Aly Wagner: On her TV trailblazing, the savvy U.S. women's team, and Coach Jill Ellis' team-building

Aly Wagner, who earned 131 caps for the USA in 1999-2008 and won two Olympic gold medals, will do color commentary for FOX Sports at the 2018 Women’s Concacaf Championship (Oct. 4-17) that will determine the region’s qualifiers for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Wagner played professionally in the WUSA and WPS after leading Santa Clara to its first NCAA title in 2001 and winning the 2002 Hermann Trophy. Last summer, she became the first woman to call men’s World Cup games for U.S. television when she teamed up with play-by-play man Derek Rae.

SOCCER AMERICA: What did you do between retiring from playing in 2009 and entering broadcasting?

ALY WAGNER: I worked at Lululemon very briefly, six months or so. I went back college and finished my degree, because I had never actually graduated. And then I started to run a small plant food company, Eleanor's VF-11, which I’m still involved with.

SA: How did you get into broadcasting?

ALY WAGNER: When I watched soccer, I found myself talking at the TV, and family always said, “You should go into broadcasting. Why aren’t you doing that?” I just brushed it off. No. Not for me.

SA: And then?

ALY WAGNER: I don’t know exactly what changed my mind, except I think Mittsy, Heather Mitts, had asked me, “Hey, would you ever want to call like the World Cup?” I was like, “Huh? Of course.”

So, I went to Santa Clara, my alma mater, and asked if I could do their games. Online. I was doing it to see if I liked it. And I really did.

Then the opportunity presented itself with FOX when there was an opening in their slate, and that became my first gig -- the Women’s World Cup in 2015.

It was whirlwind. It was so quick. I knew I loved it, early on. There’s nothing like playing, and doing the beautiful things, but being able to appreciate them and to describe is kind of a close second best.

SA: You became famous in the non-soccer world when FOX hired you to do color commentary at the 2018 World Cup – making history as the first woman to call men’s World Cup games on U.S. television. How much did you think about the historical aspect that at the time?

ALY WAGNER: I thought about it more after time passed.

I’ve always been obsessed with the game and I love it. I love all soccer. I love men’s soccer. I love watching EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga, Champions League. I watch it all.

If I can study it and appreciate it and hopefully speak to it eloquently enough – enough being the key word – why shouldn’t I be involved if I’m good enough? So it wasn’t about being a women. It was being involved in something that I love at the highest level.

The driving factor was never to do something a woman hadn’t done. It was just my love of it. And now that the time has passed, I have a much greater appreciation for what I was able to accomplish.

SA: In what sense?

ALY WAGNER: Fox did an all-women broadcast for an MLS game [in August, with Lisa Byington, analyst Danielle Slaton and sideline reporter Katie Witham]. Seeing Ali Krieger on EPL on NBC the other morning.

It kind of struck me, that I don’t know if those things would have happened had I not pushed in 2016 to be involved with Copa America, to do men’s, and to ask David Neal [FOX Executive Producer] to include me in the broadcast. And being involved in the Confederations Cup, and obviously the World Cup eventually.

If I hadn’t pushed to be involved, I don’t think it would have happened. That's a perspective now that I didn’t have then -- on how cool it is.

SA: Your first coverage of men’s soccer was the 2016 Copa America …

ALY WAGNER: Yes, the 2016 Copa America, in studio. The prep of that was just a glimpse of what I would do at the World Cup. The first men’s games that I called were back in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Me and JP Dellacamera did three matches. That was my first glimpse of doing men’s game. And those were all I did before the 2018 World Cup.

SA: Did you get any negative feedback about being a women calling men’s games?

ALY WAGNER: The only negative feedback ever was just random Twitter trolls. The predominant feedback, including the unsolicited, was really complimentary of what Derek and I did at that World Cup.

I thought it was really positive. More so than I anticipated. I thought I was probably going to get roasted and that didn’t happened. There were a lot of people who liked the way we worked.

[Editor’s note: The 2018 World Cup was ground-breaking for women broadcasters. In addition to Wagner, Argentine Viviana Vila called games for U.S. Spanish-language Telemundo Deportes, Vicki Sparks for Britain's BBC, and Claudia Neumann for Germany's ZDF.]

SA: I think one reason you and Derek got good reviews is that you didn’t distract from the game with too much non-play-by-play chatter. Is that something you were conscious of -- not giving too much commentary during the action? Having a balance?

ALY WAGNER: I know it’s painful when people talk incessantly. You just learn to figure it out and navigate through it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get it right the first time, or you get it right on the fifth time, but you grow in the process and develop an instinct.

The balance is a feel. And with the men’s game in particular there’s so much beauty and artistry in what’s going on you don’t have to talk all the time. I found that sometimes the appreciation for the silence and the beauty of what the players were doing –- you just feel it out and know what’s most important in the moment.

Sometimes if it’s a blowout, like any good producer tells you, a game that’s become really lop-sided, then you start to story-tell and talk more bigger picture and keep the audience more interested.

Most of those World Cup games were just off the hook and there didn’t need to be overkill.

SA: What are you expecting from the USA in the Women’s World Cup qualifying tournament?

ALY WAGNER: It’s a different situation, obviously, than what the men had to go through. The disparity of talent between the U.S. on the women’s side and its opponents is much greater.

