Former U.S. international and current Las Vegas Lights FC Head Coach Eric Wynalda told reporters recently 'I’m blown away, every day, at how much talent there is at the USL level.' | Photo courtesy Phoenix Rising FC
It’s fair to say soccer has come a very long way in the past 30 years, from the days when current Las Vegas Lights FC Head Coach Eric Wynalda was suiting up for the United States at the FIFA 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Even compared to 1996, when on April 6, Wynalda scored the first goal in Major League Soccer’s history for the San Jose Clash against D.C. United, the difference is night-and-day, according to the U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer.
“We only had 10 teams back then,” said Wynalda on a conference call with reporters. “Now it’s along 70, 80 teams, where in these smaller markets, people get to enjoy the game. That’s been the biggest component to me that just screaming that this country’s getting better.”
The biggest difference, according to Wynalda, is the organic culture that has grown up around the game in the support it receives at all three levels in the professional ranks. The ascent of the USL Championship over the past five years has been at the forefront of that change, with clubs like Sacramento Republic FC, Louisville City FC and Phoenix Rising FC being joined more recently by New Mexico United, Memphis 901 FC and Lights FC, which ranked fifth in average attendance in the Championship in 2019.
Las Vegas Lights FC ranked fifth in the USL Championship in attendance in 2019, adding to the new cities where support for soccer is taking off in a big way. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
That success, and the blueprints those newer clubs have offered, has made professional soccer an attractive investment for new ownership groups. With investment groups and cities including Providence, Rhode Island and Des Moines, Iowa working toward the goal of bringing professional soccer to their cities, and the infrastructure being created by Championship clubs LouCity, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, the Charlotte Independence and OKC Energy FC, the clubs themselves are becoming embedded in their communities.
“They were able to turn this thing into something special,” said Wynalda. “The reality of what soccer has become in this country right now is it’s a phenomenal time to be involved in the game. The investment behind it is now warranted. It was kind of, oh I hope this thing works out, before and now it’s really, look, this is a real thing.
“And the culture we have in this country that is backing the sport, not just at a club level but a regional and national level, is unprecedented. So, it’s a wonderful time for all of us to watch the sport grow and be what it is today.”
And that means even more opportunity for players to follow their dreams, as Wynalda once did for the San Diego Nomads and San Francisco Bay Blackhawks before securing his move to Europe. He likens it to the early days of his career, where every game was an opportunity to make the dream a reality.
“I’m blown away, every day, at how much talent there is at the USL level,” said Wynalda. “And these are kids, living a dream, trying so hard to make ends meet so they can have that opportunity. That’s where we were, back then. We’re not there anymore.
“The salaries, the players and the talent we have in Major League Soccer’s level is so much different now, but there still is that undercurrent of let’s not let any stone go unturned, and let’s find players and let’s find places for them to play and maybe they’ll grow into something great.”