American soccer takes another slap in the face from ESPN

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.

29 comments about "American soccer takes another slap in the face from ESPN".
  1. Ian Plenderleith, November 24, 2010 at 8:48 a.m.

    My favorite comment from McManaman was his advice to players in finals: "You've just got to try your hardest and leave it all out on the field." Wise words no doubt absorbed by all those players who'd been planning to loll around and save their energy for a stroll over the Thanksgiving weekend. Darke was so transparently reading from a script in his sorry attempts to hype up the game that you could hear the hollow insincerity in his voice way above the noise from the crowd. I trust they paid him well.

  2. Antonio Quaresma, November 24, 2010 at 8:55 a.m.

    In complete agreement with you, through the years, ESPN has brought in British talent, which does not bring anything new or of interest to the airwaves.

    The major flaw from all announcers seems to be too much talk about nothing, there's just simply too much talk. The game takes on a secondary role for these guys.

    When I watch a game it would be nice for the announcers to give me the names of the players on the ball, comment on what's happening around and away from the ball and bring in some tactical insight, which is not evident on the screen.

    Most importantly; I want this with an American accent!

    Ex-players like Lallas, Harkes, Wynalda, etc. can bring a new perspective, at times, but they are learning the ropes and getting better. I'd rather listen to their nonsense than listen to these imported Brits.

  3. Mick Donnelly, November 24, 2010 at 8:59 a.m.

    first major blunder> playing a soccer final for the national soccer league on a sunday, in torronto, at 9pm at night, in freezing cold artic winds.
    this alone probably did more to set back the MLS than any other single thing. anyone who is dumb enough to do this does not deserve any resonable attention from ESPN.
    better conditions may have probvided a better game in which case no one would care about the commentators.
    you all need to discuss referees. looked more like a gaelic football game to me.
    extremely disspointing

  4. Georges Edeline, November 24, 2010 at 9:32 a.m.

    Nothing personal with all the Brits I've met; however, what has England done, in soccer, or "football," for that matter, since 1966? Ann even that was questionable? Why did they not have an English natl coach at the WC'10? I guess they are all in the great US of A, charming the soccer moms with "the" accent! The best commentator around has never even gotten a chance to interview for a spot. He can not only speak American clearly and understandably; but he can also describe each and every single player by name, adding even home town, place of birth(even of past generations), past schools & clubs, dominant feet, all strengths & weaknesses(if need be), past & current injuries & fears, to name just a few... I still don't understand why he is not an official scout for a club and/or the league. The man spends relentless hours doing his homework before each gig, whether it is for a college or pro game, contacting coaches, players, even spectators, to learn as much as he possibly can, out of respect for all listeners. There is never a dull moment when Richard Dean Broad, of Fairfax Station, VA; is in charge of commentating. Who is in charge of identifying, interviewing, recruiting & hiring talent at ESPN? Obviously, no one who cares or knows enough about the game, & its viewers? I can go on, and on, and on, but will spare you the pain... I need to get to the "pitch straight away and see my side in the dressing room before the match?" For those who wish to enjoy the game, without "much ado," try using the silence button! Writing or calling ESPN has not helped the situation in the past, boycotting might! The Spanish stations are great, BTW, even if don't understand every word! All the best! Go USA! Viva USA! Allez les Etats-Unis d'Amerique or, as the South Africans sais, last summer: GO USSA!

  5. Joe Shoulders, November 24, 2010 at 9:56 a.m.

    I agree 100% ... I'm tired of Brits period .. it's already annoying that nearly every youth team I see run by a highly organized, well-polished Brit. (I have seen a couple of good Brits coaching - the last 20 years!) but ESPN should know better. This is not like the lazy  athletic director at a college that hires a Brittish coach because "those fellas must know soccer because they have accents"  ESPN has been great for US Soccer, but they believe even real soccer fans want these Brits. Sadly they be right to some degree. Too often US Soccer fans are "self-hating" soccer fans that are embarrassed by our own American sporting terminology. They have to say "pitch" or "nil" to be cool. We now have American ESPN anchors that are under the impression that they have to say "nil" instead of zero or nothing. They actually think it's like tennis where they say must say "love" .. I'm tired of Brits selling me knives, car wax and food processors on infomercials also. The self-hating soccer fans not only feel it's necessary to go Brittish. We also have bizarre names like "Real" Salt Lake and now I hear KC Wizards are becoming "Sporting" Kansas City!? what's next? Spartak Carolina? Bayern Minneappolis? 

