By Tim Nash
This isn’t the first time Aly Wagner had the rising star label attached to her. The first time, believe it or not, was 25 years ago.
Way back when Tom Hanks was Forest Gump, George H.W. Bush was in the White House and the internet was one-year old, Wagner entered a juggling contest that served as a fundraiser for her youth soccer league in San Jose, Calif. As others tried to keep the ball up, Aly went about her business. After 20 minutes, she was told to stop. She had juggled the ball 1,500 times and was declared the winner. That was in 1990. She was 10.
The rising star label stuck with her through her youth soccer years with the Central Valley Mercury and an All-American career at Santa Clara University. It even stuck through the early part of her time with the U.S. national team where injuries robbed her of much of what could have been. Still, she played 131 times for the USA and ranks ninth on the all-time assist list with 42.
A true soccer-junkie, Wagner spent her time away from the field watching any and all available televised games, and like all soccer-junkies she spent a fair amount of time talking back to the TV. Today, she is offering observations and opinions on games televised by Fox. The rising star label is back.
“I would sit at home and say, ‘Why aren’t these things being said?’” Wagner says. “When I got into this, I said to my husband that I had to speak my mind. If that doesn’t work for the network and if it doesn’t work for me, that’s fine. I’ll do something else.”
Wagner was most recently seen on Fox’s Copa America Centenario, a month-long tournament pitting the best men’s national teams from South America, North America and the Caribbean. Wagner served as an in-studio commentator with former U.S. men’s national team player Alexis Lalas and Argentina TV personality Fernando Fiore. She spoke her mind, offering keen insight and opinions. And she did it in a very public forum filled with people keeping score, most of them marking down the “wrongs” with a magic marker and the “rights” with disappearing ink.
“I think speaking my mind is what got me in trouble throughout my career,” she says with a laugh. “And it could get me in trouble in this career now, but I have never had any trouble speaking my mind. I want to be able to say things that are bold and things I believe in. If I have to temper that, I don’t want to do this job. I have been right and wrong. Clint Dempsey is a great example.”
Oh right. Dempsey. She caused a minor Twitter storm with her comment that Dempsey, the U.S. men’s most experienced attacker, should be replaced after a lukewarm performance in the USA’s opening game loss to Colombia in Copa America Centenario. Dempsey turned out to be one of the USA’s most important players in their run to the semifinals, and Wagner admitted her mistake.
Mark one down in magic marker.
Criticism for the comment certainly didn’t make her gun shy. After the USA lost to Argentina 4-0 in a semifinal match that was miserable for all U.S. fans to watch, Wagner convincingly proved she had a perspective few others could offer. When U.S. captain Michael Bradley was asked in a post-game interview about the up-coming consolation match, he said, “I’m not sure what sense these third-place games make.” Back in the studio, Lalas added that when he was playing there were third-place games in which they “Threw in the towel.”
Wagner broke in. “Hold on,” she said, and then spoke her mind.
“I played in third-place games, twice,” she began. “You get 24 hours to lick your wounds and get yourself together. Bradley kind of passed off on the third-place game. As a leader on his team, I give him 24 hours. He needs to get in that locker room, get in his teammates’ heads and say, ‘This game matters! It matters because we want to go out on a high. We don’t want to finish with a loss.’
“You want to make a statement,” she continued. “You want to show that you have resilience and that you can play better soccer. With the women’s team, there was a lot of pride in how we played. No offense, but we never would have never thrown in the towel. We would never have said ‘This game doesn’t matter.’ That’s what leadership is about and that’s what setting a standard is about, and that’s what I want to see from this group.”
When asked by Fiore, how she did in those third-place games, Wagner matter-of-factly replied “Won them both.”
Mark one down in disappearing ink.
“I think that’s just another perspective you get when you have people who have had different experiences,” she says. “And I think it’s great for the audience.”
The media agreed.
“Aly Wagner, like (Julie) Foudy over at ESPN, has made herself a valuable contributor by sticking to the facts and getting into the tactical details of each match,” the British newspaper, The Guardian wrote. “If the past month proves anything, it’s that having only one woman on the set, for both ESPN and Fox, is … an opportunity missed for better on-air discussion.”
The Woman at the Desk
Wagner is well aware that there are men who believe they can learn little or nothing about sports from a woman, no matter the sport. She understands when some viewers turn on the pre-game show and see a woman on the set of men’s soccer telecast, they might dismiss her on sight. Especially a woman serving in the role of an expert, let alone an attractive, smiling, blonde woman serving as an expert.
