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An interview with Bobby Warshaw, author of ‘When the Dream Became Reality’

Warshaw shares some thoughts on his career, his writing, and the MLS-USL connection

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Bobby Warshaw

Bobby Warshaw’s first book, When the Dream Became Reality, was just released on July 17th. He was nice enough to answer a few questions from the Brotherly Game about some of the themes from the book, as well as sharing some of his thoughts on the American soccer landscape.

Chris Bratton: At the end of the book you said that you didn’t know how you’d feel a week after the book went to publishing. Now that it has been released for a week, how do you feel?

Bobby Warshaw: I actually feel better than I expected. I went back and forth throughout the entire process between "this book sucks so badly" and "this book might not actually suck that bad." Every other week, I would have a panic attack that I was wasting my time on something that wouldn't have an impact, and then I would get a spurt of energy and feel like I was doing something really powerful. I can say that I will probably never read the book again, or at least not for a long time. There's nothing I've written over the last five years that I haven't hated a month later. Even my favorite pieces in which I really felt like I nailed it at the time, I've gone back and read and felt disgusted with myself.

While I was writing the book, I tried at first to make everything perfect in hopes of avoiding that feeling of future regret, but I heard something from Aaron Sorkin, producer of Emmy Award winning NBC show The West Wing (among others), that really helped me. He said in an interview that he's never gone back and watched an episode of West Wing after it aired because he would think it was awful. And this is an Emmy Award-caliber show! When I heard him say that, it allowed me to relax a little bit. So to give you a final answer, I'll never go back and look at the words because it'll make me upset, but as a full body of work, I am pleasantly surprised with how I feel.

CB: The MLS-USL connection has really grown since you played at FC Dallas. Do you think it’s an improvement over the reserve team system that was being used in MLS during that time?

BW: Anything would have been an improvement over the Reserve League when I was in it. We were starting five or six Academy players who weren't good enough and then two or three older guys who couldn't have been less interested in playing a 10 a.m. game on a Sunday. It often felt like we only have three or four guys on the field who really had a purpose to be on the field. And we would go months without a game; it would be four straight weeks, and then three months off from Reserve games.

It's great for young players to have meaningful games to play in now. With that said, I wouldn't pay for my own USL team if I were an MLS team. It's $2-3 million spent for the return of, at best, three players. That money could go toward a transfer fee or wages elsewhere. And you usually know who the crop of potential pros will be, so you're filling out a roster and paying wages and infrastructure to just give that small group a place to play. Use the money to send those players on loan somewhere, either elsewhere in USL or, ideally, abroad. I love the idea of having a convenient place to get minutes for young players, especially Americans, but I think it can be done more efficiently within a club's overall plans than to spend the money on its own USL team.

The improvement of the USL and the relationship between MLS and USL is certainly much better than what MLS used to have for young players, but they still need to figure out the most efficient and effective manner to use it.

CB: Do you think that an increased profile for the USL would reduce the sort of European movement that you went through? A move to Cincinnati, Sacramento, or Phoenix doesn’t seem like as big of a drop off anymore.

BW: The American soccer landscape is way different than I went on loan to Sweden. Dallas wanted to send me to NASL or USL, but I blocked it. I didn't want to go play in front of a couple hundred fans in a lower league. If I was going to try something different, I wanted the experience of dealing with life abroad. It's definitely a completely new situation now. Cincinnati, Sacramento, Phoenix and a few of these other clubs are essentially MLS teams. I would definitely be more open to one of these teams than the options four years ago.

With that said, I think I would still choose to go abroad. Two reasons. First, I had always had an itch to live abroad. I told myself that before my career ended, I wanted to get someone to pay for me to live in Europe. I'm a firm believer that everyone should move somewhere completely new and be super lonely at some point. Second, there still isn't enough movement between and out of the American markets. If getting to Barcelona is the ultimate goal (realistic or not, it's the endgame), then you have to get to European market. The European market is still so much more fluid and open than the American markets. A good season for Baerum provided a better chance to move up than a better season for Cinci. MLS, USL, and NASL still need to get more involved in the world market and reward players for performance in helping them move up in the ladder. Right now, a good year in MLS means a pay raise, not a move to a bigger league or club.

CB: You detail how you’ve been played at a wide variety of positions during your career, all the way from center back to striker. Has that helped inform your current opinions about how players sometimes get played out of their natural position on other teams? I know that you had specifically mentioned how Darlington Nagbe is used on the USMNT on your Twitter.

BW: The fact that I played every position on the field gives me insight into what's important for each position and the perspective of the game from each spot, so maybe I have some extra knowledge on the issue, but for the most part I think players playing in sub-optimal positions is pretty obvious to most people (I just have a louder microphone to yell about it sometimes). I'd like to claim I have some special insight about Nagbe's ideal spot, but I think that one is pretty clear.

