defend properly, and if you don't have the ball, so what? And recognizing that at times, it can be a turnover sport. That's how, essentially, they got their goals. You allow those guys to have the freedom to be creative, but when they get the ball - and sometimes they have to wait a long time for it - nobody tells them to keep it. Nobody will ever tell them to keep the ball, keep possession, at Bayern anymore [under Ancelotti].
I don't know if you watched the Arsenal-Liverpool game [on Sunday, a 4-3 Liverpool win]?
I confess I did not, because I was watching the Olympics - and I only saw parts of Dortmund-Bayern for the same reason. I wanted to ask, though: You talk about the Bundesliga being the more open league, but it sounds like Ancelotti is going to go against a lot of that?
Yeah. That's the thing. That's what's beautiful about this sport. He's going back to a way of playing that might take some time for players to get used to, but it's really the way that they've always wanted to play.
The German mentality has always been that when the opposition has the ball, to fight. It's actually a term in the German papers - "zweikampf," which means a one-on-one battle. That really is it in a nutshell. It's when [the opponent] has the ball, it's "Alright, show me what you've got." And when the ball comes near you, when you're in Germany, you go get in a fight. The tendency that we'll see a lot in the EPL is, "Look over your shoulder before you even engage"...
Liverpool played like Germans [against Arsenal]. The influence of their new German coach, Jurgen Klopp, was clear to me, very obvious. Some of the performances were absolutely fantastic, but those goals that they scored - if you didn't know any better and you didn't know what the teams were, I would have guessed that was German soccer. I really would have thought that.
The way that looked, the way they got it wide, the way they made sure that they isolated people in one-on-one situations. They weren't afraid to take people on. I thought that kid [Saido] Mané, who has come over from Southampton to play for Liverpool, his performance - he was all over the place last year. He was getting red cards, he was a little erratic. But he scored one of the best goals we've seen in a while, and his immediate reaction was to run over to his manager and hug him. You very seldom see that anymore.
In the postgame interviews, with all the questions that were asked - what did you think of the goal, this, that, and the other - he kept alluding to his manager. He said all coach has been telling him to do is express himself and not be afraid, get the ball and take people on...
That kind of confidence, I think, when the manager has instilled it in a player it's beautiful to see. Because that's what you want, as a player. You want, when you get the ball and everyone says, "Go for it!" - that doesn't really happen anymore, because there's such a possession mentality.Most of the time, the ball goes to a forward and 10 guys are screaming, "Keep it! Don't lose it!"...
It will be very interesting to see how Leroy Sané, who came from Schalke [a big German club, to Manchester City] - I think that is a very unique fit. Last year he had a bunch of goals and fantastic assists. Well, he just took the ball and did it himself, and he just went for it. Now he's going to play for Pep Guardiola at Man City, and I think he's going to get caught between two minds.
We're all waiting for him to light it up, but I'm hoping that possession/don't-lose-the-ball mentality that we saw in Man City's first game [a 2-1 win over Sunderland this past Saturday] doesn't affect his game, because he's special. He's only 19 years old, but when he gets the ball he just goes for it.
You talked about the mentality of going for it, and of how Jurgen Klopp instilled that mentality in Saido Mané. You've been there as a coach at the professional level and with lower-level players when you took that Cal FC team on its famous run in the U.S. Open Cup. I would imagine that it takes some willingness on the coach's part to loosen up and be confident in himself and the players - to let go of that natural conservatism and fear of losing.
To be honest, you just nailed it. As a manager - and my experience is with very young, talented players - stop trying to think as a manager that you're making it happen. Just throw your ego out. Yeah, prepare them to play on the defensive side of things, and give them some ideas. But "Let it happen" is really the phrase we need to see more of. We need to see more managers allowing their players to express themselves.
You see this at the youth level all the time. The ball will go to a young, talented player, and every single one of the parents, and the coach, and everybody, is yelling: "Pass!"... The child is influenced by the 12 voices that he hears from the sidelines, not the one voice he should be hearing in his head.
It's a difference in the youth level all the way up to the professional level at times. When a very talented player who has ideas and has talent and a skill set that he can do things other players can't, you've got to let him go. Let that happen, and don't try as a manager to change something like that.