“That’s what I thought everyone would assume at first glance, and that’s why you prepare,” Wagner says. “I’m fine with it. Just give me the chance to prove why I belong in that role regardless of whether I played men’s soccer or not. It’s fine if that’s your perception at first, but wait to see what I have to offer before you judge whether or not this is a token role or if it’s something that’s going to enhance your experience.”
Wagner is part of an ever-growing clan of women soccer commentators on both women’s and men’s games. Some of her former USA teammates — Heather Mitts, Kate Markgraf, Danielle Slaton, Cat Whitehill, Leslie Osborne, Angela Hucles, Foudy and Abby Wambach — have worked recently during the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the European Championships, U.S. friendlies, Copa America games or other broadcasts. Kelly Smith of England, Christine Latham and Karina LeBlanc from Canada, and Germany’s Ariane Hingst were also part of the 2015 World Cup broadcast team.
“I think it’s a combination of factors,” Wagner says of the influx of females in the booth and on the set. “First of all, there are actually jobs now. Brandi (Chastain) and Foudy were in it before, but now there are more jobs. And it’s a logical first step for a lot of people. But there will also be a lot of people passing through, which is a terminology Alexi Lalas uses. There will always be women in it, but there will be some who are just passing through.”
Wagner’s month working Copa America, while successful by all accounts, was a learning experience. Her job was to offer her insights and opinions, and she learned how to pick her moments in an environment where co-workers possess big personalities and a producer is in your ear talking about running out of time.
“Those two, obviously, were the show,” she says of Lalas and Fiore, a boisterous Argentine. “But sometimes I would have to say, ‘Hey.’ Hold on a minute.’ There were times when I couldn’t say what I really wanted because they go on and on and I can’t get back in. I pick and choose my moments. If there is something I really want to get out there, I will.
“If you do it right, you should be able to get your point across. Then the audience can choose who they agree with. If you don’t get your point across during the time that you spoke, then you already missed your opportunity.”
Perspective is Everything
It’s simple, really. If you are an American TV soccer commentator, you can’t call on the experience of having won a world championship unless you played for the U.S. Women’s National team, which Wagner did over 100 times and won two Olympic Gold medals.
“When I listen to some of the things some of the guys say about how the players might be feeling or the pressures they are under going into these big moments, I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how it is when you are the number-one team in the world.’ That’s the different perspective I can add that a lot of men’s players from this country can’t.”
But Wagner is also uniquely qualified to dissect a game tactically simply because of the position she played. Of all the American men and women calling games on TV, very few were central midfielders. Of the list above, Whitehill, Sobrero, Chastain, Slaton, Markgraf and Mitts were defenders, as was Lalas. Only Wagner, Foudy and Hucles were central midfielders.
“As a center midfielder, I was a cerebral player,” she says. “The way I saw the game was different even from my teammates. Now, I get to explain all the different details that make or break a play – why it worked, or why it broke down, or the great defending that broke it up. I love all the details of the game and getting to share that with the audience.
“I attribute a lot of my ability to pay attention to the small details of a game to (Santa Clara coach) Jerry Smith, who I believe is the best coach we have in this country, at least on the female side. His attention to detail is what took my game to the next level.”
It always intrigued her, the way commentators assisted the viewers, the opinions and explanations they offered. When she decided she wanted to give it a try, though, she found it hard to get started.
“I asked a couple people like Brandi Chastain and Kate Markgraf how to get into it,” she says. “But it’s one of those things where no one can really help you because there were very few jobs.
“The Pac 12 launched a network and WTV, which does West Coast Conference games. I talked to them, and they said if I didn’t have any footage, it was going to be hard to hire me. So it was the old chicken and egg. I needed tapes to get hired and couldn’t get tapes until someone hired me.”
So she placed a call to her alma mater, Santa Clara University, a West Coast Conference team.
“I asked if I could call a game for them, on the internet or something, just to get experience. I called a few games for the Broncos, and I had no idea what I was doing.”
But her footage was good enough to get an audition with Fox for the 2015 Women’s World Cup and she was off to Canada.
Wagner balances her new career with her family life in San Jose. She and her husband Adam Eyre, a former Santa Clara and Major League Soccer player and now a mortgage banker, have four kids, including triplet sons who will turn three next month. Her six-month-old daughter accompanied her to Copa America
“I’m a mom first and foremost,” she says. “That’s my first priority. Fortunately, we have family who can help out with the kids when I’m gone. I’d like to keep doing this as long as it keeps being enjoyable and audiences appreciate what I have to offer. I don’t want to do it if I am annoying everyone in the world. I’d like to continue adding value for people watching the game that I love.”
Her next gig? We will see her in Brazil as part of NBC’s 2016 Olympic coverage.