Saturday, August 1, 2015

Taylor Twellman opens up about the state of Major League Soccer, youth soccer player development, and his work researching concussions in sports

As ESPN's lead color analyst for Major League Soccer and U.S. men's national team games, the former New England Revolution star has quickly become one of the most respected and influential voices in the American soccer community.

Taylor Twellman opens up about the state of Major League Soccer, youth soccer player development, and his work researching concussions in sports

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Taylor Twellman in a candid moment during his playing days with the New England Revolution. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP file photo)
Taylor Twellman in a candid moment during his playing days with the New England Revolution. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP file photo)

INDIANAPOLIS - I'm sure almost all of you are familiar with Taylor Twellman at this point. As ESPN's lead color analyst for Major League Soccer and U.S. men's national team games, the former New England Revolution star has quickly become one of the most respected and influential voices in the American soccer community.

But if you think he's good on television, you should know that he's even better when he's not in front of a camera. Give him an extended period to discuss the issues of the day, and he'll give you far more than just a few good soundbytes.

I know I've said that before, as I've been able to interview him for this blog a few times in the past. But it bears repeating, especially when he is able to command a sizeable audience in person.

That happened Friday, when Twellman gave an hour-long seminar at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention. The subject was concussions in sports, and how to treat them both medicinally and psychologically.

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It's a subject that Twellman knows all too well, as concussions ended his playing career far too early. But in recent times, Twellman has used his experience to become one of the nation's top advocates for research into the causes and effects of sports-related concussions. You can learn more about the ThinkTaylor Foundation, which he helped found, by clicking here.

Ahead of his NSCAA seminar, Twellman met with me and a few other reporters for an on-the-record chat. We discussed a wide range of topics, from youth soccer player development to the state of MLS to his concussion research work.

It was a long conversation - nearly 20 minutes. But we covered a lot of ground, and I think Twellman had some great things to say. So I transcribed the whole thing, and I've put it together below for you to read.


 

There have been rumors in recent weeks that Major League Soccer  is discussing a partnership with the United Soccer Leagues in which the USL PRO division would become MLS' reserve league. MLS commissioner Don Garber talked about it at the SuperDraft and gave a no-comment, but said he'd have more to say in a few weeks.

If such a partnership happens, what would such a relationship mean for American soccer players?

It means competition, because our reserve league is not even close to where it should be. And if you want to talk about the evolution of the American player on the field, while the league has grown tremendously over the last 10-12 years - off the field, with new teams and stuff like that - the reserve league has been just not good enough.

The young player that is in the reserve league, not getting enough first-team games, has to find somewhere that is competitive. USL is a very competitive league. So now you've got a reserve league there? It's already better. It's already a step in the right direction.

I think it's part of the growth of MLS, and I think it's vital that the reserve league has something of substance.

When the first reserve league came out, my brother, who's sitting in this room – Alexi Lalas was general manager of San Jose and he played in half the games. Because you had to fill out the roster. It's a little better now, but if you have 14s, 16s and 18s [as age groups] of academy teams, you have to get those players on the field in meaningful games.

Would it help or hinder things if, for example, the Union's team is in Harrisburg and the Chicago Fire's is in Des Moines, Iowa? The upside is you're getting the MLS brand into a new market, but the downside is that those teams aren't right there as would be the case in Europe, for example.

Yeah, but baseball's triple-A team isn't right there [in the same city as the major league club]. That's part of the uniqueness of our country - it's so big that you are allowed. So what if it's Harrisburg or Des Moines or St. Louis? We can figure out a way, if you're good enough, to get you on to a first team. So I don't think it's that big of a deal.

Doesn't that help fill in the pyramid, too, in the bigger scheme?

I definitely think so. I don't know where I stand on promotion and relegation. A big part of me thinks that this league has grown a lot since I came to it in 2002. When you ask for an expansion fee of $50 milllion to $100 million, and these owners are building stadiums, you're thinking it's home.

And is our league going to be that much better? I think it's easy for fans, and it's sexy for fans, to imagine, "Well, what if San Antonio was promoted and Chivas or Toronto was relegated?"We're still going to have the same discussion. Are the TV ratings going to then be 2.5 or 3.5 because of San Antonio?

