The Interview: Daryl Grove
You're famously a Wolves fan (the only one we know of), tell us about your soccer background?
Hey, there’s loads of us in Wolverhampton! My Wolves fandom is a family tradition. My dad used to go and watch the team back in the 1950s, when they were at one point the best in England, maybe even in Europe. I started going to Molineux with my older brother in the 1990s, and also go with my sister and brother in law whenever I’m home. So it’s a thing that really connects me to my family and to the region I’m from.
My soccer fandom starts with the England national team. I didn’t care too much until the 1990 World Cup happened, and England made the semifinals. I was all in after that, but with England as my focus, and then the Premier League launched a couple of years later and English football was suddenly exciting and glamorous, and then I started going to Wolves games a few years later.
How high do Wolves have to finish to consider the season a success?
I’d say top 10 is a success. I’d love to see them qualify for the Europa League, either via the FA Cup or by finishing seventh. In both cases, Watford stand in the way right now.
You're from a different country, so we assume you have a unique perspective on American culture. What are the major differences between your country of birth and your country of choice?
You mean in a wider sense than soccer? I’m going to steal this answer from Zadie Smith, the (excellent) English author who splits her time between the UK and the US. I was at one of her readings a couple of years ago, and in the Q&A afterward I asked her essentially the same question you’ve asked me, because I knew she’d have a great perspective on it. She said if she could transpose one thing about each, she wished the UK culture had more of America’s spirit of adventure and can-do and get-up-and-go, and she wished American culture had more of the UK’s spirit of togetherness and willingness to try and look after everyone in the society. I think it’s a perfect answer, and I also think it gets at the (maybe impossible?) balance any nation has to try to strike between the rights/needs/demands of the individual versus the collective good of society.
Let's zero in on the difference in soccer culture. Obviously soccer is more popular, but aside from that, what differences would you pinpoint?
I think the biggest difference among fans is the club versus country hierarchy. Seems to me that in the US, the national team comes first for a very high percentage of soccer fans, maybe because watching the US at a World Cup was there introduction the game. There’s constant interest and news and debate about every aspect of the national team and I love it. But in England there’s a lot of fans for whom their club is everything, be it Arsenal or Liverpool or whatever, and the national team is at best secondary, and at worst getting in the way. Everyone gets into it for the World Cup or the Euros, when the whole nation gets hyped up, but outside of those summers, a lot of people are very much focused on their club team.
The other major difference is the media. Because football is so high profile in England and the players are A-list celebrities, there’s endless coverage. Some of it is great, but there’s also all kinds of nonsense rumors and speculation and manufactured drama. I kind of enjoy that in the US the soccer news is, for the most part, actual soccer news, as opposed to TMZ-style content.
Your podcast is a must listen for us, but for those that don't listen to TSS, can you nutshell the idea?
Feel like I should have this down by now, but I always find it hard. Our aim is to try and provide insight and analysis in an entertaining way. But we’re going for actual insight, not some made-up opinion or lame-ass guess at something that sounds like it might be right. We really and truly try to put the time in and do the watching and reading and critical thinking to figure things out and have something original to say.
The best tool we’ve found for this is to always ask “why?” So anyone can say, “the USMNT’s passing was poor tonight,” but the more interesting question is, “OK, but why was it poor?” And then you get into things like spacing between players, what they’ve been asked to do, what they were trying to accomplish, the opposition team’s defensive scheme, and all kinds of next-layer factors. For me, that’s where the interesting conversation is.
Secondarily, we want to make it fun to listen to. Part of how we try and do that is to be so well prepared for every show that we’re never nervous about the content or nervous about saying the wrong thing, and so then you’re hearing two people have a conversation where they’re both very relaxed and confident but also excited to have the conversation. We hope that that, plus the friendship and familiarity that Taylor and I have with each other, creates conversations that are enjoyable to listen to.
Ever get tired of talking soccer?
No! And the main reason is that we really only talk about the things we want to talk about. Also, if there was no show, Taylor and I would be having these conversations anyway. Maybe via text or something, maybe over food and drinks.
You've mentioned the Richmond Kickers on your show, thoughts on USL's reformatting and Richmond being placed in League 1?
I think I like the reformatting, especially if — as the league has suggested but not promised — it could lead to some form of promotion and relegation between USL divisions in future. I’m hoping that as the league grows and maintains stability, which we couldn’t take for granted in the past, it leads to players getting better salaries and better working conditions. I know the USL players formed a union or players association in late 2018 and they’re negotiating a CBA, which is an encouraging step.
