In the Portland Thorns locker room, Meghan Klingenberg takes pride in being Coach Ted Lasso’s top recruiter.
But Klingenberg was most pleasantly surprised by how authentically the sitcom portrayed soccer, from the fervent English Premier League atmospheres to the complicated locker room dynamics. Soon enough, Klingenberg convinced about half of her once-skeptical teammates to hop aboard the “Ted Lasso” bandwagon. During the occasional team huddle, the NWSL veteran will even re-create a gag from last year’s Season 1 finale, when the captain of AFC Richmond — the fictional, Lasso-led team in London — eschews the usual “Richmond on three” cheer in favor of methodically counting to 12.
“Obviously, I like to invoke a little ‘Ted Lasso,’ ” Klingenberg said. “So I’ll do a ‘Thorns on 12’ and count it down. Half the team’s cracking up, and the other half feels so uncomfortable.”
Klingenberg and her teammates aren’t the only soccer stalwarts buying into Lasso’s game plan. Liverpool Manager Jürgen Klopp tipped his cap to the show during an NBC Sports interview last fall. U.S. women’s national team star Alex Morgan followed a goal in May with a “Ted Lasso”-inspired celebration. English legend Gary Lineker gave his vote of confidence, tweeting, “Thought after a couple of episodes it was going to be a cliched, hackneyed football comedy and in some ways it was, but I warmed to it, and the characters in it.”
“It is absolutely thrilling,” Brendan Hunt, who plays Coach Beard, Lasso’s more tactically astute assistant, said ahead of the show’s Season 2 launch Friday. “We wondered: ‘How is the soccer world going to take this one? Well, we’ll see how it goes!’ But they get the spirit of what we’re after.”
Originally, Sudeikis and Hunt’s characters were conceived for a pair of NBC Sports commercials, aired in 2013 and 2014 to promote the network’s Premier League coverage. After a warm reception to those promos — particularly from the soccer community — the writing quartet of Sudeikis, Hunt, Joe Kelly and Bill Lawrence reimagined the brashly oblivious Lasso for a full series. The coach was imbued with emotional complexity and some Kansan kindness, plus a knack for pop culture references and folksy adages. And soccer, with its nonstop ebbs and flows, proved to be an apt metaphor for life — a conceit central to the overarching narrative.
But the conversations that sparked “Ted Lasso” were first kicked around more than a decade before the commercials aired. Circa 2000, Hunt relocated to the Netherlands — the soccer-mad land of total football and the Oranje — to perform at the American-founded Amsterdam comedy theater Boom Chicago. “That’s when the soccer bug hit me,” he recalled. “And it hit me real, real, real hard.”
When Sudeikis joined Hunt for a stint at Boom Chicago, he convinced his comedic cohorts to chip in for a PlayStation in the green room, ostensibly so he could fire up “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.” Instead, Sudeikis ended up largely indulging Hunt’s desire to play the latest FIFA installment.
“Brendan could explain some of the nuances of the game and the history of the game and even the relationships with the players, breaking it down metaphorically using the ’90s Bulls and things that I already knew and understood,” Sudeikis said in an interview alongside Hunt. “It helped make sense of a game that has a lot of depth and complexity.”
In the winter of 2001, Sudeikis and Hunt were watching the NFC championship game at one of the few bars in Amsterdam’s red-light district airing American football when Hunt spotted a future ringer for Team Lasso: John O’Brien, then a defender-midfielder for Dutch powerhouse Ajax and the U.S. men’s national team. Hunt was too nervous to talk to him, so Sudeikis took matters into his own hands, putting quarters on the pool table O’Brien was prowling and telling Hunt they had the next game with him.
O’Brien, who would go on to play every minute for the United States at the 2002 World Cup, and Hunt struck up a rapport. Relishing the parallels between soccer’s free-flowing nature and improv comedy’s impulsive ethos, O’Brien began to frequent Boom Chicago shows — even getting onstage as a celebrity guest one night and sharing a scene with future Oscar winner Jordan Peele.
