….as told to guest writer Brian Mechanick.
The leaders of U.S. soccer journalism are clear: Grant Wahl, Ives Galracep, and Steve Goff. But with ESPN ramping up its soccer coverage to unprecedented levels, one writer in its empire has emerged as one of the leading new voices covering all of American soccer: Jeff Carlisle. No other writer at “The Worldwide Leader” brings the mix of thoughtful analysis and sheer American soccer know-how that Carlisle does.
Carlisle has produced some of ESPN’s best written content lately, highlighted by his recent article exploring the failure of the USMNT from 1950 to 1990. Jeff began his soccer journalism career in 2002 with QuakeMagic.com, where he covered the San Jose Earthquakes and San Jose CyberRays of the short-lived WUSA. He has written for ESPN.com since 2005, covering MLS as well as the U.S. men’s national team.
Jeff and I had the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation this past Wednesday. We discussed his career, the future of ESPN’s soccer coverage, and what to expect at World Cup 2010 for the Yanks right before left on his one of the bigger assignment of his career, an excursion to South Africa.
Q: When you were writing about the San Jose Cyber Rays for Quakemagic.com did you think that in eight years you were going to be writing for ESPN and going to South Africa to cover the World Cup?
It was always a goal, but you never know how things are going to work out. You have those dreams but you just try to take it step by step. I’ve been very fortunate, a lot of times I was just in the right place at the right time. It certainly worked well though.
Q: There has been a blowout of the coverage to promote the World Cup at ESPN, do you see the network carrying this momentum through and promoting soccer after the World Cup or is it more of a one-off promotion akin to the Olympics?
I don’t think it’s a one-off. When you look at the other properties that ESPN purchased on the broadcast side, they are still broadcasting MLS games, they have the rights for the next World Cup and they showed the European Championships two years ago.
I see them continuing to make a huge commitment to soccer. It’s a growing sport, but it’s fragmented with MLS fans, EPL fans, national team fans, and those don’t necessarily all overlap. The [executives] are long-term thinkers, and they’re not only trying to make money today, but also make money down the road, so I don’t see this as a one-off.
Q: The ESPN Soccernet website you write for, specifically on the U.S. front, has undergone a lot of changes in the last six months. Where do you see the website going forward and what do you see as your role with the site?
A lot of things were done specifically for the World Cup and I think that is why the U.S. page made such a transformation, but it is very World Cup-centric. I don’t make the decisions, but I do see it going back to what it was….a catchall U.S. page, whether it was the national team (men and women), MLS, WPS, college, and all that stuff. After the World Cup, when some of the stuff dies down, I think things are going to back to the way they were.
As far as my role, I’ve got a contract with them for the next year, so I don’t see my role changing after the World Cup. The people I talk to–they are pretty excited about soccer–and they just hired a new soccer-specific editor.
I think that speaks to the number of stories they see soccer producing.
Q: What is your schedule during the World Cup and what kind of content can we look for you to produce?
It’s going to be much like it was at the  Olympics, where I was writing exclusively about the U.S. until they were out of the tournament.
At that point I hung around and covered other games and stories. I’ll be covering the U.S. beat with Luke Cyphers, but I’ll be one of the lead analysts, picking apart the U.S. team with state-of-the-team-type pieces. I’ll be there for the whole tournament though; my flight isn’t due to leave until the day after the final. Whether the U.S. goes out in the first round or makes a deep run, I will be there for the duration.
Q: For most of us in the U.S. soccer community, it’s hard to gauge a completely objective view on the USMNT. How do you feel the international press rates the US side, and where do you feel the team ranks internationally?
I think its small steps. The U.S. team is growing but it’s going to take doing well at a World Cup to really make people sit up and notice. The Confederations Cup isn’t enough, too many people the tournament is viewed as a glorified vacation for some of the teams. The excuse is that if Italy doesn’t do well, it is because they didn’t take it seriously. Even though the U.S. clearly did very well at that tournament, it is going to take something more than that for the U.S. to really get that respect internationally that everyone surrounded with the team wants, whether it’s fans, players, or coaches.
