By Paul Gardner
Trying to read any logic -- particularly soccer logic -- into any of the decisions made by ESPN regarding its soccer coverage is barely worth the bother.
Because there is no one at ESPN’s executive level who can tell a hand-ball from a drop-ball or possesses the remotest idea what good soccer, or bad soccer, looks like.
We’ve been forced for several years now, to put up with the clueless machinations of Jed Drake, who is ensconced as ESPN’s resident soccer genius. The man who believes that a soccer commentary, to have validity, must be delivered in British accents -- any old Brit accent will do, even if it’s barely understandable.
That is what passes for soccer knowledge in the world of Jed Drake. It means, of course, that American play-by-play announcers are not given a chance on ESPN. They are written off as soon as they open their mouths.
Throughout ESPN’s month-long award-winning coverage of World Cup 2010 (the awards came, surely, for documentary coverage of host nation South Africa -- certainly not for the soccer side of things) ESPN gave us seven announcers. Six of them were Brits, who made mistakes -- sometimes appallingly bad ones -- and regularly mispronounced the foreign names.
One commentator was American -- John Harkes. He was, at least, on a par with the Brits. He has continued to work games for ESPN – U.S. national team games, and MLS games. He did MLS Cup just two days ago. Now we get the news that he is out, to be replaced by Taylor Twellman.
Why? Who knows -- as I said, it’s pointless to search for reasons. Firstly because ESPN will offer only incoherence in reply, and secondly because that’s television. Announcers are instantly disposable. We’ve seen Ty Keough come and go, the same for Eric Wynalda and now it’s Harkes’ turn. Yes, I’m sorry to see Harkes go -- but I do not feel sorry for him. He was in a job where insecurity was part of the deal, and he must have known this.
For me, Harkes was doing a good job. I felt he improved almost game by game, coming over as more authoritative as he gained confidence, becoming less talkative but more informative. His soccer judgments were not always the ones I wanted to hear, but -- other than in my feeling that he was too ready to excuse rough play -- I had no major problems with his analyses.
There cannot have been anything wrong with Harkes’ on-screen appearance or persona. Good looks, youth, ready smile. It seems more than likely that Harkes has lost out on those qualities -- not that Twellman necessarily does better in the charisma department, but simply that he is fresher -- a new face, a new voice.
There is one point, though, on which I think Harkes is entitled to feel hard done by. Listening to him and Ian Darke during MLS Cup, I was yet again struck by just how awkward and ill-informed Darke looks and sounds in this role of an instant expert on American soccer.
Darke knew about David Beckham of course, and Robbie Keane, and Landon Donovan -- but for the other players (and that meant all of the Dynamo team) you could almost hear the pages rustling as he read off the stats and corny background info provided for him.
That is something that ought to cause considerable embarrassment at the ESPN headquarters. It is, for a start, simply inconceivable that such a state of affairs -- an “expert” without an in-depth knowledge of his sport -- would be allowed to continue for very long if it arose in football or basketball.
But does anyone at ESPN pay attention to what happens during soccer telecasts? On Sunday MLS -- and presumably ESPN -- got the final that they wanted, the Galaxy playing at its home stadium, a sellout crowd, a prime-time slot and, whoopee, David Beckham! The ratings were, if not actually derisory, certainly poor. Could ESPN’s presentation have anything to do with those low figures?
No one is going to blame Darke for accepting the job -- but he had to know that it is one for which he is poorly prepared. It should not be asking too much of him, then, to make some adjustments for an American audience. He knows that the sport is called soccer in this country. But he uses the term football. He also has to know that we refer to “the Galaxy” and “the Dynamo,” yet he sticks with the English usage, which drops the definite articles.
To that unwillingness to change anything, add a ponderous sledge-hammer wit -- and you have the reason why I think Harkes may feel aggrieved. Because if either of the Harkesy-Darkesy duo deserved to get canned it was surely Darke.
Twellman has very little experience as a television announcer. So there will be the usual learning-on-the-job glitches and gaucheries -- I recall a telecast earlier this season that had Twellman crowing “I told you!” like a 12-year-old when a banal prediction he had made appeared to come true.
I doubt whether Twellman will give us anything better than Harkes. Different, yes -- and there may be one positive note there, for Twellman was a forward, and we don’t too often get a sympathetic presentation of the attacker’s point of view on our telecasts.
But Twellman, like all forwards -- and like Keough and Wynalda and Harkes before him -- had better watch his back.