Interview

PSP’s chat with Bobby Warshaw, American soccer’s most unique new voice

Cover photo: Paul Rudderow

Full disclosure: Bobby Warshaw strikes me as one of American soccer’s most fascinating people, and I don’t remember ever seeing him play the game.

Yes, I know I’ve seen the Mechanicsburg, Pa. native play — his last MLS appearance was June 29, 2013 against Philadelphia— but I have no recollection of his part in that game. I never saw him play in Europe either, and like most people, I didn’t care about last year’s Philadelphia Union – Harrisburg City Islanders match in the U.S. Open Cup, so I didn’t watch. They face off practically every year in that tourney, and the Union always win.

I don’t follow Warshaw for his on-field exploits, and now that he’s retired — even though he’s just 28 years old — I never will.

It’s the person he is off the field that fascinates.

The two-time former Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania spent six years as a pro in the U.S., Norway and Sweden, followed by and even overlapping with his work as a soccer columnist, podcast host, and now author of a new book, here.)

In all those roles, he provided a unique window into the insights of professional soccer players through his writing and his classic podcast, The Play, which ended abruptly in August. In all those roles, Warshaw comes across as authentic, honest, and utterly raw, letting things fly out of his mouth that most pro soccer players wouldn’t dare utter but, in the process, revealing some uniquely brilliant and often hilarious — sometimes inadvertently — insights about life behind the scenes in American professional soccer.

Warshaw and I started trading emails months ago, when I hit him up out of the blue to praise his podcast, which was still running. (He surprised me by telling me that his mother was a regular Philly Soccer Page reader because our old “Philadelphians Abroad” feature reported on Warshaw’s overseas exploits.) But between his travel and mine, there was always some delay to us chatting. The notion was to run a review of his book at the same time as this interview, but one day turns into another, and suddenly, it’s October.

We finally talked for this interview on Sep. 24, first by voice via Skype, and then by Skype chat. At the time, he was in Australia.

Here is our discussion, which is equal parts interview and just two guys talking about life, soccer, and everything.

The interview

Bobby Warshaw.

Dan Walsh: Bobby, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. As I’ve told you, I’ve been a fan of your podcast and writing, and now I’ve read even more of it in your new book, When the Dream Became Reality. First off, let me ask: You retired after last season at a pretty young age. What are you doing these days?

Bobby Warshaw: Hey Dan. Appreciate that. It feels good to hear.

I’m doing some traveling now. I had always planned to just kinda take off when I decided to stop playing. But then I ended up doing the book, so when the book stuff slowed down, I bought a ticket and left.

Dan: From what you’ve told me, it’s a bit of a world tour. Switzerland, Australia — where else have you gone, and what has stood out on the most on your recent travels?

Bobby: I did Italy for a couple days, then Switzerland — my brother has always said the Swiss mountains were his favorite place in the world, so I had to check it out — then Jordan. Mehdi Ballouchy put together a trip to the Syrian refugee camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border, and I was lucky enough to get a chance to go and help out. Then from Jordan to Australia.

The Jordan trip was probably the most memorable part. It’s tough to articulate what it’s like to see the camp and be around the people, but it’s something I’ll always remember.

Dan: I can see why that would be most memorable. I definitely didn’t expect that to be among your stops, but somehow, it doesn’t surprise me. You said he put together a trip. Was it just you two, or were there are other current/former pro soccer players who joined? And what exactly were you doing there to help out?

Bobby: Stephen Lenhart and Sacir Hot came along, too.

NYCFC and MLS donated some gear for us to give away, including a couple hundred pairs of cleats. And then we did a three day camp for the kids.

Admittedly I think we probably learned a lot more from them than they did from us.

Dan: Life tends to be like that. That’s fascinating. And interesting that it’s the first I’ve ever heard of it. Often, you hear of these things getting publicized. I think it speaks well for you all that you just went to go (i.e. with no publicity). What were the conditions like for the refugees there?

Bobby: I thought the same thing about it. It was nice that it didn’t feel like we were being used for someone’s publicity stunt. We had a photographer there who is putting together a video, but it will be used more for fundraising than anything else.

