Written Q&A: ESPN's Sebastian Salazar
The Fútbol Américas Co-Host on USMNT-Mexico and His Path in the Media Business
One of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had on a reporting trip came during the 2016 Summer Olympics, when Sebastian Salazar and Arlo White joined me and a few other people in Belo Horizonte, Brazil (where we were covering the USWNT) to attend a Cruzeiro Brazilian league game at the same stadium where the USMNT famously beat England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup. That was Sebi’s first national gig, with NBC Sports, and it came right before he joined ESPN.
It was clear that Sebi was a major talent on a national scale, and he has only continued that rise over the last few years. He and I caught up ahead of Friday’s big USMNT-Mexico World Cup qualifier, which he’ll be broadcasting for ESPN. Really enjoyed this conversation!
Our guest now is my friend Sebastian Salazar of ESPN. He's the co-host with Hérculez Gómez of the excellent show Fútbol Américas, which you can see on ESPN+. Sebi also appears on ESPN FC and does play-by play with Julie Foudy on ESPN's U.S. women's national team games, among other things. Sebi, it's great to see you. Thanks for coming on the show.
Hey, thanks for having me on. I've listened to the show for a while. So as I was telling you before, it's always cool to appear on a show that you've listened to.
I love it that we actually have listeners, I just get excited about this, who then come on as interview guests. So we're recording this on Friday night, it's coming out Monday, which means it's USA-Mexico week in World Cup qualifying. And for you, as someone who pays close attention to soccer on both sides of the border, what does this week mean to you?
Well, I can kind of give you the personal side of it first. I'm very much split. My dad is from upstate New York, kind of rural western upstate New York, and my mom is from Mexico City. So even our household is very much divided. And my dad is a fan of the U.S,.no doubt about it. He came to soccer late, but he's a huge fan of the game. And the U.S. is his team. My mom taught me the game, and she loves Mexico and she doesn't like their rivals. The U.S. is one of their rivals. So it's a strange week on a personal level, because you feel a lot of conflicting emotions. And I think that's kind of the center of the rivalry.
In terms of where the rivalry is now, I just think it's an amazing kind of intersection. Mexico is kind of really honest about it, enjoying a great generation, but it's probably, if not at their peak, kind of coming off it. And what is the U.S. team? The U.S .is this kind of explosion of potential. And so you're kind of waiting for these two lines to cross and I feel like on both sides of the border, we're kind of always wondering how close we are to that moment.
Yeah. It's just a lot going on. What are you set to be doing for ESPN on Friday for the USA-Mexico broadcast?
So we'll have pre-game, halftime, post-game coverage, all that surrounding the match on ESPN2 as well as on ESPN+, they're going to simulcast it. And we'll have Jermaine Jones and Kasey Keller, the same guys that we had for the games in Columbus and Austin, it's been great working with them. We're kind of a new team starting to get to know each other, but you get those two guys over dinner and you realize they have stories for days. So my only job is to try and bring those out of them. And, I think, as we hang out more, it's going to be better and better.
I think the pre-game show is going to have a lot of elements like it always does. We're bouncing up to the booth, we're using Sam Borden, who's been our sideline reporter throughout these games. He's got his more E:60 kind of storytelling side of things. And he's going to dive into some interesting topics and people there. So I think from those aspects, we're going to try to hit it from all angles. And we have an hour on the digital side, which is a real blessing. You need space for games like this. You need pre-game space. And the truth is, you work for TV stations, you know how hard it is to get on what they call linear TV. And so they can get you the game and about 10 or 15 minutes pre-game, but you can't do U.S.-Mexico justice in 10 or 15 minutes pre-game, you need a proper hour.
So we'll go an hour before. We're probably going to go hours after. Fútbol Américas is going to do a special live edition right after the game as well. So it's going to be a lot of fun. Especially in the Fútbol Américas show, we're going to be pulling people from the Deportes side. So you're really going to get in that moment, I think, a cool slice of where really both fandoms are at.
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I think it's really cool how your show does give us that. It's a real look at both sides on sort of a 50-50 way, which I really appreciate to get that full context on things. I do want to ask you about the two coaches. If you're Mexico coach Tata Martino, what are you thinking about this game? And what if you're U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter? But I want to start with Tata. If you're Tata, what are you thinking about this game?
Are my stars going to show up? Really. Because that's been the question with Mexico, is Chucky Lozano going to be the star player that we've seen him be really at the CONCACAF level, right, that elite difference maker. And the only name that I can think of in that category right now is Alphonso Davies. But can Chucky Lozano be that type of player? Can Raúl Jiménez be what he was pre-injury? He started to get some of those goals. He's beginning to score in the Premier League, to convert that to the national team in a big significant moment against the United States. And the other real serious concern is his back line. I mean, his center back position is kind of a rotating shop right now. And I think until that gets settled, there's real serious concerns for Mexico there.
The other point that is kind of obvious, we talk again about this young team perhaps overtaking an older team is when you look at the United States, they're scary. They're scary fast. They're scary physical from a Mexican perspective, at least. And so I think, the right combination in that midfield trio, which I mean, you tell me a coach that isn't desperate to figure that out, right? Unless it’s [Carlo] Ancelotti of Madrid, who kind of knows he has to be always going to be provided health, if you figure the right three out, man, you figured out a big part of your 4-3-3. He's got to get younger there. He's got to get leggier there. Because some of the guys like Andrés Guardado are just starting to show that they're just a little too old for the speed of the international game.
