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XI Questions: Grant Wahl

05/15/2007, 10:59pm CDT
By ERIC ANDERSON

Sports Illustrated soccer writer

Age: 33.

Hometown: Shawnee Mission, Kan.

Resides: Boston. Moving to Baltimore in May (wife, Celine, is completing medical training).

College: Princeton.

Other writing: Senior writer also covers college basketball, and does some investigative and enterprise pieces (Archive). Also contributes stories for SI Latino, the magazine's Spanish language publication.

Playing career: Ended at age 13.

Favorite clubs: I spent a lot of time in Argentina in the mid-1990s, I did my senior college thesis down there on politics and soccer, so my team down there is Boca Juniors. ... I got into Chelsea back in '98 after covering the World Cup, it was the first World Cup I'd covered, and I really liked talking to guys like Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf on the French team and they were at Chelsea at the time. So I guess if I have a team in England, it's Chelsea. But I always tell people that I jumped on the bandwagon long before the Abramovich years.

I. How did you end up covering soccer?

Well, I had done my senior thesis in college, I had covered the '96 Olympic soccer tournament as an intern at the Miami Herald, which included the Brazil team that had Ronaldo and Rivaldo and all those guys — basically the '98 World Cup team — got to the magazine in '96 and no one really wanted to cover it and it was a way for me to get stories in the magazine. I knew something (about soccer). It's funny now how much more interest there is and demand among writers at the magazine because soccer has gotten a little bit bigger. But I still do it and still love doing it.

In '94, after my sophomore year of college, I won a scholarship to do a project that I had always wanted to do ... to compare the baseball culture of Boston to the soccer culture of Buenos Aires. I spent three weeks in both places and really got a lot out of it. Went back in the summer of '95 to spend the entire summer in Buenos Aires doing my thesis research — I was a political science major.

(What did you learn from that project?) A lot of similarities, really, when you're writing about the people of the game in each city, from die-hard fans to people who set up businesses around the stadiums to just a real level of crazy commitment and fandom. It was kind of cool to have that experience and have a lot of freedom to pursue cool stories.

II. What is your favorite soccer memory?

There's a lot of cool ones just from being on the scene at some pretty amazing events. For me, I guess it might have been the night France won the World Cup in '98. It was the first big story that I had ever written on deadline for the magazine. I had gotten out of school two years before that. I ended up, like a rookie, leaving my laptop back at the apartment I was staying at instead of taking it to the game. I didn't realize that if France won the game, the streets of Paris would be completely clogged.

So I ended up having to walk across most of the city to get back so I could write a 2,000-word story by 9 a.m. Eastern time. Thank God there was the time difference — it's tough enough to make the deadline. I ended up walking down the Champs-Élysées at 3 in the morning when there's almost 2 million people still celebrating in the streets, and writing the story in my head as I'm walking along, nervous as heck, and stopping every once in a while to write things down on a scrap of paper. I got back to my computer where I was staying at 5 in the morning, and somehow did the story and it worked out really well.

There have been a lot of fun interviews over the years. One good thing is that a lot of the top world soccer stars, and especially their agents, realize that if the U.S. is interested in you, you've really made it and that you should bend over backwards in some cases to do one-on-one interviews with Sports Illustrated. Over the years, I've gotten to do sit-down interviews with Beckham, Ronaldinho, Luis Figo. The other one wasn't so much of a big star, but probably was the most-rewarding soccer story I've done was a year ago on two Arab-Israeli players who recorded big goals for Israel during World Cup qualifying. It was fascinating for me to go there and talk to these guys and tell their stories.

III. What is the best thing about covering soccer in the U.S.? And the most frustrating?

I think what's exciting for me is it's an ongoing story that's going to be lasting over the decades to come, I think, about the growth of this sport here. From the national team and its improvement to building a league from scratch in MLS and seeing it very slowly improve and stadiums get built and all those sorts of things. And to see television coverage improve very slowly and the amount of space we get in magazines get larger. I think it's kind of like you're on the ground floor of something really cool and the world's best potentially someday, but you get to see it as it's getting built. And the U.S. may not win a World Cup in my lifetime, but they also may. It would be cool to be following that story over time. And American soccer players are a pretty ego-free bunch. You know, I always like doing stories with people who want to talk to me, that's one of the reasons why I don't cover other professional sports.

