As part of his weekly series on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, Bradley speaks with ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman. The fastest player to ever reach 100 goals in MLS, Twellman helped lead the New England Revolution to four MLS Cup finals, but never to the Promised Land. Forced to retire in 2010 after multiple concussions, Twellman is the lead analyst for ESPN on MLS and US national team games.
Twellman is also the founder of ThinkTaylor.org, a charitable foundation working to spread knowledge and awareness about sports-related head injuries.
BRADLEY: What is it like for you, especially at this time of the year, when the playoff races are in full force, to be 33 and unable to play because of concussions?
TWELLMAN: It’s weird. The end of September, early October, I get the cold sweats. I’m pissed off, in a bad mood, and I used to wonder why. Then last week, I was in Seattle and I found myself again in a bad mood. It’s because this time of year, it’s not even a question, was my favorite time of the year as a player.
Because in MLS, you know as long as you grind through the first four or five months of the season, if you can go on a run at the end of the season, you’ve got a legitimate shot at playing for a championship. You’re the only person who’s asked me that question that way, and, yeah, this time of year, I get into a lot of bad moods.
Taylor Twellman scored 101 goals in 174 regular season games and another 10 in 21 postseason games during his eight-year career with the New England Revolution. Says Twellman of his former team: "We knew we were good."
BRADLEY: What was it about the Revs when the leaves started to turn?
TWELLMAN: We had a real good locker room. We had good character. Guys who really just wanted to win. We knew we were good, and for some reason, we had a belief that we had the type of players who could go on a run, usually starting around September 1.
BRADLEY: How often do you think about the fact that you never closed the deal and won an MLS Cup?
TWELLMAN: Every day. And 98 percent of the time, it’s just me, reminding myself. I’ll be reading stories online, or watching games, and I’ll just see something or read something that reminds me that I had four opportunities to do a job for the Revolution and their fans, and there’s a huge part of me that feels that I personally didn’t get it done. And I get that bad taste in my mouth where I just want to spit.
I joke about it in order to survive, but it hurts. I had four opportunities and I would argue that we should’ve won three of those four finals. In 2005, 2006 and 2007, I felt we should’ve won, but we didn’t get it done. When a Revolution fan says to me, “Thanks for all you did, but it kills me that we didn’t win it all,” I agree with him. It kills me.
BRADLEY: Landon Donovan is a couple of goals away from tying Jeff Cunningham as the all-time leading goalscorer in MLS. You had 101 goals in 174 games and you were only 28. If you were still playing, would you be ahead of Landon?
TWELLMAN: I’d be in the running. Landon would have some competition. But sports are funny. You never know what injuries can do. But if I had stayed healthy? Yeah. I joke with Landon. I tell him he’d have some competition.
With that said, is there a better guy to have as your all-time leading scorer than Landon? It’s not that I had a problem with Jeff Cunningham, but he played in 400 games. I think Jeff being on top signifies how successful he was making a career out of so many different types of opportunities. So many people had written him off. But when you look at the type of career Landon has had, I think it’s right for him to be the league’s all-time leading goalscorer and to also lead the league in all-time assists.
BRADLEY: Does Landon run away and hide now, out of reach at the top?
TWELLMAN: If he continues to score nine to 15 goals a season, there will be separation. And I think we’ll see that if he stays healthy. The older he gets he may have to deal with a few more injuries. But ultimately, I think he’ll separate himself.
BRADLEY: Let’s talk broadcasting. What do you like and dislike most about your profession?
Twellman says that if he had stayed healthy, he'd have a chance to compete with Landon Donovan (above, in 2005) for the title of the all-time leading scorer in MLS.
TWELLMAN: My favorite part is watching game tape, and analyzing tendencies of teams. I love having thick skin, saying what I believe, and I enjoy being at the game on game day. That has filled the void of having to retire at 28.
The least favorite part is, well, I was told this by some great broadcasters, the moment you start a game, 40 percent of the people hate you. Because no matter what I say, there are a portion of fans against it. It took me a little while to understand I’m not going to please everyone, but that’s part of the gig.
