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Q&A: Taylor Twellman on Missing the World Cup and the Future of American Soccer

The ESPN analyst, former national team striker, and sudden viral sensation spoke to us about everything that’s wrong about American soccer—and some things that are right

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On Tuesday night, the U.S. men’s national team lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Soon after the final whistle, ESPN’s Taylor Twellman went viral:

This wasn’t your typical talking-head rant, either. Twellman didn’t question the heart of any of the players or blame the coaching staff. No, he indicted—in detail—the entire American soccer infrastructure from top to bottom, including himself. Unsurprisingly, Wednesday became a busy day of unending media obligation for Twellman, but The Ringer spoke with him that evening to discuss the present-day failings and the future of the U.S. soccer program. The quotes appear in this piece about the ripple effects of the USMNT’s disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Busy day for you?

Ha! Yeah, I'm going on 90 minutes, 2 hours of sleep, so I'm done.

First question: Who does the U.S. bring in as the manager next? Is it another person that's been a part of the U.S. system? Do they go outside of the system? Does it not even matter?

I actually don't think it matters. I think the hiring of the technical director on behalf of just the first team and actually of the entire system—I think that's the more important hire. I think that person needs to have the say in multiple, if not all matters. I think that person needs to have the responsibility. So the manager comes from the technical director in my mind, and I think the flaw of the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann was they gave him both titles. I would have given Klinsmann one or the other. Personally, I would have had zero issue with giving him the technical director, because I think Klinsmann's ideas and implementation of those ideas was stronger than his managerial skills. But neither here nor there: The flaw in hiring was giving him both titles. You know, Germany has Oliver Bierhoff and Jogi Low. They didn't give Jogi Low both titles.

It’s like a coach who tries to be a GM also.

Yeah, it's a little bit more convoluted and complicated because you're in charge of all of the youth national teams, you're in charge of the development academy. You know, it's more than just Bill Belichick worrying about his roster for the Patriots.

It is kind of weird that sort of the technical director hasn't been a bigger figure in American soccer culture.

Well I would say that the technical director is a more important technical aspect of your B-team at the club level, franchise at MLS level, or the national team. It's way more important than your head coach. Because head coaches come and go. But if you don't have someone looking over the horizon, and staying with a plan, like Bierhoff did for Germany, then you're just piecemealing it together every single year. And that's a real issue.

This is what a lot of people say about the club Southampton, where they are essentially changing their manager every season and the team is just as good. They're kind of always planning for the future. So, there's been a ton of self-examination and hand-wringing after the result yesterday. Do you buy the line of thinking that this is a come-to-Jesus moment? That it’s maybe a good thing for American soccer?

I believe that the moment is there. I'm not completely convinced that the United States will maximize the moment. In my gut, I hope and think we do, but in my brain, part of me thinks that people are still too reluctant to admit and commit to change.

Even just looking at the players and even the manager who lost yesterday, it's a lot of the same people.

If you have the same 15, 18 people sitting at the table, naturally, I don't care if you're at your Thanksgiving dinner table with your family, it becomes stagnant. You need new blood. You need new ideas. You need accountability. You need motivation. You need freshness. It's all of that. It's all of that. If there's no accountability for one's actions, no matter what your profession is, then quite honestly, what's the point?

What message does this send to all of the players in the country if nothing happens? If change doesn't come? And I'm not talking about normal change. I'm not talking about, “OK yeah, hire a new coach.” Well of course your contract is up anyways. So new coaches [are] coming in. But if you think that fixes the problems, people are mistaken.

So do you have an opinion on whether Sunil Gulati should step down or not run for reelection?

It’s complicated, because he's the executive council member. So, I don't know the ins and outs of how that works, but Sunil's a very, very, very bright man. Let's say Sunil resigns. I still don't think that ultimately fixes the issue either.

Yeah.

And people are shaking their heads on that. I just feel like so many people are saying, "You have to fire Sunil or you have to fire Bruce." [Update: Arena officially resigned as USMNT manager Friday morning.] Well OK, so that fixes the problems? That fixes the root problem of how expensive coaching education is? And how expensive youth soccer is in our country? No! It doesn't fix the problem. So Sunil steps down? OK, fine. I just don't see how a new coach, new person for Sunil still solves the issues.

