By Paul Gardner
If ... all the American television commentators for soccer were on strike ... If they all mysteriously lost their voices ... If they were all wickedly kidnapped by a foreign power ... If they all suddenly elected to become Trappist monks ... If Voldemort had cast an evil spell over them all ... then, yes, for any one of those reasons, I could just about find myself agreeing with ESPN’s decision to import Brit commentators.
Happily, none of those catastrophes descended upon us ... but Ian Darke and Steve McManaman did. The two Brits that ESPN inflicted on us as commentators for MLS Cup. I assume that the decision was made by the resident soccer genius at ESPN, Jed Drake. Why? I don’t know, and I don’t understand -- except to point out that Drake seems to have a thing about English, make that British, accents. You will remember how he flooded the airwaves with assorted versions of Britspeak during ESPN’s “critically acclaimed” (that’s ESPN’s own assessment) World Cup coverage from South Africa.
To get the merely absurd (as opposed to the decidedly worrying) out of the way first. McManaman. Even Drake must have realized by now that whatever he’s paying McManaman is a total waste of money. According to Drake, McManaman “as a broadcaster has a keen ability to communicate with great insight and clarity.” If that is so, then the wrong guy turned up on Sunday, for we got a McManaman with nothing to say, absolutely, flat-out nothing ... a huge embarrassment. Cliches, Mr. Drake, are still cliches, even when they are delivered in a thick scouser accent.
Ian Darke, who featured as the play-by-play announcer on the telecast, presents a totally different problem. Darke (oddly, an anagrammatic version of Drake) is a highly competent professional announcer. His work on the telecast reflected that competence ... up to a point. It begins to fall apart when one asks the crucial questions about his appearance as an MLS expert: a) How much does he know about MLS? And b) How many MLS games has he attended?
The answers are a) not very much, and b) not very many, if any. His ignorance of the league, and of American soccer in general, threads its way through his commentary. A good deal of his comments consisted of him carefully reading out statistics on the players and their background and so on. Pretty boring stuff.
Being ignorant of American soccer is not a crime. It does, however, become an issue when the ignorant one poses as an expert. That is not Darke’s fault, it is Drake’s fault for hiring him and putting him in a position which he is not prepared for.
At that point, Darke does have a responsibility -- to bone up on the subject. I can’t find any convincing evidence that Darke has done that. An expert who is not confident of his subject is obviously no expert at all. Some weeks before MLS Cup, Darke was called in to do another big game -- South Africa-USA.
And we got this: at the start of the second half, as Teal Bunbury was subbed in by the USA, Darke erupted with a strange excitement, “He’s come from nowhere!” he yelled.
Now, Bunbury is what the Italians call a figlio d’arte, a son-of-[the]-art, meaning that his father [or mother], was involved. By definition, a son-of-art cannot come from nowhere. Teal’s father, Alex Bunbury, was one of Canada’s most famous soccer players. He was capped 64 times by Canada during a 13-year pro career that included a six-year spell in Portugal where his 59 goals made him Maritimo’s all-time leading scorer. As for son Teal -- he played at the University of Akron and was the college Division 1 leading scorer in 2009. He was drafted No. 4 overall in the 2010 MLS draft by the Kansas City Wizards, for whom he scored five goals in the season just ended.
That is what Darke calls “coming from nowhere.” There seems to be no attempt on Darke’s part to make any concessions to an American audience. His references to “manager” instead of coach, to “dressing room” instead of locker room, his refusal to use the definite article “the” in front of team names (which is American usage, but not English), and his apparent inability to say the word “soccer” all add up to one Anglo-centric bias too many.
Back to square one. Why was Darke used? There is the possibility that Drake was making a purely business decision, and the hell with the soccer. Brit accents would help sell the final, would up the ratings. We now know that the preliminary ratings for Sunday’s game were the lowest since comparable records started in 1999. I’m not about to blame that on Darke and McManaman, but the woeful figures make it crystal clear that adding Brit voices does nothing to increase the number of viewers.
As the various wipeouts that I envisaged at the beginning of this column didn’t happen, American commentators were available. To name just four: JP Dellacamera, Brad Feldman, Glenn Davis, Dave Johnson. All of whom have a great deal of MLS experience. OK, as it happens I have problems with all of those four -- briefly, they all gossip too much. But was Darke any better? No, he was not, he did his fair share of gossiping with John Harkes.
ESPN’s treatment of JP Dellacamera is hardly commendable. The network has been using JP throughout this season -- he has always done a thoroughly professional job (apart from the gossiping, that is). When the biggest MLS game of the year comes around he is shoved aside to make room for a flying visit from Darke The Accent.
The Americans are simply not good enough -- that is what we are being told by the ESPN soccer genius Jed Drake. I believe he is wrong. Not only wrong, but he is not helping at all the development of the game in this country. The days when American soccer had to go groveling to Europe -- usually to England (because of the language, despite the accents!) -- to learn about the sport are long dead.
And I would have thought that the days when Americans sycophantically bowed down to things English -- like accents -- were similarly gone. ESPN, with Drake at the helm, seems determined to drag us back about 40 years. American soccer has come a hell of a long way since then -- far enough to be able to have views, opinions -- and, yes, commentators -- of its own.
One would think that Drake, the font of all soccer wisdom at ESPN, would know that, that he would not find it necessary to deliver another slap in the face to the American game. Apparently not. It must still make way for the Brits, even when they come armed with cliches.
Cliches like “in the right place at the right time” -- a favorite of McManaman, who managed to use it twice on Sunday. If I may adapt it slightly: The presence of McManaman and Darke at this year’s MLS Cup was a case of the wrong guys in the wrong place at the wrong time. With the wrong accents.