Back in 2016, I was just a Season Ticket Holder with a weekly column for Burgundy Wave. But then the editor needed me to cover game day reports, and occasional news stories. And then, at the end of the season, the Colorado Rapids invited me to the suite level for a press conference with Pablo Mastroeni, and Tim Hinchey, and Sam Cronin, to talk about the playoffs. And a few months later, I was invited to training to interview players and write about them.
Up to this point, soccer writing was a fun hobby. And cosplaying as a journalist and a tactical analyst wasn't really that difficult. I watched the game, and I read a lot, and I looked at advanced metrics, and if I added up all those data points together along with my anecdotal ramblings, it could tell you pretty much all you needed to know about the match. It didn't hurt that, basically, there was nobody else doing it.
The same goes with writing previews and recaps: it ain't brain surgery. You talk about the exciting corners and the yellow cards. You describe the goals and great saves. You remember to put attendance and final score in the open paragraph. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Interviewing players is a whole 'nother animal altogether. Having taken precisely zero communications and journalism courses in university, but several courses in clinical pastoral counseling, I was very good at asking people where they thought they were headed when they died, but had never asked why they chose to head the ball instead of volley it.
My first team interview was with Pablo Mastroeni.*
It was in the hallway at DSGP the week before Colorado left in 2016 to travel to Los Angeles for the first leg of their quarter-final playoff match, and the Rapids provided Mastroeni up to "the scrum", a semi-circle of journalists trying to elbow their way to the front of the pile to get decent audio in a space with a terrible echo and a swinging metal door a few yards away. Daniel Boniface of the Denver Post and Marco Cummings, then with MLSsoccer.com, were peppering the gaffer with insightful questions, while the Rapids video team was trying to get some good quotes to pump up the fans. I meekly stood at the back, and waited for my turn. The Rapids media team said "OK, thanks guys," and everyone started to pack up. Mastroeni looked at me and said "Wait. Do you have a question?" I asked something about tactics, said thanks, and wrote my article. It was a good, if awkward, first interview.
Over the next three years, I would interview dozens of players and coaches. Some interviews were very success; some were not.
Sometimes, it went well. When I interviewed Sam Hamilton, it was his first interview as a professional, and we both were able to follow a pretty straightforward script. Sam was essentially 'just happy to help the ballclub', and excited for the opportunity to wear burgundy and blue. The article was kind of cliche, but it was honest, and as a rookie interviewer, the paint-by-numbers approach was a lot easier than trying to sincerely figure out a unique angle.
Sometimes, it was magical. Micheal Azira gave me a whole hour at Starbucks - an exceedingly rare commitment of time from a player. He was humble and kind and thoughtful. And frank - he was willing to bluntly call out the head coach of the Ugandan National team for misusing him. He gave me great material, and it made writing a good, comprehensive article as easy as pie.
Sometimes, it was a bit nervy. I interviewed Anthony Hudson several times in the midst of the Rapids 2018 early-season slide. Watching the reporting pool loft up half-a-dozen softballs, and then asking the coach if the team needed to make *fundamental tactical changes* had my stomach in knots. Asking questions about locker room dynamics and man-management the week after Stefan Aigner was terminated was no fun at all. Honestly, one could boil the essential characteristics of a soccer interview down to two questions: "How do you get this so right?" and "How did you get this so wrong?" Asking that latter question is never very fun. But it has to be asked sometimes.
It was also nervy to interview Tim Howard. Not because he's a bad guy to interview - quite the contrary. He's actually quite warm and funny, and he gives great quotes. He's just a physically imposing dude. I'm your average dad-bod-having 42-year-old bloke - skinny, not that tall, and with a soft set of non-existant abs that are indistinguishable one from another. Every time I interviewed Tim Howard it was like meeting Hercules, but right after he came from the gym. Howard has thighs like tree trunks. His biceps appear as if he's smuggling cantaloupes from abroad into the country. You can easily picture him becoming annoyed with an asinine question, reaching over with his gargantuan hand, and crushing your head like a grape. After you interview him three or four times, this feeling goes away. Mostly.
Sometimes, it went poorly. I was super excited to interview MLS legend Alan Gordon upon his arrival in Commerce City. I knew all about his family and his early days in LA from Grant Wahl's book 'The Beckham Experiment'; I had read about his bash-brother days with Steven Lenhart in San Jose; I knew he had a reputation as a whimsical and interesting guy. I was ready. Somehow, Gordo and I did not click at all. Every question I asked elicited a blank look and a stammered reply. Despite trying to come up with a 'new guy in Colorado' angle, a 'veteran presence in the locker room' angle, and a 'Gordon will revitalize the club angle', I got basically nothing useful in our chatter. The entire 7 minute interview sat on my recording device for a month before I just deleted it.
Sometimes, it was dangerous. For some reason on one occasion, the Rapids had set up for player interviews right behind the goal at the north end of DSGP. I did two short interviews with Marlon Hairston and Nana Boateng while Dillon Serna was practicing free kicks, and an errant shot whistled 12 inches over my head. The quality of my questions on that occasion was, probably, bad.
Sometimes, it didn't go at all. Twice I tried to interview Dominique Badji - once in Seattle in 2016, once in Colorado after training. He slipped out of the locker room and off to the post-game meal or into the parking lot before I could grab him. Which might mean for a writer that you've gathered some great background information and prepared to write a great story, and now you've been ghosted by the player you were planning to profile. A year later, I finally did get a few minutes with Badji, but I can't say he was a particularly loquacious or revelatory interview.
All of this also taught me a valuable lesson that I wish the media side of soccer teams would understand - quality of access determines quality results. You give a reporter four minutes standing in a dark hallway after a two hour training - when a player desperately wants to go home but instead is stuck trying to answer annoying reporter questions - you get boring, generic soundbites. Give a reporter real quality access, and you get real quality writing.
I still interview players on occasion for Pittsburgh Soccer Now. To be honest, I've still got a lot to learn in order to get better at it - both in the questions and in writing up the best and most compelling responses. I cannot stand getting unimaginative stock answers week after week: "I have to give all the credit to the team, they really fought hard"; "The manager really believes in us and that's why we won"; etc. Certainly, the interviewer is partially responsible for those - I avoid asking "what happened on that goal?" as often as I can, but it reflexively slips out on occasion, despite my best efforts. Sometimes you ask good questions but nothing good comes of it. Sometimes, you ask dumb questions and the interview turns out great anyways.
It's fluky. Kinda like soccer itself.
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* My first interview, really, was with Director of Player Development Brian Crookham. Which was great and relaxed and super chill, and Brian took time to answer questions both basic and more detailed. But since Crookham is a front-office type, and isn't a famous footballer himself, there was a degree of informality and low-stakes appeal to interviewing him that made it really a breeze in comparison to, say, Tim Howard.