  6. Stevie G, November 24, 2010 at 10:30 a.m.

    what an entirely predictable load of old drivel. gardner devoted more column inches to the commentators during the world cup than he did to the footy, and he's at it again.

    focus people.

    btw. have to agree on mcmanaman. he looks like a scarecrow. don't ESPN have wardrobe?

  7. Carl Walther, November 24, 2010 at 11:08 a.m.

    When I turned on the ESPN's broadcast of the game, and realized that it was going to be announced by the most boring commentators in the world, I quickly turned ESPN off, and switched to Galavision.

  8. Brian Something, November 24, 2010 at 11:19 a.m.

    I tend to agree with criticisms that ESPN has become to Brit-centric. Try finding a single page on their Soccernet website where MLS is featured. The day after MLS Cup final, even their “US Soccer” section’s top story was about Carlo Ancelotti.

    That said, I like Darke because he lacks two annoying habits that infect most American announcers. a) He doesn’t insult our intelligence by hyping everything as though it’s the incident of the century (unlike, say, Christopher “that open header from 3 yards out was amazing, a world class goal!!!!!!!!” Sullivan), b) He doesn’t babble on incessantly (like Brian “I get paid by the word” Dunseth) or c) He doesn’t feel obligated to ram every single statistic on his prep sheet down your throat just because someone researched it (like, unfortuntately, JP).

    It’s not a question of Brit or American. Andy Gray’s Einstein-esque “Goals change games,” for example. Ally McCoist is awful; even when I can understand him, I can’t understand him. Efan Ekoku isn’t much better.

    I want someone whose babbling won’t detract from the game. There are very few announcers on our airwaves who fit the bill. Darke is one of them.

  9. Brian Something, November 24, 2010 at 11:19 a.m.

    Ok that would be three annoying habits, not two.

  10. Daniel Clifton, November 24, 2010 at 11:24 a.m.

    When I saw McManoman I could only think: Why in the hell did they hire him for MLS? You could see Alexi Lalas was over the top with enthusiasm and basically dominating the conversation as if to say: Why is this guy here? When I heard Ian Darke on the MLS Cup I could only think: Poor Delacamera, why did they drop him for this one game? The worst influence on US soccer is the English game. I live in Charlotte, NC and you can still see that influence in youth soccer - kick the ball down the field. What is wrong with a little South American influence?

  11. Stephen Porter, November 24, 2010 at 12:01 p.m.

    I don't know what the answer is to get people to watch MLS. I think most americans that are soccer fans are watching the European leagues. But if you're a die hard fan, you've got to support your local MLS club to a certain extent. I still would like to see the sport grow in our country. How does our national team ever grow if we don't have club soccer for them to at least start out playing on home soil. If no MLS would we have Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden, Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan, etc, etc playin in Europe?? I do think its silly for ESPN to pay all the money theyre probably payin Ian Darke(lol) of all people to come and commentate our league. He probably had no idea who 3/4 of the players on Colorado and Dallas were. I seriously doubt MLS comes up in many conversations in England except for laughs or talking about Beckham.

  12. jordao jordao, November 24, 2010 at 12:43 p.m.