Soccer is the sport where the more money your parents make, the more likely you are to play. And then if you're white, you're more likely to play soccer than if you're African American or Hispanic. And I think that all sort of ties to the whole pay-to-play thing. All of these clubs need the money they get from the kids that pay to play for the club in order for the club to exist. So is there any obvious fix to the system, beyond the MLS teams paying for kids to play in their academy, and none of the other teams can?

I don't know how to answer it, because like you said, if you went to a soccer club right now that on average charges $2,500, $2,800, whatever the number is ... Now, what's confusing to me, is that towns around the country—they don't charge for baseball fields. Right? So when baseball teams practice—I mean, I played baseball. We paid $250 a summer. So who paid for the field? And yet in soccer, I'm being told by all these clubs, that's why it's thousands of dollars for field rentals. Well, that—wait a minute here. Doesn't basketball have to rent courts to play? So how are they paying at a substantial less clip than what travel soccer is?

Yeah. And it's not ...

It just doesn't make any sense to me. It just ... I've never understood it. I've never understood it. And the other aspect is, and this is a society issue, is that kids these days cannot go play unless a coach is involved or unless they've got this quote-unquote academy or an AAU coach from basketball, or this travel baseball thing. Wait a minute, what happened to just literally playing your friends till the lights go out, and competing? And being free? The best part of the Christian Pulisic 60 Minutes piece was exactly that. He didn't play for 70 teams. He played for one team and trained two days a week. And yet I'm being told that in order to play at the highest level, you have to train five days a week and get in the car for four and a half hours? Come on. Right? And that's where I'm struggling with this. It doesn't make sense.

We need better coaching at the U10 to the U12 level. My dad coached my youth team. The quality of coaching is not the sort of thing anyone worries about at that age, but overtraining children when they're, you know, not yet teenagers also doesn’t seem like the answer.

No, no, it's not overtraining. It's just being knowledgeable that when you do coach that practice two days a week for a recreational team, for under-8s and under-10s, they don't need to be playing seven days a week. I mean, you need to be able coach the sport. In January of 2016, there's 326,000 people in Iceland. There's 780 coaches with a D or A license. That ratio blows our ratio out of the water. So, I do believe coaching is a massive, massive issue. I believe that. But a coaching license? In this country? It's so expensive. My goodness.

It's a similar issue to the one that plagues the pay-to-play with players.

Decisions in this country are made about the dollar instead of about the game. And I think when that changes, then you'll see incremental progress. But until that changes—and if every decision in our country is made about the dollar and not the game—then you're in trouble.

Say what you want about Sunil Gulati—the past decade of high-level performances by the men's teams at all levels have essentially been disappointments. But U.S. soccer is in the best place it's ever been in financially, right? And we're probably going to get the World Cup in 2026, so he has established the U.S. Soccer Federation as an economic behemoth. That's fine, but is it not time for people with more soccer knowledge in these higher decision-making positions?

Yes. Yep. Simple answer for you. Yep. No doubt about it. There needs to be more ... you said it. I mean, I can't say it better. So, that's exactly what it is. And I'm not saying there's no value to the business side of it. I'd be naive to say that. Put it this way: MLS in 2017 for the first time since I've been involved either as a player or podcaster or even watching it growing up—they made executive decisions based on improving the product on the field. They did not make decisions based on marketing. That was a huge, huge sign of progress for me. That they literally made decisions based on how to get the league more competitive and better. [Atlanta United’s] Josef Martinez—you look at all these young players coming into the league—that's a huge sign. I still think though, U.S. Soccer, that federation—for whatever reason whenever you talk the game, why is money involved?

It seems to be missing the point. If we're focused on improving the overall talent level and creating opportunities for everyone, the money would just follow that anyway.

Of course it does! Naturally it does! It's progression. It's competition. You know what's weird? And I said this on the show today: For such a sport that thrives and prides on being inclusive, it sure seems like it's really exclusive.

