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One-on-One With Marcelo Balboa

Marcelo Balboa had a storied career as a player for both club and country, and now takes his talents to the airwaves in his first gig as the color analyst for a U.S. Men’s National Team game against Denmark this weekend on ESPN at 12:30 p.m. PT. During a 12-year highlight-studded international career (who can forget the best "almost goal" in World Cup history in 1994?), Balboa would become the highest scoring defender in U.S. history (13 goals) while registering a third-best 128 caps for the MNT. With career stops in places from Leon, Mexico to Denver, Colorado, he retired from professional soccer at the end of 2002 and quickly made the leap to the broadcast booth. Recently, talked with Balboa about the career change, the role of the "pioneers" in U.S. Soccer, and the past, present and future of the sport in this country … You managed to quickly change gears from being a player to entering another part of the soccer world. How did you handle the transition?

Marcelo Balboa: For being a guy that has played soccer for a long time, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to get straight into broadcasting. The toughest part for players is when they don’t think about retiring and it just comes up upon them. For me, the transition was a little hard for the first, oh, 15 broadcasts or so (laughs). It was hard still watching the guys play. I didn’t really miss it until I did the broadcast for the big Fourth of July 4 game in Colorado. You’re used to playing in front of 50,000. You miss the adrenaline, putting on the jersey, and the camaraderie with the guys in the locker room every day. But it turned out very well for me. I still keep myself busy in soccer, so that’s probably a key to keeping myself from going crazy. Do you think it’s important that former players like yourself move into areas of management of the game after their playing days are over?

MB: Absolutely. I’m not saying that everybody has to, but I think you have enough players out there that have tons of experience, from international experience to playing professionally abroad. I think it’s a normal thing. Mine is the generation of players that were called "pioneers of soccer", so you definitely think that players like us have to get involved. The knowledge we can bring, from identifying players, to helping in the youth system. And we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just being coaches. There are positions like general manager, or director of player personnel, and areas on the business side. Right now in soccer you have good smart business people, and along with that you need guys who have actually lived the game, breathed the game, and know what the game’s about. That’s the kind of mix you need. Broadcasters seem to be a favorite target for fans to pick on. Now that you’re actually in the broadcast booth, exactly how hard is it?

MB: I think everybody and their mother busts the broadcasters’ chops, no matter who they are. I think it’s tough. You have to work on so many things, like how to pronounce everyone’s names, studying film, meeting with production staff, etc. And there’s so much behind the scenes that no one ever sees. You try to develop chemistry between you and the play-by-play guy, and communicate with the producer, the director, and the rest of the crew. I’m definitely still learning. One thing that seems obvious, but was difficult for me to get used to, is that people like to hear your opinion. Initially, I was very quiet for the first several broadcasts. The producers finally were telling me ‘people want to know what you’re thinking.’" What has been the most challenging part of developing as an analyst?

MB: One of the toughest things is having to criticize your friends. You’re not out to hammer anybody, but you’re out to tell the truth. I’ve realized over the last year of doing games that it’s ok to say ‘he’s having a bad game.’ Not that he sucks, but he’s having a bad game. You have to learn how to express your thoughts, and do it quickly. I just try to tell the truth as much as possible." What are the types of qualities a former player can bring to the broadcast booth?

MB: One thing we can bring is that we’ve lived the experience. We’ve been through the qualifying process. We’ve been through the World Cups. So we can offer not only what a player is doing, but what a player is feeling. I think that’s a valuable insight, and something we can share with the audience." We know you often get asked to visit "the good old days", but as a man who began his international career in 1988, how would you describe the evolution of the U.S. national team programs?

MB: Where can we start this question that can go on forever? Back in 1990, the national team program consisted of a group of guys basically coming together for a week or two, playing a game, then going back to college. We were averaging 2,000 people a game. And we were losing. The mentality at times was "how bad are we going to lose today?" Soccer wasn’t really developed here yet. We qualified for the World Cup, and obviously we didn’t show as well as we wanted to, but the fact is we were a bunch of kids. We were a bunch of kids in an event played by men.

You move onto 1994, and the USSF basically gave us a home in Mission Viejo and said ‘we’re going to put you guys together.’ You could see the difference in the level of soccer, and the American player kept developing more and more. The advantages really hit with the birth of MLS. The opportunities that players have now are 100 times better than we had, from facilities, to training, to professional environments. They way soccer has grown, and will continue to grow, suggests that obviously we are doing something right. And you can see that in the fact that European teams are starting to take a serious interest in our players. Fans are often asking the question of which new players have the potential to have an impact on the national team. Your thoughts?

MB: It’s so tough to say. It’s a different game playing in the MLS to playing in a national team game. It’s a different level between a league game to just a regular friendly game against Denmark. Then you talk about a qualifier, and now it’s a whole new ball game. Then you hit the World Cup, and again it’s a higher level. The most important game for these guys, and anybody who is playing, is the game they are playing now. This game against Denmark could conceivably make or break four or five guys who are on the bubble." Speaking of bubble players, can you mention a few players for whom you think 2004 will be a big year?

MB: A guy that to me that you have to look at is Richard Mulrooney. After the MLS season he had, you have to think this a guy who has a good chance of breaking into the midfield. Another guy is Josh Wolff, who really over the last two or three years has been injured. I think this camp, along with the next few games, are very, very important to his future with the national team. Ante Razov has been there, and has been so close but hasn’t quite been able to make it. As far as goalkeepers, I’d like to see Jonny Walker a little more, since I haven’t seen him play very much. I think it’s going to be a very interesting situation with the goalkeepers. I don’t think there’s any way that Howard, Friedel, and Keller all go to Germany, because none of them will want to be the third goalkeeper. Bottom line is, only three go to the World Cup, and so I think one of the goalkeepers you see in this camp is likely to be there in Germany. How important is it to have Americans playing professionally in Europe for the growth of the national team, or do you think MLS is a good option?

MB: Right now, we have a good mix of European players and MLS players. You can see that in the way Bruce Arena put the team together in 2002. We have all of our ‘keepers there, and a few of our best field players. Would you like to have a goal scorer or two playing in Europe? Sure. Would you like to have a defender or two? Yes. I’m not saying you need to have everyone there, but you need to have a balance. Having developed a perspective from both inside and outside the game, what do you see as the key areas of growth for professional soccer in the U.S.?

MB: There are so many different things we need to do, but I’ll pick two. First and foremost is getting our own stadiums. Once we have our own buildings, we can determine when and how much we play. We don’t have to worry about football teams, concerts, scheduling, etc. In terms of television, we need to get on prime time. We’re taking whatever we can get, which is great, but we need to have a destination night for viewing. We have Soccer Saturday, which is a step in the right direction, but everyone and their mother is playing soccer between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. in the summer, so they aren’t catching the games very much. What do you see as the important goals for the U.S. team in 2004?

MB: It would be nice to get qualifying out of the way as early as possible, so you can give some players a rest, let them play with their MLS teams, and give other young kids an opportunity to play in qualifiers and get some experience. If the U.S. lost half of their friendlies, for me it’s not a big deal. You always want to win, but you know what, better to win all your World Cup qualifiers early, solidify your place, and take the pressure off. And how about the goals for Marcelo Balboa?

MB: The goal for me this year is to become a better broadcaster. I had a great time last year. I want to keep doing what I’m doing, but also keep moving up in the ranks. I’d love to do more national team games, World Cup qualifiers, and the Olympics. Just like when I was playing, I’ve set goals that I want to achieve. I never really thought of myself as a broadcaster before, but now that I am, I want to be the best I can possibly be."