This is a campaign the U.S. should dominate. It’s one they should win.

But two cycles ago, they did trip up. [Losing to Mexico in the semifinals and having to beat Italy in a play-in to qualify for the 2011 World Cup.]

So, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’ll be tested and I would say that there is a greater level of parity in Concacaf than ever. Years ago, back to when I played, it wasn’t even close. The teams that were not Mexico or Canada, they couldn’t compete at all.

That’s just not the case anymore. There could be a game plan, a bad day in the office that spells trouble in the group stage or in that semifinal match [the winners of which qualify].

The vigilance of the U.S. team is going to be key. But I think they have the most ridiculously stacked and talented squad they’ve had in a long time.

Some of their key players, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Lindsay Horan – they’ve been playing out of their minds. They’re playing the best soccer of their career and they have to keep that going for another year.

It’s not about playing perfect soccer in qualifying. It’s about getting it done, getting to the World Cup. And then continuing to elevate their game.

USA: 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015.
Canada: 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015.
Mexico: 1999, 2011, 2015.
Costa Rica: 2015.

SA: Besides Canada and Mexico, do you see any dark horses?

ALY WAGNER: Costa Rica has been decent in the last cycle. Trinidad & Tobago could be that squad that surprises some people. They’re up against it. They haven’t had great preparation. They’ve been frustrated with the lack of support, and sometimes that unites a squad and elevates them and gives them that extra bit of inspiration that can help them create an upset. They have a lot of players who play in the U.S. They’re familiar with the U.S. style.

I’m not saying that the U.S. has to worry about them, but Trinidad & Tobago could pull off an upset and find themselves in the semifinals.

1. USA
5. Canada
24. Mexico
34. Costa Rica
52. Trinidad & Tobago
64. Jamaica
66. Panama
88. Cuba

Brandi Chastain and Aly Wagner celebrating an Olympic gold medal.

SA: Do you ever compare the quality of today’s U.S. women’s national team to the era when you played?

ALY WAGNER: I do all the time. I think the game has grown so much. I know people will hound me and hammer me for this – but I think the level of play, the size of these athletes, it’s a whole different animal than what we did and played with and experienced.

When I go down on the field -- and I’m calling their matches all the time -- I am shocked at how big and strong and physically impressive they are. Kate Markgraf was with me at an NWSL match and we both said the same thing. These women are just a different breed than when we played.

And I do think a lot of them are tactically more sophisticated and intelligent.

The game has evolved a lot. And that doesn’t mean improvement can’t continue. There are a lot of areas for improvement still.

But I think when we played we could roll out and dominate with three principles of attack, and it was attack, attack, attack. Serve the box. It was very simplistic.

Nowadays, the opponents are organized. They’re tactically savvy. And they’re going to give you a game plan with a different wrinkle. And we didn’t have that. You knew what you could expect when you went out and faced Mexico or Canada. That’s not the case anymore.

And I think these players have learned to adjust on the field by themselves, without the coach changing formation or without telling them where the space is. Those are evolutions that have occurred and intelligence that has grown in the game that we just didn’t have to think about or deal with because we were that much more dominant.

SA: For all teams, but perhaps particularly so for the U.S. women, there’s a challenge of integrating new players into a squad with established veterans. How do you think Coach Jill Ellis has handled that?

ALY WAGNER: I think it’s a massive test for any coach. And I think it’s been so for Jill.

With the U.S. team in particular, there have always been veterans who have kind of run it, and assume they’re going to play regardless of performance. And that’s been the case for a decade or more.

I think this last year and a half Jill challenged that assumption, and brought in a lot of new faces. And rightfully so. You need that turnover. I think it made the group uncomfortable. I think it unsettled everyone. But I think now, as you head into qualification, as you head into hopefully a World Cup, you settle in on your key players and there’s confidence that grows from that.

In a way [Ellis] has navigated it exactly as she should have. And of course, we’ll see if it pays off in the end.

It’s always been a challenge. Veterans always want to keep their place, and want it to be difficult for a player to break in, and coaches want players to break in and have that opportunity. And she has to be brave to do that.

I think Jill, in fairness, has tried out a fair amount of people and has been brave in that.

SA: Do you like the way the U.S. women play? Their style of soccer.

ALY WAGNER: It’s a good question. I like big chunks of it. I still think the control of the match can be better. With the talent that they have –- I do think they have the best players in the world here with the greatest depth –- I think the control over a match can be greater.

Now, you never want to forego the explosive ability of those individuals who you have at your disposal and lose that unpredictability. But this team can improve its awareness of getting between the lines and solving pressure, and perhaps not be as eager to go forward as they often are. While maintaining the explosiveness.

SA: To control the play, the rhythm of the game, and put the brakes on when it makes sense …

ALY WAGNER: Exactly. That’s what I see this team being able to evolve to.

I really believe this is a squad that can pull it off, win the World Cup in a year, and make it beautiful in the process.

1 comment about "Aly Wagner: On her TV trailblazing, the savvy U.S. women's team, and Coach Jill Ellis' team-building".
  1. Bob Ashpole, October 4, 2018 at 5:21 a.m.

    Good interview. I also have high hopes that the USWNT will find their own version of the beautiful game this cycle. 

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