Yeah, and soccer being exclusive feels like an exclusively American thing. Everywhere else in the world, it seems like it's the exact opposite.

Yeah! The fans of the sport and everything—they pride themselves on being so open-minded. Yet when you look at the sport as a whole it seems pretty exclusive.

The coaching issue and the pay-to-play issue—how do you connect that to when you're watching the full national team?

What I saw Tuesday was more of a cultural issue as opposed to a youth coaching issue, but that's just Tuesday. But you're asking me about Tuesday, right?

Or just the overall qualifying performance of the senior team over the last few years.

Well, what's interesting to me is for the first time ever in our history, we lost—God I hate when I say “we”—the United States lost five times in one cycle. That's an amazing stat to me.

I don't know man. It's a hard one for me. It's a hard one for me to wrap my head around. I will say that Christian Pulisic is a wonderful example of the potential of where this country could go. And here's a real dilemma: Weston McKennie. FC Dallas puts thousands and thousands of dollars into developing him and giving him the option of playing for the Academy, but they can't make a profit on his signing cause if he signs with FC Dallas, he loses his college eligibility and yet, when he turns 18, guess where he goes? He goes to Germany. So right there there's a fundamental flaw that doesn't even work in MLS's favor or any academy's favor. Imagine if every 15-year-old in an academy was under a contract that if they get sold, you've already created this open market to further your club or your franchise. Does that make sense?

Pick any club in New York or Massachusetts— one of the big academy clubs. You're getting these $2,000 fees from parents. That profit gets blown out of the water if you get $5 million from a random team in Germany that signs the one guy you produced. That's another incentive for the clubs to improve their players, rather than just cash in on their memberships.

Of course it does. There's also an agenda within academies of producing U.S. national team-eligible players. And what's confusing about all of this: Everybody criticized Jurgen Klinsmann and his stance on the domestic league. He's gone and now all of a sudden everyone wants to tell me MLS has no responsibility of developing American players. It doesn't make any sense to me.

Germany had some sort of requirement for domestic-based players when they overhauled their system.

Yes they did. There's owners that aren't even German.

Yeah.

I see the issue with the national team, more often than not when you are having conversations with a lot of these players. And I'm not talking about the Michael Bradleys and Jozy Altidores because they've been there long enough. But when these new players come in, the ones that are developed within the American system in some form or another, the tactical understanding of the game in multiple positions is lacking compared to the rest of the world. And that, as proud as I am to say I'm American, I'm also proud to realize, well we need to change that.

And that doesn't mean under-8, under-9s, drilling in their heads five days a week what a 4-3-3 is and all this formation crap. That's not what that means. You can learn tactics through playing games. Through playing small-sided games. There's a lot of ways you can learn tactics without sitting there and going through shadow play.

I know all about shadow play.

And that's one thing that stands out to me. Like when I watch Germany play and look at [Joshua] Kimmich, great example. He can play five, six spots on the field.

That's what makes him so good. It’s not that he’s gonna score an incredible goal, or he's like physically imposing. It's that he's so flexible and can kind of shift up and down the field throughout a single game.

And they have 30, 40 players at the highest level. Another thing. Our media in our country is so excited about Pulisic. OK, on a certain level? Great, awesome. Reality is: You need 20 more of him.

Do you foresee this having any negative impact on Pulisic's career? I guess it's kind of an obvious question. But what does he miss by not getting to play in this first World Cup and not being The Guy for his country on a national stage this upcoming summer?

What if he scored two goals and had two assists? Who's to say that a European club wouldn't pay $125 million for him?

Based on this past summer, that would definitely happen.

He loses that. You also lose an entire generation of players that have the opportunity to watch Christian perform at the highest level, but the Bobby Woods and those guys, you know Weston McKennie ought to be in that group even though Bruce Arena [never called him in]— Matt Miazga is another one. You lose those. You lose those generations. And the hardest part about our country right now is when the United States goes to a World Cup, their first World Cup players are 27, 28, 29, 30 [years old]. The rest of the world's is 22, 23, 24, 25.