I don't know if that answers your question. I do think there's a unique way we can do it within the MLS system of rewarding teams that make the playoffs, as opposed to the other way.

Traditionally, in American sports, Toronto FC had the first [SuperDraft] pick because they were brutal last year. What if we went the other way? What if, if you make the playoffs, you get more allocation money than if you don't?

Then that TFC-Philadelphia game last year that meant absolutely nothing - what if those teams said "Hey, if we finish above this other team, we get $50,000 or $75,000 more?So I don't know where I stand on promotion and relegation. But to your point about the pyramid - it's just a part of the process, I think, of having the reserve league in USL.

What about the college system? Do you think it fits in the pyramid or do you think it will continue to maintain a distance from everything else?

I'm mind-boggled as to how the NCAA can't figure out college soccer, but they can figure out how college football, college basketball and college baseball can be feeder systems. I don't get it.

Do you think they just don't care, or is it something else?

I don't know. The 2010 [United States] World Cup team had, I think, 18 of 23 players who played college soccer.

[In fact, the number was 15, not 18, but that's still two-thirds of the squad.]

So anyone who wants to tell me that college soccer isn't a factor, I say hogwash.

Now, I am shocked that the NCAA has had discussions of making some programs - because of realignment of the conferences around football - into club soccer. I've heard that discussion.

I've heard they're cutting back costs. Why can't it be the other way? Why can't soccer be the one sport where the NCAA really says, "You know what, you can play eight or nine months. And guess what, D.C. [United], your academy teams are the five schools your area?"

You can help build that [academy] program that way, and the kids can get an education. That's part of using the American system.

To go to your point: college soccer's huge, but I'm shocked.

Do you think MLS should play a more proactive role in development relating to that age group, then?

I don't know if it's all on MLS' shoulders, or U.S. Soccer's. I think the NCAA just doesn't want to listen to it because football and basketball make the money.

But cut back on costs by having these teams travel less, and go by bus, and make it like the Regionalliga, the third division in Germany. We never took a bus ride longer than three hours [when Twellman played in Germany for 1860 Munich's reserves].

I just think college soccer has the infrastructure to allow the American kid to get his education if he wants to. But I think there are so many good college programs that I would love to see more.

Now, will we? I don't know. But I really think it would work.

Your old coach at Maryland, Sasho Cirovski, is probably one of the best advocates for college soccer out there. But there are not that many voices as strong as his out there who are willing to speak up.

I don't know that - Sasho knows that better than me. Sasho's obviously a huge voice in that, but there are a lot of voices out there. Do you really want to waste your time when you are banging your head against a wall and nothing is getting done?

I just love college soccer.

You went to one of the best programs there is.

Yeah, but it has nothing to do with my experience. I'm a fan of all sports. In football, the NCAA has worked with [the NFL] to say you have to be this age to play [professionally]. In basketball, [the NBA] says you have to be a certain age to play in our league [and]  you have to go to at least one year of college.

Why can't we work together? Why can't we have a seven-to-eight month season, and maybe during the lacrosse Final Four, that's our College Cup [at that time of the year] instead? I don't know. The infrastructure is there. I'm shocked it hasn't happened.

What kinds of steps do you think need to be taken? There were nine guys drafted this year with MLS club academy experience.

Club academies are changing everything. Because now you don't have to leave high school and go live in Bradenton, Fla., and go live with a group of 50 or however many players. You can stay at home and finish your education and go to school with your friends. You still grow up the right way.

Now you are in the system earlier. So instead of going down to Bradenton when you're 17, you're playing for the under-12s or playing for the under-14s of your academy. That's a big difference.

And the biggest difference would be - from what I see as a player - is that when you're 12 and you're training with the [New England] Revolution at that time, now when the kid gets asked who his favorite player is, it won't be a European. Because that kid is going to grow up [knowing about] Landon Donovan and others.

