American soccer voices are often criticized in some quarters while being defended as a “cause” in others.
The idea of American commentators at a major international event is either seen as parochial to an American audience or simply out of place by many hardcore observers of the sport. At a time when FOX Sports appears to have made the Americanization of soccer punditry and analysis a network priority, rival ESPN has found the right mixture of commentators and outstanding American voices. FOX’s approach has created defensiveness among many in the American soccer intelligentsia while NBC Sports’ heavily-anglicized coverage of the Premier League has won plaudits from those who disdain the Americanization of coverage. ESPN, with its vast resources and decades of covering soccer, has sought a middle ground that is exemplified by Taylor Twellman.
Perhaps it is a glass ceiling that was never meant to be cracked but Twellman has become the an American pundit that not only doesn’t seem out of place at a table with foreign soccer analysts, but perhaps is even the smartest one in the room. Twellman’s brand of analysis is highly informed and factors in both psychological and tactical considerations in a way few others do. Also, as we’ve seen in MLS, USMNT and Euro 2016 broadcasts, his ability to read the game is second to none. Of particular note is his exceptional way to anticipate particular strengths or weaknesses that are exposed from dead ball situations such as free kicks from outside the area.
One of the all-time leading MLS goalscorers, Twellman’s broadcast career began after persistent concussions forced him to retire after the 2010 season at age 30, having not played that year. Having competed in four MLS Cups and a Copa America tournament, it seemed a typical background for an American former player seeking television work. But Twellman has proven to be far beyond the typical American analyst of the sport.
The playbook for an American soccer commentator is to either tow the line with the interests that govern MLS and the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) or to take extreme positions attacking those entities. Twellman has been able to balance both those divergent viewpoints and interests by speaking his mind without fear of repercussions, while adding a level of analytical thought to broadcasts not often seen on English language coverage of soccer in the United States.
Placating the ”soccer snobs,” those fans who take their inspiration from European soccer and prefer a certain cadence and style while at the same time not losing faith with those Americanized fans and writers who see promoting all things MLS and USSF as a cause, is a tricky balancing act that Twellman has pulled off. How? By giving honest critiques of the US system and MLS without the type of incendiary language and angry rhetoric that characterizes some critics of the domestic setup. Twellman rightly promotes MLS where he can for the things they do well but criticizes them for other areas where they can and must upgrade.
Using Twitter wisely even if it involves breaking stories that might offend some in the US soccer community, it’s something Twellman has learned to do very well. For example in April, Cyle Larin of Orlando City SC was apparently fouled in the area by New York’s Karl Ouimette but no penalty was called. The moment was decisive in the Red Bulls 3-2 win over Orlando and was met with criticism from FS1 match commentators John Strong and Alexi Lalas. However, the next day Twellman pointed out the officiating crew had erred before the non-penalty call by not flagging Larin for offside to begin with.
It’s this attention to detail and unwillingness to challenge conventional wisdom or established narratives that makes Twellman so good at his job. His ease of conversion from matchday co-commentator to studio analyst and knowledge of world football at all levels has been on display during this European Championship. Often seeing angles in the match others don’t, Twellman has repeatedly given unique insight into player movement, body language and tactical considerations that others either don’t observe or simply choose to avoid discussion of. No holes barred typifies his style of analysis while combining well with Ian Darke on match commentary and other ESPN studio personalities including Mike Tirico, Bob Ley, Michael Ballack, Julie Foudy and Roberto Martinez among others.
Twellman has provided what many fans of soccer in the United States long have sought – an intelligent, authoritative voice on the sport with an American accent. His work has also dispelled many lazy stereotypes fans of the sport had about American commentators who played the bulk of their careers in MLS. Fans of the sport can hope Twellman is the first in a breed of savvy and sophisticated American analysts of the world’s game.
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