U.S. Soccer presidential candidate Eric Wynalda had plenty of complimentary things to say about the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) at an event the league hosted in downtown Philadelphia on Thursday night.

But he also had a small piece of advice.

“Don’t call yourself the lower divisions, don’t do that,” he told the group of about 150 people gathered in a ballroom for an after party on day two of the annual United Soccer Coaches Convention. “That’s the foundation, that’s the beginning of the love of the game.”

Wynalda, a former U.S. men’s national team star who is currently on hiatus from his job as a commentator for Fox Sports, spoke briefly of his own personal experience in amateur adult soccer. As a former manager, he led his amateur team on an exciting run to the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 2012, upsetting two professional sides in the process.

This experience, his understanding of the game at all different levels and his willingness to speak out for a change to the status quo have helped endear him to the NPSL, which will cast all four of its votes for him in the upcoming election.

“The only way that the game goes forward is by raising every level – youth, amateur, professional – and everybody has a stake in that,” said Kenny Farrell of the New Orleans Jesters. “At this moment in time, at this crossroads in the game, we need someone (like Eric) that is somewhat maverick, independently thinking and listens to people but has the pulse.”

NPSL Chairman Joe Barone echoed a similar sentiment and expressed his complete trust in Wynalda’s vision and ability to unite the often fractured relationships between the different levels of the game in the U.S.

“I believe in Eric Wynalda for the simple reason to unite U.S. Soccer, every component from the youth, the amateur to the professional to the referees and to all of us here tonight at this convention,”  Barone said.

Wynalda’s remarks were simple and concise.

“We have a country that has so much potential, we’ve known that for so long,” he said. “The NPSL is for me, when I see what’s happening in this country, it represents the lifeblood of what this sport can be. Too long we’ve been living in an elitist system. We know that. We try to pretend that that’s not happening but right now in this country when you think about it it just feels like 23 teams matter and the rest are obsolete. That’s going to change. It has to change.”

Among those in audience were a couple players who have experienced firsthand the impact Kingston Stockade has had at the grassroots level in upstate New York since its founding three years ago.

“It’s definitely inspiring to hear Eric get up there and just get behind the grassroots soccer and support the little guys,” Stockade goalkeeper Steve Skonieczny said. “Like he even said, we try to mask the fact that we are an elitist-type country but we are. If we can eliminate that and build from the bottom up we have a lot of potential.”

Skonieczny, who is 28, and teammate Juan Gatti, 24, said being part of the team has provided an outlet for them to still play at a high level beyond college while also strengthening their own connections to the local community.

“We have little kids seven or eight years old jumping the fence trying to get our autograph,” Gatti said “I’m nobody but these kids see us as role models. These guys have no other professional or semi-professional players in the area, they have to drive all the way to New York City. They are getting into soccer, they want to play soccer because of us.”

Wynalda is running against seven other candidates for the position to succeed Sunil Gulati, who announced in December that he would not seek a second term after the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup finals. The other candidates include Paul Caligiuri, Kathy Carter, Carlos Cordeiro, Steve Gans, Kyle Martino, Hope Solo and Michael Winograd. The election will take place during U.S. Soccer’s National Council Meeting on Feb. 10 in Orlando.

Warm as his reception was with the group gathered, Wynalda did acknowledge that he has his detractors.

“Someone once told me that if you’re popular with the right people it’s okay to be unpopular with the wrong people,” he said. “I think that’s what I am.”

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