As you said that, I was thinking about Oscar Pareja at FC Dallas, and his renowned willingness to put young players on the field in big situations. There aren't many managers in Major League Soccer who have that mentality, and he's probably the best of them.
I've known Oscar a long time, and I think Oscar is intense, he's all about preparing them to play, and being professional, and he takes on the challenge on younger players more so than - and I've had a couple of experiences with him, with players that I knew that went to go play for him. Instead of saying, "You've got to do this, and this, and this," before a kid goes into a game he puts his arm around him and smiles and says, "Go have fun. Show 'em what you've got, kid."
There's always a time with players to recognize the moments where they messed up and recognize the moments where you've got to help, and that's a reliance on the unity of a group. But I agree with you - Oscar does some very unique things, especially among coaches in Major League Soccer. He's got a different way of thinking.
Are there other coaches in the league who you've seen who have that willingness, or are at least moving toward it?
Well, I think what we - this is going to sound a little provocative, but I don't care. In our league, we don't have guys who have seen what real talent looks like, [who] have played against it or seen it live.
We have an idea of what we think is good enough for our league in Major League Soccer. And there's a lot of guys out there who can build a very competitive team in Major League Soccer. But has there really been anybody who was able to identify players who can play at an extremely high level, and can maybe raise the ceiling to a certain extent when it comes to what they can do out there, and just blow the competition away?
There really hasn't been. We haven't really seen anything like that in a long time. I'll go back to Peter Nowak [with the Chicago Fire]. That team I played on in Chicago with [Carlos] Bocanegra, [DaMarcus] Beasley and Chris Armas, [Hristo] Stoichkov, [Ante] Razov, myself and Nowak - that was a great team.
Bob Bradley [who coached it] got out of the way on a lot of occasions. He said, "Listen, you guys are better than them, now just go show it. And I have no idea how you're going to do it, but I'm sure you'll figure it out." Those are the greatest team speeches you'll ever get.
When you start having some of the younger, more inexperienced coaches, I would say - gosh, these guys are only five or six years younger than I am - they still are trying so hard to dictate what's going to happen out there that sometimes they deter the creators.
Going back to what you said about Bob Bradley and how he handled that Fire team, is there a difference between how a manager handles a club team versus a national team?
Oh, yeah. You have to. Club [management] is every day. You become friends - and sometimes you don't. But the truth is, when you're together every day and you have a manger who has created a culture and environment that everyone wants to be a part of - and I think Bob did a pretty good job of that - the first thing I noticed, and I played for several teams in Major League Soccer - I walked into that Chicago locker room and it was fun. It was just fun. There was always something that made you want to get up in the morning and go see the guys.
Now, when you play for the national team, that's forced friendship. That's a bunch of egos, that's a bunch of guys who all believe that they should be treated as if they're the most important guy there. And then you're only together temporarily.
We used to say it this way: every trip was a mission. We would go on a mission. Because we would go away, we were on leave, and then we would come back and it was like we were a "Band of Brothers" kind of deal. Because we were always up against it, and we had to figure out a way in a very short amount of time to go conquer whatever challenge was in front of us. And there was always a lot of catching up to do.
In my day, our team did a pretty good job of always staying true to what mattered, and that meant playing for your country. That was always the most important part of the equation, and nobody was more important than that.
Which is why you'll never see a guy like Jose Mourinho coach a national team, I think he's turned it down twice. He wants to be a part of the day-in, day-out work of it, because the work of it, if you do it right, it isn't work - it's just fun.
I've got a few players I want to ask you about, including two that Fox Sports 1's broadcast of the Dortmund-Bayern game had feature stories on. The first is Dortmund's Christian Pulisic. Do you think he'll end up going on a loan somewhere?
[Note: There was a lot of speculation about this potentially happening right around the time I talked to Eric. But as of when I posted this, reports out of Germany indicated that a loan won't be happening.]
I don't know if he should at this point.
And I think one of the things that has impressed me about what [Dortmund manager] Thomas Tuchel has done with his team - getting rid of [İlkay] Gündoğan, who is a very talented player, I remember him from his days at Bochum. He has struggled at times with some injuries. Mats Hummels leaves, which you also could look at as a big miss, and then of course Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who went Manchester United on a big-number [transfer fee]. Replaced with a group of young, quick players, and Christian is right in the middle of that.