I am going to write a short piece about it at some point, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to do it yet

Dan: Why do you think that is? 

When the Dream Became Reality, by Bobby Warshaw, was published this summer.

Bobby: As you said, I’m not sure how to manage the tone. I want people to know about what a refugee camp is like, and that Mehdi and NYCFC, MLS, and Catalyst (a nonprofit) put in some much effort to make it happen, but I don’t want to interject myself into it. And pretty much everything I’ve ever written has been first-person.

It’s something I think about a lot with the new digital age, and it’s something I often judge people for. Something happens in the world, and then we tweet about it, and the tweet or Facebook post makes it about us.

I understand that people want to show their support for something, but too often it’s clearly done to inject themselves into and put some eyes on them.

Sorry, that was off topic, but something that’s been on my mind lately with the current American climate. I get annoyed when people mistake a tweet for actually doing something tangible.

Dan: Right. You want to avoid the all-too-typical thing these days of “Look at me, here’s what I did, let me humble-brag about it, but oh, what a great cause it is, and by the way, look at me.”

Bobby: Right.

Dan: By the way, don’t worry about going off topic. Your tendencies to go off topic are what made The Play such a great podcast — and why you’re an interesting enough person to want to talk to.

But, yes, I suppose that makes for a good segue into soccer, as that’s why we’re talking.

Let me ask about the podcast then, actually. That’s how you and I started talking. I had sent you a cold-call email just randomly saying something like, “Hey, I love The Play, it’s so authentic, what you’re doing is great, keep it up.” I mean, here you were with this utterly unique podcast comprised of current and former American professional soccer players talking about your lives in soccer. It was unfiltered, raw, and thoroughly genuine, one of a few podcasts I listened to regularly. How did it start, and why did it suddenly shut down in August?

Bobby: It started, and I feel a little guilty admitting this, but because most of the people who talked about soccer had never actually played soccer.

It’s something that bugs most professional players.

I took the idea to [Howler magazine editor] George Quraishi, and he helped me get it started.

At the time, I also wanted to gain some skills. I kinda knew I wasn’t going to play again the following season, I thought about what skills I had to take to the work force, and realized I didn’t have any. So I wanted to do something to learn some new stuff.

Dan: Do you mean never played ANY soccer, or never played pro soccer?

Bobby: Played pro soccer.

Basically I saw something missing in the market, and tried to fill it.

I decided to stop, mostly, to detach from everything I had been doing and force myself to find something new. It’s a little bit like breaking up with a girl. As we all know, if you stay a little emotionally attached, it’s impossible to find someone new.

I would have loved to keep doing it, but it’s probably time to find a real job in life.

Dan: Interesting insight. I’ve stayed emotionally attached to journalism six-plus years after leaving full-time newspapers/magazines. I found someone new, but I’ve never been sure she was as pretty as the last girl I keep visiting every time I take a freelance job or do an interview like this for The Philly Soccer Page.

Regular listeners got to know you and many of your guests. Mikey Stephens, Ugo Ihemelu, Jeb Brovsky, Matt Pzydrowski, Ike Opara, guys like that, old teammates or friends from various levels of soccer. Then one day I heard former Philadelphia Union midfielder Danny Cruz on the podcast, and I was like, “Ok, where did they overlap?” He’s playing with Stephens for the NASL San Francisco Deltas. And it got me to wondering how players who didn’t know you were reacting to the podcast. Did you hear from a lot of players you didn’t know who listened to the show, and did some (like Cruz) ask to be part of it?

Bobby: I played with Cruz on the U18 national team.

Dan: Ah.

Bobby: And while he was in Philly, we trained together in the offseasons.

I actually didn’t have a single player who listened to the show or ever mentioned it.

A sad truth is that most pro players don’t consume much soccer content.

Dan: You’re kidding. Wow. Why do you think that is?

Bobby: Partially because they want to get away from it whenever possible, and partially because a lot of them don’t like soccer that much.

You’d like to think a professional player would love it, but a lot of them rarely watch games.

It’s something we joke about in the MLS office. it’s tough to get players to talk about the league, because very few actually know much about the league.

