On Friday night, I was out of my element.
Usually when the USMNT is playing a big match, I’m in front of a TV with a laptop and maybe a third screen for other matches, watching every possible second of pregame and checking lineups and the latest from social media. For USA-Mexico on Friday, I was out of town for a wedding, completely unfettered from requirements of covering the match for my job. I wound up at a sports bar in Austin (the Black Sheep Lodge) that promised to show the big game, but I wasn’t quite sure what that meant.
It was a slightly uncomfortable setting. Alone in an unfamiliar town, I tried making small talk with a few others who had congregated to watch the match, and I appreciated my waiter Calvin taking great care of me, even if he was flirting a bit too much. As the clock approached game time and ESPN2 remained on a college football game no one in the bar cared about, the fans gathered around the TVs wondered if the match would end up relegated to ESPNews or ESPN+ for the start, as is generally the case when a preceding event goes long.
Fortunately, by the time the match kicked off, ESPN2 stopped showing the college football game, which I’m sure was a shock to those watching. The bar turned off its steady stream of 1990s-2000s rock to allow the ESPN2 broadcast to echo through the venue. A great time was had by all, aside from the handful of Mexico fans in attendance.
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But the entire TV experience was less than ideal, to no fault of the Black Sheep Lodge. There was no pregame. There was no anthem. There was no real effort to put the match in front of the largest crowd possible.
To this fact, CBS Sports’ Grant Wahl felt the need to complain this week. And to that point, ESPN’s Taylor Twellman felt the need to complain back.
Both had valid points and probably agree on most of what they’re talking about, but because this is the internet and they work for different companies, much ado was made over very little. And so let’s make a little more ado, as it highlights the often frustrating experience USMNT fans have faced during this World Cup qualifying campaign.
Twellman vs Wahl Explained
Watching the USMNT’s World Cup qualifiers for Qatar 2022 has been a challenge for fans in the U.S. The matches have been spread out over 15 different channels, all with different ideas of how to cover the events. In English, home games are on either the ESPN or Fox family of networks; road games are on CBS channels, which has meant almost exclusively Paramount+.
Friday’s showdown against Mexico was the biggest true home game the USMNT plays every four years; Gold Cup and Nations League finals are great, but they don’t compare to a World Cup qualifier, where tickets are restricted in such a way so as to limit Mexico fans from attending.
Despite this being a massive showdown between the region’s top two teams, ESPN decided it couldn’t put the game on ESPN or ABC, instead relegating it to ESPN2, despite the fact a college football game was kicking off on the channel earlier and barring a miracle would have never finished before the qualifier began.
ESPN2 promised pregame coverage would start at 9 p.m. ET, just 10 minutes before first kick, but as the hour rolled around and the American football game predictably was still going, there was no pregame — there were no anthems to get us pumped up for the match. Of course, you probably know this, you were probably watching, wondering where the hell the soccer was. (Unless you were smart enough to tune into Univision’s pregame, which started at 8:30 p.m. ET and was not put on the backburner by a college event.)
This brings us to the Twitter banter between Wahl and Twellman, the latter of whom called the match on ESPN2 with Jon Champion.
It started Friday night, when Wahl, a former Sports Illustrated writer, pointed out how angry people were about the college football game preventing any pregame coverage of the World Cup qualifier, not to mention the match not being on ESPN or ABC.
Judging by my mentions, ESPN is losing a lot of goodwill with soccer fans tonight. USA-Mexico will be on ESPN News as long as the college football game is on. It's also on Univision/TUDN.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) November 13, 2021
By Monday, as the TV ratings began to trickle in, the issue arose once more. The soccer match on ESPN2 drew 1.3 million viewers, which beat the 1.1 million ESPN got at the same time for an NBA game between Milwaukee and Boston. Wahl referenced the comments made by Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa, the same comments that prompted that Christian Pulisic shirt.
The question for me, then, is why ESPN put USA-Mexico on ESPN2, and why they’d disrespect the USMNT so much that virtually no pregame appeared on ESPN2. That’s a disgrace, far more so than anything Memo Ochoa said. https://t.co/WDNzQydI9E— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) November 16, 2021
It’s a valid point. While no one who has paid attention to soccer in the U.S. over the history of ESPN will be surprised by its treatment of the beautiful game, it was frustrating to see so little effort put into covering the biggest men’s soccer game in the U.S. of the year from the Worldwide Leader.
At which point Twellman, who has been a broadcaster for ESPN for about a decade now, tried to defend his company by attacking CBS, for which Wahl is a contributor. CBS has put all but one of the USMNT’s away games on Paramount+, which is about 20 times harder to find than ESPN2.
Twellman later deleted his tweet, but this is the internet, and nothing dies, so we’ve got the receipts. Twellman later added that the USA-Mexico match should have been on ABC, another tweet he deleted, probably not wanting to publicly criticize his own company.
— Billy Marsh (@_williamrussell) November 16, 2021
This prompted a retort from Wahl, who went after ESPN’s decision-makers.
I’ve said this before: I’d like to see all US national team games broadcast to the largest possible audience, whatever the rights-holder. USA-Mexico is on an even higher level, though. I assume ESPN’s programming decisions for USA-MEX were made by non-soccer people?— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) November 16, 2021
It’s funny to see two members of the media bickering over something upon which they probably agree, but that’s the internet for you. Both want USMNT World Cup qualifiers available to the largest possible American audience, but both get paid by companies who are very much not doing that.
In the end, it’s the U.S. soccer fans who lose (again, unless they’re smart and watch on Univision and Telemundo channels). Because of the greed of broadcasters and streaming services, USMNT soccer doesn’t get the coverage it deserves. In this regard, despite the U.S. beating its southern rival five times this year (two by the USWNT), Mexico remains far ahead of the U.S. as a soccer team.
The USMNT’s next match, against Jamaica at 5 p.m. ET on Tuesday, will be behind the Paramount+ paywall (or Universo, without a pay wall beyond a cable subscription). It is yet another disappointing broadcast decision for U.S. soccer.
While the coverage on Paramount+ has been superb — Kate Abdo, Clint Dempsey, Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies are fun to watch — it restricts the number of people who can watch. Casual fans won’t pay for Paramount+ just to watch a few soccer games. Sports bars like the one at which I watched the USA-Mexico game will be less likely to focus on soccer played through a streaming service. No one really wins, except the rich twats padding their pocketbooks with a few extra subscription fees.
But there is one thing that USMNT fans can be happy about: At least these matches can be viewed at all. Anyone who tried to follow U.S. soccer in the 1990s or even the early 2000s knows how difficult it has been historically to watch World Cup qualifiers, especially those played on the road. Though this qualifying campaign features matches on 15 different channels, they can all be viewed with a cable subscription plus a few months of a service that costs $5 per month if you want to watch away games in English. If we’re being honest, it’s not that bad. It could — and has been — much, much worse.
So while we may bitch and moan about where the matches are available on TV and then snicker at media members going back and forth on Twitter, at least Americans can watch the USMNT on TV.