Why you should care

You’ll be listening to him if you tune in to the U.S.-Germany match today. He sacrificed a lot to get into that broadcast booth in Brazil.

With just under a half-hour left in the United States’ World Cup match against Portugal on Sunday in steamy Manaus, Brazil, the upstart Yanks had the European power knotted in a 1-1 tie. Taylor Twellman, that American voice paired with Brit Ian Darke on ESPN’s broadcasts of the U.S. games, thought he knew how the Americans might break the deadlock.

“I’m not going to hold back my opinion.”

American coach Jürgen Klinsmann just might consider bringing on substitute DeAndre Yedlin for his “pure speed” in the back, Twellman suggested on the air. Just a few minutes later, who should be up off the bench but Yedlin, the young, untested defender who was a surprise inclusion on the World Cup roster. And in the 81st minute it was Yedlin darting down the sideline on those young, fresh legs and slotting the ball crisply into the penalty box, where it ping-ponged off several players before star forward Clint Dempsey crushed it into the back of the net. 2-1 USA.

Taylor Twellman at laptop with shirt and tie and headphones

Source ESPN

If not for the artistry of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who served up the tying goal with a pinpoint cross seconds before the final whistle, that would have been the defining moment of the game. Twellman called it.

The 34-year-old former soccer stud is no mind reader. Klinsmann had suggested before the tournament started that he’d consider using Yedlin for that purpose. But Twellman had done his homework. More than that, he’s got a feel for the American game and its players and, well, just loves it.

“I’ve played 30 times for my country so its really fun to call those games,” Twellman tells OZY.

The grandson of a World Series-winning baseball player, son of a pro soccer player and nephew of a pro golfer, top-tier athleticism runs in his blood.

Not long ago Twellman was vying for a spot on the U.S. World Cup squad — one of the last players cut from the 2006 team that went out with a whimper in the first round in Germany. Plenty of people thought Twellman, one of the top players in the America’s Major League Soccer and “a pure goal scorer” according to MLS veteran Todd Dunivant, could have helped the Americans’ anemic offense.

Eight years later, he’s finally made it to the world’s biggest soccer stage — if not the way he planned, his playing career cut short by brain injury.

“It’s no different than playing,” Twellman tells OZY from Brazil, where, like the U.S. team, he’s been shuttling from stadium to stadium across this massive South American country, drawing energy and adrenaline from the competition and Brasileiros’ contagious enthusiasm for the game of fútbol.

Twellman would likely still be playing — and Dunivant says, easily the MLS’ all-time leading goal scorer by now — if not for a brutal accident in August 2008. In a match with his New England Revolution team, Twellman leapt to meet a teammate’s pass sailing across the goalmouth, connecting with the ball midair — but also with the fists of the onrushing goalkeeper. The ball soared into the net and Twellman slammed to the ground. In the video replay, Twellman surged to his feet to celebrate his score, took a few steps and then collapsed, bleeding from his forehead, into a teammate’s arms.

2 men with microphones standing looking at the camera smiling

Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman

Source ESPN

Fearlessness was a hallmark of his game. The grandson of a World Series-winning baseball player, son of a pro soccer player and nephew of a pro golfer, top-tier athleticism runs in his blood.

“Taylor is without question the most competitive guy that I have ever come across,” his younger brother James writes via e-mail. “The easiest way for someone to figure that out is not to play a sport with him or to play a round of golf with him; play a board game or a card game with him. … Ultimately, Taylor will beat you, even if that means playing until he finally wins!”

That tenacity cost him his career. The damage from the concussion he suffered, one in a long series he’s had since his youth, precluded a comeback.

It is hard to imagine that in just a short period of time, he has become so calm, so comfortable and so adroit at all of the nuances of television.

— Mike Tirico, ESPN’s World Cup studio host

“I’m really trying to give my brain the best opportunity to heal, and right now, that doesn’t include working out,” Twellman said in an interview on ESPN in 2011. He still can’t exercise, says James. Instead, Twellman relies on lengthy walks and a disciplined diet to stay trim.

Twellman’s upbeat, outgoing personality makes him a natural on-air. Since joining ESPN’s studio team covering MLS games in 2010, he’s expanded into on-air analysis, earning plaudits along the way as soccer’s equivalent to popular ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit.

“I can’t tell you how impressed I have been with Taylor,” Mike Tirico, ESPN’s World Cup studio host and Monday Night Football play-by-play commentator, writes from Rio. “It is hard to imagine that in just a short period of time, he has become so calm, so comfortable and so adroit at all of the nuances of television.”

The other thing Twellman says has helped? Bluntness. “I’m not going to hold back my opinion.”

Twellman is a huge booster for the MLS and American soccer talent. He singled out Yedlin on the phone several days before the Portugal game, noting that his inclusion in the roster will be “a carrot for a lot of these homegrown systems.”

But it hasn’t clouded his analysis of the U.S. performance. As he noted in the final minutes of the Portugal game, “for all the criticism” Klinsmann has gotten over personnel decisions (most notoriously, cutting the all-time leading U.S. scorer right before the tournament), “every move has been spot on!”

Klinsmann wasn’t able to keep that magic going against his fellow Germans, who picked apart the Americans with the machine-like precision with which they dispatch many of their opponents, winning in a 1-0 final score. But because Portugal defeated Ghana in the other group match, the U.S. squad advances to the knock-out round of the tournament, something few thought was possible going into the it. For Twellman, it’s validation of his fierce defense of U.S. soccer.

“The United States 100 percent earned the right to get out of this group,” Twellman said as the minutes ticked down on the Germany game.

The Americans will have pick it up in the next round, where it’s win or go home. If they don’t? They’ll get an earful on that from Twellman, too.

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