It's pretty easy to be defensive against a lot of ignorance from mainstream sports fans in the U.S. about soccer. It's a sport that gets ridiculed more than any other, I would think. And yet, I see less of it happening, and most of it coming from these fossilized creatures in their 60s and 70s mainly, and realize that one of these years that it's not going to be too common. I don't have any self-esteem issues about covering soccer. I think it's a great sport and I'm lucky to get the chance to cover it.

IV. Who do you think is the most important figure in U.S. Soccer?

I'm looking forward to the day when that's a player, and I don't think that's the case right now. Whenever there is a U.S. player that becomes the first big international superstar, that person will be it. But for right now, because it's so dependent on the business being grown, that's why Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, is paid more than any player in the league. You could make an argument that Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, is that guy. He's got to be shaping so much of what happens with the development of young players in the country and what the Federation does. But in all honesty, it would be a better situation if he weren't that guy. You know, it could've been Jürgen Klinsmann.

(Is that first big superstar playing now?) We could be another generation away. I guess it's possible that Clint Dempsey could go over and tear up the Premier League at Fulham, get sold to a bigger club and become that guy. But it's probably not that likely. It would help for that American player to go over to Europe and be there probably from his teens. For superstars, we always think in terms of offensive players, but given the limited numbers of American players who have really succeeded over in Europe, most of them have been defensive-oriented. So maybe it could be Oguchi Onyewu.

(Did you think it was going to be Landon Donovan?) Yeah, I did. And theoretically, it's still possible. And it's even possible to become a soccer superstar without playing in Europe if you lead your team to a World Cup title. Obviously, it's extremely unlikely. But I do think too many people are writing off Donovan after a bad World Cup at the age of 24. ... Here's a guy who was the top player at the Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand in '99, Beasley being voted the second-best. This was a tournament that included (Chelsea's Ghanaian midfielder) Michael Essien and (Inter Milan's Brazilian striker) Adriano. Then you ask youself, 'Well, what happened during those intervening years?' And Beasley and Donovan played in a World Cup at age 20 and to positive reviews for a quaterfinalist, and yet still something happened during that stretch where Adriano and Essien became players that were sold for millions and millions of dollars to the top teams in the world.

V. What was your reaction to the news that Klinsmann had removed himself from contention for the U.S. job?

Surprise, on the one hand, because when both sides express public interest in the other, usually that means something is going to get done, there's going to be a deal, particularly when it's kind of a protracted negotiating period. And then kind of disappointment, because from the second that Bruce Arena was let go, I had written that Klinsmann was easily the top choice and by far the best choice, for a lot of different reasons. He just fit the profile of the right guy to go with. I hope Bob Bradley is going to get an opportunity, because I think he is a very capable coach. But I also think that it's a tough situation for him to come in, after so many people had hoped, and in some cases expected, Klinsmann to be the guy.

VI. Who do you think will be the next U.S. coach? And who do you think it should be?

I don't know this with any certainty, but more and more, I'm thinking Bradley might get the full job and get the interim tag removed. For a few reasons: First, I think he'll do a pretty good job in these first few games in 2007. He's not going to get too many games for that opportunity, but the Mexico game Feb. 7 is probably his biggest opportunity. The other big reason, and maybe the bigger reason, I don't know if any of the big-name foreign coaches are going to want the job.