When I first went to Germany, the best advice I ever got [was] from Paul Mariner, who played for England at the time [and now works for ESPN and the New England Revolution's local TV broadcasts]. He is the greatest coach at the assistant level - I don't know why it didn't work out for him in Toronto [he managed Toronto FC in 2012 and 2013]. But as an assistant his ability to inspire and recognize talent, he's just very good at making you great at what you're good at.
He said, "Listen, when you go there [to Germany], you are at the bottom of the totem pole. And every single day you're going to have to prove that you deserve to be there, and it's going to make you better."
Now, Christian is in a situation where [Ousmane] Dembélé comes in, a very talented young player. His fight to work into that team is going to be very difficult. And Marco Reus, Shinji Kagawa - there's a lot of guys that have enough experience and talent. But he [Pulisic] is going to get his chance, and that's why I think he should stick around.
Because the games are going to come fast and furious. They do not have to deal with the same kind of pressure that they had two years ago, when they kind of fell off the radar there [and almost got relegated], but they're now going to have Champions League football. They'll have the German Cup, and they'll have league play.
This coach loves to play an up-tempo, pressing style - which means that's why he got rid of Gündoğan, that's why he got rid of Mkhitaryan, and replaced them with some younger guys who've got the legs. [Julian] Weigl is one of them, [Matthias] Ginter is another one. We saw the kid [Felix] Passlack [against Bayern] who I was very impressed with at right back - he's only 18 years old.
I think that with Mario Götze coming back into the equation - [André] Schürrle is sort of the older version of him - it's going to be tough for [Pulisic] to get on the field. But when he does, and he makes some sort of impact on the game, and he's earned his spot - man, I can't think of a better accomplishment.
We all tell ourselves, "Well, he should go somewhere where he could play, because Götze is so good," and "He can't beat out Shinji Kagawa" or "He can't beat out Marco Reus." [Adrian] Ramos is now in there. Instead of just throwing in the towel and saying "I'm out, I've got to somewhere that I can play because I'm not good enough," if he puts both fists up and says, "I'm good, coach - I'll prove it to you how good I am; I'll prove to you that I want to be here; I'm going to bring the right attitude every day," then when he gets his chance he might make the most of it.
That is awesome. Think about it - he's only 17! There's no reason for him to - if he was 22 or 23 years old and things were a little different and he really never got any time, then maybe that's a different conversation. But this is a very young player who is in a very, very good team. I would say probably one of the top six teams in the world. And he might get time, and he might get time through hard work and not giving up. That's probably what has impressed me the most.
I don't get it when it comes to why he isn't an immediate insert into our U.S. national team setup. That's not my problem to have, that's Jurgen Klinsmann's opinion and we pay him a lot of money to have him that opinion, so. My opinion would be get him out there as much as possible. I wouldn't even hesitate. We haven't seen a player with this much talent in a long time.
Pulisic seems to have Tuchel's confidence, at least to enough of a degree that he has played in some pretty big games so far. But Pulisic wasn't in the lineup or on the bench for the Super Cup, and all of a sudden people in the U.S. started freaking out that he's never going to play again. That seems to me to be a bit of an over-reaction.
It is. Don't over-react to that. The other thing about Germans is they will lay out a plan of attack, and a lot of times, they will basically tell him well in advance - maybe he doesn't share that with us - that he's going to miss the next three or four games simply because they need him to be getting 90-minute games [when he plays]. Because he's not in the plan now doesn't mean he's not going to be in the plan in the future.
But if you have a player, and we've learned this over the years, and he's going to sit on the bench and play 15 minutes a game for four straight weeks, and then have a pretty intense practice the next day - because that's the way they do things - that's not as good as taking a step back, playing in a reserve game for 90 minutes, having the fitness to be able to be seamless, and then come straight into the first team, [after] training with the first team, and then be able to perform at a high level.
