[TELEVISION WATCH] Much of the buildup to the debut of MLS on NBC had focused on a decision to utilize former Fox Soccer analyst Kyle Martino between the team benches rather than in the broadcast booth, yet as he and partner Arlo White demonstrated, people matter more than positioning.
The rapport between the two seemed to flow naturally for most of the telecast during a two and a half window that also featured host Russ Thaler and former Jamaican international Robbie Earle working from a desk near the field. NBCSN brought a crisp, professional sheen to the telecast, utilizing replays smartly and not cluttering up the telecast with bizarre camera placements or in-game fluff interviews.
Only once did the distance between the main commentators generate a glitch, and that came during an awkward moment for any broadcast: as Martino analyzed a replay White had to jump in as the director cut back to live action to show Red Bulls’ keeper Ryan Meara diving to make a save. That happens occasionally in normal circumstances; perhaps sitting side-by-side White could have been able to signal Martino a few seconds earlier but in this case clearly there was no harm done.
White had no such issues regarding the transition from a club gig to national platform. He provided plenty of information – maybe at times a tad too much but that’s a subjective matter of personal taste -- ready to deliver on both teams, including good tidbits and anecdotes from the teams’ most recent meeting in the 2011 playoffs, a 2-0 Red Bulls win at the same locale (then known as Pizza Hut Park). Rarely did his ample, genuine enthusiasm boil over into outright gushing.
Prior to the game, in an exclusive interview with Soccer America, Martino gave a sharp insight on the perspective from which he sees the game at field level. “Standing on the sideline, the game can be two-dimensional,” he said. “It can be difficult to see the things that are so critical to analyzing the game: the passing lanes, the spacing, the angle of the runs, the positioning of the back line or the distance between the midfield and the forwards.”
Martino agreed that White, who worked Sounders’ telecasts the past two seasons as a lone ranger in the booth, possesses enough background and knowledge to provide observations on formations and tactics along with identifying players and describing play. Thus provided with an outline of analysis, Martino can interpret plays and incidents in context and also critique individual performances and head-to-head matchups.
In a conference call with reporters last week, executive producer Sam Flood and producer/director Pierre Moosa clarified Martino’s role when a questioner referred to it as that of “a reporter.” They stressed he’s an analyst, not a sideline reporter. Still Martino and White nailed the news when Ricardo Villar came up hobbling; White first asked if Martino could see who was warming up; after a brief silence, White noted Bobby Warshaw was getting ready, and Martino explained Villar’s ankle took a blow when Thierry Henry had tumbled into him. Thus the audience was up to speed when Villar, after scoring a spectacular clinching goal on a steal and feed by Blas Perez, left the game in the 74th minute.
The synchronization worked nearly as well earlier in the game when Fabian Castillo, who’d been flaying the Red Bulls from the right flank, took a bad knock and had to be replaced by Carlos Rodriguez, a left-sided player who took over that side and thus pushed Brek Shea to the right. White asked Martino for his assessment of the move, and Marino opined that one advantage would be Shea’s proclivity to cut inside and shoot with his stronger left foot. This is an obvious element, of course, yet one of timeliness and relevance that Marino rightly emphasized on a platform presenting MLS for the first time.
NBCSN pioneered the use of an analyst stationed between the benches in its coverage of the NHL amidst a more turbulent environment of line changes and power-play/shorthanded situations. The proximity of a soccer analyst to the comments of coaches and players – along with field referees and the fourth official -- can offer a cleaner flow of information than presented by two commentators rather than a trio of play-by-play person, analyst, and sideline reporter .
No doubt there will be changes and tweaks as NBCSN and MLS get to know each other better. Considering Martino and White had worked only two preseason games prior to Sunday’s kickoff, their symbiosis going forward shouldn't be a major concern for Moossa and Flood, nor the audience.