LONDON, ENGLAND – NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - Eric Wynalda's bravado and brash attitude were regularly on display for the United States national team in the '90s and as one of the pioneers of MLS in its formative years.
Now renowned as the most controversial soccer analyst in the country, he may be getting even more attention as a critic of the league than he did as a star forward on its pitches.
One of the most outspoken figures in the annals of U.S soccer, Wynalda was back to making headlines during an offseason filled with personal - and publicly aired - long-held complaints about fundamental MLS operations.
As a new MLS season begins this weekend - its 17th, to tie the defunct North American Soccer League - with the addition of a franchise in Montreal as the league's 19th team, there is every reason for MLS to pound its chest. Instead, it spent much of the offseason listening to one of its former stars rail against its supposed flaws.
"Sometimes they need to listen," said Wynalda, now an analyst for Fox Soccer. "That's part of their growth process."
The offseason bombast peaked during a speech at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in January. Wynalda had the soccer world buzzing on Twitter as his presentation turned into something resembling an act on a Charlie Sheen tour, a rant sprinkled with profanity to explain his thoughts on incentivizing player contracts and shifting the timing of the MLS season.
"My point at NSCAA was: Let's stop complaining about us not getting better as a soccer nation," Wynalda said. "MLS is holding us back. They don't recognize that. That's really the biggest part of the problem. "
For all his bluster, Wynalda's arguments may hold some merit. MLS is about to start its longest calendar season yet, spanning nine months from early March until the MLS Cup final on Dec. 1. Wynalda suggested shifting to a European nine-month schedule, spanning from August to May, with a winter break from mid-December to the week after the Super Bowl.
The season would then resume in February, with playoffs and MLS Cup stretching into June.
During his speech, Wynalda went as far as saying that Fox Sports chairman David Hill told MLS commissioner Don Garber to change to the European calendar to increase television ratings. MLS now has a three-year contract with NBC after its deal with Fox Soccer expired.
"I'm just trying to help here," Wynalda said. "You can alleviate the problem by just changing the schedule."
This wasn't the first time Wynalda claimed that a switch to a Euro schedule would solve many of MLS' issues. He's discussed it on a repeated basis behind the scenes in soccer circles since joining the then-San Jose Clash after his two-club spell in Germany in 1996.
Yet, according to soccer insiders, MLS officials were debating that very plan long before the league kicked its first ball.
"It was talked about a lot," said Sunil Gulati, MLS' deputy commissioner until 1999 and current U.S. Soccer Federation president. "When we were starting off, (the discussion was) primarily weather driven. How do you do that in certain markets?
"What was looked at early on was, when you have a number of southern tier venues and down the road some soccer-specific stadiums with under-soil heating, then you may be able to consider that," he said, before adding: "It's not exactly a novel concept to wake up one morning and say we should play on a European schedule or this notion of incentive-based contracts.
"Obviously, that's been around since Day One."
MLS continues to research a change to the European calendar, which would align the league with the summer and winter transfer windows, something Wynalda thinks would be key to "engaging in the business of soccer."
Historically, teams have been somewhat unwilling to sell a key player during the summer transfer window, which falls squarely in the middle of the MLS season.
"Selling a player in the middle of the season is more difficult for continuity reasons," said Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey, an MLS goalkeeper from 1996-2000. "The argument that if we're on the same calendar and therefore our season would be stopping and starting; I'd buy that.
"I think teams might be more willing to move players in the summer if it wasn't in the middle of the season."
Still, that part of the business doesn't seem to be enough to constitute such a dramatic change.
"No one looks at the revenues of exporting the services of any of our players as essential to the underlying business," MLS executive vice president Nelson Rodriguez said. "It's a component of the business, but it's not a critical factor."
More critical to the business would be a likely drop in attendance during the colder months. That's a major area of concern for a league that also contends with extreme heat in some markets during the summer.
"We are still working towards the building of what we call a 'soccer nation,'" Rodriguez said. "Sure, there are a large number of die-hard fans who would follow their clubs in any condition, but we certainly don't have the widespread appeal that would necessarily follow that leap of faith as well.
"We're cognizant of the fact that in July and August, it's very difficult to play in Houston or Dallas or some of our other markets that suffer from high humidity or high heat. It's not just cold, but what we call 'extreme weather.'"
Rodriguez was also quick to reference a comment from Eintracht Frankfurt CEO Heribert Brunchhagen, who told the BBC in January that "it's ludicrous that we're not playing between mid-May and August. May and June are the best times for football."
The German Bundesliga takes about a month off in the winter and is a league Wynalda points to as a comparison for a switch.
Fortunately for MLS, it has the luxury of watching another nation take the polar plunge. Russia's Premier League, which returned to action last weekend after a three-month winter break, is in the midst of transitioning to the traditional European calendar.
"You see the quality of the fields is extremely poor, and the biting wind and cold conditions," Rodriguez said. "How does that affect the quality of the enjoyment of the game for the in-stadium spectator? We're looking and we're studying how things are going for the next few years in the Russian league because we suspect we would face a lot of that ourselves.
"It does us no good to move to this calendar if the quality of play drops."