That's where the evolution comes in. Now they're growing up within the system and looking up to the first-team players. That's a big step, if you ask me. I'm 32, so I'm not that old, but [when I was growing up] that wasn't around. My favorite players were Europeans. But wait until you interview the homegrown players 10 years from now.

And he'll say that he's been with the Chicago Fire since he was an under-12, and [his] favorite player is Austin Berry.

Do you see a potential for a conflict between the under-20 to under-23 age range of MLS development structures and college soccer, in that they might compete in some way for the same players?

I don't think so. I think you'll see that the under-20s and under-23s [who make the U.S. youth national teams] are predominantly pros, if not all of them, because of the academy system.

Going back to Bradenton, specifically, how long before that's obsolete?

I don't know. That would be a question for [U.S. Soccer Federation president] Sunil Gulati. But obviously, when you have 19 [MLS] academies and you look at the rosters, it's difficult.

Because you're going to have players such as me. I grew up in St. Louis and I had Scott Gallagher [a prominent youth soccer program in St. Louis which produced Twellman, Tim Ream and Brad Davis, among many others].

I think the academies are going to take over that development. And I'm not saying that Bradenton was a bad experiment. It was part of what we needed back then. But now I think the [MLS] academies and the [U.S. Soccer] development academy program are going to take over.

What about what MLS teams have done outside of their own markets, such as Real Salt Lake's academy in Arizona?

I think that was a product of - and Nelson Rodriguez said it best [at another NSCAA Convention seminar] - at the time [when RSL's academy launched], we were a bit immature and the soccer market in Utah was a bit immature. But I thought he said it best when he said that you control your back yard first, then we can worry about expanding.

I think right now, they're still trying to figure out the back yard stuff.

The logical next step is a team claims an area like Minneapolis.

Or St. Louis. The Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City are both very close. Scott Gallagher has produced some great players, so where will they be affiliated? This is going to go on all over the country.

But I think that's a good problem to have, if you ask me. I really do.

Or maybe Scott Gallagher stays in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League, and becomes affiliated with Sporting Kansas City.

I would love to see that, because then when you see that real dynamic 15- or 16-year-old, just send him to the academy. You have a partnership and you send him there, he can go train with them for a week or two and then come back.

Doesn't that feel like what the Los Angeles Galaxy have been doing in southern California, partering with youth soccer programs in the region to create their academy structure?

It sure seems that way. Philadelphia has been doing it too. They've had some unique partnerships [such as the one with YSC Sports in Wayne]. And that's part of the growing process. You're going to find some cracks in the rules a little bit, and it will get cleaned up because the competition for those players is much bigger.

I said it on the SuperDraft broadcast. The 19th pick this year was the L.A. Galaxy, the reigning champions. But the reality is that they had the No. 1 pick because they got a homegrown player in Gyasi Zardes [who played for the Galaxy's under-18 and under-20 teams, then played college soccer at Cal State-Bakersfield].

A year ago, he wasn't a Homegrown Player.

That's a different discussion.

They smartly brought him into the fold.

Yes. And part of it, too, is that now that says maybe that's what we need to dedicate our money to, and not worry about scouting as much.

And doesn't that mean that as regards college soccer, all the different avenues should be there for all the kids who develop at all different speeds and times?

Yeah. The only flaw I have with college soccer is that the season is two-and-a-half to three months. That needs to change.

But you still have kids who develop at their own rate. Some kids don't blossom until they're 24.

Yeah. And everyone tells me that college soccer has a spring season, but it goes back to the original point: meaningful games. We're looking for meaningful games for reserve players. With [college] spring games, Sasho will be the first one to tell you that we have it completely wrong.

When you know it's for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, you know it's a lot different than when you are playing for pride against the El Salvador under-18 national team.

In the future with academies, you would think that every team will have what Toronto FC is doing: constructing a physical space with buildings and fields and such. But in the present, until we get there, how do you manage the politics of the greater American youth soccer community?

The Union have gone in with YSC Sports, and every MLS club does it in their own way. How do you manage that, and can it be managed?

I don't know. You're asking the wrong guy. I think it's very complicated, and I hear these discussions going on daily. The competition level has been raised a little bit with these youth club partnerships and homegrown players. L.A. is a great example. They've somehow pulled out players that some would argue were never really part of their program.

