While Jake Zivin and Ross Smith are up in the broadcast booth describing the action on the field, Samantha Yarock, the Portland Timbers' Broadcast Reporter/Producer, is hard at work behind the scenes, looking for the back story, finding out what makes the Timbers tick.
Yarock has been rehearsing for this gig her whole life, starting with her childhood in New Jersey. Now, entering her second season with the Timbers, she's enjoying every minute she gets to share the things that are really important to the Timbers' on-field stars, the things that motivate them on the pitch and off.
OK, when Jake Zivin said he had the best job in MLS, you said your job was better: what makes your job the best job in MLS?
Wow, let me think about that for a bit. I mean, I need to make a really compelling case, right? Otherwise Jake wins, and nobody wants that. You gotta warm me up a bit, you know? Throw me a couple of softballs and then get to the meaty stuff.
Haha, fair point -- I'll defer to your professional expertise on this one. OK, let’s talk about your first experience with the Timbers.
Sure. It was back in 2013, I had been working with MLS, and I was assigned to the Western Conference Playoffs, so it was Seattle Sounders v Colorado Rapids, and then Seattle v Portland for the Western Conference semifinals.
I just remember coming here and, just, my mind was blown. I’d never seen anything like this before. Pacific Northwest soccer is second to none. And I mean especially since the league office is in NY, so if you’re covering games, you’re covering east coast games, and then you come out here for a playoff game, and - whoa. I fell in love with it.
Then in 2014 I was sort of between gigs doing freelance for a couple of months, and then I ended up connecting with someone who was working with CONCACAF, and he offered to send me to Portland to do media ops for Timbers’ first CONCACAF Champions League game here. So I said, sure, it’s not MLS, but it’s in the soccer world, so who knows what other opportunities might come out of it.
After the game, I was just walking outside the locker room and passed Merritt Paulson, and he said, "Sam, how are you?" which was a shock to me because I’d only talked to him a couple of times before that. He asked me what I was up to and asked me to stay an extra day and meet with him. So I did, and it ended up turning into this job.
So they hired me, and then they won a championship. I’m kind of a good luck charm, and I make sure Merritt knows it.
At what point were you sure about pursuing a career in sports reporting?
Always. It’s always been me pretty much from when I could talk. When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, I’d hand-write articles, and "publish" a newspaper. I would do stuff like report on the Knick’s games and interview my parents for their reactions.
It was just something that was always in me -- both reporting and sports. My dad and I have always enjoyed watching sports together, and so it’s just always been this thing that’s been a part of my life. I just love being around sports. After high school, I studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and wrote for the newspaper and covered sports.
When I graduated, there was a recession, as you may recall, so I was thankful to get any job I could, so I ended up going to work for Popular Mechanics. I was there for about three years and then I just kind of decided that covering sports, and especially covering it in video, was more what I was passionate about.
So I found a fantastic masters program at San Francisco Academy of Art, which is a great school, a really different kind of school. You take classes with real professionals showing you what they do and immersing you in the work, rather than just reading books or listening to lectures. So if you took a class on play-by-play announcing, your teacher would be an actual play-by-play announcer, and you would do play-by-play announcing and get that experience.
Sports journalism is a pretty male-dominated industry. Do you see things getting better for women?
Wow, that’s a, that’s a tough question. I guess that’s it for the softballs.
Yes, and remember you’re speaking for all women, so, no pressure.
Haha, yeah. It was awesome to come here and see a lot of women both in the media and in the front office. The Soccer Operations part of the organization aside, there is a pretty strong female presence in the Timbers organization, more than I’d seen in other teams. So I don’t feel like an outsider at all -- there are a good number of women covering the team and working behind the scenes.
But you know, it’s still a sports team. It still definitely skews towards men. For me, being female at this club and in this industry has its challenges. I do feel like I have to work that much harder than my male counterparts, just because my work is always going to be looked at differently.
But on the other hand, being a woman in this role, players can maybe feel a little more comfortable talking to a woman about off-the-field kind of stuff, and I like that because those are the topics that I’m interested in.
In a lot of ways my job is to get to know these guys as a sort of proxy for the fans. So I approach the job with the mindset of, what do the fans want to know about these guys after a win, or what do fans want to know about what is important in their lives and motivates them? I don’t know if the players would be as open about that kind of stuff with a male version of me.
How do you build those relationships with players?
Well, I’m a pretty outgoing and friendly person, and if you’re not outgoing and confident in that sense, then it’s going to be that much more difficult. So I try to reach out to every new player as soon as they arrive, and just introduce myself, let them know what I do and ask them if they need anything. And when I can, just try to get to know them as a person, and not as, you know, a midfielder. Find out what drives them and what their interests are outside of soccer.
And, you know, the players like each other and like talking up their teammates, so, I talk to Diego Chara a lot about a guy like Dairon Asprilla, whose English isn’t as good and he’s not as comfortable putting himself out there.
Above all else, trust is the biggest thing. When people trust you and they know you care, they open up. And then the magic happens and I get to share these amazing stories.
Like piece you did on Caleb Porter during the preseason?
Yeah, I was really proud of that one.
