Best friends Susannah Collins and Jillian Sakovits are on a mission: To open the world of Major League Soccer to as many new people as possible and to show the human angle of the game. They created The Call Up in 2019, aiming to provide a unique space for people interested in the untold stories and the human side of MLS. The Call Up's creators discussed their plans and why you should be paying attention.
“You know, people would love to hear this. This could be a podcast."
That simple statement, said over a few cocktails between friends after returning from their respective work trips, essentially marks the birth of “The Call Up”.
Why The Call Up started
Susannah Collins (SC): When I joined MLS in 2016, I brought with me an arsenal of sports media experience. I had quite literally covered every league under the sun, from NHL to NASCAR.
As a passionate soccer fan, the opportunity to cover the game was a no-brainer, and I quickly realized that unlike other leagues where coverage is fully saturated, how many incredible stories existed within the MLS ecosystem that had not yet been told. The proximity to clubs, players and coaches I was given in my role allowed me to position myself as that conduit between these untold stories and MLS fans.
I’ve always been fascinated by the human side of athletes and sports. As fans, we tend to view these individuals as deities rather than just extraordinarily talented people with a superhuman work ethic. The opportunity to bring awareness to these athletes and their personal soccer journeys, to build and nurture fanbases, was not only enticing but also sorely needed. And fortunately for me, I have an exceptional colleague and friend in Jill that shares the same vision. It’s important to note here that so much of why this pod works is because while Jill and I are co-workers, we are best friends first. The trust and the respect we have for each other is the foundation on which The Call Up was built.
Jillian Sakovits (JS): After a few years as the dearest of friends and most trusted of colleagues, we said “imagine we could record this?” The MLS questions we asked, the stories swapped, the late-night hotel bar sessions. The conversations and questions that flowed, we brought that to The Call Up and, most importantly, to our guests.
Like Susannah mentions, we both came from careers that spanned everything from World Series to Super Bowls – yet cracking the code into the world of MLS felt at times like I wasn’t speaking the right language. Not to mention, soccer was “my sport", having played it into early adulthood. Whether it was covering the Knicks or Rangers previously, you could google any player en route to the MSG Training Facility – and voila! There was your research. MLS was, and at times still is, a different animal. The best kind of animal. The talent, play, and stories were all there – just some hadn’t been told or the questions hadn't been asked. As a soccer lover, I was “here for THIS” … as they say.
The goal of The Call Up
SC: Our early conversations about starting a podcast centered around a few main objectives:
- To showcase the human side of our interview subjects.
- To create an accessible, welcoming, and digestible way to consume MLS content.
- To make space for female voices and establish our own voices within the soccer media spectrum, something we knew was terribly lacking.
By the time we started the pod, we were both over three years into our MLS tenure, and even then, we found the coverage of the league to be intimidating and, frankly, a bit isolating for the casual fan, someone who is just getting into the sport, or even just someone who doesn’t identify as a white male into sports.
Our goal was to create a safe soccer space for all types of fans from all walks of life and have them say after each episode, “Hey, I learned something about that person that I didn’t know before." Sure, we’ll talk about the play on the field but that certainly isn’t the focus. There’s an onslaught of coverage already dedicated to X’s and O’s. It’s the personal stories, the locker room pranks, the character-building moments that are at the heart and soul of The Call Up. When you add into the equation that it’s an entirely female-produced and hosted podcast – special shoutout to our all-star producer Galina Plutova! – we knew we were filling a void that desperately needed to be filled.
JS: I’ll add 2 more…
- Make it FUN. Because sports are fun.
- Just ask the questions that perhaps your “soccer-snob” (we love you!!) says “everybody knows that!” … it turns out not everyone does. MLS is an amazing 27-years-young league with unprecedented growth, and we feel so privileged to watch it develop every day. With that said, it is also important for those of us in it to be in touch with the greater North American lens, realizing that many people still haven’t been exposed to what we are doing in our beautiful US/Canadian soccer and MLS universe. We want everyone to come pull up a chair, feel welcomed and feel like they learned something whether they’re casually into the game or a super fan. It’s a difficult line to balance but we do our best to navigate it.
Moments you should know
SC: We’ve had some pretty memorable guests on the pod and there are definitely a few different conversations that stand out – for very different reasons. Chatting with Landon Donovan was a real pinch-me moment. This is a man whose career we have all followed for years. I bought his jersey more than once and here he is chatting with us about his Thanksgiving Day spread and golfing with Wayne Gretzky.
We somehow also got Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer to admit he has a burner account that he uses to follow all his players on to make sure they’re staying in line, which felt like an incredible (and surprising) piece of intel to receive. But overall, the most gratifying moments are when our interview subjects tell us how much they enjoyed that conversation.
JS: I’d tack on our holiday party with Becky G where she discussed her frustration with Sebastian Lletget’s beard clipping. Or even the time Bruce Arena proclaimed his preference for puppies over kittens (“puppies all the way,” to be exact).
These personal nuggets are some of our favorite “gets” and they allow us and our listeners to relate to these names on a human level. We know we’ve done our job when the subject says, “thank you for asking me that” or “no one has ever actually asked me that.”
Also, simply developing a relationship with our listeners and viewers is beyond gratifying. Being on location somewhere and hearing someone say “I love your podcast!” is also beyond gratifying. The people who approach us individually while we are on assignment to thank us for welcoming them into MLS, that is the most rewarding. Also rewarding is the player that says “I played with so-so for 15 years and never knew that!”
Of course, the iconic question to Jillian or Susannah when spotted on individual assignments: “Where is Jill?! Where is Susannah?!'' People almost think we are walking around the MLS universe linked in arms and holding cocktails in the other hand. Which, I’m not going to lie, we love.
What’s Next for The Call Up?
SC: While we’re incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished with the pod, we both feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. As the world slowly adapts to life post-pandemic, we’re excited to do more in-person shows on location in some of our favorite MLS cities in 2022. Just last week we were in Austin at SXSW interviewing Claudio Reyna and we both discussed the importance of actual face time with the people and clubs we work with.
You’re able to connect in a way that just isn’t possible over a computer screen. Eventually, we’d like to return to a studio that will allow us to elevate our production value. We’re also constantly brainstorming ideas for guests that transcend MLS and offer a broader perspective on the soccer world, so securing names and diverse voices of that nature is certainly a goal for us.
JS: We really are best friends – we FaceTime, text, voice memo, IG DM, ALL DAY LONG about ideas, things we see on social media, and just life in general. Every Tuesday as we prepare to record an episode, we hope that comes through to the listener and that they are right there with us. We have some pretty cool projects in the works this season including an El Trafico showdown, a club barbershop takeover, and a stadium tour. Keep a watch out for those!
SC: We truly love this league and we love this sport. It’s an honor to be a trusted voice within MLS and we’re excited to continue to play a significant role in its growth this season and beyond.
JS: Lastly, DAVID BECKHAM, IF YOU’RE READING THIS PLEASE COME ON.
SC: AMEN. Let’s manifest that into reality!