The Mighty Pen Winner: Taylor Twellman

Taylor Twellman is a former New England Revolution and USMNT player. He was a five-time MLS all-star and was the league MVP in 2005. During his career, Twellman scored six goals and earned 30 caps for the USMNT. And now, adding to his illustrious career, Twellman is the winner of American Soccer United’s inaugural Mighty Pen Tournament.

Noah Toumert: What were your thoughts on the Mighty Pen Tournament win you pulled out?

Taylor Twellman: To be honest I’m used to finishing second *laughs*. Nah, I just thought it was cool to see the amount of names and how well the contest did. I’m flattered, to say the least, but obviously with an even keel and an even mindset, I think every name that was listed on the contest has played a huge part and still plays a huge part. To me it’s a group effort.

N: Were you surprised by how vocal your fans were and the turn out?

T: Eh, no. I think it’s just soccer fans. I wouldn’t say it was my fans or anyone else’s, I think it’s soccer in general. I think people still are a little surprised when you run a simple contest or competition or a blog or podcast or whatever it is and the amount of growth… it spreads like wildfire. And I think people are still a little surprised by it but I think if you are in 2017 then you’re living under a rock because it’s the way the sport is. I mean, there are fans in every walk of life and everywhere else so, you know, it’s one of those areas that surprises people.

N: Agreed. When we did our Supporter’s Sword Tournament a few months back we were even surprised getting tens of thousands of people coming to support teams. And I think this tournament has shown your role in helping grow the game so congratulations with that, that’s awesome.

T: Yeah, I think part of what my role is though, it’s interesting when people saying “growing the game”, ya know I look at it more so as what my job is. And my job is to give an honest opinion, assessment, and don’t sugar coat things. I think fans now are so much more educated on the sport than they were 20 years ago, or even ten years ago. So, I just think I lucked out in this job at the right time in being able to just treat it as it is, where in the ’94, ’98, 2002 World Cups and the Euro tournaments, even ’08 ESPN was just different. You were selling it to the main sports fan, where now you and I can watch any soccer game around the world at any given moment.

N: Yeah it’s definitely crazy the TV coverage and access difference from even just four years ago. And the guy you went up against at the end, Wynalda, is pretty well known to not “sugar coat” things as well. What was it like going up against him in the finals?

T: Eric has been someone that I grew up watching play. He was was also someone who called the majority of my games, in Major League Soccer and with the national team, and he’s always been someone I’ve respected. And Eric is known as someone who gives his opinion. No matter if it’s about beer, soccer, food, baseball; whatever it is he’s going to give you his opinion whether you want it or not. So on some level I’ve always respected that.

N: And what you’re talking about, about having this culture that’s different now than it was before, I personally think that’s well reflected in the growing lower league culture that we’re witnessing. I’m curious how the lower league culture was viewed, and if it existed, when you were playing.

T: I don’t think it existed to the level it does now. So I think it’s an apples and oranges comparison. I think as the sport has grown media-wise, in the sense of the accessibility of the leagues around the world, I think the fact that the sport is growing with the younger generation, that is why you can go and to Cincinnati, Ohio and have 32,000. When I was playing, the Saints, the Kings, the Riverhawks, those teams folded. Those teams failed. The Des Moines Menaces of the world, the Clevelands, the Detroits; local teams are because of where the sport is so it really is an apples to oranges discussion regarding when I was playing.

N: How do you think that having a vibrant lower division culture will elevate the game as whole in the US?

T: I think it’s a must. I think that we’re naive as a soccer nation if we don’t think that plays any value in the development and growth of the sport.

N: Yeah, because I saw a recent interview with you after FC Cincinnati’s US Open Cup game, where you discussed the federation using some of the money to invest more in that.