Bobby Warshaw goes up for a header against Chris Albright in his last MLS game, a 2013 match between Dallas and Philadelphia. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Dan: Do you find that’s a trait more of American soccer players, or does it cross cultures? (And was it as common a trait among players in Norway and Sweden?)

Bobby: Yeah, it was fairly common across the board.

It’s a theme I touched on in the book. A lot of people play soccer because they were good at soccer, not because they loved it as an art.

I like soccer more than almost anyone I know, but most really aren’t that into it.

Dan: Right. I remember. Do you consider yourself a student of the game in a broader sense — other teams, leagues, players, tactics, trends, etc. — or primarily in how you sought to improve the quality of your game?

Bobby: I’ve never thought of it as being a student of the game, but I like soccer and take in a lot of information.

I also saw it as a competitive advantage. I wanted a .0001% advantage any way I could get it.

It’s a major knock I have about MLS right now. Players don’t work hard enough outside training times. Your body can only take so much work. But your mind and emotional durability has a whole other tank. When you get home at 2 p.m., you should be watching film, reading books, watching YouTube clips.

A 300-page autobiography of some random player might be a slug to get through, but if it has 1 sentence that makes you a better player, it’s worth it.

Dan: No, it’s definitely not a slug. Your book is a damn good read, real quick, and you succeeded in making it feel like a narrative. I knew how the story ended, but there I was, rooting for you with Angelholms. (And I have to admit, I was practically yelling at you to stay with them after your massive success with them.)

You come across in the book, on the podcast — well, everywhere, as I guess it’s just you — as one of the most competitive people I’ve ever come across. Now you’re almost a year out of the game. Have you been able to turn that competitive drive off? Do you even want to? Maybe a better question is … what happens to that competitive drive now that you’ve stepped away from the field?

Bobby: Good question. That’s one of the main things I’m trying to figure out right now. I joke with friends that I’m a “new Bobby” now.

I’m torn on it. I really do want to be less competitive. It just tore me up for so long, and I do want to be a more relaxed, understanding person. But at the same time, I still want to do big things — whatever the means — and I think it takes some edge to get things done.

Like, I think there is some importance to pushing people and competing and all that, and now I’m just trying to find the sweet spot on it.

Dan: A great thing about being a newspaper reporter was that I got to direct my competitiveness from sports into competition on the beat. I’ve never been able to fully turn that competitive drive off. I think it’s why I’ve related a good bit to your writing. It’s led me to live a pretty interesting life in most people’s eyes, but it can also lead to self-destruction too when you get too intense about things and are too hard on yourself.

That’s something you wrote about in the book and talked about in the podcast. I recall Chris Seitz and Jeb Brovsky giving their perspectives about it when you three talked about relationships on the podcast. They seem like extraordinarily well-adjusted people who have also made it work on the field. (Union fans who remember Seitz mostly from the team’s expansion season would probably be fascinated by his insights.)

Forgive me, there’s not a question in there, primarily a reaction. So, to stumble through a poorly articulated question … How common are guys like Seitz and Brodsky vs. guys like you in pro soccer?

Bobby: Did you pick up any tips for me to steal on it?

Bobby: Any cheat codes on how to be a decent person in a competitive world?

Dan: Nope. I still do it on a regular basis. Every time I look at the unfinished novel and try to figure how I’m going to balance my free time between writing, running a publication on the side, doing my full-time job well, and actually spending time with my little boy and wife.

On that second question … yeah. Just … honor. Nobody talks about that word anymore, but that’s it. Integrity. My grandfather used to tell me, “It’s not whether you win or lose that’s important. It’s how you play the game.” Or how you play the game of life. It’s the only thing that ever put a check on my competitiveness, but that intensity thing? Yeah, still working on that one. But I’ll let you know if I figure it out.

Tell me about soccer in Pennsylvania. You talked about your offseason workouts with Cruz, and I know other guys played in those games too. Ryan Richter, Sheanon Williams, many others … what was that scene like, and did you ever want to play for Philadelphia Union in a hometown sort of way?

