American soccer commentators have long been a source of amusement to those of us residing on the east side on the North Atlantic.
The often-ridiculous vernacular they use, the occasional lack of basic knowledge of the game, and their over-compensatory zealousness are all deemed symptomatic of an inability of those Stateside to truly understand the game.
However, in a country that continues to play catch-up in soccer, the standard of television commentary and analysis is actually quite important to the development of the sport. Sure, coverage of top professional soccer from all over the globe is now readily available online, and even on big US networks, but that is a relatively recent phenomenon.
That long-term lack of access has resulted in a deficit of knowledge in this country, as the soccer public simply haven’t been afforded the sheer volume and quality we have probably taken for granted.
The latest MLS television and media rights deal has ensured that far more games are now being televised nationally in the US, but has the quality of coverage increased in line with the quantity? Using the weekend just gone as a litmus test, there is still a shortfall that needs to be addressed.
UniMas is a Spanish-language channel that carries Friday night games.
Week 7 saw them screen the clash between the New York Red Bulls and San Jose Earthquakes from Harrison, New Jersey.
While the production is geared towards for Spanish speakers, there is English commentary available on demand, and it is provided by the excitable duo of Ramses Sandoval and Paul Caligiuri.
The latter’s claim to fame is that he scored the goal against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 that sent the USA to Italia ’90, the country’s first World Cup appearance in 40 years.
The pair serve up - one assumes unintentionally - comical fare. Sandoval comes out with some bizarre lines that Twitter sensation @usasoccerguy would be proud of. San Jose were, on one occasion, “triangling the ball,” and a New York cut back from the end line was described as a “classic death pass, going backwards on the grass.”
The duo were also guilty of being unnecessarily loud and getting irrationally excited at inappropriate times. For example, in the first half, an under-hit cross was easily cut out and cleared at the front post by an Earthquakes defender; a routine moment, but one which if you were to go by Sandoval’s reaction was akin to a Champions League-winning goal.
While there are no nationally televised games on Saturdays, local stations carry games of clubs in their market. In Utah, that means Real Salt Lake are on. While the clashes shown on national television are treated to relatively meagre pre-match build-up and post-match review, the American Sports Network (via the KMYU channel) devoted three hours to the RSL clash with Vancouver Whitecaps.
The most interesting aspect of the ASN production is that there is no hint of impartiality. The coverage is aimed at RSL fans, and, therefore, the commentary and analysis is skewed in favour of the Utah side. In that sense, it is comparable to RTÉ’s coverage of a Republic of Ireland international. As an audience in that instance, we are generally only interested in an Irish win.
The co-commentator for the Real game was Brian Dunseth, a former MLS professional who played for the club in their debut MLS season in 2005. Dunseth’s co-commentary and analysis was pretty decent for the most part, but he let himself down near the end of the game when RSL defender Jamison Olave was dismissed for a second yellow card after deliberately tripping a striker on a Vancouver counter-attack.
Dunseth’s argument was that while it was a definite second yellow, the referee should have thought twice about doling it out because RSL (trailing 1-0) were already down to 10 men following Sebastian Saucedo’s red card for a two-footed tackle earlier in the second half. It was a nonsensical premise.
In Dunseth’s defence, maybe he felt obliged to play devil’s advocate because of the biased nature of the broadcast. But with the aforementioned deficit of knowledge when it comes to soccer in the States, this kind of misleading analysis does a disservice to uninitiated viewers.
Sunday night brought a double-header of games, beginning on ESPN2. They were in Philadelphia this week to show the Union’s clash with visitors New England Revolution.
The ESPN coverage is the closest to what we would recognise as conventional match viewing. Host and commentator Adrian Healey (an Englishman) is a safe pair of hands, avoiding hyperbole and providing links that are as smooth as silk. His sidekick Taylor Twellman, a former MLS star and US international, is more of your typical American co-commentator, though his enthusiasm is not as overbearing as others.
Towards the end of the Revolution’s 2-1 win over Philadelphia, Healey made an announcement that coverage of the following game between New York City and Portland Timbers had been moved from Fox Sports 1 to Fox Sports 2.
The fact that the game was bumped to a lower channel (which, unfortunately, is not on this scribe’s cable package) speaks volumes about soccer’s standing in the hierarchy of televised sports in the States. The fact that it was bumped in favour of a NASCAR race says even more.
It is also telling that none of the soccer broadcasts discussed involved a studio panel. The commentator and co-commentator also provided all the analysis, and conducted all pre- and post-game interviews. That might not sound that important, but it proves that coverage of soccer is still minor league when it comes to investment. And, as with most aspects of life, you get what you pay for.
In many ways the standard of MLS coverage mirrors the standard of play. It would a tad harsh to call it primitive, but there’s no doubt it’s still second division.