Former New England Revolution forward Taylor Twellman has become a central figure in ESPN’s soccer coverage. While he will once again be a part of Saturday’s broadcast of MLS Cup, Twellman’s relevance recently reached far beyond the usual fanbase.
He took center stage following the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in October. His passionate reaction to the team’s loss went viral. The fallout from the loss continues to reverberate around the country, with the most tangible ramification being the upcoming election of a new U.S. Soccer President.
In a recent interview, Twellman discussed those topics as well as a few local subplots regarding new Revs coach Brad Friedel, the Krafts, and the perpetual Boston stadium rumors.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Your immediate response to the failure of the men’s team to qualify for the World Cup on ESPN went viral. How much of that did you have in mind beforehand vs. how it played out on television?
Taylor Twellman: I think I posted a picture on my social media. I had about 7-8 TVs on Bristol’s (ESPN) campus, and I was sitting with our leading research guy, Paul Carr. We had all the games on. It was very comfortable. Trinidad scored the second goal, and it made us say, ‘Wait a minute, this is interesting.’ But there was still a part of me that said, ‘There are 27 scenarios for tonight’s games, 26 of them have the United States qualifying for at least the playoff.’ One out of 27, so why would I prepare for that scenario? I had no idea what I was going to say until about three minutes before we went on air, and Max Bretos and I looked and what we did live is not what we said we were going to do three minutes before coming on air.
That’s interesting. What did you talk about before with Max?
TT: Max was hosting SportsCenter, so we couldn’t really talk. I sent him a text asking what he wanted to talk about. He wrote back, ‘I’ll see you in a minute,’ and then we were live on air. No prep. We didn’t prep anything. I said, ‘Max, I think the best way to do this is let’s just have a conversation.’ Obviously the conversation was a little one-sided.
Well, that unscripted reaction seemed to resonate with U.S. fans. Did you have any idea that it would go as viral as it did?
TT: It’s an interesting question, because let me say this: Right now there’s this narrative about ESPN – there’s a lot of negative stuff around ESPN. Let’s just say that. You tell me if that was done on some other network if it’s viral? And the answer is no. So I didn’t know. I had a conversation (on air) with Max Bretos who I’ve known for the last 15-plus years. I was still trying to collect my thoughts and what the heck just happened. I didn’t really know until about a half hour to an hour later that many people were seeing it. And that was the power of ESPN’s social media. It got out there real quick. If you remember, we were on ESPN News.
And honestly, I didn’t care if people saw it. It was just a real answer. I didn’t care if 10 people saw it, or if 10 million people saw it. I only slept two hours, and then the next morning I did all those shows, SportsCenter for the entire day. So really I was just on TV for 29-30 hours. It was kind of just me realizing for better or for worse, soccer was mainstream for the next 24 hours. So what kind of conversation should we have? It was less about me, and more about the moment that the United States – with all the money and all those resources – can’t qualify for the World Cup. It still begs many questions, what are we doing? There’s that GIF of ‘What are we doing?’ that goes around, but the reality is I still ask that question eight weeks later: What are we doing?
That gets us into the recent news that Sunil Gulati won’t run for reelection as U.S. Soccer President. What do you think about his choice to not run again, and what his larger legacy might be in the long term?
TT: I think it was a very difficult decision for Sunil. I really do. I think deep down Sunil believed he would win the election. I think he had the confidence of many voters that he would win the election, but I think for the first time in U.S. soccer history, the public perception or support – for lack of a better word – was so negative and so strong that it actually had a massive impact. I would use this moment as one of the top three moments in our country where you could argue that the sport has arrived.
I think Sunil and his relief in his quotes yesterday, you can see it. He was very measured and thoughtful as he always is. But I think, knowing Sunil for the last 18 years of my life and career, I think this was very difficult for him to except that the public perception and support around him wouldn’t work. Now in some ways I think there’s relief for Sunil that he’s made the decision, because he will be heavily involved with the World Cup bid. When 2026 gets here, I think he’ll be able to enjoy it a little bit more and not be in the crosshairs, so to speak. When you look at it, he was involved in so many great things in this sport, but it was time for change and he finally realized that. It took him a little longer than I think it should have, but on the other hand he’s been a massive part of the growth of the game and the growth of Major League Soccer and the growth of the national team. I just think the timing was right, and he knows that.
As for Sunil’s successor, what do you want to see from the next U.S. Soccer President?