I think that's going to change. I think you're going to see a black-and-white rulebook coming sooner or later regarding homegrown players, so that it's simplified.

How is the ThinkTaylor foundation doing?

It's good. I need to make a difference, and I need to be a face and a voice and an advocate for concussions and for sports. And I'm tired of people saying, "Just sit around." I was told 100 times in the last four years of my life, "just sit around and [the post-concussion effects] will go away." Well, no.

Something resonated with me when a friend of mine, Junior Seau, committed suicide. We all can argue  about what the reason was, but I know the conversations I had with him, and I don't want kids to be what I am today. I deal with symptoms every day and have for the last four years. So I'm going to make a difference.

Obviously your work has resonated within the soccer community, but how is it doing beyond soccer?

That's the interesting part. I initially said it was just going to be a youth soccer thing. The amount of stories we get about parents falling on the ice, or car accidents - a concussion could happen. One of you could fall over or I could fall out of my chair and get a concussion.

I think what's interesting is that concussions are on the front page because of the NFL and the money. But every single one of us can get a concussion and it can completely change your life. So the stories we get, that's where it has resonated.

And what has resonated too is that I am now, all of a sudden, the spokesperson. NFL players, NHL players, NBA players reach out to me and say, "We saw your story. How do you deal with this and that?"

What I'm worried about is not the guys you see on SportsCenter. It's the kids. It's all these kids that have parents, coaches and trainers that are un-educated, that don't have a voice. Well, come to us. We want to help them. So I'm going to make a difference. I'm going to knock that door and I'm going to make a difference, and do my best.

Here's a TV question. MLS commissioner Don Garber talks a lot about how huge TV is for the league. What is the next step that needs to happen to make the televised product even better, and thus increase ratings?

I think a huge step was the competition level of NBC Sports Network coming in, and the quality of their broadcasts. I grew up watching ESPN, and now I work for them, and their broadcasts have always been phenomenal. But now they have another team come in and push the envelope. You want to watch those broadcasts. TSN in Canada also has great broadcasts.

But I still believe that our sport is a regional sport, not a national sport, as of right now, and I think our regional broadcasts have to improve. That is the core group of your fans. All of us are going to watch the national TV broadcasts, and those have to improve.

I'm not saying I'm a great broadcaster. But regionally - I've lived in Boston for the last 10 years, and the Celtics and Bruins announcers are legends. They're legends, and those broadcasts are also quality.

If we can improve that product, then all of a sudden that translates. And I still believe - everyone always tells me, and I thought this as a player, that we are a national sport. We are a regional sport when it comes to television.

If we can improve those broadcasts, that's where I see room for growth.

Has MLS addressed that right now?

I'm sure they are. I'm not the first person to bring that up. But I think right now, because NBC has been very good in their first year, and ESPN doing what they do that is very good as well, I think everyone was saying now let's look at regional broadcasts.

You have some regional broadcasts - Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia and Kansas City -where they are good. Now everyone's saying that maybe we address all of [the bad ones] until we have that.

Late in the season, NBC Sports Network picked up some regional broadcasts from Comcast SportsNet and local NBC affiliates, and thus got those broadcasts national exposure.

And that raised some eyebrows, didn't it? People said this one's not as good as that one.

But you didn't notice it before, because you're not in that market and didn't see it.

By the way, it's a great thing if we're talking about a regional TV broadcasts.

The word has gone around that the negotiations for the next round of MLS TV rights will start later this year, ahead of the current deal expiring after the 2014 season. I know you have heard this question before, but in that context it's worth asking again: To what degree is ESPN committed to MLS for the long term?

Well, they've done it for 18 years.

They're not going to have the World Cup after next year, though.

Neither is NBC. So NBC buys the EPL rights, though, and those rights come up [again] at the same time as the MLS deal. I just hope the league doesn't over-shoot the number it's looking for right now - to go to a TV partner and ask for the moon when we know that maybe it's a little too soon.

Maybe we wait for a little bit longer and then get that. Because I do believe it's vital for the sport to be on ESPN.

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