T: Yeah I just think it’s the responsibility of the federation. I think it’s their responsibility to make sure that while Major League Soccer, which is the first division under their federation, may only be in 28 markets but if you want me to be convinced that there’s only 28 markets in the country then I think we’d be mistaken. I think Open Cup, because it’s the only open style, open market competition without promotion/relegation, I do think it’s the responsibility of US Soccer to grow that. I know my employer is heavily engaged and heavily interested in growing the US Open Cup but I think there’s got to be a couple of changes. And obviously in that interview, or that halftime, I spoke about those and I just think the lower divisions have a massive, massive part of our development. And I think the Open Cup is one of those ways that you can incentivize those teams to investing even more time and even more money.

N: I agree with that, and even here at American Soccer United what we’ve done is start a fan fundraiser to help the non league sides that do well in the Open Cup to give a bigger cash injection. We’re talking to Christos FC about how they want to use that money and their goal is to use it to start a youth program in the area, so you can see how that money will play into developing not only players but the culture in itself.

T: Yeah that’s important, I agree.

N: As a fan organization we’re always tackling the question of what part fans can and should play in trying to elevate the game here, so I’d like to know your thoughts on how we can interact with the game to help push it forward.

T: I just think it’s making sure the enthusiasm, the accountability of the players and organizations we’re fans of drives the sport the most. I think if you’re upset about something or happy about something those should be the equal amount of energy. We need to hold the athletes, organization, franchises accountable for when they’re good and for when they’re bad. No different than you guys do for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indians or Browns. The other aspect of it is the education of the team that you’re following. I always find that while being a fan, if you’re a blind fan, so to speak, it doesn’t have the same impact as if you’re a fan that knows the system and all that stuff we talk about in every other sport. I think sports talk radio in those areas, then the writers, then the media and everyone else that’s held accountable for covering the team on elevates that level, if that makes any sense.

N: Yeah that definitely makes a lot of sense. As I’ve come into this space of US Soccer and the division culture it’s interesting watching people become educated on the system as it grows.

T: Yeah and I do think one of those points though, Noah, to complete that thought of education is that I do think in the soccer world, for whatever reason, we are still reluctant when a non-soccer fan wants to come in and try to talk it. And they may not say what we think is right or they may not say things properly or whatever, if their education level isn’t the same we shun them. And it’s this little niche group and at some point, why are we so protective of it? Why are we so reluctant to educate?

N: I agree, I’ve seen so many cases of people being mocked for using the wrong terminology and they’re maybe not soccer fans, so you have to think if that’s their first experience with soccer how are they going to become a lifelong fan?

T: Yeah, and people think I’m wrong on this. And everybody will say, “well look at some of the SportsCenter anchors,” and I don’t look at it that way. Those are generations of them not understanding the sport, so if they’re going to try to get into the sport now, it’s no different than if I tried to pick up or understand and talk about cricket. It really is. And that’s where I think soccer fans, it’s not insecurity, but they get so defensive about it and listen, I hold them accountable. You call the out on Twitter and say, “this is how you do it,” but it’s almost as if we overstep the line of ridicule. It’s almost like we have to apologize for being fans of soccer, and you don’t have to apologize for it. But you also don’t have to be so, what is it, inclusive maybe? Exclusive? I don’t know what the word is, you know what I’m trying to say.

N: I 100% know what you’re trying say. Because you see it, the people who maybe had so many years of being mocked for liking soccer that they become gatekeepers about who can and can’t like soccer now that it’s gained popularity.

T: That’s actually exactly how I would say it, you said exactly what I was trying to say. And you don’t need that anymore because the sport is already mainstream.

N: Yep. It’s the debate that people have about if you should call it “soccer” or “football”. And to me I’m like, I don’t care what you call it as long as you’re watching.

T: Completely, it doesn’t matter to me. Now I do believe there’s a part of me that looks at it and says, well we are American. It’s hard for me to say “football”, but when I’m sitting there talking with international players during international tournaments, well then maybe you do need to so they understand where you’re coming from, but what does it matter? The defensive nature of that is… The best part is that “soccer” originated in England.

N: Yeah it’s such an interesting part of the dynamic and seeing how that plays out going forward as the culture grows and solidifies, I’m interested to watch it happen. But jumping off of that, do you think on the field we’ve developed an “American style” yet?

