How 'Ted Lasso' won over American soccer stars and contributed to UCLA's Pac-12 title
Sacha Kljestan has played professional soccer for 16 years on two continents while making 52 appearances for the U.S. national team. He knows the sport.
So last summer, when he saw the previews for “Ted Lasso,” the Apple TV+ series about an American football coach hired to manage the other kind of football in England, he knew what to expect.
“My wife and I were like, ‘That looks so corny.’ We’re just not going to watch it,” the Galaxy midfielder remembered. “And we didn’t.”
The boycott lasted nine months before the Kljestans finally cracked under pressure from family and friends.
“We watched the first episode and we were hooked,” he said. “It’s the best show I watched last year and I really can’t wait for the second season.”
He’s not alone. As well as “Ted Lasso” has done with the critics, winning SAG and Golden Globe awards for Jason Sudeikis, one of the show’s creators and its star, it has done even better with professional soccer players and coaches. Fans of the show, which returns Friday, include Dave Sarachan and Gregg Berhalter, the last two coaches of the men’s national team, and Jill Ellis and Vlatko Andonovski, the last two coaches of the women’s national team.
“Jill Ellis?” repeated Brendan Hunt, the show’s co-creator and co-star who plays Lasso’s assistant, Coach Beard. “Come on. That’s amazing.”
“Absolutely love it,” responded Ellis, a two-time World Cup champion. “It comes across sort of light and fanciful but there’s definitely messages in there.”
Carli Lloyd, a two-time women’s world player of the year, is taking the first season with her to Tokyo to watch during the Olympics. Lloyd's Olympic teammate Alex Morgan did a Lasso-inspired goal celebration this season after scoring for the Orlando Pride, prompting Emmy nominated co-star Hannah Waddingham to respond to the video on Twitter, "Oh this is very bloody cool!"
Sarachan uses it to reaffirm some of his coaching philosophies. Berhalter promised the men’s national team a special screening of Season 2's first episode during the Gold Cup.
“Everybody’s a big 'Ted Lasso' fan,” he said. “The guys love it.”
The reason why is because the show loves them right back, with a deep affection and respect for the sport embedded in the fabric of the series.
“There is this absolute love for that sport and it’s history and it’s philosophy and its deep complications, both culturally and also just strategically,” said Sudeikis, who, like Hunt, came to soccer late in life and is now a passionate fan. “This show is as much about soccer as ‘Rocky’ is about boxing. But we wanted soccer fans, athletes, lovers of it, to feel it honors the spirit of that beautiful game.”
The idea for “Ted Lasso” was born two decades ago in the dressing room of a small, aging theater in Amsterdam where Sudeikis and Hunt were performing with the improv comedy troupe Boom Chicago. Both had come to the Netherlands ambivalent about the sport and its archaic rules, only to be swept up in Amsterdam’s soccer culture. To cultivate that, Sudeikis bought a PlayStation so he and Hunt could play the soccer video game “FIFA” after shows, a practice that turned both into passionate fans.
And since both were comedians, it naturally led them to wonder how funny it would be if a plain-spoken, soft-drawling American football coach from Kansas and his loyal but taciturn assistant came to Europe to coach that other kind of football. Ted Lasso, the character that brainstorm produced, made his debut in 2013, in a 4-minute 41-second promo for NBC’s coverage of the English Premier League. A second, longer promo aired a year later.
It took six more years and a partnership with producer Bill Lawrence, creator of the successful medical comedy “Scrubs,” to turn the characters into a series. It quickly proved so popular, it was renewed for two additional seasons.
When you can't help but feel inspired by @TedLasso for the celly 🤣🤣 https://t.co/hKOUtpfdNy
— Alex Morgan (@alexmorgan13) May 23, 2021
The show centers on Lasso, played by Sudeikis, who is brought to England to manage struggling AFC Richmond by an owner intent on destroying the franchise. And while the team doesn’t succeed, getting relegated from the Premier League to the second-tier Championship, Lasso’s irrepressibly positive attitude and penchant for quoting aphorisms triumphs even as the team doesn’t.
Sudeikis, 45, drew many of the broad strokes used to sketch out the character from his own athletic background as a high school point guard in Kansas, where he was good enough to play against the likes of Clippers coach Tyronn Lue. More important, though, is the fact he played for a man who would serve as the inspiration for Lasso’s style, one Sudeikis has called a mix of John Wooden and Mr. Rogers.
“My high school basketball coach Donnie Campbell, who was from a small town in Kansas, would speak like [Lasso] in those sorts of colloquial phrases. You know ‘you guys are all more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” said Sudeikis, who rounded out Lasso with things he picked up from other coaches, mentors, directors and teachers he has known.
But while he plays him for laughs, behind the goofiness there’s a sincerity and genuineness to Lasso’s wisdom that captures even the most hard-bitten players. And it quickly proved popular — last week’s 20 Emmy nominations set a record for a freshman sitcom.
The show’s strength, Berhalter said, isn’t the soccer, but everything that transpires around it.
“I don’t watch the show for what I see on the field. That’s not the point,” he said. “But I think, in any sport, a lot of team success is what happens in the locker room. And they get that absolutely right.
“When you talk about team dynamic and relationships between coaches and players and senior management and coaching, all those things are really interesting to watch.”
Sarachan, an assistant on one World Cup team who has coached for seven MLS Cup finalists, said he appreciates Lasso’s unconventional, sometimes childish approach, as when he opens the first season by taping a hand-written sign that reads “Believe” above his office door. Or when he encourages a player to correct a mistake by advising him to “be a goldfish,” an animal famously believed to have a short memory.
“It just reaffirms what I’ve always believed in terms of getting the best out of everyone,” said Sarachan, who has 45 years of coaching experience. “Over the years there have been instances within a long season where you do something that is just not expected. That takes a little pressure off. I totally get it.”
Amanda Cromwell, the women’s soccer coach at UCLA, was so inspired by an episode in which Lasso lifts a curse by asking players to throw something of personal significance into a blazing trash barrel that she did the same thing with her team.
“I asked UCLA if it was OK to burn stuff on campus,” Cromwell said. “They said, ‘Probably not.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m doing it anyway.’”
So she brought a trash can from home, instructed her players to write down their fears and then had them drop the notes into the fire in a kind of cleansing ceremony. Asked if it worked as well for her as it did for Lasso, Cromwell said she isn’t sure, but her team won its first Pac-12 championship in seven years and made it to the third round of the NCAA tournament in the spring, so it didn’t hurt.
Flaming purification rituals aside, Kljestan says Lasso reminds him of Leipzig coach Jesse Marsch, whom he played under with the New York Red Bulls.
“Marsch has that positivity about him,” Kljestan said. “Not as corny. But when I watched that, I thought about Jesse. He makes everybody believe in what they they’re doing and gets everybody to buy in.”
For those who have never been in the dressing room, the show pulls back the curtain a little bit, said Seattle Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe.
“There’s definitely some truth to all those things that are happening in the locker room,” said Rowe, who has played 253 games for four MLS clubs. “I won’t give you how much [but] there’s definitely a sense of truth. That’s what makes it such a fun show to watch for us players.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.