TT: I think we’re at a crossroads moment in our sport in this country. I think whoever follows Sunil Gulati needs to understand that magnitude. And they need to understand that this is a huge turning point, for better for for worse. You can look at missing the World Cup, as big as a negative as it is, as a real opportunity for growth and change. I’m just not sure if people fully understand that. If stays status quo, then – I’ll raise my hand and say I’m proven wrong if I’m wrong – but I’m not sure. Germany used this. They’re the best example. There are a lot of entities in this country in our sport that need to come together with everyone understanding their role of getting the players and this country prepared for a World Cup. That is a massive task.
Specifically, what would you say job one is for the next U.S. Soccer President? Do you have a particular request for a starting point?
TT: I do. And it’s a theory: This sport has to become less exclusive than it is right now. And there are so many different things that that means. But the general thought is if I had a whiteboard in front of me and said this is task 1A: The sport of soccer in this country has to be less exclusive and more inclusive.
We’re not going to do it justice just by talking about a few things, but when you look at the sport in our country, it’s a very exclusive sport. And around the world, it’s the opposite.
On a more local level, Brad Friedel is now coach of the Revs. How much do you worry about his inexperience both as a head coach of a club and specifically in MLS?
TT: Brad’s been over here long enough to where I don’t think he’s necessarily inexperienced with MLS. He’s called games, but Brad would even tell you: Has he put together a training plan for a month or even two months, and he’s done some academy work over in England, done all of his (coaching) badges and what not, so he’s obviously got experience at that level. But any coach when you leave and start over, Brad at some point is going to look over and see himself this year and say, ‘Wow, this is my first time doing this.’ And that’s not a slight.
It is interesting that the New England Revolution, when they hire coaches, they always go for the new experience coach. So I think more importantly, my statement about the inexperience of Brad Friedel was less about Brad Friedel and more just that is the way the club has always gone that way. When they hire a new coach, they look at the fresh-faced, inexperienced (coach) as opposed to someone that may have more leverage, more collateral – however you want to phrase it – in the market.
One aspect of Friedel that we do already know is his commitment to coaching and developing young players. Do you think that will be a feature of his Revs teams?
TT: Yes. I do think part of what Brad’s done a very good job of explaining, but also looking at it, that if you’re good enough, age is of no consequence. I think Brad will do a good job of that. I think the New England Revolution have to do that, because they don’t spend the amount of money that other franchises do in Major League Soccer. They have to utilize that academy. I’d argue that that academy, while everyone wants to point to Diego Fagundez and Scott Caldwell, well who else have they brought in yet? And there are other players that are on the roster, but they haven’t necessarily seen first team minutes. I think Brad Friedel’s a good part of an initiative to maximize that Revolution academy to its fullest extent.
The Revs’ stadium issue is obviously ongoing, but if it was to get built, do you see Boston becoming a soccer city on par with places like Seattle and Toronto?
TT: Oh, I don’t think people realize the magnitude if Boston gets a soccer-specific stadium downtown, then you’re in top-5 (MLS cities) in this country, bar none. The young demographic, because of the amount of young professionals in our city. Let’s say the stadium is in Dorchester or South Boston, you’ve got that little kind of community feel that we’ve all been seeing around the world. Where now you put a stadium in there with bars around that and restaurants? I’m telling you, it would be top-5 in the country. And the Krafts know that, but what people don’t understand is that finding and buying land in Boston for over the last 75 to 100 years has been almost impossible. And so the criticism of Robert and Jonathan (Kraft), some of it is fair, but some of it is so unrealistic. First and foremost, they privately financed Gillette Stadium. They own Gillette Stadium. So you’re asking them to go spend another $300 million outside? How many teams in Major League Soccer have done that?
And listen, I’m not a Kraft apologist by any stretch of the imagination. Jonathan and Robert would tell you that. But I’ve heard more behind the scenes conversations about a Revolution stadium in the last two years than the previous 13 combined, which tells me that the conversations are being had. Real ones, not fake ones. And more importantly, that the Krafts want it. The fact that the Krafts would be willing to spend anywhere from $225-275 million on a new stadium when they already own one for $300 million, that tells you where they are. Now, I’m not saying they can’t do more within their team now, I don’t want that to be confused. But that’s just regarding the stadium conversation. If there’s one family in Boston that can pull off (a stadium), obviously it’s the Krafts.
Considering everything involved with MLS cup – the fanbases, the history of last season, both teams’ dominance this season – is this a perfect matchup from a league perspective?
TT: I think it’s a little surprising in a league where there’s so much parity. Where traditionally in American sports if you aren’t successful the year before you’re actually rewarded, it’s a little surprising that both Toronto and Seattle are back in the Finals. I think that’s a real statement from both franchises. In a league that thrives and prides itself on parity, it’s kind of amazing that we’re seeing a rematch.