“It was agony,” David Neal said.
“Our hearts were broken,” Rob Stone said.
“It still stings,” Stuart Holden said.
“It’s disingenuous for any of us to say it doesn’t matter or that this isn’t a failure and it doesn’t impact the World Cup,” Alexi Lalas said.
So, yes, Fox Sports’ first coverage of the men’s World Cup took a titanic hit when the United States men’s national team was eliminated last autumn, for the first time since 1986.
That is evident in the above comments from Neal, Fox’s executive producer; Stone, the studio host; Holden, the lead game analyst; and Lalas, the lead studio analyst.
But Fox acted quickly in trying to move on after the 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10. The morning after, Fox Sports president Eric Shanks convened a meeting at headquarters in Los Angeles.
“We were all in there and kind of in a little bit of mourning mode,” Neal said recently at an event at the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan to promote Fox’s coverage. “Eric said, ‘Look, it’s full speed ahead.’
“He basically challenged all of us and said, ‘Look, this is where you prove yourself as a producer. This is where you prove yourself as an on-air talent.’ . . . It really was a challenge that he laid down for all of us, and none of us, honestly, have looked back since then.”
Lalas, a former member of the national team, said the aftermath of the U.S. loss “was a process. But I had my pity party and then I got over it, and I recognized that not only do we have a job to do, but we have a responsibility.”
The good news, he said, is that because of its vastness and diversity, the United States is better equipped to handle something like this than, say, Italy, which also did not make the field of 32.
“We’ll talk about it and it will inform some of the discussions that we have,” Lalas said, “but we’re not going to bang people over the head with it. We don’t have to rehash everything. The World Cup is a big party. Just because the U.S. team is not there doesn’t mean we’re not invited.”
The hope is that casual fans still will give it a chance.
“It’s an interesting kind of test case to see what America is when it comes to soccer,” Lalas said.
The evolution of the U.S. as a soccer nation was evident in the reaction to the Trinidad and Tobago loss.
As Stone said, “If this happened in 1990, the U.S. not qualifying for the World Cup, nobody would care. Nobody would know, nobody would notice. Life would go on. That’s not the case this year. We’re just getting over our hangover. Our hearts were broken — for the players, for the team, for the federation, selfishly for us as well.
“But guess what? Our country is now a place where we can handle the United States not being in the World Cup. This country is going to embrace this World Cup more than anybody figures they will.”
Holden, who played in the 2010 World Cup, said that it took him time to get over the loss in October.
“I was in a state of shock and disbelief and I was near tears, because first and foremost I’m a fan,” he said. “I played for the U.S. men’s national team. I know what it means to represent your country. Selfishly, I felt for us at Fox because a World Cup with the U.S. is what I expected and you’re geared up for. It took some time, and it still stings.”
Eventually, he decided to view it as an opportunity.
“This has created a greater challenge for us to still sell what we think is the greatest tournament in the world, and will be with or without the United States,” he said.
“How do we get the person who would only tune in for the U.S. to tune in and to care about Egypt, about Iceland, about Neymar, [Lionel] Messi, [Cristiano] Ronaldo, whoever it might be, to really feel invested? Let’s take ourselves to another notch up and do everything we possibly can.”
Fox faces challenges beyond the United States’ absence. The time zones in Russia will mean games will be seen in the morning and afternoon, never in prime time.
But the network is determined to put its stamp on the event. Eight of its 12 game announcers — only four of which will be on-site, the rest calling games from a studio in L.A. — are Americans, and one of its game analysts is a woman, former U.S. national team member Aly Wagner.
The studio team, featuring Stone and Lalas, will be based in Red Square in Moscow.
“There is truly something called the Fox Sports attitude,” Neal said. “We want it to be fun. This isn’t sports church. This is meant to be a little escapism. And viewers can expect that from us.”
Lalas, who was part of ESPN’s World Cup coverage, said he takes pride in that network’s work in elevating the event but believes Fox can “not only live up to it but also surpass it.”
“We recognize that not everybody is going to like what you do, and trying to appeal to absolutely everybody is a fool’s errand,” he said. “I think we’re going to do things a little bit differently, but ultimately with the respect that this sport, and most importantly this event, deserves.”
Neal believes Fox won over some skeptics with its first World Cup, the 2015 women’s tournament.
“I think that assuaged a lot of fears and doubts in viewers’ minds that we would be able to handle it,” he said. “Not only were we able to handle it, we handled it in record-breaking [ratings] fashion . . . We have to win them over, and we’ll do it day-by-day.”