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Family means ‘everything’ to Lights FC coach Eric Wynalda

Updated June 14, 2019 - 6:10 pm

Eric Wynalda thrust his phone over his office desk in Cashman Field’s basement.

His wife, Amanda, had sent him a text, and with it came a video of 4-year-old daughter Blake and 3-year-old daughter Elliotte rehearsing a preschool show.

“See, this is my life,” he said. “At first, this (expletive) would make me cry. Everything, because I was missing it and I didn’t want to miss anything. … Oh, my gosh, they’re so cute. I mean, seriously?”

Eric Wynalda was referring to the countless games, swimming lessons and moments he missed out on the past six months after moving from California to Las Vegas to become the Lights FC’s coach. The former U.S. men’s national team forward has lived away from most of his six kids — 20-year-old Brooke, 17-year-old Tim, 14-year-old Tatum, 10-year-old Braeden and Blake and Elliotte — since Jan. 1 and uses videos, websites and road trips to stay as connected as possible.

The separation ended for a short time last week, as the whole family minus Brooke gathered in Las Vegas the week before Father’s Day to plan their long-term reunion in July and reflect on a wild year. The Lights job came in October. The family’s house burned down in November. They started living apart in January.

Yet each new twist brought them closer.

“It was just a reminder for all of us that family is the most important thing for us,” Tatum said. “It’s important that we stick together.”

Following his own advice

Joining the Lights and disrupting his family life wasn’t an easy decision for 50-year-old Eric Wynalda.

He was doing well as a soccer analyst for Fox, a job that by his own admission paid more and required him to work fewer days. But this would be his highest-profile coaching opportunity to date and his late father, David, who died of cancer in 2016, believed his youngest son’s destiny was on the touchline.

The final push came from Brooke, an aspiring pediatric oncologist at Seattle University, who implored her father to follow his passion and take Lights owner Brett Lashbrook up on his offer.

“I think the proudest moment as a dad that I’ve had in all of this is the fact that I raised a daughter that I’m taking advice from,” Eric Wynalda said. “She told me that I always told her to ‘Do what you love and love what you do.’

“And when I was contemplating staying at Fox and continuing she was the catalyst in telling me: ‘Why don’t you take your own advice, Dad? Why don’t you do what you love and love what you do? Call that guy back.’ And that’s how I ended up here.”

The Lights announced his hiring Oct. 17. Twenty-three days later, a wildfire burned down his family’s Southern California home and he and Amanda came to an agreement afterward: The kids wouldn’t move until after the school year.

“We didn’t want so much to change in their lives,” Amanda Wynalda said.

Tim had other ideas. He saw a chance to spend more time with his dad, who admits he wasn’t around as much as he wanted to be while going through his 2008 divorce from his first wife, Amy — the mother of his three oldest children.

Tim signed up for online classes and became the Lights’ equipment manager, and Eric said it’s “the best decision that we could have made.”

“It’s great working with my dad, obviously, because before I got this job I never really got to spend as much time with him as I do now,” said Tim, whose card tricks have earned him the nickname “El Mago” (“the magician” in Spanish) with the Lights. “We get to do everything together.”

Little moments

While Tim and his father are closer than ever — the son says Dad is his best friend — the elder Wynalda still misses his other children.

So he learned how to make quick weekend trips work. Leaving Las Vegas after a Saturday game got him to the family’s home north of Los Angeles by 2:30 a.m. Then he could wake up with his kids Sunday morning and the following day, since the Lights typically don’t practice Monday, drop Braeden off at school and get lunch with Amanda before hitting the road again. Normally he arrives back in Las Vegas around 8 p.m. and hits the practice field 12 hours later.

Taking this job was so hard because I knew what it meant. All the FaceTimes in the world will never beat a hug. It’s hard to not be there.

Eric Wynalda, Lights FC coach

He estimated he’s made the trip 20 times in six months.

“I really enjoy the time,” Eric Wynalda said. “Just those little moments. It works.”

That doesn’t count the times his family has come to him. Amanda Wynalda gave the kids a rule after he moved: “Any time you miss Dad, we’ll just drop everything and we’ll go out to Las Vegas.”

She said they’ve been visiting about twice a month when Tatum and Braeden’s sports schedules allow. They’ve made it work, even though this spring has still sometimes been difficult for Wynalda when he’s forced to follow Braeden’s baseball games online instead of being there in person.

“Taking this job was so hard because I knew what it meant,” Eric Wynalda said. “All the FaceTimes in the world will never beat a hug. It’s hard to not be there.”

Coming together

The good news for the family is that their separation is almost over. Eric Wynalda and his wife scouted Las Vegas homes this past week and — while they don’t have a date in mind — plan to move sometime in July.

Everyone is coming except Brooke, though Tatum will return to California this fall and live with her mother so her high school experience isn’t interrupted. It will also allow her to continue to play with Real So Cal, a club team that belongs to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy.

She’s pretty good — despite the extra scrutiny she occasionally receives because of the name on the back of her jersey — but she doesn’t like to brag.

“I think I’m at the stage where all I can do is get better,” said Tatum, a right-footed forward. “I like having my own identity and being able to achieve success with my own name. As Tatum. Not necessarily as Tatum, Eric Wynalda’s daughter. He understands that it’s hard.”

He does — and he’s insistent that his daughter has done everything on her own. And he’ll continue to watch her create her own path once they’re apart again in the fall.

For now, he’ll just enjoy her presence and support along with the rest of his family this summer as he tries to improve on the Lights’ 5-6-4 start. The team had won every game his family attended at Cashman Field until June 8, when Amanda, Blake and Elliotte were on hand for a 1-1 draw with Orange County SC.

“We’ve been waiting and waiting for this,” Eric Wynalda said. “I actually think the team will start playing better once my kids are around because I’ll be in a better mood.”

10 times better

His spirits were certainly lifted this past week with his family in town.

They settled into familiar patterns, as ever-honest Tim corrected his father’s stories, teenage Tatum rolled her eyes at her dad’s boasts, quiet Braeden kept asking to shoot a soccer ball, bubbly Blake distracted her mother and energetic Elliotte sang “Baby Shark” for all to hear.

They’ll split up briefly again after celebrating Father’s Day, but this time, they know they’ll be together again soon. They struggled and sacrificed — especially Amanda, who was both Mom and Dad in California while working as a lawyer — so Dad could follow his passion. And in the end they’re a stronger family than ever.

“This year, as crazy as it’s been, it’s honestly been great,” Tatum said. “It was kind of like we started over, but the way we brought it up was like 10 times better.”

Ben Gotz can be reached at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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