Taylor Twellman talks Twitter, tactics, and 21st-century sports media

ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman. Credit: John Todd - ISIPhotos.com

By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 29, 2012) US Soccer Players - Goals were once the currency of life for Taylor Twellman, more than 100 of them fueling a successful nine-year run with the New England Revolution and the US National Team.

Now words are the striker's stock in trade. One of the more outspoken and photogenic television analysts on the North American soccer landscape, Twellman made quick work of the transition to TV following his concussion-enforced retirement in 2010 and now calls 'em as he sees 'em as ESPN's lead analyst for MLS and national-team coverage. Twellman as a pundit is just as comfortable talking about the game on a barstool as in a studio – and notably, one with a uniquely American voice.

“As long as it's not personal slandering, I'll talk to anyone – and obviously Twitter, you have to go through some of the personal slanders and all that stuff, get past that," Twellman explained in an in-depth conversation with USSoccerPlayers.com this week.

Twellman has made good use of social media, drawing over 58,000 Twitter followers and occasionally engaging with even his harshest critics, who tend to emerge from the woodwork when he calls matches on the world's largest sports network.

“I had no aspirations of being in broadcasting, first and foremost. So when this played out, I had no idea what I was getting into – none,” Twellman said.

“Some of the best broadcasters in the world are ridiculed to the point of no return on Twitter and social media. [NFL analyst] Cris Collinsworth, great example. In the TV world, there's a reason why he's got Emmys. Yet you go on Twitter when he's calling games, you would see he's getting death threats and all that. So I learned this – brutally – very quickly during the Euros.”

Last summer he and his colleague Alexi Lalas witnessed the power of 140-character communication after a seemingly straightforward observation during one of England's matches at the UEFA European Championship.

“I simply mentioned Glen Johnson missed his mark and he needed to perform better for England,” recalled Twellman, “and I swear on my life there was not a single Liverpool fan that didn't threaten to kill me. There was one point where both Alexi and I looked at each other and said, 'Do we need to tell someone?'

“I'm actually surprised how many players are on Twitter, because if you really hit 'Mentions,' good luck,” he said. “Social media gets that guy sitting in the basement of his parents' house that's 40 years old, telling you 'You suck, go to hell, I'm going to kill you' – you've got to have thick skin for it.”

Similarly, Twellman doesn't skirt another challenge inherent to both his old and new occupations: a hard-wired bias towards foreign competitors.

“It's no different than the American player going to Europe in the '90s. You were immediately thought of as, 'You can't play,'” he said. “There's that characterization that Americans can't call soccer games, as well.

“You could have an Englishman butcher 10 names in one broadcast and the American butchers one, and he's called out. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a complaint, it's a flat-out factual observation,” he added. “You strap on your boots and get after it and fight the fight and work hard at it, and that's what I had to decide... I noticed I need to really study, work hard at it to compete against guys that are already one step ahead in the court of public opinion.”

It's hard not to suspect that Twellman also draws a bit of additional flak for his down-to-earth appreciation of efficient tactics and unfussy play. Often sounding a bit like his old USA coach Bruce Arena, the St. Louis native is unabashedly practical when it comes to aesthetics.

“If there was one certain style that guaranteed wins, then everyone would do it,” he said. “I don't think MLS coaches get enough credit for how difficult a job it is when you have salary cap and you're bringing in different types of players – one that's been schooled like a Thierry Henry, and another one that went to school at Indiana University like [Henry's New York Red Bulls teammate] Eric Alexander. You get such a broad spectrum of players.

“Of course I'll defend the American player, I'll defend the American coach.... But my job in the broadcast is not to educate in the sense of what's a 'proper' way of playing and what's 'wrong.' I'm supposed to describe what I'm seeing, how and why.”

It's not that Twellman doesn't appreciate the artistry woven by the likes of FC Barcelona or Bayern Munich. But his own years in the locker room have given him a firsthand appreciation of the daily pressure-cooker.

“As a fan, of course there are some games where you're like, 'This is god-awful,'” he said. “You have to remember, every single player in that game and every single coach, that's their job. They're trying to find a way. And some coaches, some players, they don't have the luxury of a seven-year contract and plan.

“And you're talking to someone who loves to call a FIFA 14 game on Xbox or PlayStation, by the way – but not every professional game looks like that.”

Twellman says he's even gone so far as to turn to the beloved video game for research purposes.

“I did go to FIFA last year to help with a couple pronunciations because I couldn't find them online – that's how desperate I was,” he said. “I wanted to hear an English person say the French team [names]. So I played a game with France to hear Martin Tyler and the color commentator [Alan Smith] say it.”

It hasn't escaped his notice that the digital version of the beautiful game has even fewer American commentating voices than the real one, something he aspires to change someday.

“Listen, I want to commentate on that game! I want to be on there. I would love that,” he enthused. “I think the American version of that game should have an American on there. And everyone's probably like, 'Oh God, I hope it's not Taylor.'”

Unlike many ex-players who struggle with the responsibility to critique their former colleagues, Twellman appears comfortable walking that fine line between honest appraisal and excess negativity.

“What are they going to do? What are the media going to do to US Soccer and MLS that they haven't done?” he said when asked whether the US soccer media give their subjects enough scrutiny. “I've been in rooms where media ask some very difficult, tough questions. But once you get the answer, it's kind of stupid to keep beating a dead horse, in my opinion.”

While optimistic about his sport's continued growth, he doesn't expect soccer to grow into the type of sensationalistic spectacle his current employers whip up for more established American leagues.

“I don't think our league's been around long enough for people to have the experience. How many people in the journalistic world of MLS and US soccer have done other sports? Very few,” said Twellman. “Grant Wahl and Jeff Bradley are two guys that come to mind for me as two guys that have covered other sports before on a regular basis, and you can kind of see how they're maybe a little different than others – for better or for worse, that's for others to judge."

“I think as our sports grows, so will the journalism, and there will also be more proof in the pudding on things you can criticize and things you can ask tough questions about.”

Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at: cboehm@thesoccerwire.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.

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2 Responses to Taylor Twellman talks Twitter, tactics, and 21st-century sports media

  1. Tony in Quakeland says:

    Here’s as good a place as any to say this: when Twellman first began announcing, I really couldn’t stand him. He sounded like a typical ex-player, afraid to ever criticize anyone. Now? I look forward to him announcing games. He’s funny, he explains the game well- often spotting trends in the game that later have an impact, and he does not shy away from ‘calling them as he sees them’.

    He has become one of my favorites – and a couple years ago I never would have thought that was possible.

    • Dave in NJ says:

      Tony, i couldnt agree more. My respect for Twellman has increased markedly. I think he is hampered by a sort of frat guy voice but I admire his courage and his game and approach generally.