NWSL fans know Aly Wagner well. The two-time Olympic gold medalist can be seen and heard every Saturday afternoon as the color analyst for the NWSL Game of the Week on Lifetime.
This summer, she’ll also serve as color analyst for FOX’s coverage the FIFA Men’s World Cup, which begins June 14. She’ll be the first woman to call Men’s World Cup games on television in the United States.
But first, she’ll be calling Washington Spirit vs. Chicago Red Stars on Lifetime on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET) this weekend and then United States vs. China PR on FS1 (Thursday, June 7, at 9 p.m. ET).
NWSL Media caught up with Wagner ahead of her busy summer.
What are you most looking forward to as you call the games?
Wagner: I think, like anyone, big moments. The drama. You know in most of the matches there’s going to be breakthrough moments. The spectacular. I think there’s going to be some pretty big goals. I think about it as a fan and remember some of those moments and I just hope that we’ll be calling some of those games, the games that have those moments in them. The big moments. I think I am always a fan of the underdog, so the upsets. I like to see some of the teams that come together, [that] don’t have the big superstars that play at the big clubs, and see if they can kind of shock the world.
What’s your first game?
Wagner: Iran-Morocco, so Day 2. Then Serbia-Costa Rica, then Tunisia-England and then Colombia-Japan, and then it continues on. So I have about ten games in the group stage.
What is your typical preparation like? What goes into calling a game?
Wagner: It’s different for teams that I’ve never called vs. teams that I’m pretty familiar with. With this World Cup in particular, it’s been digging into tendencies, formations, personnel, likely substitution patterns and that’s really hard to do because so many times I’m watching old matches that are in different languages. So you might not know that Raphaël Guerreiro was sitting out this match because he picked up an injury in Bundesliga play, so you don’t know why someone’s slotted in. It’s a little bit of a challenge, but it’s just looking for patterns, so I have notebooks full of just notes that I take on how they line up, how they’re defending, how they’re attacking, tendencies of individuals and then trying to sometimes figure out, ‘well is this because of the opponent or is this because this is how they prefer to play?’ So I just have a lot of handwritten notes and I have to go back through it and really then pick out the big nuggets that seem to be reoccurring themes and really condense it down to something I can take into the booth with me and it’s quick reference and considerations heading into the match.
How much has doing a weekly NWSL game these last two years helped you as a broadcaster?
Wagner: It’s a really good question. A ton, in terms of confidence and experience and the rhythms of it, figuring out what works, what doesn’t. The men’s game is very different from the women’s game, so in certain ways it’s going to be a little bit of a jump to jump into the Men’s World Cup games because the pace of the match is so different. But for the most part, the repetition is a really great thing for any broadcaster and the confidence that comes from that. Sometimes when you haven’t called a match in a while — I remember at the beginning of the season — you’re just a little rusty and your cadence is off and your timing can be off. And then also seeing things unfold, it can be more challenging. So I feel like I’m in a pretty good rhythm right now with every week in and week out.
How much do you think about being the first woman in the United States to do this? I’m sure you get asked about it a lot. What’s your feeling?
Wagner: It’s funny. I get asked about it a ton and I think about it when they ask me. And otherwise, I’m thinking about preparing for a World Cup. Yesterday, today, also been talking about it a lot. The truth is, the pressure and the gravity of the situation — the responsibility that I feel — is because it’s a World Cup and it’s the biggest sporting event in the world and we have the responsibility to take our audience on a ride through that. And that’s the responsibility that I feel. I don’t feel any added pressure because I’m a woman. Maybe that’s odd. But I don’t. I’m humbled and honored that I am going to have the opportunity to do this, so then it’s not even a question in the future that another woman shouldn’t have that same opportunity. So that is the big thing, of course, that comes out of it. But for me it’s really about preparing the way I always prepare and doing the best I can in the moment — as an analyst and that’s it.
Moving on to the NWSL, what has made North Carolina so good this season?
