ESPN playoff coverage needs more substance

The good news is that of the 11 MLS postseason games, 10 will be televised nationally.

The bad news is that after a regular season that produced a meager 2.54 goals per game, keeping a national audience captivated, or at least tuned in, if goals are scarce won't be easy. There can be all manner of previews and pre-game hits and studio segments, but the game itself needs as much drama as possible, and that can only be guaranteed by goals, or at least the threat of same.

And the networks covering MLS could do more in projecting how teams might score, both from the run of play as well as set pieces, which are usually no more detailed than "set plays are important," and "we love set plays." The announcers did mention how many goals each team scored on set plays without providing any details.

Whether they are "keys to the game" or "talking points" or whatever, what a team does and why, and what it believes it can do in today's game can't be overlooked on a sports telecast, be it soccer or basketball or curling.

Now that the playoffs are underway, and the first ESPN2 telecast setting up the brackets and schedule and matchups is in the vault, the worldwide leader in sports can get down to covering this sport in some detail. The crew and announcers did a good job of setting the scene; now they can delve into the games themselves, which rarely happened Thursday.

Three times, stand-in defender Pat Ianni threatened the Houston goal with headers. One sailed over the bar, one hit it, and Dynamo keeper Pat Onstad turned the third over the top for a corner kick. Not mentioned were details of his goal against Houston during the regular season; a spectacular overhead shot in a crowded goalmouth on a set play. That ball came to him from a Freddie Ljungberg corner kick knocked in his direction by defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. Sound familiar?

Also ignored was a goal he set up at Qwest Field against San Jose, when Ljungberg swung a partially cleared corner kick back into the goalmouth that Ianni flicked on for Fredy Montero to stick into the net. On a very similar play Seattle would have scored, except for Ricardo Clark's tight marking on Montero that prevented a clean shot. Ianni's success at escaping the marking of Adrian Hainault to get more cracks at goal than Seattle's top scorer deserved much more analysis than was presented.

ESPN2 built up Thursday's Battle in Seattle - glad to see the network passed on labeling it such, or did nobody think of it? - with a long pregame focused on the Sounders crowds, and the memorable scenes generated before and during the match. While Ianni was an emergency stand-in for defender Tyrone Marshall, the crew and announcers needed to have details of the previous meetings between these two teams at the ready, especially since as the league's two best defensive teams, goals were likely to be at a premium.

(I also don't recall seeing the lifetime records of two of the most successful coaches in league history in games against each other. That would seem to be a no-brainer.)

The flank matchup of Houston's Brian Mullan against Seattle rookie Steve Zakuani, or the cost of Zakuani's lack of cohesion with left back Leo Gonzalez, didn't get much mention. Rather than chase and harass Ljungberg all over the attacking third, Houston usually stepped to him only when he neared the penalty area, daring him to shoot from distance, and instead marked up tightly to take away his options. Why did Montero float wide right rather than search for space in the goalmouth?

This might be a bit of "inside baseball," but it's not rocket science.

These elements and strategies are part and parcel of ESPN's coverage of basketball, football, baseball, hockey, auto racing, you name it. Too much analysis and chalk talk can be tedious, yet it can't be an accident that Ianni got so open so often on a situation that can be mapped out and rehearsed on the training field. By accident or design? You make the call.

While not a soccer-only enterprise like Fox Soccer Channel or GolTV, yet the ESPN networks/platforms also serve a sports crowd, which craves nuts and bolts and X's and O's more than puff and fluff.  Features and color and backdrop are great, but fans tune in to see a competitive contest and learn about it might be played out, and after the game, why it turned out as it did.

There is no such thing as a "general audience" on ESPN. That phrase has been used for more than decade as an excuse about why ABC, to cite one example, denudes its soccer telecasts of any real substance so as not to "alienate" or "confuse" the non-aficionado. Those days, if they ever existed, are over.

The expanded broadcast windows for national MLS telecasts are excellent opportunities to heighten awareness of the league, its teams, and its players and coaches, and kudos to ESPN for bringing a greater commitment to MLS as it has for the U.S. national team and international competitions.

In this case, more is better, and a network that prides itself on going into the game(s) within the game can do much more with this game. We love the "March to the Match," but the match is what matters.

6 comments about "ESPN playoff coverage needs more substance".
  1. Jacob Wang, October 30, 2009 at 7:17 p.m.

    They're probably too busy following the Eastern Conf to bother with it. They would have covered these angles if the Revs, Red Bulls, or DC United were involved.

  2. beautiful game, October 30, 2009 at 7:48 p.m.

    Good article but it neglects to mention how suffocating the pre-game hype is and the overblown expectations of the match. Add to that the John Harkes & JP Dellacamera chit-chatter of irrelevance. Pre-game could have concentrated more on the proven footballers such as Freddy Ljundstrem, Keller and Ching with a short spot on the respective coaches who have had success in their respective careers. Too much hype and commentary in the TV booth is irresponsible to soccer which speaks about itself on the pitch by the players.

  3. Raymond Dreyfuss, October 30, 2009 at 8:12 p.m.

    Why not use the english narators way of calling an EPL game that would go over real well here in the States, just like in England, we could still have the prelimanaries just like we have, but during the game we want to talk only about Soccer.

  4. Kevin Leahy, October 30, 2009 at 8:56 p.m.

    Please no EPL commentary! Those idiots think every foul should go unpunished or it was't that harsh. I agree that what makes the match should be brought out. We should know what each team is trying to do and why. It is one reason the soccer snobs won't watch. Real soccer fans are the ones watching these games. MLS would be a complete success if the soccer snobs gave a dam. There is a reason that players can have success in other leagues that struggle in MLS. It is very difficult style for many of them to adjust to.

  5. Dragos Axinte, October 30, 2009 at 10:37 p.m.

    I disagree. The guys with the mike are not the smartest people in the stadium and I am highly uninterested in their "analysis" of what could have or should have been. I really would just like to follow the game - every pass, every step, every dribble - and just one guys narrating the game would let me focus on that. Oh, and I don't need stats either.

  6. David Sacio, November 2, 2009 at 1:56 p.m.

    IMHO John Harkes is a horrible commentator.
    Eric Wynalda was so much easier to listen to.

    Mr Harkes seems to think quite highly of himself. I think he needs to listen to Chris Sullivan on how to comment on plays and players and wipe that stupid smile off his face.

    Harkes uses trite sayings 'Put the ball in the back of the net" and "pitch" instead of field; "he should've done better with that". Evolve plz Mr.Harkes.

    I am very tired of listening to John Harkes who has made it a displeasure to listen to ESPN. Plse get rid of him and make our Day!!!

    David Sacio

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