There's nothing worse, I can say without hesitation, than when you've had a spell where you come off an injury or whatever it is, and you've only played two or three games for 15 minutes as a sub, and you come in and score, and it's pretty clean: you know you're going to start the next game, and you get 30 minutes in and you're winded, and everybody sees it, and your game changes. That's what they're preventing. Don't everybody get all freaked out.
Julian Green seems to all of a sudden be in Bayern Munich's favor under Ancelotti. It didn't quite come out of nowhere to fans here who saw Green's hat trick against Inter Milan in a preseason exhibition game last month in Charlotte, N.C., but Green's rise to prominence still seems quick and surprising. What do you think happened?
I think when he took a step back, that whole Hamburg [loan] experience didn't work out. You play alongside Franck Ribéry, [Thomas] Müller, and you're replacing a guy like [striker Robert] Lewandowski, and there's Douglas Costa, [Xabi] Alonso, [Arturo] Vidal. You're a part of that front six, all you've really got to do is move and get open, and they'll find you.
One of the things that I don't think we're ever going to say about Julian Green is that he doesn't have pace. But I do think that when there was too much onus put on him to be the creator and be the playmaker and really make something happen - not finishing off plays but starting plays - I think his game suffered. His game suffered a great deal.
I don't think he was playing with lesser players [at Hamburg] - well, I do, actually. I think the talent level at Hamburg and their style of play didn't suit him. So he looked lost.
He's got talent. He knows how to get in positions to make himself available and look good, and we shouldn't be surprised by the fact that he finished some plays in that Inter Milan game. Then, of course, we're all going to sit here and say, "Well, that's just preseason, that doesn't mean anything." To your point, I do think it impressed Ancelotti. I do think he sees [Green] as an option.
Just like Pulisic, if he gets a chance, let's see what he makes of it, you know? It would be great to see him really play to his potential and come back into the U.S. national team fold. And in that interview we did with [Green], Grant Wahl did a great job with that to extract a little bit of the attitude of, "Yes, I want to get back on the national team - it's something that's in my head, I need to get myself on the field and make it happen." That's commendable. If he had been a guy to just give up and quit, that wouldn't have been very American at all, would it?
Do you think Green is a striker, a winger or what? Most observers over here probably haven't seen much of him, but judging from what they have seen with the national team - even if that evidence is a few years old now - they might not really know what his position is.
Not to be silly here or glib, but that's been Jurgen Klinsmann's challenge as well - to know where to play some of these guys. I think all that being said, at some point you kind of hope that the two [roles] fall into place, meaning, can you play the same position for your club and country?
What we saw with Fabian Johnson last year was really hard to watch. Here's a guy who [with Borussia Mönchengladbach] is constantly part of the front three, he's scoring goals in the Bundesliga, he's sometimes the last guy making a run, like he's a forward. But, for lack of a better word, he gets relegated to right back when he plays for his country. And then everybody criticizes him for having a bad attitude.
It's like, have you ever thrown a shortstop into center field and said, "What's with your attitude?" [To which the player responds] "I don't want to play here - I'm a shortstop! That's where I want to play. Playing out here in the outfield and negotiating this wall and this line, and all this stuff I'm not used to, is not who I am." Then the insecurities come in, where you start wondering, "What am I doing out here?"
What we hope for Julian is that he can find a little pocket there where he can start playing well, and that position is seamless when he comes back to the national team. But even though I'm saying this now, I'm kind of shaking my head, because I know that even though we want that to happen, it hasn't always been the case with Jurgen.
On Sept. 27, Fox is putting a Bundesliga game between Fabian Johnson's Borussia Mönchengladbach and Javier Hernández's Bayer Leverkusesn on its over-the-air channel.
It's not the first Bundesliga game Fox has put on that big stage, but it's one of the biggest - in part because of that U.S. vs. Mexico storyline. For you, having played in the league, now that you're seeing it grow in the U.S., what does it mean to you?
I have become, obviously, a big fan of Chicharito - and I get to be a fan of him when he plays in Germany. I don't, obviously, call myself a fan of him [the rest of the time] for all the obvious reasons. Games like this, I know Gladbach. One of my ex-teammates is the sporting director, Max Eberl - I'm really proud of the way that he has built the team. Fabian Johnson last year, what he was able to do...