Bobby: I totally wanted to play for the Union.

And they should have done it.

And I don’t feel that guilt at this point saying I don’t cheer for the Union because they didn’t do it.

Philly is perhaps the one team in the league that could build a true identity akin to the city.

What’s LA’s identity? What’s Seattle’s identity? Philly has an identity.

And it makes me sad they have never tried to build a club with PA/Philly kids to live out that identity.

Even the Steel! Like, why the hell would you not make the Steel a group of Philly kids?

The Union won’t win in a conventional manner. They need to find their advantage.

(And I’ll add I cheer for all Philly teams, so I’m bummed the Union aren’t a part of it.)

Dan: They say they’re trying to build a team with Philly-area kids, through their academy. It sounds like you don’t see that as particularly genuine or enough. How should they be doing this all differently, in terms of building that local identity and bringing local guys in?

And also, did you ever have talks with the Union about joining them?

Bobby: I texted Jim [Curtin] a couple times. But it never went past that.

Even their academy isn’t Philly kids.

They are bringing kids from all over the country.

Dan: Interesting point. They just lost two kids to Atlanta United’s academy. Why do you think they’re reaching outside the PA/NJ/Del. for players more often?

Bobby: Same reason everyone always tried to look elsewhere for new players: the talent trap.

Dan: Explain that.

“The talent trap.”

Bobby: Talent steals our heart. We get enthralled with what we see.

And we always think there is more of it out there.

Dan: So we take for granted what’s in our own back yard?

Bobby: Talent is important. Sometimes I worry I underscore that idea. But it’s less important than we weigh it.

My point about Philly is the ethos and mentality of Philly people.

What you give up in talent, you make up in other aspects.

Dan: Like what?

Bobby: Something I often call the A*****e trait.

Philly kids are often chip-on-the-shoulder guys. They hate to lose or be embarrassed. So they tackle harder. They transition quicker. They work for their teammates and care about being on a team.

Would you agree with any of that? Or am I making it all up?

Dan: It sounds like you just described yourself. And Jim Curtin, Jeff Parke, Bobby Convey, and probably a bunch of others.

So yeah, I’d agree with that.

Bobby: Imagine 9 of those guys, with a Diego Valeri.

THAT’S the MLS team I’m picking over a 34-game season

(At least if you aren’t willing to spend $15 million on wages.)

Dan: A Diego Valeri has been the key missing piece for them all season.

What do other players think of the Union as a franchise? When guys talk about the club, what do they say?

Bobby: I don’t want to speak for other guys. For the most part, the guys I’ve ever spoken to about it have liked playing there.

Bobby Warshaw and Zac MacMath, circa 2013, in Warshaw’s last MLS game. (Photo: Paul Rudderow)

Dan: Let me come back to the book for a moment. We’ll be running a review of the book, so I’m not asking you too much about it here because the words in the book mostly speak for themselves. But I am curious as to what kinds of reactions you’ve gotten to the book — I heard you allude on the podcast to a coach who reacted poorly, and I’m guessing that was your coach in Dallas or one particular one abroad — and how, if at all, it has changed your life.

Bobby: Haha. It wasn’t a coach. I haven’t heard from any of the coaches. I was worried at first, but so far so good.

Dan: Ah, there’s my great memory. One too many hits to the head over the years — and mishit headers from this center back — have had their effect.

Bobby: Haha.

The reaction has been good so far. I’ve gotten a few texts and [direct messages] and each one means the world. When I decided to actually go through with putting it out, I wasn’t sure if it would ruin my life. (I actually sent it to [MLSsoccer.com analyst] Matt Doyle and told him to be honest with me and it would ruin my future.)

Dan: So it hasn’t ruined your life. That’s a good start!

Bobby: My dad made a point that’s stuck with me. His philosophy is that I will have made something worthwhile when someone trashes it. It’s nice when people like it, but there isn’t anything in the world that isn’t hated by someone. And when a person feels comfortable enough saying it sucks, or when it’s gone mainstream enough, it’ll be a good sign.

Dan: Do you know the Teddy Roosevelt quote? About the “man in the arena”?