That said, when I talk to my Soccernet colleagues in England, there is certainly a respect there. Clearly on paper England is the better team, but if the Confederations Cup did nothing else, it showed that on their day the U.S. is capable of great things. Granted they’ve had big upsets before, they beat Brazil, the beat Argentina in the Copa America, but unfortunately sometimes those games are quickly forgotten, especially if in the next tournament the U.S. doesn’t do so well. To wrap it up, the respect is growing, but for it to increase at warp-speed, the U.S. is going to need to succeed at the World Cup.
Q: Continuing on the Confederations Cup, a year ago the U.S. went down there and probably had their finest performance since the 2002 World Cup. How do you think this U.S. side rates to where it was a year ago and how much of a benefit do you think it was to go down to South Africa and have that experience for the 2010 squad?
Versus the 2009 side, the U.S team is either at the same level or slightly worse, and I only say that because of the injuries. You look at Oguchi Onyewu, and clearly he’s not at the same level he was a year ago. Bocanegra is a little nicked up, as is DeMerit, and those guys were huge factors in the deep run in getting to the Confederations Cup final. Having said that, Dempsey and Donovan are a little bit better, Michael Bradley is better, but it still is to be seen who will partner him. Jose Torres has come on in a huge way in the last year, we’ll see if he gets the opportunity to start in the World Cup. Some guys have gotten better and some guys are not quite at the top of their games because they’re a little nicked up.
Having the South African experience is going to help a lot, just in terms of the preparation. They know the stadiums, they know how to adjust to the altitude and how long it takes, not that other teams don’t know these things but certainly the U.S. is going to have all of its ducks in a row in terms of preparation and in terms of logistics, what hotels to stay at, what to expect in terms of food. They’re familiar with the facilities, whether it’s where they stay or practice. All of things are little benefits to maximize their potential in this tournament. Whether it’s the difference between getting to the semi-finals or getting knocked out in the first round we’ll see, but it doesn’t hurt for sure.
Q: What is the difference both in tactics and emotional buildup for the cup with Bob Bradley’s coaching in 2010 versus Bruce Arena’s in 2006?
This team certainly has a lot more confidence entering this World Cup than the ’06 team did. In ’06 it seemed the vibe was that “Well, we’re confident because we did well in 2002” but the underlying message is “Even though we’re not playing very well right now, we’re still confident,” which was a fragile kind of confidence. Overall, the ’06 team really hurt from not having John O’Brien around, which was a huge, huge loss. If he’s healthy and playing like he was in 2002, things could have possibly turned out very differently.
It’s a little tricky because I don’t think this team holds the ball as well as the ’06 team did, which had Claudio Reyna and O’Brien at times when he was healthy. That’s the 2010 team’s Achilles heel, whether a guy like Torres comes on and helps make up for that we’ll see. Defensively, this team is a little bit better, they’re a little bit more experienced and potentially three out of the four starters will have been there in 2006 with Onyewu, Bocanegra, and Cherundolo.
Up top there is a lot less experience, you think about Altidore, with Buddle and Gomez barely in the frame, and then a guy like Robbie Findley who’s also very young. We will see how much that ends up hurting the team or helping, sometimes when you’re young and inexperienced you don’t realize the magnitude of what’s happening, so that can go both ways.
Q: Two line-up decisions that have caused a lot of debate: whom would you pair with Michael Bradley in the midfield and whom would you put up top with Jozy?
In midfield, I’ve always like Jose Torres’ game and I’ve liked Benny Feilhaber’s game. On a team that doesn’t keep possession very well a guy like Feilhaber or Torres playing aside Michael Bradley makes this team a lot more interesting form an attacking standpoint.
The knock on both of those guys was that they didn’t always defend with the requisite tenacity that Bradley wants and the team needs. Everyone has talked about how Torres settled the game against Turkey last weekend, but the improvement on the defensive side of things has also been noticeable. You saw it against the Czechs and you saw it against Turkey, and if he can bring that, then I think that makes [Bob] Bradley’s decision very easy, and he plays him alongside Michael Bradley then you have a much better blend of defensive toughness and offensive potential.
