Rob Stone: A Professional Discussing the Amateur Game
One of our goals at Protagonist Soccer is finding and listening to diverse voices in the American game. Too often, we live within an echo chamber of opinion, only hearing the same points repeated over and over again. The conversation will never move forward if we don’t bring in more opinions and perspectives on the beautiful game. This does not please everyone, but no discussion would be complete without naysayers. Today, we reached out to Fox Soccer analyst Rob Stone. Aside from covering MLS, USWNT and USMNT, the veteran broadcaster is known for wearing lower league kits from time to time, so it made sense to hit him up for his take on soccer in this country.
1. Can you talk about your background in soccer? You played in college, but what was your experience prior? Club play? Youth systems?
I started playing soccer around 1st grade in NC, and it never left me...I moved to CT before 4th grade and it really picked up there. This was the time before 'club' soccer, but I played on an indoor team that was essentially a precursor to one. For several years I was a member of the Connecticut State Team in ODP, and even made the Regional Team after graduating from HS, and before I entered Colgate. I am learning the club world via my 13 year old son here in Southern California. Feels like more money and time/travel commitments than I was expecting and frankly more than necessary in most cases. Also, parents are the biggest problem. Just be supportive and check your ego at the door. So important to find a team with the right coach, to offset some of the delusional hopes/dreams of many parents.
2. In college, you were pretty accomplished for your school, did you consider trying to play After graduating?
Back when I played collegiately, there were far fewer realistic opportunities to play competitively once I graduated. Had there been, I certainly would have made a greater effort to enjoy my last semester less, and focus on trying to continue my career. But for all intensive purposes I was resigned to moving on as a player, and extremely focused on the next chapter of my life, i.e. landing a job in the sports television industry.
3. As a former college athlete who played in the system, what role should college soccer play?
I firmly believe in the power and need for collegiate soccer in young players lives. It's a time of great change, mentally/physically and not every player is equipped to 'go pro' or move overseas at that age. I have seen the college soccer landscape make strides in closing the gap towards 'professional' level soccer, but it’s been too slow and not enough. The players and coaches pretty much all want more time, games, exposure. The NCAA still eyes soccer like an inconvenience-just see how it treats its tournament. But in the end I still believe college soccer provides a good enough platform for a special talent to utilize it as a stepping stone to bigger things professionally.
4. How could the college game be improved overall and specifically how could it be made more compatible with the rest of the soccer pyramid in this country?
I openly admit that I do not have full knowledge of the current regulations and inner workings of college soccer, but from an outside perspective it feels that they need to allow more time playing the game…extend seasons into the spring...change the tournament timing and finals location...have conversations with MLS/USL, etc about how they both could better support one another. Those happened in the past, but I sense they are all due for a much needed follow-up meeting, as the American soccer landscape has changed. It’s not college soccer's responsibility to serve the professional ranks, but coming together to make it a stronger soccer community only seems logical.
5. You’ve reported at many World Cups, you're highly involved in soccer coverage in the USA, what is your favorite soccer memory as a broadcaster? What about as a fan?
Too many to count, far more than I ever expected to be associated with. Most of my favorite memories come with experiencing the growth of the game in America. Getting an opportunity to host a weekly soccer show (Worldwide Soccer) that was truly an outlier at the time. Being a part of the 1999 Women’s World Cup coverage here in the US and seeing first hand how the sport captivated our nation, and how the team became full on Rock Stars. Covering the 2002 World Cup from an office park studio in NC for ESPN and witnessing these homemade clips of people getting up at brutal hours to watch the tournament at home or take over bars for watch parties. The pride at our FOX Sports success presenting the 2105 Women's World Cup. The honor of leading our Men's World Cup coverage in a locale like Russia. I have long had a passion for MLS, for to me, it represents a legacy of growth and success in our country. To be in Atlanta and take in the crowd and atmosphere at MLS Cup this year, and trying not to have my voice crack with pride and joy, was pretty awesome as well.
6. You're well known in the lower tier ranks for occasionally being spotted wearing a kit or shirt from a lower league club. Do you collect kits? Which is your favorite?
The explosion of the 'lower leagues' has become a recent joy in my life. Again, it goes back to creating this legacy of growth, sustainability and success in our country. Plus, I've always been partial to the 'little guy/underdog'. Also, for years I have pleaded for soccer to become more relevant with their marketing and branding. The lower leagues are the one place where I have witnessed this opportunity for creativity and local pride/passion. I would argue many of their uniforms are far superior in design, concept, look, than what else we are offered. I don't wear jerseys out often, but I always strut around with an extra air of enjoyment when I don some kit that few, if any, have ever seen. Just another way to spread the gospel and remind folks how far we've come. I don't have a favorite, but am partial to anything Tampa Bay Rowdies and my new team, Hartford Athletic (both where I lived).
7. What lower league clubs do you track? Or if none, what about leagues?
I keep an eye on all the leagues as I see them as a smart barometer for the growth of the game here. The days when only the major cities could support this sport are long gone-and that's a good thing. To see clubs pop up in perceived outposts, brings me special glee. My friends with the Bugeaters in Nebraska, or Providence City, or Asheville, or Pittsburgh, are classic examples.
8. What role should the amateur leagues play in your mind? Should USSF be focused more on growing and supporting them? If so, how?
Amateur leagues are an exceptional way to stay engaged as a player, fan, or sponsor. It can lengthen one’s playing time and also be utilized as a way to stay sharp for one's next step in the game. I vividly remember the lessons learned, being a HS kid on an adult amateur team in the summers. Life lessons on and away from the field. Some frightening, some confusing, most enjoyable. In the end, it made me a smarter player - one that better understood that these experiences and lessons need to continue to be passed down to the youth. USSF has their hands pretty full at the moment, and frankly I feel some of these leagues might be better served as a regional collection. Give them time to grow, learn, and eventually prosper before approaching US Soccer and seeing how they best fit under their umbrella. But in the end, it is soccer in the states and these leagues are providing an invaluable service to many. With its explosive growth in numbers and value, it would be wise for all parties to work together to make this game stronger here.
9. With the expansion of the USL downward into amateur and the NPSL upward into the professional world, should soccer fans be excited or worried about the future of American soccer?
Thrilled (tempted to just leave that as my answer). Never has there been such vast amounts of competitive, entertaining, and high level soccer in so many parts of our country. Every time I get nervous that a region or community can not sustain it, more teams pop up and succeed. We are entering the Golden Age of soccer in America. We are spoiled, and deservedly so.
10. If you could meet any soccer player, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
I've been super fortunate to meet some of the biggest names in the game, Pele, Beckham, Zlatan, Hamm, Lalas (wink), but what I would really enjoy would be one on one time with them over drinks...pick their brain, hear stories, learn and live a little...But a long dinner with Phil Anschutz might be at the top of my list. Without his actions, we would not be having this discussion.
Cover photo courtesy of Sporting News. All others from Twitter.