    Pffft... I'm not from the UK, but I am much more interested in listening to someone who knows something about Football (as opposed to 'hand-egg' ugh), style and strategy, regardless of their accent (be it Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Nigerian, Ghanaian etc.) rather than only slightly relevant statistics like hometown, high school etc. which is seriously lacking in most current US world-football commentating.
    The UK uses North American Anglophone (as opposed to Spanish) announcers and commentators regularly on sports in which they are 'experts'.
    Also, and more disturbingly, the overtone of this writer's message is very close to being incorrect politically. Would you constantly refer to someone derogatorily because of their skin, hair or eye color as you have of these experts' accents? It is quite obvious that you are experiencing * envy. The English invented the sport and introduced it to the world, and it has become the most International Sport of all. It is almost exclusively officially called 'soccer' (etymology derived from: Assoc. Football to differentiate from Rugby Football, and now differentiating from American Football and Canadian Football - which uses the 'foot' only a tiny percentage of game time).
    If you have something against Darke or Drake, refer to those people alone as to your dislike. Do not paint the world in denigrating terms in order to exalt your U.S. North American bias. The U.S.A. has enough quality to stand on its own merits without denigrating the rest of the world, or even the British and their accent.

    We have a lot still to learn about why 'soccer' is so revered the world over, and should be humble enough to admit it. Most of us eagerly watch European and South American soccer and love it when diversity is brought in to raise the bar in the MLS.

    Finally, you sound like a little kid ranting on his soap box in your article. Grow up.

  13. jordao jordao, November 24, 2010 at 12:47 p.m.

    in previous comment: to finish my line on the term 'soccer', it is used almost exclusively in the US and Canada.

  14. dan woerner, November 24, 2010 at 1:31 p.m.

    don't take it personally Jordao... Paul is simply making a point that the director of "soccer" at ESPN is rather condescending (my word) to his U.S. audience. Most people who love futbol enjoy watching it no matter who is playing (regardless of country), but to think that only announcers from England can do a good job is where the rub is with the author. The article is not meant to put down the announcers, simply make a point that the ESPN director doesn't have a clue.

  15. jordao jordao, November 24, 2010 at 1:35 p.m.

    Point taken. thanks.

  16. Rick Figueiredo, November 24, 2010 at 3:42 p.m.

    Wow. Nice article. Mostly. If I hear Harkes I cringe and turn off the sound. He is pointless. I don't even like him as a person let alone a commentator.

    As to the Brits, well they are Brits after all. They think they know more than they actually know but they have nice sounding official voices. Good for background info but stay away from tactical nuances.

    The only futebol commentators or analysts I like are Brandi Chastain (YES A WOMAN!) and Lalas. Lalas used to be less smart but somewhere along the times he must have come across someone who taught him something important about this sport. Brandi Chastain has always been futebol smart. Not sure why.

    Play ball!

  17. Kenneth Barr, November 24, 2010 at 4:04 p.m.

    Steve McManaman was the commentating find of the World Cup. His analysis is entertaining and usually spot-on. I guess Paul Gardner isn't happy unless he's bashing Brits.

    On the other hand, replacing JP Dellacamera with Ian Darke for the final is puzzling. JP does the league for the entire season on ESPN but is dropped? That doesn't make sense. Ian Darke calls a good match, but he hasn't done MLS all that much and didn't seem to know the sides.

    At least it wasn't FSC's MLS team, a complete and total broadcasting disaster. Next year, bring in the folks from the Fox Soccer Report (Jeremy St Louis, Bobby McMahon and Michelle Lissel) and drop the screeching Brian Dunseth and his diahrrea of the mouth sidekick, Christopher the former player that knows absolutely zilch.

  18. Brian Something, November 24, 2010 at 4:26 p.m.

    "in previous comment: to finish my line on the term 'soccer', it is used almost exclusively in the US and Canada. "

    And Australia.

    And New Zealand.

    And South Africa.

    And Ireland...

    One of the ironies about the US soccer supporters community is that it's one of the most broad-minded, outward looking out there... not nearly as parochial as the Brits.

  19. Kevin Leahy, November 25, 2010 at 8:48 a.m.

    ESPN has never been a friend of soccer. The only televise it to fill time. You can go back to the days of Dan Patrick and Keith Olberman and their snide comments. Finding a good American color man is still a work in prgress. Out of Lalas, Wynalda and Harkes, I prefer Harkes. They can always look elswhere. Why do we need to have subtitles next to the commentators names to show their pedigree?