Wagner: First of all, they have quality in every position and they have players that are fairly comfortable on the ball in every position. And that’s massive. And just to be able to connect. And then, their defensive organization and their press is probably the best in the league. I think McCall Zerboni summed it up — for me — when she said, “Look, it’s not token pressure. When we go in, we’re going in to win it.” And so, if that first defender goes in to win it and they don’t, they’re so well-organized that the next player’s right behind. So things don’t break down, more often than not, if that first player doesn’t win the challenge. They’re still in really good shape. So I think defensively, they’re just incredibly difficult to solve their press and offensively they’re just efficient. They’re a well-oiled machine. I almost think of Germany in comparison because they’re very effective horizontally and vertically. So you don’t know which way to squeeze them because they’re going to stretch you both ways and that creates space inside for their players that are really talented on the ball and then they’ve got the pace around the pitch. As much as we talk about taking the game to the next level for the women and really playing tiki-taka football, they don’t have to. They’ve nailed their style. It’s incredibly efficient, I guess I would say, in how they can break people down. It’s really impressive. And then they’re not even efficient in the final third. That’s the funny thing. They create so many quality chances. In this game we measure, I think, pressure on the opponent as quality chances that are created, and they have to statistically dominate everyone in that category, and then they’re not even good at finishing, but they still create that many more chances that they wind up winning 4-1.
You mention McCall Zerboni. You were on the same team as Zerboni in 2009 with the Los Angeles Sol. She’s having a great season. What do you make of the evolution of her game from then to now?
Wagner: She’s always been technical. She’s always been a smart player. So it doesn’t surprise me that she’s found the level she has. How much of football is even having the confidence of your manager? I think she is kind of the perfect storm of all that. Paul [Riley] believes in her implicitly and she thrives in that. And I think playing in a deeper role suits her. Think about years before — she was maybe a wing mid, she was a wide mid, she was an attacking mid. But I think this role is where her bread and butter is because she’s so clean at just pinging the ball to her teammates, whether it be that five-yard pass or it’s that change of point ball. She can execute that with just a window of space. She can create space for herself. And then she’s the one that just gets in on the mucky challenges. So, I think a lot of her evolution has been getting her in the right position, getting her in the right role. It’s not to say that she can’t — we’ve seen her finish. She can thread final balls. But I do think she runs this team with tempo and an understanding greater than most in this league. I think it’s the right role. I think it’s the right manager. And then — she works tirelessly. You know, how much time she spends off [the field] , takes care of her body. So she’s just a true professional, I think, in how she’s going about it and that’s why all these pieces have come together and seen her ascension and get the respect, getting the call up to the national team.
Speaking of the U.S. women’s national team’s roster — a couple of new-ish faces on the roster for next week — what do you expect from their friendly vs. China PR?
Wagner: You know it’s hard with these midseason matches. To be fair, I’m calling the game [on FS1 on Thursday, June 7], I haven’t delved into China whatsoever yet. I haven’t had time for obvious reasons. I think a lot of the U.S. players are in good form. They’ve been playing better as a unit, I think, and understanding their system better and better. As long some of the key players are healthy, it’s going to be about clicking, but also managing the individuals so you don’t have players taking knocks leaving camp. I think it’s going to be — hopefully, I would presume — from Jill Ellis and the coaching staff’s point of view, it’s going to be about the mental preparation more than it is the physical preparation to then allow them to go out and hopefully a lot of the team will share minutes in both because there’s two games.
Was Portland-Seattle the most fun you’ve ever had calling a game?
Wagner: I think so! Oh my gosh. Sometimes I leave matches exhausted, and that one I left buzzing. It was off the charts in terms of being open and the quality that was there. So many times we see a lot of breakdowns break up the flow of play and there was a lot of really high-end stuff going on at both ends of it. So I thought it was incredible. There were a lot of really good chances, so it was fun. Of course, we can nitpick on why chances were created, but the pressure I think from both sides was put on the opponent and that’s always fun to watch.