The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Awful, and not so awful, announcing

Posted by steigs on January 23, 2008

This one is for the good folks at Awful Announcing, doing their best to keep the airheads populating the airwaves on their toes…

 So Soccer America says that ESPN is changing its announcers for MLS games — we’re getting JP Dellacamera and John Harkes this coming season, not Dave O’Brien and Eric Wynalda (and sometimes Tommy Smyth).   There’s also talk that Bruce Arena could join the telecasts. 

The American soccer fan community has long had a hate-hate relationship with ESPN and its broadcasters.  We griped about the previous first teams.  (With some reason — Ty Keough, to name one, was just a clown.)  But Dave O’Brien at the 2006 World Cup was a new level of disaster.  Sure, he has a good broadcast voice, a familiar one to baseball fans brought in, it was said, to help non-soccer fans acclimate to the World Cup.  He made matters worse by continually spouting trivia, as if trying to prove that “I do too know soccer,” but got enough wrong to have that knowledge exposed as a recent cramming exercise.

 The real problem, though, was he had no feel for how to call a soccer game.  He kept going off on “up close and personal” style human interest stories in the middle of the game.  It was like he didn’t understand that action more than 20 yards from a goal could actually be important.  Argh! 

It was the most important set of games the US will play for four years and there’s this prattling clueless guy doing the play-by-play.  I think one reason fans were upset over the team’s performance in ’06 was that they were already in a state of irritation from the broadcasts.  Really.

The coverage was significantly worse that my regional cable network offers for DC United.  What’s a fan to do?  What a fair number of the hardcore fans did was flip over to the Spanish language coverage, even if they didn’t fully understand the language.  At least they weren’t being continually offended.  It was like ESPN had decided to tell the true believers that they didn’t matter at all.  It was the anti-W strategy — tick off your base.

The color guy, Marcelo Balboa, wasn’t as bad, just kind of inarticulate.  He wasn’t nearly good enough to help cover for O’Brien.  It was, to the serious fans, a disaster of the first order.

Come MLS ’07, we still usually got Dave O’Brien.  I give the guy credit for being a pro — he had learned some about the flow of the game.  There was less showing off of trivia, less meandering human interest tales.  (Perhaps the latter was because there weren’t any non-serious fans to appease, aside from those few games where Beckham was sitting on the bench.)  He was no longer a disaster, just mediocre.

Instead of Balboa we got…Eric Wynalda, who is much, much better.  Not afraid to call out bad play.  Not afraid to criticize a coach.  Arrogant, yes.  (He was a goal-scoring forward, after all, a breed with the self-confidence of fighter pilots.)  But he makes watching a game much more interesting.  He provokes.  Heck, he even did some non-soccer sports radio for ESPN last year.  An American soccer legend getting to comment on other sports?  We’re mainstream now!  Go Eric!

Unfortunately, it appears he also provokes off the field, such as his spat with Jim Rome, who is a jerk but also an ESPN broadcaster.  So they’ll shuffle Eric off to the Champions League ghetto, it appears.  Perhaps the ESPN international audience will appreciate his attitude.

So for ’08 it appears we’ll get JP and “Captain America”.  They were a good team at the ’06 World Cup, as the #2 set of broadcasters.  JP may be the best American soccer play-by-play guy.  It’s not surprising to me that he’s been a hockey broadcaster as well.  That’s a better sport for understanding the pace of play and knowing when to talk than O’Brien’s baseball experience.  He just tells you what’s happening, especially when it’s important, and who is doing it.  That’s all we want from a play-by-play guy.

Well, I also like some wit and intelligence but I, like a lot of American fans, may have been spoiled by the Brits we get on EPL telecasts.  I still recall the announcer who described one player having an off-day as “allegedly the right back,” for example.   But perhaps my standards were also set too high by a childhood listening to the legendary Vin Scully calling Dodgers games.

Harkes is much less of a provoker than Wynalda.  He’s an explainer, which is what the classic job of the color guy is.  Tell me why things are happening.  Why is my team having trouble generating offense?  Whose fault was it that a goal was scored on that set piece?  Which players are causing the other team problems?  Do you think that was a penalty?  Harkes can be good at this, although he sometimes struggles to articulate his explanations.  Wynalda is very articulate but can be too in love with getting a reaction.  We’ve all sat next to that guy at the bar, the one who enjoys being contrary.  Wynalda is a smart version of that — Harkes is just a guy who knows stuff but can’t always make his point.  Still, he’s a clear step up from Balboa.

Speaking of guys at the bar, my favorite “American” soccer color guy is Ray Hudson of Gol TV.  Ray is an enthusiast.  I’ve had a soft spot for him since he coached DC United, leaving a trail of legendary quotes in his wake.  He’s the guy at the bar who is so passionately engaged in the game he can’t help himself.  The Newcastle boy also has a special relationship with the English language.  Little wonder he’s inspired a fabulous blog, Hudsonia.  It helps that he and usual partner Phil Schoen (a decent play-by-play guy himself) have good chemistry.  I regularly laugh out loud when I watch a Hudson-called game.  Some Hudson gems:

Real Madrid are a whole different kettle of sharks.

He is like mercury. Not the planet, Kelly, the element. You cannot hold him, you cannot contain him. Quicksilver feet, again, by Messi. Mercurial, alright. And he is toxic for Espanyol’s defence. Look at this. Get out of your ‘Barca’-loungers and start applauding. That was brilliant. That is magnificent. Pure class delivered on a silver plate for Iniesta who was actually applauding as this ball comes to him. Look at this, Argentine class in a glass again. He’s up for FIFA World Player of the Year. If he doesn’t get it, I may start losing my faith in humanity.

Like a Jedi knight. No, better than that, a Templar knight. This is a flash of pure inspiration and let me tip my hat to the genesis of this goal, Ibarra. It’s Ibarra who plays it down the side, it gets pulled back for Lionel. Lionel only absolutely lights it up here. He lifts off it, flamethrowers it past poor Renny Vega, who does everything. It’s just as well Renny didn’t get a hand to that, because it would have taken it off his wrist …

Oh, there’s plenty more where those came from.  I like Harkes.  (I have to — my wife M. would kill me if I were critical of her favorite player of all-time.)  But I love Hudson.  If ESPN really wanted to turn people on to soccer, they’d give Ray some World Cup games in 2010.  Even Sports Illustrated likes the guy.  He may have a funky accent to our ears but enthusiasm will carry the day.  Just look at how American fans have loved John Madden over the years.

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One Response to “Awful, and not so awful, announcing”

  1. […] steigs wrote an interesting post today on Awful, and not so awful, announcingHere’s a quick excerptSo Soccer America says that ESPN is changing its announcers for MLS games — we’re getting JP Dellacamera and John Harkes this coming season, not Dave O’Brien and Eric Wynalda (and sometimes Tommy Smyth). There’s also talk that Bruce … […]

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