Bobby: Yeah. Great quote.

Dan: I always keep that in mind. Even when writing a column about soccer. Or maybe especially when writing about soccer, since it reverses the scenario I always preferred. I’m not the man in the arena. You are. Alejandro Bedoya is. Jim Curtin is. Jeb Brovsky is. Conor Casey is. And there’s something to be admired there, even when they try and fail and try again. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

Perhaps that’s why your book resonates well. You wrote about being the man in the arena. In writing your story in such an open, honest and vulnerable manner, you entered another arena.

And maybe that sounds like a good place for us to wrap up. What do you think?

Bobby: Works for me.

Thanks for taking the time to chat.

Dan: You too. It’s been a lot of fun. I think our readers will enjoy it. After all, you’re the biggest thing to come out of Mechanicsburg since the band Poison. That’s a big deal, you know. 

Bobby: Anytime I’m included in the same sentence as Poison, I’ll take it.

Which is an amazing sentence now that I type it.

12 Comments

  1. Good interview. Warshaw has become the nom-de-jour in MLS circles recently, but definitely for the right reasons. His previous podcasts are a must listen if you are interested in the book! His perspective and that of his guests are very refreshing and insightful.

  2. Great interview. I hope that Warshaw stays connected to soccer and works in the media. He has a unique voice that can add a lot to the sport here in the US.

  3. Great interview! Like his take on making our teams more ‘Philadelphian’. Was one of the many great players FC Delco produced over the years. FC Delco seem to have had more success in producing pro players than the Union Academy has had….

    • Well, FC Delco had a lot more time. We’ll see how the Union Academy does in a few years.

      • We will indeed. I see most good ones disappearing to Atlanta and other places. The point is that you should have asked him about his development (playing for FC Delco and his HS)and how he compares that with what is going on now with the DA’s and no HS soccer for those players.

      • Definitely would have been good questions for me to think of. I guess that, once your interview with a soccer player starts with a refugee camp in the Middle East, you kind of just let things go where they will.

  4. Is Bobby busy on Thursday mornings? I hear there is an opening in these parts.

  5. A point of detail about the Union’s Academy.
    .
    As I understand it, they have c. 75 boys and their residency program has 22 beds, so roughly 2/3 of the student body are day students.
    .
    The net is cast widely for day students, into New Jersey and Delaware as well as southeastern and eastern PA.
    .
    And to review details first mentioned elsewhere by others, one of the departures for Atlanta was by the player’s choice. The other decision came from within the organization that the player needed to leave.

  6. Wonderful job Dan. Warshaw comes off as honest, caring, blunt and opinionated(not saying that’s a bad thing). As an avid podcast listener from different genres, I’m intrigued enough to go take a look at his podcast’s past episodes. His comments about 10 Philly kids and one Diego Valeri have endeared him to me for life. Great read. Interested to read the book review.

  7. The issue I have with Academies is the following:
    – kids see it as a job and don’t gave fun
    – kids who play in the DA are jealous of their friends who play HS socccer
    – most kids in the DA are turned into robots who have little creativity / Soccer IQ.
    I believe (and hope this can be confirmed by Bobby) most kids who used to play for FC Delco had fun, could play HS Soccer, etc. Therefore were more likely to find success on the field. Fun is the key issue. Even Pulisic mentioned once that he had so much fun at Dortmund and that that was one of the reasons he bacame so good.
    .
    USSoccer needs to revamp the Academies to make sure kids have fun and do not see it as a job.

    • Great points, Guido. I think that #3 is often overlooked in player development here. While doing drills and developing your technical skills are vital, the most important thing is playing in game situations and figuring out how to solve problems out on the pitch.

      Too many times, the players will look for the coach to tell them how to break down a packed in defense and while the coach can help guide them, the players are the ones that ultimately need to figure that out while on the pitch. Players have to learn to think for themselves rather than be told everything.

      The ability to do the unexpected or come up with a creative solution is not something that can be coached into a player, it has to come from within.

    • Great points, Guido. Fun is the most important thing you noted here. If you don’t love the game as a kid, you will not play it as much and won’t develop as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com