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While American soccer expands, soccer journalism still struggles for a place

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Seattle Times’ Seattle Sounders beat reporter Matt Pentz is set to be laid off despite the Sounders’ MLS Cup Title.

MLS: MLS Cup John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Soccer is on the rise in America. The Major League Soccer Cup Final between Seattle and Toronto was viewed by 116 million households in a primetime spot on national television. Americans can wake up on Saturday mornings and watch any Premier League game they choose. MLS itself is attracting more than washed up, old European greats. The league is a destination for young talent to get much-needed minutes.

But with all the improvement in the sport and the extra interest by fans, soccer is still not shown the respect it deserves by media outlets. Only the biggest matches or most spectacular goals will find its way onto ESPN’s SportsCenter. Cuts at media entities across the country see soccer beat reporters dwindling, leaving Jamie Goldberg of The Oregonian and Steven Goff of the Washington Post as two of the few remaining full-time soccer reporters at daily papers.

The Seattle Times’ Matt Pentz was in that group, but he is part of the latest round of layoffs by the Seattle Times, a young and talented writer lost from the soccer community. Pentz’s layoff comes a year after the Tacoma News Tribune laid off Don Ruiz last summer, the Tribune’s Sounders reporter.

The Sounders average 42,636 fans per game, the most in the MLS. The club just came off of its first MLS Cup Title, a remarkable turnaround for Seattle after the mutual agreement with Sigi Schmid to part ways after eight years as head coach. The Sounders sat in ninth place in July, before storming back to take the fourth seed in the playoffs in October, and winning it all in December.

If the daily newspaper of a major U.S. city and soccer-crazed populous can’t afford a beat reporter to cover its local MLS team, what is the future for soccer journalism and journalists in America?

It’s a difficult question, I know, and not one I will attempt to answer. Instead, I want to write about that beat reporter, Pentz, and a short email exchange I had with him seven months prior.

West Ham’s USA Tour

As a part of Read West Ham, an English blog covering the Hammers, I requested press credentials for the Hammers’ July 5 friendly against the Seattle Sounders at Century Link Stadium. I had already purchased a ticket to attend as a fan, but the idea to cover the match on-site was too hard to pass up, for myself or the blog.

Of course, I had little idea what I was actually doing. I had just graduated high school in Maryland. I was about to go from covering high school football and basketball for my high school newspaper The Tide, or my local weekly paper The Montgomery Sentinel, to sitting in an NFL-caliber press box.

When I first reached out to Pentz, asking about information regarding any West Ham open training sessions, he replied within 20 minutes and during Seattle’s 1-1 draw to Toronto on July 2. He did not know of any training sessions, and as it turns out, there weren’t any, but he said to let him know if I needed anything else.

After West Ham’s 3-0 defeat to the Sounders, I wanted advice about my article and for what to do next on the career path. He was just as responsive during his busy schedule as he had been before, and gave thoughtful advice for my future and about my article.

Turns out, he liked my article enough – or at least he said so (Pentz could have been sparing a kid his feelings).

His only advice for the article:

Try not to get too bogged down in the play-by-play coverage. Some good advice I got in college — as odd as it might sound — is to write game stories that read as little like game stories as possible.

I mulled that over for a long time, and think I finally understand it, even if I haven’t mastered the art. When people come to read an article on a game, be it the Seattle Times or Brace the Hammer, more times than not, that reader already watched the game.

What the reader is coming for is something they didn’t already know about the game. The reader knows that Herculez Gomez scored a penalty in the 42nd minute against West Ham, and if they didn’t, they’ll see it on a box score. What they don’t know is what either team said post-match, or what this match means for the season.

Pentz added:

On the journalism front, just keep doing what you're doing, and be willing to make sacrifices early on. I talk to a lot of students who want to cover soccer and soccer only, but it's important to be flexible. I worked for two years covering preps at a small paper in rural Washington, and it was invaluable in honing my journalism skills in a way that, say, covering a pro team only for a blog and from afar could do.

Turns out I’m still covering a pro team for a blog from far away, but oh well.

For someone who has already made his sacrifice covering high schoolers for a rural paper before landing one of the largest soccer beats in America, Pentz getting laid off seems unreasonably cruel. If someone of Pentz’s caliber in a market like Seattle is laid off, what market will be awaiting current students like me in three years when we get out?