That one took a long time, because as you know Caleb is really secretive and doesn’t like sharing that behind-the-scenes kind of stuff. And that makes sense to me -- I certainly wouldn’t want any secrets getting out if I were a coach -- so I respect that, but I just knew it would be fascinating to see.
I had been working on him for a year to get him to let me do something, so finally I told him, look, preseason is the only time you’re going to let me do this, this is the only time when these games aren’t really going to count for anything.
And once he agreed to it, he actually was really excited about the idea. He had a whole plan for how he wanted the day to go and what we were going to do. I didn’t even think we were going to be able to do a lot of the stuff we ended up doing. And in the end it turned out to be easy and go really smoothly.
He looked super done with it at the end.
Oh, he was tired. We got there at 7am and we were with them until 4pm, so yeah, that was a long day. But so worth it. It was just cool to see how much every single coach puts into the whole day of training. People don’t realize it.
The thing I was most excited to share with people was that video session. Watching that was really cool, and that was something I was really excited to share with our audience, because that was something I’d never seen, and something most fans had never seen before.
I love that I get to create that kind of content, and be creative, and report and share these great guys with the fans in so many unique ways -- from getting to take Diego Chara to a cartoon studio, to --
Oh yeah, I did a whole video on that. You’re falling behind here, buddy. We went to Periscope and he drew me a Buggs Bunny.
I forget how I found out, but, he loves to draw. So I came up with this idea of taking him to an animation studio, and we had a great time.
So I get to do stuff like that. And now I get to regularly interview players about their non-soccer lives on a new segment on Timbers in 30 every week called The Breakaway, which has been really fun to do.
What’s been your best day on the job?
I mean, MLS Cup, hands down. It was unbelievable. It was my first full year with a team, I had been with them since preseason up until the end, through the ups and downs.
Part of why I love my job, and part of why it’s so hard, is that you become so attached to the players and to the coaches. And there were some moments during the summer when, we really thought we weren’t going to make the playoffs, and you’ll be on the road in Dallas after a 4-1 loss, and it’s just the worst feeling. And then to come out of that and go on the run that we had, and then go to Columbus. And win the thing. That was just incredible.
It was also one of the worst days, because I was like the nauseous grandmother in the press box, so nervous for these guys, and you never know when you’re going to be back there. And everyone kept saying, what’s wrong with you? I’m like, we’re up 2-0, and there are 70 minutes left. Anything could happen.
For that moment, to see those guys go through that and to go through that whole experience with them, there’s nothing that can compare to that.
Whose path to the Cup are you most, like, in awe of? Who had the most compelling story last year?
I mean, I could have a compelling story for everyone on the team, but Fanendo Adi, for me. He was one of my first interviews during the preseason, so it was really great to build that relationship early and to get to know him personally. You care about him and watch out for him when you form that connection.
There was a time last season when people were questioning whether he should be with the team, he wasn’t scoring goals, and the team wasn’t doing well. I was there watching him in training, seeing him work so hard, and hearing all that negative buzz can really take a mental toll on a person. So I just wanted so badly to see him get out of that funk and show everyone why he’s here.
When he came out of that, I was so happy for him. And to see him now, being considered for the Nigerian national team, and, like, where the other teams and coaches in MLS downright fear him, he’s so deserving of that recognition.
Beyond Adi, I mean, Chara. How can you not love Chara?
And with Darlington Nagbe, seeing him emerge like that. Knowing all along that he has that in him, and just seeing him finally execute and lead the team, that was pretty awesome.
Every single one is compelling for me, in a different way. Just going through the highs and lows with all of them, you can help but be invested in them.
All right, you’ve been steadily making your case already, so I’m gonna go ahead and ask: what makes your job the best job in MLS?
My job is wonderful because I have access to the team in a way nobody else does. I really get to know the players and the coaches for who they are and not just who they are in the field. That makes every game that much more special for me.
I get to do everything from covering training to reporting at the game to producing feature stories about the players off the field, and just sharing these great guys with the fans. And to be able to do that here in Portland? There’s nowhere else I would have moved for this job.
Oh, absolutely. There are no teams that compare to what Portland has in every facet. From the owner, who I adore, to the guys that are here cleaning up after a game, everyone here is passionate and they’re dedicated and they love it here. That’s not the norm in most jobs. And then the fact that this stadium is in the middle of the city, and our fanbase is just unbelievable...
I just love all of it. It’s the best. It’s everything.
Do you get an offseason at all?
Ha. No. We get like two weeks around Christmas, and that’s about it. But that’s why if you don’t love what you’re creating, if you aren’t passionate about it, you’re going to burn out. You know that when you’re covering sports, you’re going to be the last person to leave the stadium. But the gift at the end of the day is just being present for those incredible moments.
When you do get some free time, what do you like most about living in Portland?
The food. You can literally go to any place and have an amazing meal. I love that. And although I don’t have a ton of time off, when I do, I’ve tried to get out and explore and go on adventures, like hiking in the Gorge, or driving out to Astoria and just walking around.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
Bamboo Sushi. I love it. That Green Machine roll is amazing. I live very close to one, and, yeah, that’s dangerous. I eat there a LOT.