In his relatively young career at ESPN, Taylor Twellman has quickly become one of the best analysts across sports, whether it’s calling games in the broadcast booth or offering insights from the studio. As the network’s lead analyst for soccer coverage, Twellman has been a leading voice on not just the USMNT and MLS, but the sport as a whole internationally as well. His straight-forward analysis, passion, and insight resonates very quickly with both casual fans and soccer diehards. Take his viral reaction to this year’s World Cup capitulation in Trinidad & Tobago as a prime example.
Although ESPN doesn’t have World Cup or Champions League coverage at the moment, they still maintain a significant presence covering the sport with Twellman carrying the flag. The former MLS MVP signed an eight-year contract extension with the network in 2014.
As ESPN is set to broadcast the MLS Cup Final this weekend, we were able to spend an hour talking with Twellman this week about the year that was in American soccer, from World Cup qualifying and the US Soccer presidential election to MLS expansion and #SavetheCrew. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Matt Yoder: When we look back on this year with so many happenings in American soccer (World Cup fiasco, Sunil Gulati stepping down, MLS expansion, #SavetheCrew) what is going to be the lasting impression from 2017 and the biggest development?
Taylor Twellman: The United States not qualifying for the World Cup. When you look back five, 15, 25 years we will look back at whether or not we reacted in the right way with that debacle. It’s by far the biggest disappointment I think anyone has had in the sport. Anyone that tries to bring up the ’86 World Cup and all that, the amount of resources the USSF had back then compared to now you can’t even compare. Different planets, different stratospheres.
I think there is an opportunity to be had that five, 10, 20 years down the road, we will look back and ask “Did we as a nation take the opportunity and change for the better?”
MY: This may be a strange way to think about this, but could in some way failing to qualify for the World Cup in the long run be a good thing to implement some of the fundamental and foundational changes from top to bottom in US Soccer, where it could have been glossed over had the US backed in to the World Cup?
TT: We don’t know that yet. If status quo remains and we just look at this as a bump in the road as opposed to a monumental moment to change for the better, well, this is what I said October 10th immediately right after — that’s the definition of insanity to me.
MY: What is the top priority for US Soccer in 2018?
TT: Obviously, the vote in February is important but from the USMNT side, I think hiring a technical director will be the most important hire. As a whole, I don’t know why, but the sport feels very segregated in our country. And I hope whoever takes over the USSF understands that in order for a sport in the world that is inclusive, the United States has to be less exclusive. Right now, the sport is very exclusive on multiple levels.
MY: What impact does it have on the continued growth of American soccer that the USA won’t be competing in Russia this summer?
TT: That’s a metric that’s hard for me to measure, but just from a personal experience since October 10th with my friends and colleagues I play golf with outside of the sport, that’s the only thing they’re talking about. Every four years, non-soccer fans tune into the World Cup. If you’re going to tell me that doesn’t matter, it doesn’t add up to me. The issue I have is when people say you lose generations. You lose generations on the technical side. Christian Pulisic and Weston McKinnie don’t get to play in a World Cup, that’s huge. But just because Bob the SEC football fan who watches every four years doesn’t tune in, that doesn’t stunt your growth in developing the next player.
MY: We have the MLS Cup Final coming up between Seattle and Toronto, will we see a goal this year after 120 scoreless minutes last year?
TT: I hope so. It’s a completely different game because there’s Victor Vazquez for Toronto, there’s Clint Dempsey. Seattle is a much better team. We all knew it was Toronto’s to lose in the Eastern Conference coming in. Knowing from experience, revenge versus repeat, revenge could be very heavy on Toronto’s shoulders. Those first 20 minutes, if Toronto doesn’t have success and get an early goal, the longer the game goes 0-0, it plays into Seattle’s hands. The mentality of that team on the “revenge tour,” that can prove to be a heavy burden.
MY: Speaking of heavy burdens, one of the most fascinating elements of these playoffs have been the boo birds for Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley after the failure of the USMNT. What do you make of that reaction and how do you think they have dealt with that on their shoulders?
TT: It’s interesting because I would argue that when you’re paid the amount of money you are and on a team that has that big of a disappointment, I’d say Jozy and Michael should expect that kind of reaction. My argument to that is it can’t just be those two, though, and that’s where I ask questions of fans. You have every right to boo any player that was a part of that national team program. I just find it a little interesting that those are the only two being booed when I can probably give you another seven, eight, nine guys that should be booed as well, if not more than those two.
MY: Does that reaction affect the relationship between MLS and the USMNT? We went through the Jurgen Klinsmann Era when that was such a point of contention for many sides. Now moving into an entirely new era for US Soccer, how do you see that relationship continuing to evolve?
TT: It’s a great question and one I would have for every technical director, coach, and owner in MLS. What’s very interesting to me since October 10th has been the subtle messaging of deflecting the responsibility of failing to qualify for the World Cup. This discussion between MLS and US Soccer started with Jurgen Klinsmann after the 2014 World Cup. Jurgen was hired to think outside the box and come up with different ideas. Jurgen hasn’t been around for a while and we’re still having this same discussion.
When I meet with coaches and general managers throughout the league, they all say off the record, indirectly or directly, that their biggest concern right now when I ask them their opinions about the national team, they say the way the league is set up currently is that it’s hurting the American player.
MY: So how do you fix that so it’s not hurting the American player?
TT: Well, here we are going into the 2014 World Cup and we’re talking about the closest relationship between any league to national team is in the USA. After that, all of a sudden it’s as if it’s been severed. Anyone who tells me it’s not, you’ve got to somehow tell the coaches in MLS and technical staffs and general managers that it’s not.