These two teams, three [Leverkusen] and four [Mönchengladbach] in the league table the last year, I totally appreciate the way each team plays. And I can have an understanding of that which maybe most people don't. I can't think of a cooler game to come right out of the gates with.
I'm not trying to say we're educating people about the Bundesliga, but you don't want to miss this one. It's an unbelievable fan base [at Mönchengladbach], an unbelievable atmosphere, and an extremely talented opposition with Chicharito and his game. I think this is a fantastic matchup. I don't know what that would equate to for the American people. You're getting exactly what you want, with a certain kind of team that you know is going to play a certain kind of way with a certain kind of manager.
Fox has recognized the Bundesliga as a very important property, and this game will give us an opportunity to showcase what the league is all about.
While I have you, I figure I should ask what you make of Alejandro Bedoya's move to Philadelphia.
[I warned you this was coming, and here it is.]
Well, I've never wavered on this: I don't really feel that he's that great of a player. I've always questioned - well, not always, but at least at times, I've questioned his selection to the national team [for] some of the bigger games that he's had, even at the Gold Cup level.
You know, he's a guy that seems to be really likable, a lot of the guys on the national team consider him a friend. He loves to have an opinion about stuff. I think it might have been a little bit more of a personal decision to come home.
He had a couple of unfortunate plays the other night [in his Union debut at New England] - I know his team won 4-0, but I was watching him with a very analytical eye, and he didn't particularly play well at all. It will be interesting to see what kind of effect it has on him going forward, especially with the national team.
Because let's face it, when you're playing in Europe, for the current national team coach, his opinion is that if you're in Europe, that is better than playing in Major League Soccer. That is his opinion, he's said that on numerous occasions. And he's been influential with some players in telling them to go to Europe and not to play here. This decision from Alejandro will be serious, because Bedoya has been one of Klinsmann's favorites for a while.
Union manager Jim Curtin seems to want to play Bedoya in a deeper midfield role than Klinsmann played Bedoya in during the Copa América Centenario. Bedoya was at the top of the midfield triangle for the national team this summer. If he succeeds in a deeper role -
We'll see. When the United States national team plays against what I would call the second-tier teams, he's going to be able to have an influence on those kinds of games. And [they are] difficult battles as well. In the [World Cup] qualification process, Alejandro has always proved that he has the engine, and I think that hurts him sometimes because people want to take advantage of that engine and say, "Well, this guy can get back and go forward."
And when you have a couple of games where you want to solidify your defense but you still want to have the guy that can join the attack, he would certainly be that guy. But my opinion is that in big games against the better teams in the world, I think that might be one notch above his level.
I know that's pretty harsh, but that's just my opinion. I hope he proves me wrong. But he really hasn't done anything to date to prove it to me just yet.
But if he succeeds in a deeper midfield role for the Union, could that perhaps open a pathway for him to play that role with the national team, which in turn would free up minutes at the high midfield playmaker positions for someone like Darlington Nagebe or Christian Pulisic?
That was one of the criticisms of Klinsmann's use of Bedoya in the high role at the Copa América - not that Bedoya didn't contribute, because he did, but that him being in that role specifically was a major factor in Nagbe and Pulisic not getting much playing time.
The reasons for that [include] that if you were to test these guys on their "engine" and on their ability to oxidate their blood and all those tests they run - it's not just the VO2 Max and all that stuff they used to do. They do a whole bunch of stuff. They test your blood, they see what kinds of minerals you've got in there. All that stuff would put Alejandro Bedoya in first place. Which is the reason why he consistently makes it into the team.
Now, do I believe that there are better players out there in this country who in the offensive third will be able to have that little clever ability to break down and solve defenses, that are better options than him? I have to believe the answer to that is yes. But I think you get what you are asking for out of him: that's total commitment, all the time, and an ability to just run himself into the ground every game.
He gives everything, which is - it's always one of those stupid things where we always say, "Well, if I could only take that guy's heart and put it in the other guy's body," that kind of thing. He's in a unique spot, because he can prove himself to be a utility guy, but I don't know how impressed Jurgen will be with good performances in Major League Soccer. I'm just not sure how that all play out.
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