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Major League Soccer plans to expand to 30 teams from the current 24, putting it on par with professional baseball, basketball and football in America. The embers are still hot from a dominant performance in this year’s Women’s World Cup by the United States, and seasons for the top European leagues are underway. And next summer is the European Championship. So the sport, these days, doesn’t sleep. Rory Smith is the chief soccer correspondent for The New York Times. In June, on the website Reddit, Mr. Smith fielded questions on a variety of topics. A lightly edited version of that correspondence follows.
How do you maintain both your sources and your journalistic integrity?
That’s one of the trickiest things. You have to balance needing contacts to get information, and being prepared to write what you honestly think about them. I’ve had one fairly high-profile manager accuse me of betraying him — I suggested maybe his time at a club had come to an end, he disagreed, events later proved me right — and it was quite upsetting, to be honest. So was the time when a player’s dad threatened to shoot me — I think jokingly, in fairness — because I criticized his son. I think if you’re honest, fair and are willing to defend yourself, you’re generally O.K.
Why hasn’t Major League Soccer in the United States closed the talent gap between it and the European leagues?
The Champions League, basically. I’ve always thought that if you offer players the chance of a couple of years in Miami compared to, say, Birmingham, they’ll probably go for Miami. But without the Champions League you can’t get the best players at their peak. (Sorry, Birmingham.)
Could soccer ever become the most popular sport in the United States?
Maybe not the most watched, but the U.S. landscape is big enough to handle loads of sports. I’d like to think that we’re at least nearing the point where we never have to ask whether soccer will catch on in the U.S. ever again.
How do you approach the corners of the sport that have a political or social dark side?
That’s a really hard one. I don’t think you can ignore it. Soccer is used as a political tool in loads of ways and it’s important that this — and the people who are suffering because of it — is highlighted. But equally, it can’t dominate every story. “Paris St.-Germain, the soccer club bought by the state of Qatar to try to win influence in the West and cleanse its reputation for repressive labor systems, last night beat Marseille 2-0” isn’t really going to work. So I guess it’s context. In the same way as it’s O.K. to admire Ronaldo as a player but express caution on him as a man — in light of recent allegations — it’s O.K. to treat, say, Manchester City as an amazing soccer team, and report on them as such, but maybe not to pretend that they are a model everyone else should copy.
It’s now common for aspiring sportswriters to start out as unpaid contributors. What do you think this means for the future?
It’s bad. You shouldn’t work for free, and you shouldn’t be asked to work for free. What it does is ensure that the only people who can be sports journalists are middle-class kids who can afford not to earn money. (Internships are fine, and work experience while you’re at school/college/university, but if you’re writing, you’re working. You deserve to be paid.)
Will the English Premier League be affected by Brexit? Maybe by visa issues with the European Union?
They’re confident it won’t be a factor, but everything I’ve been told is that soccer can’t be an exception. They will have to have some sort of restrictions.
What do you think is the reason for the abuse sports journalists face online?
I think the abuse is tribal, essentially. There is an assumption that all criticism is because of an agenda. That applies outside soccer, too. I think we’ve all gotten worse at confronting opposing views, and we’ve lost the idea of disagreements in good faith. It does impact what I write, sometimes, because you’re conscious that certain ideas or thoughts will only get you a load of stick. I try not to let it, but there’s a limit to what you can do.
Is there a player you most enjoy covering?
Watching Messi is pretty special. You do kind of sit there, vaguely aware you have some work to do, and think how lucky you are — we all are — to see him.
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