(Why is that?) For starters, if Gulati wants to hire somebody, like he said, in May, right before the Gold Cup and the Copa America, how many of these big-name coaches who are coaching during the current European season want to dive immediately into that? Two big tournaments, knowing that they may not have all the top players at their disposal? Second, I think that they'll probably pay some attention to what happened with the Klinsmann negotiations. And while there's some debate over exactly what demands Klinsmann made that U.S. Soccer wasn't willing to accede to, my sense is that it was about control issues. And if you're a prospective coach from abroad and you hear that the U.S. Federation isn't willing to relinquish as much control as most coaches would want, I don't know if I would be too thrilled about that job.

I think the most likely candidates I've written about during this long, drawn-out process which is still continuing have been (Manchester United assistant) Carlos Queiroz, (Lyon manager) Gerard Houllier and probably (former Argentina manager) Jose Pekerman. I don't know how serious the Pekerman stuff has been, but I do know Queiroz and Houllier were spoken to by Sunil Gulati in '98 before they hired Arena. I think those remain probably the favorites. Maybe there's some other potential dark horses — I keep hearing (former England manager) Sven-Goran Erikson has suddenly expressed a new interest in the job. At this point, I still think the more likely scenario is Bradley.

VII. What's the best goal you've seen by an American or MLS player?

John Harkes had a goal of the year in England, it was awesome, long range with Sheffield Wednesday (in 1990). And Clint Mathis' slalom run for the MetroStars against Dallas might qualify as well (in 2001, watch it here). And John Wolyniec's goal against the Crew late in the game, that was unbelieveable. Made even more remarkable by the fact that it was John Wolyniec. (in 2003, watch it here)

VIII. Where is soccer in America compared to where it was in 1996, when MLS started?

I think it's in a better place. The league's clearly going to stay, and you couldn't really say that until probably the last two or three years. And now that you've got a real critical mass building, as far as stadiums being built, a new television contract — several actually, for MLS and for U.S. Soccer and for the World Cup. American, English-language TV paying real money instead of the league paying for the games to be broadcast. You've got American players being developed, no international superstars yet, so it's modest, but I think five out of six goals scored by U.S. players at the 2002 World Cup were scored by MLS players, and that was a quarterfinal team. MLS has a long ways to go as far as trying to match the quality of more traditional leagues, but when you look at what's happened in 11 years, I think you've got to be fairly optimistic about the strides that have been made.

IX. What do you think about the latest MLS projects, most notably the designated player rule, the new television deal and the in-season tournament with the Mexican league?

All signs of progress. I don't think there's going to be one magic bullet. These are things that I think are going to get people into the league. Some of them are for hardcore fans, some are to bring in mainstream sports fans. ... Everyone wants to think of some magic bullet, either spending a ton of money on players or not doing that at all and just focusing on development, but really the answer is all these things. Just being prudent in how you go about it.

I think MLS, over the last six years or so, has shifted its priorities pretty far away from bringing foreign talent into the league, haven't spent nearly as much on foreign players as they did the first couple years. I think now the designated player rule, I'm hoping, is kind of a corrective to that. I don't know how many players are going to get signed with that.

X. The U.S. Open Cup: Little-known national soccer treasure or meaningless tournament?

My perspective is that, and some people won't like this in the soccer community, it's closer to the meaningless end. It's not totally meaningless, but I'd like to see real steps taken to improve its importance, and if that doesn't happen then they should potentially think about other options. It's also a moot point, though, because I don't think the U.S. Soccer Federation would ever kill it completely. I wish it were more important, but the fact is it's not.

XI. What's your best American starting XI right now?

Goalkeeper: Brad Friedel, Blackburn Rovers (England).
Defenders: Steve Cherundolo, Hannover 96 (Germany); Oguchi Onyewu, Standard Liege (Belgium); Jay DeMerit, Watford (England); Bobby Convey, Reading (England).
Midfielders: DaMarcus Beasley, on loan to Manchester City (England); Pablo Mastroeni, Colorado Rapids (MLS); Landon Donovan, Los Angeles Galaxy (MLS); Clint Dempsey, New England Revolution (MLS).
Forwards: Brian McBride, Fulham (England); Josmer Altidore, New York Red Bulls (MLS).

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