T: No. I think that topic of discussion is such an evolving topic, and I think it evolves every six months to a year. And because of this country being a such melting pot I think it’s very difficult. I don’t think we’ve determined that yet, in the way the Italians or the Germans or the Brazilians or the Dutch have. I don’t think we’ve determined that yet. And I don’t think that we will for awhile to be quite honest with you because you have the melting pot. If I grow up in St. Louis and theres’ this huge Bosnian connection there or I grow up in LA in the Mexican-American or Latino way, those are two completely opposite ends of the spectrum of style of play and what works and what doesn’t, so now how do you take someone from New York and someone from Miami? So that’s what the national team is. And I just find that we’re selling ourselves short. If we try to do one style you almost eliminate other kinds of players that’s in this country. I’ve always believed that the evolution of the team’s style of play actually evolves every time the team’s together. What if the 2022 World Cup is all Latinos? Then the United States is going to play a certain way. Then what if the 2026 is all Eastern Europeans and German-based Americans? Well the team’s going to be different. Or what if it’s both? So I just think if you have tunnel vision and say “this is our style of play” I just think we have to be very careful of not shutting out the view points of certain kinds of players this country still can use.

N: Do you think, going a step further than that, that it does a disservice to what our capabilities to keep having the conversation? Like there’s an answer at the end of it?

T: Yes. I don’t think there’s an answer. Now, do I think you can develop players? I think that’s a different question. I do think there’s answers to that but I think if you determine your style of play before you see your 11, 18, 23, 40- man roster than I do think you’re doing a disservice to not only your team but also to the player.

N: That’s really enlightening. I’d never thought of how the melting pot that is America geographically plays into it.

T: Look at my upbringing. I play for the national team and I go talk to someone from Los Angeles or I talk to someone from Seattle or I talk to someone from Orlando, well all four of us have different perspectives. Now, how we developed? That’s completely different. And people too often get style of play and development in the same discussion and that opposite. Because I can still develop a soccer play no matter where I am in the country. No matter what my background is, no matter who my coach is, you can still develop a player. But now putting those particular players, your best 11 together, if you’re only looking for a certain player then I don’t care who you are, but look at how big our country is. Italy wouldn’t be the Italian national team play if they had 40 states the size of of Italy to look at with 40 different countries represented in that country. I just think the style of play discussion, I’ve always believed and I still believe, that it depends on the coach and the players on that roster. And if we predetermine that before any player are selected, I don’t know about that one. And that’s not the case with a Major League Soccer team or a club team, just so I clarify that. That’s strictly national team. If I’m running a club team, that’s different. I can run exactly what I want, the exact player I want, the system I want to play. But people go, “then it should be that way for the national team” and I’m just like, I don’t know.

N: It’s the difference of picking your resources from the international market and having a set list of people. If you’re able to pick whoever you want it’s easier to say the style and pick the players who fit into that. It’s the opposite on the national team.

T: Yep. And everyone will look at the success of Germany and the revival of their youth program. Keep in mind that Germany is the size of Minnesota and every Bundesliga owner, there’s a great book called Das Reboot, and every owner understands. Every Bundesliga club invested in the development of the German player and when you read the book, it’s interesting they wanted their players educated. They wanted their players in school. And often we hear “players can’t go to college.” Since where? Germany’s players are educated. So that’s where the development and style of play goes down the same path and they’re completely opposite discussions.

N: Do you have any thoughts about what the style of play for the upcoming World Cup will look like?

T: Yes, it’ll be very athletic. It’ll be very similar to the previous four or five World Cups because that’s the kind of player and kind of team we’ve put together. Now, Christian Pulisic has a ton of pressure and weight on his shoulders to be the Lionel Messi of the United States when the reality is he just needs to be the best Christian Pulisic he can be. What position he plays at the World Cup will be interesting. Is he a wide player? Does he play underneath the center forward? But that team will be very fit, very physically prepared, as they should be. I love when people analyze World Cups and they’re like, “the heart and soul was in it”. Isn’t that a requirement?  

N: *laughs* Yeah. Who’s going without heart and soul?