BRADLEY: Do you hear from players and coaches about things you say on the air?
TWELLMAN: The one thing I’ve heard, whether they agree or disagree, is that they respect how I say things. I am frank, to the point and I have no agenda. Now, of course, there are times when you’re on the road, walking on the street and you see a player’s wife… I’ve had a couple of those experiences, but I just walk right up to them, look them in the eye, and I always allow people who have a problem to get those things off their chest.
It doesn’t bother me and I respect their opinions, as long as it doesn’t get personal. Because I never get personal.
BRADLEY: I once had to explain to a baseball player, “I didn’t write that you stink. I wrote that you’re 2 for your last 30 with runners in scoring position.” It’s not personal.
TWELLMAN: I’ve had family members come up to me and say, “I can’t believe you said, ‘He missed a penalty kick!’ Or, ‘I can’t believe you said he hasn’t scored in 12 games!’
A great example was earlier this year. I said, “Tim Cahill has one goal in his first 20 games” and I said, “that’s not good enough for a Designated Player who has scored goals in the past.” I may have ruffled a few people, but I think most coaches and players know I’m just doing my job.
BRADLEY: Who’s going to win it all this year?
TWELLMAN: I thought Seattle would beat New York last week and take control of the Supporters’ Shield, but now I think they have their work cut out for them. Even though Seattle has five games left, I think it’s going to be tough for them to close the deal.
BRADLEY: Is there a team that’s built the best for the playoffs?
TWELLMAN: I like Seattle. I think they’ve shored up their defense and they have an awful lot of weapons. But it’s hard to pick against LA. They have a big-game mentality. I almost feel like LA are waiting for the playoffs to come.
My one big concern with LA is they can’t defend set pieces worth a lick this year and that’s never been an issue with a Bruce Arena coached team. I don’t think Omar Gonzalez has been as good defending set pieces for some reason. But if you’re a gambling man, it’s still hard to pick against LA.
BRADLEY: Even without a guy like Mike Magee?
TWELLMAN: Yeah, that trade… I wonder how the veterans in that locker room feel about losing a guy like Mike Magee. That guy scores playoff goals. Always has. The way Seattle now has options, a lot of guy who can score, with Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey and Mauro Rosales, LA needs more than Donovan and Robbie Keane. They had that guy in Magee.
Montreal Impact striker Marco Di Vaio gets Twellman's pick for league MVP this season, unless Mike Magee and the Chicago Fire make the playoffs. Says Twellman: "No playoffs, no MVP."
(USA TODAY Sports)
BRADLEY: Who’s your MVP?
TWELLMAN: Marco Di Vaio, unless Chicago makes the playoffs. Then Magee. But I think Chicago is in trouble. By my criteria, no playoffs, no MVP.
BRADLEY: Well, then, what if Montreal and Chicago both miss out?
TWELLMAN: Then Diego Valeri is my darkhorse.
BRADLEY: Coach of the Year?
TWELLMAN: We were just talking about this on the road. When was the last time you could say six or seven coaches could win Coach of the Year? I have no idea who wins it now.
BRADLEY: Is MLS a better league than when you played?
TWELLMAN: In some aspects, yes. Off the field, everything’s improved. Stadiums, fans, TV. But I remind people of teams like the 2002 Chicago Fire. I think they had eight starters who played in the World Cup. My biggest fear now is that the drop-off, because of expansion, with players eight through 14, are not as good as they used to be.
It will take a while for the teams to have the depth they had when the league had fewer teams. With more expansion on the way, it’s going to remain an issue. It’s going to take five to six years with a steady number of teams.
BRADLEY: Yeah, but more expansion is on the way. So you’re going to have to wait on that.
TWELLMAN: But let’s not lose sight of the positives. We played at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., in 2002. We played at a high school football stadium in Frisco, Texas. There’s a lot of good, for sure.