So I think there's a lot of concerns for the Mexico side. Yeah, you sit first in CONCACAF and that maybe allows you to tinker a little bit, to take some chances and get some answers in big games like this, which you can't really replicate elsewhere. But I do think from a Mexican perspective, there are some warts under what looks like a pretty good qualifying run.
So what if you're Gregg Berhalter? What are you thinking about from your perspective?
Yeah. Well, the No. 9 position, man, right? It's a position we talk about on Fútbol Américas all the time. Why now with Herc, right? You're always going to bring up like top fives and this and that. But I think that's been one of the running themes on the show is the top five at that position for the U.S. And I'm sure if you go back to the first one, I'm sure he's got Jozy Altidore somewhere in there, like No. 2 or 3. And you can just see how much change there's been since, what, we started the show not even a year ago, seven, eight months ago. So that position, really, is not just unanswered, but he's tried so many different questions at it like beyond [Ricardo] Pepi.
And so I think, when you see Pepi in there for now, you think, "Great, listen, this kid's amazing, and we hope the run for him continues. But you’ve got to have other options. So I'm thinking that's a big concern for him. What you're going to get out of your star guys too? Is Weston McKennie going to give you some of those goals that he's been scoring for Juventus? We talked about it on the show.
To me, if you're Mexico, you're worried about him. He's a big-game player. He's a set-piece player. Set pieces for Mexico are really a nightmare, especially against the United States. For every Mexico fan, they're a hold-your-breath moment. So Weston McKennie is a scary player for you. And then Christian Pulisic, who in other games against Mexico and honestly for this U.S. team, has been very quiet. What are you going to get from him over 90 minutes? 60 minutes? 30 minutes? Whatever you ask of him in that Mexico game, which is another big question for Gregg Berhalter. What's the actual workload you can ask of Christian Pulisic after what we've seen is now kind of a cycle of him going to the national team, getting hurt, missing time with Chelsea.
So when it comes to your show, Fútbol Américas, is it accurate to say that you're trying to do something on the show that we see a lot more of in Mexican media than the U.S. soccer media, which is to say, having polémica, debates about the sport here?
Yeah. So first of all, I wouldn't say it's probably unique to Mexican soccer, right? I think you see that in a lot of different places.
Herc is Mexican American, I'm Mexican American, most of our production team is Mexican American, Latino. so they watch ESPN Deportes. We see the content that comes out of Argentina, which is where we produce a lot of our content. But yes, the bulk of it, Mexico City, shows like Fútbol Picante, those are kind of institutions in Mexican soccer. They set the narrative for what everybody is talking about, what's in the papers. And I'll be honest, that's a show that I've idolized since I was a kid. Since it launched, not a kid, when I'm a much younger adult when it launched and being like, "Wow, this is something that I'm going to watch every night."
And then, to have some of those ideas and try and bring that into an English-speaking setting and talking about the things that folks north of the border care about, right? Like doing it towards MLS and doing it with Liga MX, but in English, national teams as well, the women's national team. I think it's a good experiment, right? We're doing something that is maybe different and seeing if there's a market for it. But I think it's also an honest clash of cultures. This is something that as more and more people from Mexico and of Mexican descent end up in the United States, things are going to come with us and come with our parents, and I think there's going to be an influence.
And I hope that this is one of those influences. And this is one that is for the better and, really, enjoyment of the people in this space.
So what has some of the response been from some of the establishment American soccer organizations, MLS, U.S. Soccer, groups like that, to some of the criticism that does come up on your show?
Yeah, no, I think, we haven't had that big blow-up moment yet. I think Herc and I, when we started the show, and I'm sure you've had these interactions as well. We're kind of like, "All right, when's that coming? Because we're going to be right on that line over and over and over again," and we knew what we wanted to talk about. We knew that there would be times when we kind of wanted to focus on things that maybe organizations would prefer ESPN not focus on. I think that's really the power of the show is the platform of ESPN, right?
I mean, I'd love to think that it's the things that we do that are unique and different. But having that platform is really what serves the show. And so in some ways, when you say something on the show, you know it's going to get out, right? You know people are going to hear it. And it's always interesting, right? Because you can tell people aren't listening to the podcast or watching the show live, it's always when the tweet goes out. I know you know that. It's when you get that email and when you get that phone call.
I think we definitely have opened some good conversations. I've had people texting me like, "Hey, I disagree with this. What was this supposed to mean? What was that?" And, "Hey, you’ve got to clarify what you say," or "You have to stand by what you say," and at least, I won’t speak for Herc, I know he does a lot of work for the show. We put a lot of work into what we're covering and what we're saying. We're not going to go out there and be irresponsible. We might go out there, shoot from the hip, but we're not going to shoot from the hip irresponsibly, if it can be done. So we try to be as prepared as we possibly can be. And so I think in that way, while some of the criticisms might feel stinging, I feel like there's always substance to it.
And as long as there's substance, those conversations, I think, back and forth, can be had. The conversations that are the ones that I'm not involved in, right. And I don't know if you've ever gone through this, when they go straight to your bosses. And those are when you're like, "Okay, now I know I really did something wrong." And if they've gone to the bosses yet, we haven't heard about it, so we'll leave it there.