And that just has to do with games. There are still numerous other logistical, operational and business issues, from updating training facilities to competition from other sports for fans' entertainment dollar.
MLS has entrenched itself in the domestic sports landscape opposite baseball, NASCAR and the WNBA for a large portion of its season, with the playoffs bleeding into the start of the NFL, college football, NBA and NHL seasons. A switch would mean going head-to-head with that group in hopes that the weather of the warmer months would be a bonus to draw better attendance and television ratings for the playoffs.
Of the 19 MLS teams, seven are in markets that have at least one team in each of the four major sports leagues. The New York market is the biggest and - by far - most cluttered with a staggering 11 franchises, including MLS' Red Bulls and the Liberty of the WNBA.
"We have to look at the other sports, we have to look at the global soccer calendar, and the impact that those events may have on our league season," Rodriguez said.
Wynalda's other hot-button topic is incentivizing contracts in a way that will not only foster competition on game day, but during practice.
"Incentivizing the starting 11 is going to make the players on the outside looking in try a little bit harder," Wynalda said. "It also makes the guys who made the starting 11 last week ply their trade a little bit better because they have to keep their spot because it has a monetary value.
"Practices will mean a lot more."
MLS' standard contract bonuses that are included in every deal incentivize individual achievement rather than team excellence. The rewards can vary from $5,000-$20,000, including bonuses for: making 26 starts; team or defensive MVP; Rookie of the Year; All-Star team; and MLS Best XI.
Additionally, bonuses included in an individual's contract are factored against a team's salary cap for the following season. This year's cap is at $2.81 million, increasing to $2.95 and $3.1 over the remaining two years of the current CBA.
"If it affects the cap, then you're rewarding people for failure and punishing people for success," Wynalda said.
The movement to incentivize teams ahead of individuals is starting to take place.
Salt Lake is one of a number of clubs that's already instituted a team-based bonus structure. Dubbed a "start-win," it pays players named to a winning starting lineup.
"It's very consistent with our core philosophy because our team is the star," Lagerwey said. "We don't have bonuses for if you score a goal or if you make a big play, but if our team wins and you're a big part of that, there's a bonus attached to that."
Likewise, the CBA between the players' union and MLS also has a "win bonus" among its incentives.
Each regular season win is rewarded with $4,500, and, traditionally, a players-only meeting decides how it's shared amongst the team. That's an increase of $1,750 from the previous CBA, which expired in January 2010.
The same is true for all the other bonuses, including the MLS Cup Winner ($200,000) and runner-up ($70,000); Supporters Shield winner ($50,000); regular season conference champion ($30,000); and playoff teams ($20,000).
Similarly, the U.S. Open Cup champion gets $100,000 (set and paid by US Soccer), with the runner-up getting $50,000, the Canada Cup champion earns $50,000 and the Pan-Pacific champion takes 50 percent of any prize money.
There's also a bonus structure regarding CONCACAF Champions League - which explains the emphasis some teams put on a tournament that has yet to be won by an MLS side - and SuperLiga, which wasn't contested last year. Those numbers range from $300,000 for a championship in either tournament to $2,000 per preliminary win in the Champions League.
As RSL and other clubs are becoming creative in how they structure team-focused bonuses into contracts, MLS is exploring options to make it a league-wide initiative.
"We are now examining ways to do that as a collective, which is one of the advantages we have of being single entity," said Lino DiCuollo, MLS' vice president of player relations and competition. "We can put aside a bunch of money to do that.
"We want to get players fighting hard to get into the 18 and become a starter. We think that will be another element among many to help the overall quality of the league to improve."
MLS has taken many hits over the years for doing things different than the rest of the world, but the league has shown a willingness to change. For 2012, the league altered its playoff format so teams from their respective conference are represented in the final. An even more significant possibility could involve having the MLS Cup final played at the site of the highest remaining seed - as opposed to a neutral venue - thus putting more of an onus on the regular season.
It may also provide a barometer to weather questions, depending on which team advances.
While Wynalda insists MLS isn't listening, Rodriguez and the actions of the league seem to indicate otherwise.
"It's important to have a contrarian point of view, and there are many times where I think Eric's underlying points have merit," Rodriguez said. "We as a league would like from time-to-time that Eric not allow facts get in the way of truth.
"I would caution him to say that we ignore issues or that we're not listening to him in particular. I don't think that's true. I personally have engaged Eric on a couple of projects over the years to solicit his input.
"On balance, I think Eric is good for the league and good for the sport. I would just caution him and those who listen to him, that it isn't quite as simplistic as sometimes it seems."
While the concept of incentivizing seems to be actively evolving, the question of Wynalda's suggested schedule change remains. Is MLS willing to gamble all the hard work and growth it's enjoyed over the last 16 years on the unknown? Is it even worth trying, knowing that failure could be irreversible?
"I think it would be a big challenge to play games in Utah any earlier than we already do," Lagerwey said. "To me, changing the schedule is a little bit of a red herring in the sense you can play an August-May schedule and take a 21/2 month break in the winter, and have the same exact season we have now."
Nicolino DiBenedetto is a sports writer for STATS. Write to him at ndibenedetto(at)stats.com or on Twitter nicolino11.