T: Right. Now the question for the United States is when they play the Argentinas, Belgiums and Colombias of the world, can they play? Can they possess? Can they get after a team? Or do they still need Tim Howard to make 14 saves? But that is not, in my opinion, an overnight answer. I think that is a generational answer and an era answer and I think the Christian Politic era, that player, where are we then? When that player is 25, 26 and his group of players, that’s going to be very interesting to see the generation that those players are and if there’s been any progress playing the Colombias of the world.

N: Definitely, and that era of players will be right around the World Cup that the United States, Mexico and Canada bid for. Any thoughts on the joint bid?

T: Uh, I just think it’s part of maximizing the opportunity and what FIFA is looking to do. I don’t have any issue with it whatsoever. It’ll be unique.

N: I’ve seen some people take issue with it.

T: The hard part is travel. That’s a long time from now, nine years form now. A lot can happen outside of the soccer world regarding the Mexican-United States relations so it’s hard to comment on that now. But with the semi-finals and final being in the United States, I don’t know what anyone’s complaining about. Plus, people forget that that World Cup will have how many more teams?

N: Yeah they’ll be at 48 then?

T: Yeah because then it’s like, you know what? Who cares if the first round games aren’t here, those are pointless games in my opinion anyways.

N: And they might have to go to a place with World Cups where joint bids are necessary depending on how many games they have to roll out in how short of a time it is.

T: Completely.

N: The marquee ASU question we ask everyone we interview: If you were to give me one summed up answer, what needs to be done to make US soccer reach its potential?

T: Hmmm. When you say “American soccer”, my answer would be what does that mean?

N: So defining what that means?

T: Yeah, define what American soccer means. Because American soccer, does that mean just the national team? Does it mean clubs? College soccer? Youth soccer?

N: That’s been my favorite answer because you’re the first person I’ve asked that to who turns it around and tries to deconstruct it. Which is an essential question to answer my question as a whole.

T: So my answer would be exactly that. When I’m asked about American soccer I don’t know what you’re talking about because there’s so many different aspects regarding that. And in part, I’m very proud of that because I’m red, white and blue through and through and I love the United States but on the other hand I look at it and it becomes frustrating.Whether it’s pay to play, college soccer, development academies, the women’s league, men’s leagues, national teams, I just feel like the synergy of every single aspect could be a little bit more in sync.

N: It’s such a wide field of parts that go into making up America soccer that maybe we aren’t right in asking the question in that way.

T: No. It’s a question we always talk about and we always answer. I just find it to be so layered and so convoluted. What are we really talking about? You know, we still have a huge pay to play structure in our country where the rest of the world does not. And then you’ve got every single pay to play parent wanting a college scholarship out of that in a sport that’s not fully funded regarding the amount of players on the team. And yet less than 50% are scholarship athletes for the men, 9.9% Division One, an you’ve got a team of 25? So I think my answer is exactly that. On one hand I look at it and I’m very proud to be the United States and be America, and how our sport has so many different ways of looking at it, but on the other hand it also becomes the most frustrating part because I feel like the synergy of all of them isn’t there.

N: The synergy part. It so often seems disjointed when you look at the system as a whole. The pay to play thing is really what got me involved in this. I’m 23, I was in that system five years ago, recently came out of it and started thinking “Well my parents paid X amount of dollars a year because our coaches said that if they pay that I’d get a scholarship.” and it just doesn’t happen. The system seems so flawed. Part of me getting involved with the fans is asking “how can we fix that? How can we make the game available for everyone in the way that it is around the world? How can we end the pay to play system?”

T: Part of it is that it’s a societal issue. Not to get into it, but growing up I could go play in my backyard or go ride my bike, as long as I was home by a certain time. That doesn’t happen anymore. No matter what sport we’re playing in our country, they need a coach involved and they need a field and all this stuff. No one’s playing on their own. Where boys become men, so to speak, is when you’re nine to 14, growing your character, growing some competitiveness. You really have the “street qualities”. When it’s pay to play and it’s always organized, where’s the love of the game? There’s nothing better than playing with your boys 4v4. And I played a ton of basketball that way. That’s where I figured out if I was going to play basketball, and soccer was the same way. You didn’t need six plus two all the time. Just go out, roll the ball, let’s go. What’s the game? And that culture, that’s lost here, that doesn’t happen. Now, honestly, I’m having that discussion with basketball players. A couple of my friends here at ESPN will talk about basketball and it’s everything’s AAU and everything is organized. Nah, let’s just go play. It’s raining out. So what? How do you play? Figure it out. But, pay to play is a huge issue in our country and part of that needs to be addressed. I don’t know how to answer it.