I have concerns about USL starting teams in places where there were already teams from other leagues, like the Chattanooga Red Wolves franchise in the same city as the NPSL’s Chattanooga FC. Kind of wish all the leagues would just band together or at least agree to get along, as opposed to competing for market share.
With the Kickers, it was pretty clear from the previous two seasons that the club was struggling to compete in what is now the USL Championship. They finished bottom but one in the Eastern Conference in both 2017 and 2018. No one has shown me the numbers or anything, but my understanding is that the budget of teams like Louisville City or FC Cincinnati or any of the MLS-affiliated teams like Red Bulls II were beyond what the Kickers could match. In League One, the team is at a level where it should be able to compete, which will make going and watching the team way more fun. And in many ways, given those low finishes in 2017 and 2018, this is what would have happened in a pro/rel system anyway, right?
There’s also a new ownership group at the Kickers and a lot of new players, so it’s very much a fresh start for the club in 2019. We haven’t announced this on the show yet, but we’re going to be partnering with the Kickers to produce some weekly content. We used to do their play-by-play, but that’s all been moved in-house at USL now. So for the 2019 season we’ll be producing a short, weekly episode in the TSS feed, reviewing the Kickers game and breaking down the goals. We’re hoping Kickers fans like the analysis and we’re also hoping maybe some TSS listeners who are neutrals might adopt the Kickers as their USL League One team and follow along throughout the season.
Obviously your show focuses on Euro, USMNT and MLS, do you follow any soccer below those levels?
The Kickers, of course, because they’re our local team. I also follow the fortunes of 10th-tier English team Tividale FC because my nephew plays center forward for them. They’re in a title race right now. And I feel a strange pull toward Detroit CIty FC because my wife’s originally from there and I love the team’s independent streak, but I’ve never been to a game because the season is so short our visits back to Detroit have never coincided with a home game. Outside of that, Taylor and I just dip into anything interesting that’s happening, whatever league or location.
Do you have any thoughts on NPSL establishing a pro league or is that outside your coverage/interest area?
I’m very interested and I hope it’s successful, because it’s the next step for teams like Detroit City FC. Last year, the only chance to go bigger and better would have been to join the USL, which I get why some teams don’t want to do. So I see the NPSL pro league as a great alternative for teams that outgrow their regional NPSL league and want something more. I also think the Founders Cup season is a smart way to transition to the full league season. It buys everybody time but also raises interest and gets things moving.
My concern is that as the league grows we might end up with a USL vs NPSL situation, and we’re back to the soccer wars where leagues are competing against each other and everybody loses. But that’s not reason enough to think an NPSL pro league shouldn’t happen or won’t be a great thing.
Did you follow the Chattanooga story, going public and selling over 600k worth of shares? Wonder what your thoughts were on that model and Chatta specifically?
I didn’t follow super closely, but I was definitely aware of it. Great way to raise revenue. Does buying shares give the new fan-owners a vote and a voice in terms of decisions the club makes? If so, I love it, and think it’s exactly the sort of thing you can do in the NPSL but probably can’t do in USL or MLS, where it’s more about having one wealthy ownership that’s willing to lose money.
Your podcast has been very successful, what do you think are the reasons for that?
I think a big part of it is that we’ve been around since 2009 and we’ve never, ever stopped. It’s really hard for an independent show to find listeners and so growth can be really slow to begin with, and I think that’s where a lot of shows end up calling it a day. But we always enjoyed it so much and always thought it was worth doing, and so we just kept going.
The other thing is that we never fake it. We do our research and try to know everything possible, but if we don’t know something then we don’t know, and we won’t pretend otherwise. My theory is that listeners can tell when you’re faking, even if you think you’re getting away with it, and that listeners are more willing to come back if they know they can trust you to be honest.
The big turning point was the 2014 World Cup, where we did a proper preview and review of every single game, every single day. I think that’s where we realized that if you go extra hard you can publish content people can’t find elsewhere, and new listeners will keep finding you.
The next big component was the listener support model, where we asked listeners to contribute a monthly amount, from $5 to $25. In exchange, those subscribers were welcomed in to create content for the show via the scouting network , where we receive and read out subscribers scouting reports on up-and-coming players, or listener questions, where we’ll guarantee to answer one question per month on the show if you subscribe at a certain level. That gave us a steady revenue stream to build on, and let us take a gamble on doing more shows per week, which led to more growth, and so the listener support model is really the foundation for everything that’s happened since.