I think this is the most important topic of discussion for the men’s professional side of things. How important is the American player? It’s not a right or wrong answer. England has made it publicly known that the English player doesn’t matter. Those clubs have no responsibility to developing the English player. That’s fact, look at their teams. And yet their U-17s and U-20s have great success over the last 18 months. Yet what’s the first question that everyone asks about the English player: “Will those guys ever play in the first team?”
When you don’t qualify for the World Cup, it can’t just be a US Soccer or just an MLS problem when you two worked together better than any federation and domestic league than anywhere in the world. So the one thing that has come out of the World Cup that has surprised me the most is the subtle deflecting of whose responsibility it was.
MY: There are four cities (Sacramento, Nashville, Cincinnati, Detroit) jockeying for two expansion spots. In general, what do you make of this very public process and the way MLS is trying to expand so quickly and so vastly?
TT: Whatever your opinion is about the courtship and public nature of the expansion process, if you look at all four finalists there’s no argument with the four. The sport is on the precipice of blowing up in this country. People have said that for years, but I don’t think people have realized it until the last three or four. If you would have told me Cincinnati had 30,000 for an Open Cup game or Nashville for the Open Cup, it’s part of where the sport is in this country. There’s markets that want to get into MLS and they’re doing the best they can.
My question for MLS is not the first round, it’s the second round. You’ve named these four cities so when two don’t get in, ultimately doesn’t it mean they’re the frontrunners for the next two? If they don’t rectify the situation in Miami, what does that do to the markets they want to hit in this country?
MY: And then what happens when the expansion doors finally close and there are cities that are left out?
TT: It’s not an MLS question, it’s a US Soccer question. When your top division is done expanding, what does that mean for the second, third, and ultimately fourth tiers? But that’s a US Soccer question and I think that’s why so many people have an interest all of a sudden in the presidency and that election. It goes back to this, a sport that is inclusive around the world is exclusive in the United States. How do they make the sport less exclusive? The fact and the reality is if they stop at 28 teams, you’re leaving out some major markets where the sport is growing.
MY: Looking at expansion and the number of cities that want to get involved in a big way in soccer, does this continue to build the case for promotion and relegation?
TT: Yes. Yes it does. That is where all the momentum is going. Promotion/relegation should be discussed at the table, and I hope in my lifetime it’s sooner rather than later. I’ve always been in the camp and believe that there will be some fruits to that I’m not sure we ever thought we would achieve.
MY: We can’t talk about expansion and MLS without touching on #SavetheCrew (a topic near and dear to my heart). What do you think the league’s message should be to the movement and fans concerned about the possible relocation of the Crew?
TT: Being someone that has the majority of my family in St. Louis that have lost two NFL franchises in their lifetime, it brought about a lot of those emotions. The first time when the Cardinals went to Arizona, that’s very similar to what this is. It’s hard to argue with the Rams that St. Louis can compete with the economic infrastructure of Los Angeles, California.
The hard part of this is the sentimental value of what Columbus, Ohio has meant to the sport in this country. US-Mexico. I’ll just stop with that. On a personal level, it’s difficult for me to think that Crew Stadium wouldn’t be downtown with a roof on it and grow. The amount of games I’ve played there, called there, an MLS Cup, there’s a lot of monumental moments in the 22 years of the league that have been in Columbus.
Where I wish it would have been different is the transparency regarding the struggles that Columbus has had economically. Whether Crew fans want to believe that or not, I totally understand that. But obviously, business-wise, Anthony Precourt and MLS believe they cannot sustain the growth of Major League Soccer in Columbus. I just wish on my level as an announcer and ex-player, there was more transparency on the whole issue. Because what has everyone surprised, and rightfully so, is that it came out of the blue. And the messaging of MLS is vital right now on providing security to other franchises in this league and their supporters that their owner can’t just pick up and move. I don’t think MLS expected that narrative.
MY: Do you think those fans should be concerned in other markets, especially MLS originals, because it all seems to be about finding the next Atlanta, where they aren’t drawing 70,000 but have been there for two decades?
TT: I don’t know that. It’s a real good question. My gut reaction is “no.” But then again, if you would have asked me in 2010 would Columbus ever move, and if they would move to Austin, Texas, I would have said no way. I’m assuming there’s got to be some kind of voting process for another franchise to pick up and move similar to the NBA or NFL or whatnot. It’s up to MLS to reassure those existing fanbases.
MY: What is going to be the biggest factor for the growth of American soccer as a whole over the next World Cup? Is it the performances of the national team, player development, or the continued expansion of MLS?
TT: All of the above. Nothing is more important than the other. And I guess that’s my answer, is realizing that every part of the pyramid and structure is as equally important as the one above it or next to it. You know what’s interesting, Matt, is I do these interviews at the end of the year, and you should end it with this. I’ve got a question for you and everyone else to think of: Why is it when MLS is discussed, it’s always what it isn’t and not what it is?
MY: I think it’s because the American sports fan looks at MLS and wonders why we aren’t at the top. When you look at almost every major American sport — the NFL, NBA, MLB, Olympics, golf, go on down the line — Americans are used to being #1 and winning gold medals and championships. When we see MLS as an upstart in the greater world soccer picture, we almost automatically think to ourselves, “Why isn’t it the same with soccer?” when we have the edge in seemingly every other athletic endeavor. And that’s why we seem to always be focused on where soccer should and could grow over the next generation and less so on what’s happening in the present.