Grant Wahl’s exit from FOX Sports has freed him to become a bigger critic of US Soccer

Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl has gone from US Soccer Federation insider to critic in a short span of time. Wahl’s evolution reflects the changing attitudes of the soccer media in the United States towards the USSF. But it also reflects Wahl’s shifting professional position from FOX Sports on-air talent to exclusive SI writer, which has seemingly influenced the shift in his analysis.

Wahl’s forte has always been his ability to use his contacts to report stories related to the sport. When it comes to covering the matches he reports on, his analysis has generally been weaker. But like many American writers who cover soccer, he’s been generally defensive of MLS while being cultivated for years by those in the upper echelons of the game in this country. His reporting on European soccer would generally have an American angle of some sort, and his access seemed to guide much of his reporting.

As criticism of US Soccer grew throughout this decade, culminating in multiple lawsuits against the governing body for the game in the US, Wahl generally reported on these developments with a skeptical or establishment eye. This earned him the ire of many reformers and a perhaps undeserved wrap as an establishment shill on Twitter. His frequent appearances on FOX’s coverage of MLS or UEFA Champions League coverage appeared to be, more often than not, promotional set pieces for MLS or the USSF, reporting stories favorable on-air such as big player signings or positive ownership changes in American soccer.

FOX’s coverage has a definitive pro-American and pro-MLS slant. The network essentially has served as a propaganda arm for the establishment clique that runs US Soccer. FOX’s desire to consistently over-hype players in MLS as well as the competitiveness of the US or Mexican men’s national teams has a definitive nativist tinge. As an on-air reporter for FOX Sports, Wahl was largely boxed-in, it appeared (often ignoring the anti-establishment voices), in delivering the type of news that would be acceptable to the FOX viewer and presentation style.

It is important to remind the readers at this point that Wahl is a reporter, not a commentator or analyst. While many reformers saw him as a shill, I was never in that camp, and honestly didn’t have much time for that view because those who articulated that point misread Wahl’s role. Reporters can be advocates but can also be straight news gatherers. They need to go where the facts or information at their disposal takes them.

Wahl is a reporter whose sources were largely in and around the established governing circles of American soccer. Did that skew his world view? In my opinion, absolutely, but that did not make him a shill by any stretch of the imagination. Reporting and perspectives of news reporters are often shaped by the world they live in, and Wahl’s world was the hallowed glass house of the American soccer establishment. It’s naive to think he could create overnight the sort of network of contacts outside the US that would be necessary to have a broader perspective. In many ways, Wahl was no different than any number of leading British writers, whose global views of football are shaped by watching the Premier League and stereotyping lazily in some cases continental football and what happens in other corners of the globe. This all having been said, Wahl’s perspectives on the global game were often badly out of order with what many of us saw as reality.

But these are no ordinary times in the world of American soccer and Wahl being a reporter first showed a growing willingness to question those in power during 2018. Wahl’s reaction to the US Men’s National Team missing qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup was to float trial balloons about potential USSF Presidential candidates, and broke the news about Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt’s desire to relocate his club to Austin.

Then in 2018, Wahl reported about efforts to “twist arms” to support Kathy Carter’s establishment-driven bid to become the President of the USSF. Carter was the President of Soccer United Marketing (SUM) — an entity whose ownership by MLS and relationship with US Soccer has long been the focal point for critics who consider the governance of the sport in this country broken. Wahl’s reporting on this matter was on SI’s website, not on FOX.

The breaking point for Wahl appeared to be his report on FOX of the USSF refusing to interview recently-departed Real Madrid Manager Julen Lopetegui in October 2018. The former Spain Manager expressed interest in the US job, reported Wahl, but he was told that the federation was not interested.

Wahl’s ability to track down this news that would have originated in Europe and then report on it in a very critical fashion showed a growth as a reporter and a growing dose of healthy skepticism about the federation. Lopetegui, plainly by any objective standard, would have been a fantastic hire for a men’s national team that was growing more and more irrelevant. The unwillingness of the federation to even grant him an interview rightly resulted in indignation across the fandom of American soccer, with Wahl suddenly becoming the figure that led the chorus of anger.

Wahl’s reporting on this matter reflected the growing sentiment within the frustrated US fanbase that qualified candidates were turned down for interviews, while the process took a long year with a preordained result.

Since that moment, Wahl has become more critical of US Soccer, MLS and the general establishment narrative often offered on FOX and by other writers. Wahl’s general reporting on US Soccer matters has been marked by a more critical eye in the last 18 months since the Lopetegui interview rejection.

Interestingly, after Wahl left his on-air position with FOX Sports, this seemingly gave him more freedom to sharpen his writing pen and question the US Soccer establishment.

The ongoing legal process involving the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) and US Soccer Federation (USSF) led to yet another ugly turn this week as depositions revealed the USSF’s strategy for winning the case. The underlying theme of the USSF’s strategy was to paint the World champions as biologically inferior to the US men and to claim that men’s soccer was more difficult than women’s soccer. The Federation also chose to make the case that the US men have a disadvantage in home games because of support for other nations within the United States – an argument that has racist undertones and has consistently been used by apologists of the failing men’s program to excuse poor performances.

To clean up the mess especially after sponsors expressed displeasure, US Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro put out a bizarre statement of apology that was read on air by a stunned ESPN Commentator Seb Salazar toward the end of the US-Japan SheBelieves Cup match on Wednesday night.

For Wahl, this poorly worded statement appears to have been the final straw. The one-time establishment journalist called for the immediate resignation of Cordeiro.

Wahl’s evolution has been something to watch over the course of the last 12-18 months and he’s gone from the position of US soccer cheerleader to a critically important journalist covering the sport. His voice is important as more fans and stakeholders in the sport lose faith in how soccer is being governed in this country.

Wahl’s reporting has always been top notch in terms of gathering stories from his contacts in a timely fashion. Now, freed of FOX Sports agenda-driven advocacy of US Soccer’s establishment, Wahl has joined the growing ranks of American writers being critical of the federation’s business practices and decision making. As a writer with an outsized influence, he is having a real impact on shaping the debate and putting the USSF on the back foot. As a soccer nation, we are better thanks to his current posture.

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