By Paul Kennedy
There was a time when the idea of ESPN launching a daily soccer show would have had us jumping up and down.
But there's so much soccer on the air these days -- and more to come with Saturday's debut of the EPL on NBC and Fox Soccer Daily airing for the first time on Monday on the new Fox Sports 1 -- that it will take a lot of work to get soccer fans excited about ESPN2's new ESPN FC show.
And that's just the problem with a show like ESPN FC: there's so much soccer going on these days, how do you possibly begin covering it?
A game like Sunday's MLS match in Dallas normally would have been a perfect lead-in for a show like ESPN FC, but it clearly hadn't planned on leading with the FC Dallas-LA Galaxy game, which proved to be a not so small problem. How do you not lead with a game that ended in a 3-3 tie with three goals from Landon Donovan, loads of controversy to rehash in the form of two blown offside calls, topped off by harsh remarks from Donovan about Galaxy keeper Carlo Cudicini and his backline?
Instead of debuting at 10 p.m. ET, "studio problems" meant ESPN FC launched in mid-show more than 10 minutes after the Dallas game ended and jumped right into the weeds with a debate on whether Wayne Rooney should leave Manchester United to Chelsea. Huh?
A couple of hours later, ESPN FC re-aired from the beginning with weekend highlights from the Community Shield and the start of the Bundesliga. All good stuff but not up to what we'd just seen in Frisco.
It was followed over the next 45 minutes by not one but two segments -- with separate sets of talking heads, no less -- on Clint Dempsey's move to MLS. Again, all fine and good. But nothing as good as the show Donovan and company just put on.
On the second take, the ESPN FC got it right, ending with highlights and analysis from Dallas as well as the view from Bristol. The consensus? Donovan was absolutely right for calling out his keeper.
The Monday afternoon show -- 5:30-6 p.m. ET -- was more straightforward: opening with a Dempsey interview -- one of the main talking heads happens to be his former Revs coach, Stevie Nicol, and his former Revs teammate, Taylor Twellman, is ESPN's MLS and national team analyst -- and closing with the goals of the week, including one by the 17-year-old PSV phenom Zakaria Bakkali, all 5-foot-5 of him, and two amazing goals from Denmark at No. 1 and No. 2.
But it also included a very misguided segment on the absence of Timmy Chandler from the U.S. national team squad for the Bosnia match. Twellman mentioned rumors of Chandler wanting to switch back to play for Germany, and Raphael Honigstein, ESPN FC's so-called German expert, said, "The German FA have told me they no interest in calling him up." They really told you that? One small detail: Chandler has been cap-tied to the USA since the Honduras qualifier in February.
On the whole, though, the segments were good, and the dizzying array of talking heads and accents palatable. The problem, of course, will be to keep the show from becoming just that: dizzying.
For shows like NFL Primetime and Baseball Tonight or the other mid-afternoon shows, there's a natural order to things dictated by who's winning and who's losing, who's throwing for five touchdowns and who's throwing a no-hitter. Who blew out his knee or who's on dope? All within the confines of one league.
The challenge of a show like ESPN FC or Fox Soccer Daily is whether to make it a U.S. soccer show or an international soccer show. And if you make it an international show, what kind of international soccer do you emphasize? Do you end up burying MLS? And do you go overboard with the EPL?
The good news is current events should make these kind of decisions for ESPN FC's producers easy ones: it's simply a soccer show on which the biggest news stories just happen to concern American soccer. And if that's a new world order, all the power to us.
The national team -- whose media rights ESPN happens to hold -- is doing very, very well so even a friendly in faraway Sarajevo is a big deal. And Dempsey's return home is something fans can relate to -- he's doing it for himself and his family and no one else -- so he'll remain very much in the news.
Except on nights when Donovan goes wild.