By DAN KARELL
Is this position necessary?
That was the question that Atlanta Silverbacks owner Boris Jerkunica, co-owner Henry Hardin, and technical director Eric Wynalda kept coming back to when they began discussions last month about who should take charge of the Silverbacks in 2014.
The Silverbacks made history on Jan. 7 with the announcement that they were eliminating the head coaching position and moving towards a management style they claim is strongly influenced by what is seen in Europe. Wynalda will manage the team throughout the entire 2014 season, splitting time between his job at Fox Sports in Los Angeles and his job with the Silverbacks in Atlanta.
While the decision was derided by many soccer fans on multiple social media platforms, Wynalda and Silverbacks management believe that a move to this managing style in America is long overdue.
“We went through numerous different scenarios and we kept coming back to certain questions (that Jerkunica would ask), ‘well you can do that from California right?’ and I didn’t really have a lot of no answers,” Wynalda told SBI in a phone interview. “The way they like to run businesses is very similar to the way we’re going to run this deal. Specific roles for specific people on certain days that allow everybody to do all of their jobs, not a piece of it or a part of it. We feel it’s a very task-oriented way of doing things. It seems a little bit out of the box but the more you talk about the more it made sense.”
Jerkunica, who in addition to being the co-owner of the club is also its chairman, is no stranger to soccer. The Croatian-born businessman, who set multiple records as a player at Emory University before making millions in the communications industry, says that this kind of management style is already being used in businesses around the world.
“In today’s world, you can do a lot of stuff remotely,” Jerkunica told SBI in a phone interview this month. “There’s this added advantage that we figured out after all these conversations that the person that picks the team doesn’t have to be there every single day. (Right now) you have the general manager that finds and signs the players and then you have a coach that works with them on the field, we just looked at that model and said that in today’s world that’s not necessary anymore.
“The organization can be flatter,” added Jerkunica. “One person can accomplish more things.”
The 44-year-old Wynalda, a former U.S. Men’s National Team forward and inaugural MLS player, cites the experiences he gained while playing at home and abroad during his 11-year professional career as one of the reasons the Silverbacks came to their decision.
Wynalda picked up important details on the European management style and the best muscle recovery techniques while playing for four years in Germany with FC Saarbrucken and VfL Bochum. He even learned a little about the English style while on a three-week trial with Sheffield Wednesday. But Wynalda also believes that he learned valuable lessons from playing for long-time American coaches Sigi Schmid, Bob Bradley, and Bruce Arena.
“I think management is the lost word here,” Wynalda said. “In my experience (in the USA), whether it’s Bruce, Bob, or Sigi, you watch that part of it, the insertion of the idea that a head coach has to do this or that, it becomes too much (for the players to listen to) at times.
“But stepping outside of the box a little bit and just viewing it from the outside is what makes you a good manager and you’re able to really see the problem, as opposed to you’re just so far into the woods that you can’t see the trees.”
So does Wynalda think that Bradley, Arena, and Schmid have it all wrong? Not exactly.
One of Wynalda’s main beliefs at this stage of his career is that there’s only so much a player can hear from a head coach before he tunes them out. Wynalda believes that with him spending part of the week away from the players, they’ll respond better to hearing one voice during the week and a different one on the weekend.
“I think breaks are good, breaks are imperative,” Wynalda explained. “We have a saying (in soccer), ‘put the ball away.’ Everybody assumes that it’s all about working hard every day, being emotionally invested, but that’s really unhealthy. It’s really not a healthy way to go about life.
“I think when the voice changes a little bit, when it’s a different voice on a different day, it’s a different reason to listen. When you’re constantly listening to the same rhetoric from the same guy about the same thing, when your job becomes that redundant and that monotonous, nobody wants to be there. That’s one of the experiences I have had in the United States and I’m trying to alleviate that.”
As part of the deal, Wynalda will leave the day-to-day coaching and training from the day after the game until a day or two before the next one to his coaching staff, all while keeping an eye on the practices from his home in Los Angeles. Thanks to modern technology, Wynalda will receive either live streaming video of the team’s training sessions or archived footage so he can identify mistakes and issues.
The Silverbacks announced their coaching staff for the upcoming season on Tuesday, a group that includes long-time Silverbacks reserve coach Ricardo Montoya, Alejandro Pombo, strength and conditioning coach Juan Castellanos and Eduardo “Lalo” Liza.
“If you really want to give somebody credit for Chris Klute, it’s Ricardo Montoya,” declared Wynalda. “He’s been there for a long time, knows the landscape of Atlanta better than anybody, knows the local talent, he’s a wonderful person to be around. He’s just a wonderful asset and he has a team of guys that work with him.”
There are a number of signs that the Silverbacks experiment isn’t actually so far away from what some soccer teams are doing here in the U.S. Just this offseason, the Columbus Crew (Gregg Berhalter) and Chicago Fire (Frank Yallop) both hired people with European roots or experience to be the head coach and director of soccer, and the New York Cosmos recently added the title of director of soccer to head coach Giovanni Savarese.
Both Wynalda and Jerkunica conceded that they can’t predict that the team will make the NASL Soccer Bowl for the second year in a row, but they’re both confident that they have a better system in place to make it happen now than in the past.
“Will it work, can it work?” Wynalda asked rhetorically. “Well, we’re going to find out, because we’re married to it.”