In terms of setting up the offense, Donovan should stay where he is. The times I’ve seen him play up top, both at club level and on the national team it doesn’t seem to play to his strengths. When he’s out wide on the left he can cut in, he can run at people, hit people with passes and face-up the goal a bit more. Altidore seems to be a lock, so that leaves right midfield and the other forward position.
If Findley can continue to play like he played against Turkey, it simplifies Bob Bradley’s options; you put Clint Dempsey at right midfield and leave Findley up top and you hope [Findley’s] speed and threat of that speed can open things underneath.
It will be interesting to see if Findley can build upon that performance against Turkey, before that game, frankly, he’s never shown that he can be effective at the international level, so is this an one-off or a sign of things to come?
If Findley’s not doing the business, then you’re better off putting Dempsey up top and putting Stuart Holden on the right side, which gives you another skillful guy on the field who will take pretty good care of the ball.
Q: In 2006 you had Clint Dempsey break out in the World Cup and put his star on the rise, and then you had Bobby Convey, who came in with the hype, didn’t perform, and has seen his career level off since then. Who do you think is going to be the “Dempsey” for this 2010 side and who do you think could level off and become the “Convey”?
Oooh, that’s a really good question. Holden and Torres are definitely candidates to take off. In terms of who’s going to level off, that’s hard to predict. In Convey’s case injuries played a part of it, being in a good club situation played a part of it, but some of that comes down to him.
Certainly last year with the San Jose Earthquakes he didn’t really distinguish himself, he really underperformed, but he seems to be turning it around now. The whole story has yet to be written for him. Tough to say who is going to level-off. Certainly, Jozy Altidore is at a crossroads, he’s back at Villareal and who knows whether they’re going to loan him out again or get a real shot to crack the line-up there. My prediction is not as much he’s going to level off, but that this is a big World Cup for him and his career is definitely at a crossroads.
Q: This year there are only four MLS players on the US squad. Do you foresee this being the last year a U.S. World Cup squad has MLS players, and what does that mean for the domestic game?
That number four is a bit misleading, you look at guys like Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark and they’ve only just left. If the Cup is a year earlier they’re both MLS players and the number is up to six, which doesn’t look quiet so bad. I’m not particularly bothered by the fact that there are fewer MLS players on the World Cup team because so many of those guys, I believe 17 out of the 23 are either playing in MLS currently or have played in MLS at some point in their career. So from that standpoint, you can say MLS is doing its job in developing players and helping to get them to a club with a bigger pedigree and things of that sort. Whether there is going to be no MLS players on the team in four years, who
knows, but as long as MLS continues to be part of the solution and not necessarily the entire solution, but as long as the vast majority of players at least get their start in MLS then there’s not a whole lot to worry about. Even if it goes to zero next year, as long as the vast majority of players have at least played in MLS a little bit, then the league can take heart from that and at that point would still be doing its job.
Q: Lastly, I have to get a prediction. How do you see group play going and how far does the US advance? Do you have any predictions for the cup as a whole?
I think the U.S. will make the second round, but they’ll lose to England. They could get a result, that’s possible, but odds are that England is going to take that game. People talk about England’s slow starts, but Capello will have those guys ready. Then, the U.S. will beat Slovenia and Algeria.
It will be tricky, it might even be one of those situations where four points may not get you through to the second round. The U.S. can do it and should do it, but it’s not a lock by any means, so they can’t just show up and expect, “Hey, we can beat Algeria and Slovenia and that be it.” They are going to have to play very well.
As far as the tournament as a whole, my heart says Spain and my brain says Brazil. I love the way Spain plays and I hope that kind of soccer gets rewarded, but at the same time I think Brazil has set upon a style that while not necessarily popular back home, has been very effective since Dunga took over. I think ultimately Brazil will pull it off, but we’ll see what happens.