  20. John Yunker, November 25, 2010 at 11:30 a.m.

    I like he english commentators - unlike American commentators, they don't preach to you like you have never played the game before. John Harkes and Alexi Lawless dispense their wisdom while MacManus and his ilk let me feel their love for the game. I watch it to be intertained and feel excitement for the great plays - listening to Harkes and Lawless makes me feel like I'm in class analyzing instead of enjoying - Give me the "Oh What a Turn he made!!!" over the "He should have been further upfield" anyday.

  21. Gak Foodsource, November 25, 2010 at 3:42 p.m.

    Our British obsession isn't just announcing. We have copied their team names, their chants, their scarves, even their tournaments. But the biggest and most egregious is the import of their coaches. For more than ten years our youth soccer ranks have been dominated with British accents. They quickly realized a charming smile and a few minutes of that accent would be enough to carve out a club team that would have parents shelling out money left and right. It's our own fault though Paul. Look at CNN replacing a stalwart American program, Larry King Live, with Piers Morgan. Or the presence of a British condescending accent on every talent show we have. ( Simon Cowell,Piers Morgan, Nigel Lythgoe.)

  22. Igor Kouzine, November 25, 2010 at 4:31 p.m.

    I am sure many of you, including the author, have valid points about British commentators, their lack of domestic soccer knowledge, and all that good stuff... However, I am not sure who does more harm to the game of soccer in this country - negative, whining, inconsequential articles like the ones penned by Paul Gardner on a weekly basis, or well-meaning, interesting-to-listen-to most of the time British announcers trying to bring with them a different culture of not only "loving soccer", but also "speaking it". Every time negative thoughts and words are uttered about this game, every time we speak in derogatory terms about "British" announcers (btw, who cares where they are from, as long as watching the game is exciting for 95% of the viewers, and not few soccer pundits), every time we fail to speak about how ugly our game in U.S. is compared to Spain, Italy, Germany, South American leagues, and even England and try to understand why that is, we'll always have "American" coaches take "American"-bred players to the first round of World Cup play-offs, and not further... And it's in the country where more people play the game on more fields than anywhere else in the world. Paul, we need insight, not whining...

  23. Wayne Root, November 26, 2010 at 4:12 a.m.

    Must agree mightily with the comment about too much gossip. This is a major failing of all our announcers, from the worst to the better (I'm still trying to figure out who's best.

  24. Paul Bryant, November 26, 2010 at 5:14 p.m.

    Have we all become xenophobes? I believe that ESPN reasoned that since we like the EPL and it's announced by British announcers and commentators, that we would not mind listening to them on MLS games. Yes, ESPN did get it wrong, but let's not put down the entire British soccer establishment or their manner of speaking because of the preceived influence on American soccer. I will say this, the British influence has also infiltrated U.S. college soccer. In coaches and players alike.

  25. Brian Something, November 27, 2010 at 3:09 p.m.

    "I like he english commentators - unlike American commentators, they don't preach to you like you have never played the game before."

    This morning I heard the following from Brit announcer Efan Ekoku following a yellow card to Aston Villa's Ciaran Clark: "Clark has to be careful to not pick up another caution because two yellow cards makes red."

  26. Cool Dudes, November 27, 2010 at 3:36 p.m.

    Get off my lawn Brits!

    Present company excepted of coarse.

    Right, and you wonder why the world doesn't take American soccer seriously.

  27. Brian Something, November 28, 2010 at 11:42 a.m.

    The irony about the Brit announcers doing MLS Cup final is that they, unlike American commentators, don't act like schoolgirls with Bieber Fever hysterically babbling about David Beckham.

  28. James Madison, December 2, 2010 at 12:40 a.m.

    Dellacamera is a first rate amateur, but Ian Darke and the like are pros. American TV announcers in any sport could well afford to take a page from the color and variety of their vocabulary. What's too bad is that, in order to get an American voice on the air, ESPN pairs him with someone like Harkes who, despite his background, babbles nonesense. Why not someone like Eric Wynalda who (a) sees the game and (b) says what he sees.

  29. Brian Something, January 9, 2011 at 10:09 a.m.

    ‎"The second goal is the most important in a football match when you're ahead 1-0." -more wisdom from a brilliant Brit announcer (Martin Tyler) who illuminates us ignorant Yanks.

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