In the wake of the disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign that culminated in a 2-1 loss Tuesday night against Trinidad and Tobago, it was surprising to see the differing approaches from the two most high-profile analysts of the US Men’s National Team. In one corner, you had FOX Sports Alexi Lalas, guardian of the status quo and US Soccer system. In the other, you had ESPN’s Taylor Twellman who continued his long-standing calls for reform in a more aggressive fashion than ever before.
At the full time whistle in the Caribbean, the USMNT’s failure came into full view. The US, which had been described by one English pundit as the “furniture” at the World Cup because it was always there, had been eliminated from qualification by a combination of events. The reaction was predictably filled with anger among fans and several former USMNT players.
Using the megaphone afforded him by his role with ESPN, Taylor Twellman — whom I previously have classified as the best American-born analyst in history — was on fire, delivering a seven minute rant in tandem with Max Bretos which amounted to the elements of a manifesto. Twellman’s dissatisfaction with the US Soccer system and leadership of the US Soccer Federation (USSF) allowed him to go onto the types of mainstream sports shows where soccer is hardly ever discussed, especially in the middle of NFL and college football season to deliver his points with a passion and authenticity unmatched in the business.
Meanwhile, across the country, Alexi Lalas used his platform of FOX Sports shows and Twitter to offer what amounted largely to insecure defenses of the US. Lalas’ Twitter feed was filled with what seemed snarky or half-hearted defenses of the US situation and shots at critics.
For more than a month, Lalas’ mantra has been that he wants to see greater effort from the players and more “heart and desire,” those uniquely American characteristics that pushed the USMNT to a higher level in the past. But Lalas’ is also conscious of not calling out some of the obvious points that can be brought into this discussion — the failing youth soccer structure, the lack of competitiveness for places in MLS when it comes to USMNT players, the lack of tactical coaching happening both in MLS and in the US system, as well as the lack of accountability for failure within this system. Lalas’ hails from a generation where the USMNT established itself as a power in this region and an upstart on the global stage.
While Lalas’ isn’t alone in finding the most reasoned way to push back against massive structural change following the USMNT failure, he is the most visible and credible voice defending the status quo. For those like Lalas who have a vested interest in promoting MLS and US Soccer, no doubt non-qualification for the World Cup has been humbling but should be met with only cosmetic changes that ensure the existing order isn’t upset. These “changes” would simply be the type of window dressing, putting lipstick on a pig that entrenched establishment cliques in all lines of business or politics use to appear reform-minded but stay in power.
Lalas, despite his undoubted passion for the USMNT and its success, has no doubt fallen into a comfortable pattern of wanting to upset the apple cart as little as possible. Lalas’ view appears to be the prevalent sentiment at FOX Sports and among many of the players of his generation who despite having to fight for everything they earned as individual players and a national team are cozy with some degree of the current order.
Twellman perhaps represents a younger, hungrier and more rebellious child of US Soccer. Having come up in an era when the United States was an established leader in the CONCACAF region and fixture on the global soccer scene, he’s observed and called out the seeds of decline in the recent past. Twellman is more in tune with the American sporting landscape and culture these days and has made the point that unfortunately the USMNT has taken on an American sporting stench, where mediocrity and failure are seemingly rewarded. American soccer has long had a “participation medal” feel to it, operating in a self-contained vacuum of insecurity, self pity and paranoia.
Having observed these tendencies and understanding the American sporting landscape in a way that most soccer pundits don’t, Twellman has been able to formulate some critical observations about why the USMNT has failed and where the nation’s soccer structure must go from here. He’s unafraid to deliver this message in the most aggressive and articulate manner possible. Twellman’s use of mainstream sports programs to make his point and his ability to draw a contrast with American sports and the mentality there has been critical in selling his message.
Two networks, two pundits, two different world views. In the coming months one of the two visions for the future of American men’s soccer will carry the day. The contrast between Lalas’ defenses and Twellman’s critiques couldn’t be more telling. At stake is the battle for the future and the heart and soul of American soccer.