Here's a distinction that's important to make on the topic. It's not as much about playing out of position, as it is in putting the player in a sub-optimal position. Let's use Sacha (Kljestan) for example. He's the best 10 on Red Bulls. Sacha's best position isn't as a 10, though. His best position would be as a 6 or an 8. He's a good 10, but not good enough to play at a World Cup as a playmaker. I actually think he probably is good enough to play for the national team as an 8. He did it in Champions League. But we haven't seen enough of him as an 8 to know for sure. So he helps his club, but he sacrifices the well being of his own career. Those kinds of things make me upset; not necessarily mad at anyone - it's part of the game - but they make me empathize with the player. Soccer is a team game, but it's made of individuals with feelings and ambitions, and I'm sure Sacha would have wanted to be at the World Cup. I think a lot of the elements of players out of position are self-evident, but those player-level things are what get to me.

CB: Both of the teams that you played for in Norway in 2015 had serious locker room issues for different reasons. In Baerum you noted that the people behind the scenes wielded too much power, while at Honefoss the players were focused on making themselves look good. Both of those teams ended up relegated. Have your brushes with bad locker rooms like this made it easier for you to spot their effects when the players are out on the field? (Author’s note: I made a mistake here. The “locker room issues” that Warshaw experienced at Baerum had to do with the team’s board putting excessive pressure on the chairman and coaches. This caused friction, but it wouldn’t really be a “bad locker room” as he points out)

BW: I'll start with the note that Baerum didn't have a bad locker room. We actually had an amazing locker room. Everyone got along; we didn't have any bad personalities; we didn't have any underlying animosities. A small detail about that... When I got to Baerum and saw the locker room for the first time, it was the smallest thing I had ever seen. It was a long room with lockers on either side. When I sat at my locker, my knees almost hit the person sitting across from me. It made me so sad the first time I saw it. I wondered how I had fallen so far from the gorgeous Dallas facilities. But the small locker room was so much better. I could talk to everyone. There weren't factions or isolated groups. Whenever I had a disagreement with someone on the field, I had to face him right away. You couldn't hide from anyone; there weren't places for small groups to gather. We could hear everything everyone said, so everyone got involved in all of the conversations. We had some great banter in that locker room. (Man, that's one of the things I miss the most.) The club had bad people at the top, but the locker room was fantastic, and was probably the only thing that kept us alive and sane at the end for so long.

The Honefoss locker room was the opposite. We had no chemistry or unity in that locker room. The room itself was huge and everyone split off into their ethnic divisions the second people arrived. It had very defined factions.

Both team's locker room environments manifested on the field. At Baerum, we played above our weight; the sum exceeded the parts. At Honefoss, we were just horrible all around.

So yes, I'm definitely attuned to how locker room environments and culture impact performance on the field. Everyone's quick to blame the players' talent or the coach's tactics. But there are these other things that matter. I'll use the example of the US at the Gold Cup (I tried to explain it on Club and Country but it didn't come out well). They clearly looked disjointed and slow early on. Everyone suggests it's the lack of continuity. But it looks deeper than that. Lack of continuity doesn't explain the sluggishness or fear. Sometimes it's factors we can't see at all: how did the hotel set up the meal room? How did the arrangements allow the team to socialize? Perhaps the roommate pairings didn't work out; imagine playing in your first USMNT game and the night before your roommate prefers the temp in the room to be eight degrees warmer than you like. These sound like small things, but they all matter when a game is moving a million miles an hour.

To continue an already too-long answer, these are all inefficiencies in the soccer market. We think about signings and talent and spend so much damn money on things we can see and touch, but we forget about all these other things. Whose job is it to make sure the locker room is designed the right way to promote the right interactions? Whose job is it to stay attuned to locker room dynamics? Players end up getting blamed in the end, but there are so many back end decisions that impact the play on the field.

CB: You discuss how you were influenced by a speech by (now Senator) Cory Booker and a book by Governor Eric Greitens during a time in your career when you felt like you needed direction. If your book finds its way into the hands of a person who similarly needs some direction in their life, what message would you hope they’ll take from it?

BW: I hope every person takes something different from the book, but I didn't have a specific goal. I'm not going to tell you I didn't have grand visions of really making a difference in the world. I tricked myself into thinking I was making something of real significance (which shouldn't surprise you once you've read the book). I certainly hope the book will impact a person's life. But within that, I didn't have a specific goal or target as to what that thing would be, exactly.

I just told my story. And I hoped in telling my story, and laying it all on the line, including all of my insecurities and vulnerabilities, that people would feel connected to something. We all have these insecurities and vulnerabilities that we think make us weak or scarred, even though the truth is that they are universal and ubiquitous and if we talked about them more often, we would all feel better. So my overall goal was to create that feeling of acceptance and allow people to take a deep breath about their own fallibility. Everyone's insecurity comes from different places, so I couldn't narrow or predict what each person's will be. I hope there are multiple themes for people to connect with and take into their own lives.

You can find Bobby on Twitter at @bwarshaw14. His book is on sale now at Amazon (digital and paperback), iBooks, and Nook.