The challenges in providing fair coverage in American soccer
Including power rankings of the best and worst kind of seasons to cover.
I’m going to be real with you for a moment: Press conferences around soccer teams and games are often boring.
It’s not universal, of course, and that’s the benefit of showing up, to get the good quotes, the good soundbites. And admittedly, some people are just better at supplying that manna for reporters than others. Plus, when the games come quickly, pretty much everybody gets tired of talking to each other every two days. There sometimes is, truly, only so many questions, and only so many ways of giving a fresh response.
But MLS was quite remarkable this weekend for a couple notable press conferences. Inter Miami experienced a 3-1 home loss to Florida rivals Orlando City on Saturday, and head coach Phil Neville took a shot at beat writer Franco Panizo: “Can I finish speaking? Or are you going to interrupt? Can I finish speaking? Ok, because I don’t interrupt your question, so don’t interrupt mine, show some f—-ing respect. So…sorry for the language. The…in…sorry, what was the question? Ask me the question again please, Franco.”
No lie, that whole sequence is probably in the running for meme of the MLS season, it literally sounds like British sitcom writers scripted it. But no, real life.
Another instance came following the LA Galaxy’s 3-0 road loss at D.C. United on Saturday. A West Coast team, in at best sputtering form, going on a two-game Eastern Time Zone swing in a week is not usually a recipe for success in MLS, and the Galaxy collapsing in the final 20 minutes, largely due to pretty obvious goalkeeping mistakes, maintained that outlook.
During the press conference, this happened, as written up by Pablo Maurer in The Athletic:
“It didn’t look like (your players) even had the passion (tonight) to run for some of the balls on defense,” opined Wendy Pintor, who covered the game for AreaSportsNet. “What do you have to tell those fans who are super pissed right now?”
“Are you asking a question?” Vanney said. “Or are you making a statement based on your observations of the team — and therefore I don’t really need to say anything because you’ve expressed your opinions of the team…The team is motivated.”
It’s no coincidence that both Inter Miami and the Galaxy are under immense pressure at the moment, both teams sinking down the MLS standings, and that the manager is either lashing out at a reporter (unfairly, frankly) or a reporter is lashing out at a manager (also unfairly, insofar as how it was conveyed).
There’s a fundamental dialectic in sports and in journalism: us vs. them. Who constitutes “us” and who constitutes “them” frequently changes, however. Sometimes us is the team, and them is the reporters who cover them. Sometimes us is the people in a given market, and them is the rest of the world, so the team and reporters may be on the same side, familiarity providing a bond. Sometimes, that closeness breeds contempt.
The ultimate job of the people covering soccer is to cover soccer, of course. It’s to find the best stories and to present them to the public. Much of the time, team and sportswriters are more or less on the same page — most coaches and players acknowledge fair coverage, and respect it. Some have petty grievances, thin skin and hold unfounded grudges against journalists. Of course, while I think most of the people I come across in my field are professional and fair in their work, there are people covering soccer who are also unfair at times, take potshots and cut corners in their work.
But beyond the annoyances surrounding teams going through ruts and having to face the media (think about it, do you have to assess your job performance after every shift? In front of a bunch of people recording your exact remarks?), there does seem to be a disconnect at times from some teams, coaches and players, who think sportswriters are there to “boost” teams. While nearly every team, even the worst performing, will have some positive coverage, the reality is that if a team is truly bad, there’s really no sugarcoating it for the public, who will think they’re being fed a line if you’re trying to tell them to keep their heads up even as their favorite team is picking up losses at a rapid clip. But coaches will often complain if a member of the press pack is “too negative,” sometimes to their face, and sometimes when the journalist’s assessment is entirely reasonable.
Having covered pretty much the gamut of kinds of seasons over 12 years, here’s the power rankings of seasons to cover, ranked best to worst:
Crazy season (All kinds of stories, never a dull moment, results sometimes don’t even matter here)
Title-winning season (It’s obviously easy to churn out fun stories about wins and trophies)
Expansion season (Everything is new and fun!)
Very good season (Hope springs through most of the campaign)
Bad-but-interesting season (Tricky balance, but better than the other kind of bad season)
Decent but boring season (A lot of teams fall in this bucket and it’s more of a grind than you would think)
Bad and boring season (The absolute worst combination)
The flipside to all of this is that the market conditions make “negative” press pretty rare in American soccer at the moment, as a general rule.
Fans are often upset that journalists don’t absolutely crush teams when they have a bad game. If you look at the relative coverage of, say, NFL teams, I find the attitudes surrounding players in that league to be jarringly inhumane. I don’t want to see soccer fans baying for (metaphorical or real) blood if a player makes a mistake. I don’t want to see this sport highlight hot take merchants on shows where men yell at each other for 30 minutes. That’s actually not progress! Humanity is important, and even if the fans are upset that the press pack isn’t grilling their coach and players the way they want, there’s a spectrum between “Ask better questions,” which is fair, and “Ream them out because I’m mad right now,” which is not.
But you’ve also probably noticed that media is going through a moment right now. Mass layoffs abound, because money machine don’t go brrrrrrr hard enough, and soccer coverage is getting slammed as a result in the United States. Who covers USL in this country? Almost entirely volunteers, doing it for fun. Who covers NWSL in this country? You guessed it, mostly people not getting paid, and most of the few who do are national writers and podcasters. Who covers MLS in this country? There’s a few more paid folks in this space, but at this point, if you don’t work at a local daily newspaper with a dedicated soccer beat or at The Athletic, or work for the league itself, you most likely are consuming the work of someone with a separate day job that is not covering your favorite team.
In a few markets in the country, there are enough disparate pieces in this mix to constitute a good press pack covering a team or teams regularly. You have the big shot who gets the scoops, the long-form feature person, the group covering every story, big or small, the person(s) who digs into the games and focuses on tactics, the person(s) who focus on culture and off-field parts of the soccer experience…you get the idea.
But the reality is most of the time, there’s a few people covering a team. The newspaper writer may have to split their beat with another sport. The bloggers who seem to have a story for everything actually work as schoolteachers and they’re about to quit writing because they are burned out. That amazing profile you read about the coach last year? The writer wrote it freelance and couldn’t sell it anywhere, so just posted it free in the end. The podcaster whose show you never miss pitched something to a big company and then saw that company just rip off their idea without hiring them.
It’s a wonder the press corps is as professional as it is, considering there’s virtually no support these days. People were constantly suggesting story ideas to me the past few years, many of which were great, except I was covering 4-5 teams at once pretty much throughout and had limited bandwidth, even though I was being paid to write about soccer. But in trying to cover so many teams as comprehensively at once, that meant a lot of stories couldn’t be written.
And now, funding is drying up and even fewer stories will be told as a result, unless something changes. Perhaps the subscription model will truly take off, maybe there’s an angel investor who just needs to see this and will save us all. I’m not holding my breath. The way things are going, the sportswriter ranks are going to continue to thin out and a lot of teams, including big teams and teams that merit real scrutiny, are going to see little to no daily coverage.
But I think all parties have to meet each other in the middle here. Journalists, content creators, they need to remember that this is all a game, that players and coaches are people, and that they can fairly assess performances without letting it get personal. Teams, coaches and players in turn need to remember that sportswriters are doing their jobs, or short of that, are grinding for little to no pay to try and get that breakthrough in the business. We’ll continue to see friction between teams and journalists, and it can lead to productive moments on both sides from time to time, but at some point, everyone really needs to understand that in the biggest sense, we’re on the same team, and even though weird press conference moments can be entertaining, the bigger issue is we may have already hit the high point of soccer journalism in this country. If that’s the case, this sport is truly in trouble.