The thing we figured out next was how to find advertisers and how to make ads work. Around 2016, we started pitching advertisers. It was trial and error but we found the best way was to do some research and find companies where we genuinely liked the product and genuinely thought our listeners would buy it, and then we’d pitch companies with an affordable ad rate and a campaign idea for how their product would sell — for example, suggesting a genuinely deep discount.
Once we’d proven that our ads produced return on investment for advertisers, we then found some podcast ad agencies that would do the legwork for us and find advertisers in exchange for a percentage, and the ad component has grown from there and allowed us to go full time and do five shows per week.
When did podcasting transition to real journalism?
For us? I’m not sure it fully has! We both have a semi-journalistic background in that we’ve both written freelance for non-soccer magazines, plus some alt weekly arts and culture stuff. And we do some journalistic work in that we’ll sometimes talk to front offices or communications people to try and get details about what’s going on. We do try and hold ourselves to something resembling a journalistic standard in terms of ethics and professionalism, but we’re not ever breaking stories in the way, say, Paul Tenorio does for The Athletic.
You get to have dinner with one soccer player dead or alive - Who and why?
Johan Cruyff, for sure. He was so great at explaining tactical and philosophical concepts and I’d have SO MANY questions. I’d call ahead and request a chalkboard so Cruyff could illustrate what he’s saying. Would also try and get the full story of why he missed the 1978 World Cup. “It’s just me and you here, Johan, I won’t tell a soul!”
Pro/Rel. Are you for it? Will it ever happen in this country?
Definitely for it, definitely want it. I think if we could figure out the logistics, figure out the legalities, and figure out a way of getting all the current stakeholders on board, and make it happen in a non-chaotic way, it would be a gigantic boon for soccer in the United States. More clubs with more opportunities and more players with more opportunities to make themselves a career.
But if it doesn’t happen, I’m going to keep enjoying soccer anyway.
That said, I do think it happens eventually in some form. Maybe FIFA forces US Soccer’s hand. Maybe MLS gets so big it just swallows everything and has pro/rel but everything pro soccer related is MLS-branded. Or maybe everyone just sees the money that could be made and all parties align to get it done. The encouraging thing right now is that there are serious people who have invested in soccer, say Dennis Crowley at Kingston Stockade or the 100+ clubs who signed the letter to FIFA, that are trying to make it happen.
How has your cancer diagnosis shifted your focus?
In a weird way it hasn’t too much. Before the diagnosis, I was keenly aware that life was good. I love my wife, love my friends, love my family, love doing TSS. The diagnosis did make me take a brief pause to assess, like, am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? And I found the answer was yes. So in a paradoxical way it’s been really life affirming because I know not everyone is fortunate enough to have that same answer, often for reasons beyond their control. So now I wake up every day knowing how lucky I am and it makes me determined to really enjoy all the things in life that I love so much.
I’m taking a few days off from TSS here and there for chemotherapy, and I’m really grateful that Taylor has found ways to make it work — Ryan Bailey has been brilliant as well, filling in for me on Mondays for the weekend review. But I’m still all-in on the show, even if I have to miss a few days. Aside from that, the only other thing I’ve changed is I’ve made a conscious decision to not get into debates that go nowhere, especially on Twitter. So if someone is @ing us with a loud opinion about how this player sucks and should be banned from the national team forever, but they really haven’t paid that much attention, they’ve just decided they have a vendetta against this player ... I used to engage and try and explain why that player is useful because here’s his role and so on. I thought I was being helpful. But now I just keep scrolling past that person’s tweets, or, if needed, I send them to mute mountain where they can yell into the void. Because I’ve realized my time is better spent elsewhere. That’s five minutes of futile tweeting that I could instead spend with my wife, or texting an old friend in England, or watching a Duane Holmes all touches video. :)
Where are you at health-wise?
The initial colon tumor has been surgically removed, but it had spread to my liver. So now I’m having chemotherapy every two weeks to hopefully shrink the tumors on my liver. Chemo is obviously not fun, but it’s tolerable so far and only lasts a few days at a time. Outside of those days I feel great, like my usual self. I’m just starting to play soccer again now. Have been to some practice sessions for the team Taylor and I coach and play on, and should be back on the field by the time you read this.
Cookie question: Chips Ahoy - Original or Chewy?
Original, I like a slight crunch.