When the “Ted Lasso” writers’ room crafted the first season, Hunt called O’Brien for insight. The show needed a moment for Nathan Shelley, the meek kit man played by Nick Mohammed, to draw up a play savvy enough to showcase his dormant coaching expertise. So O’Brien helped shape a scene in which relegation-battling Richmond asks star striker Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) to make a decoy run and open up space for speedy right back Sam Obisanya (Toheeb Jimoh) to get in on goal.
“We kind of brainstormed what that would be,” said O’Brien, now a sports psychologist in Colorado. “[Richmond] is a lower-table team, so it’s not going to be a possession-type thing — it’s got to be kind of a counterattack play. What would be realistic? What would that look like? Maybe you’re trying to clear space for this guy who’s not super technical, but he’s fast and he can make a difference that way.”
When O’Brien saw the finished season, he nodded in recognition at characters such as the self-obsessed prodigy Tartt, the curmudgeonly veteran Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) and the “football is life”-espousing playmaker Dani Rojas (Cristo Fernández). “Those guys,” O’Brien said, “are all across Europe at different soccer clubs.”
Klingenberg related to Obisanya’s Season 1 arc, in which the Nigerian newcomer finds his footing after Lasso helps cure his homesickness. “That’s the way that it is,” she explained, alluding to her experience playing in Sweden. “The more comfortable we can get in our uncomfortable environment, the better we play.”
Paul Arriola, a D.C. United and U.S. national team winger who devoured “Ted Lasso” while rehabbing a torn ACL, appreciated the makeup of a Richmond squad that’s populated with clashing personalities from across the globe. “There’s so many different cultures, so many countries represented within a locker room,” said Arriola, who played on loan for English Championship side Swansea City this winter. “They made it seem as real as they could have without filming an actual locker room.”
Sudeikis noted that the “Ted Lasso” writing staff peppers the show with “2 percent jokes” that target the soccer die-hards. In Season 1, a quip about real-life journeyman manager Harry Redknapp desperately seeking the Richmond job rang true to many a Premier League fan. In Season 2, a self-aware cameo from a certain referee may go over the heads of casual viewers but amuse English football fanatics.
“That’s all out of honoring the fact that had that culture, had that group not embraced the commercials, we wouldn’t have gotten to do the second commercial,” Sudeikis said. “And we wouldn’t have figured out that this character, and Ted and Beard specifically, that their relationship had the legs to maybe be more than just a four-minute commercial.”
Sudeikis and Hunt did stress that “Ted Lasso,” of course, is not a documentary. If the U.S. audience can better grasp the series because British characters sometimes say the Americanized “tie” instead of “draw,” the writers are content making that concession. When character moments clash with strict adherence to the sport, character always wins out.
“If people are just trying to find things we get wrong or whatever because we’re not doing enough facsimile of football, well, if you want a really good facsimile of football, what you should check out is football,” Hunt said.
“It’s very good,” Sudeikis chimed in. “That’s a very good example.”
When it came to appeasing soccer’s wary “gatekeepers,” Sudeikis emphasized empathy. Studying tactics through resources such as Tifo Football’s YouTube videos, Sudeikis has worked to deepen his understanding of the game — partially to keep up with his character’s coaching growth but also out of respect for people for whom soccer is more religion than sport.
“Loving something fully is a version of vulnerability,” Sudeikis said. “You can feel like you’re setting yourself up to be made fun of, especially by some cultural elite comedy folks. [The soccer community] just didn’t know that we’re from the Midwest and love the sport and love the passion behind it. That passion and that enthusiasm and that vulnerability is deeply rooted in the DNA of the show and of the Ted Lasso character.
“We knew we were coming in clean with our hands wide open,” he added, before throwing in a Lasso-esque movie reference. “They just needed to know that we didn’t have a gun taped to our back like John McClane.”