N: People in the soccer community like to look at that as a soccer-centric issue, but it’s not. It’s all American sports.

T: I was just thinking about how you asked as a fan how you can help grow the game, and this is a good answer for you to put in the article. Our editor, his name is Marc Connolly, been an ESPN editor for over 20 years. He tells a great story and I’m going to retell it because it’s happened to me hundreds of times. It’s when Eddie Lewis was playing for Leeds United. And he [Connolly] goes into a bar and everyone’s watching Leeds and he asked ten Americans who all said Leeds was their favorite team, “well how do you like Eddie Lewis?” and they go, we don’t know who that is, and he says, “well that’s your starting left midfielder”. And I say that story for this, I have zero problem if you’re a fan of a team in England, Germany, Spain, Holland, wherever it is. But if you don’t support your local team that doesn’t add up to me. Whatever level that is, it doesn’t add up. I think it’s fraudulent. Every English person I’ve ever met, Ian Darke, when I ask them the first answer they say is, “well my local team, that’s who I’m a fan of”. It’s unequivocal. They all say that. And then they’ll say the bigger team they’re a fan of. But over here, what I don’t understand is how can you live in St. Louis, play for Scott Gallagher, and when someone asks you don’t say “Well I’m a fan of Manchester United, but first and foremost I’m a fan of St. Louis FC” that doesn’t make sense to me. It never has. it never has to me. Because you would never, ever, ever, ever say, “well first and foremost I’m not a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals”? Of course you would. Imagine if we did that in other sports, people would laugh at us. But when it comes to soccer people are like “Ah I’m a fan of Chelsea” “where do you live?” “Boston” I have no problem with you being a fan of Chelsea or Liverpool in Boston, but how are you not a fan of the Revolution? Even if you want to be critical of the Revs, that’s not what I’m saying. That’s being a fan. That’s where i just feel like… you asked me about fans and how you grow it, that’s one avenue I’ve always struggled with the fans on that topic.

N: I agree with that and an experience I’ve had since coming back to Cleveland is going to the local Arsenal bar, the team I watch, and seeing them have 50 people there for a match, and most of them are people I’ve never seen at an AFC Cleveland match. And when I talk to them about it, they’re like “oh well, it’s lower division so it doesn’t matter”.

T: That’s where the discussion when people say promotion/relegation and they’ll say “Oh if Cleveland was in it…” I’m just like, but wait a minute. All of those English teams have never been promoted and they’re still fans. I don’t know, I struggle with it. I guess promotion/relegation is kind of out there, it doesn’t really have bearings on this conversation but for me I just don’t understand when you’re asked the question of local soccer… It’s just I don’t get it.

N: I think you’re right. I’m a fan of the promotion/relegation system but as I’ve gotten more entrenched in the lower division community I’ve pulled back a little because there’s a lot of “soccer fans”, but I just don’t know if a team like AFC Cleveland, if they got promoted to the third division that doesn’t necessarily mean these fans are going to come out. Why come out for a third division team instead of now?

T: Yeah I’ll have the discussion with anyone. You asked me what fans can do. I just always find it tough to understand that they won’t support the local team but they’ll get up at 5:45 in the morning to go to a bar to watch Arsenal.

N: Same, especially when your local team has Friday night games and you can get beer there or whatever you want.

T: And people say, “well you just don’t want people to be a fan of England.” That’s not the point!

N: Yeah, watch as much soccer as you can but…

T: We just don’t do that as fans of any other sport in America.

N: Well Taylor thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Been a fan of you as  player and as a commentator as well.

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