Post-World Cup Exposes Weaknesses of US Soccer Commentators

The one thing that the preseason friendlies have revealed to me thus far is the enormous drop off in talent between the commentary teams that we were spoilt with during the World Cup to the B-level of talent we witnessed during the Man United vs Celtic (Glenn Davis and Kyle Martino) and San Jose Earthquakes vs Tottenham Hotspur (Rob Stone and Taylor Twellman) games. It almost feels like separation anxiety now that Ian Darke, Roberto Martinez and others have left us.

In fairness to ESPN, their usual team of US-based A-level commentators must be taking a well-deserved vacation after working the 31-day World Cup tournament. But still, the lack of decent commentary by the remaining commentators available is alarming. And it’s something that I didn’t pay particular attention to until reality struck that Darke, Tyler, Martinez and company are now back in the UK.

Here are just a few examples of how poor ESPN’s commentary was during the Earthquakes against Spurs game Saturday:

  1. Stone and Twellman raved about Robbie Keane and described how he is currently “in his prime” and would be a perfect designated player signing for MLS especially for a team such as New England Revolution. While I don’t disagree that Keane would be a welcome addition to MLS, to describe Keane as being in the prime of his career is absurd. He’s 30 years old. He was on loan to Celtic last season because he couldn’t get a regular starting place ahead of Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko. Robbie Keane’s prime of his career has long passed. You could argue that his best year was his 2006-2007 season at Tottenham when he scored 22 goals in 44 appearances. That was 3-4 years ago.
  2. Here’s an actual transcript of how Stone described one incident in the game yesterday: “Cornell Glen gets his man down, fires, and Cudicini serves up no rebound.” Huh? Cringe.
  3. The pronunciation of some of the players names were butchered. For example, the commentators had a particularly difficult time pronouncing the names of Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar.
  4. Twellman was raving about Gareth Bale. I admire his skills too and find him to be one of the most exciting players in the Premier League. But during the game when Twellman described how well left back Bale was playing, he made a comment that wouldn’t England love to have someone of his caliber in that position? Problem is that England has Ashley Cole, one of the best left backs in the world.
  5. Last but not least, most American commentators need to put the statistics sheet away and concentrate on the game itself. Watching the San Jose against Tottenham game, it often felt like Stone and Twellman were treating the 90 minutes like a talk show instead of focusing on the game itself. When commentators read statistic after statistic, it makes the listener feel as if the commentators are overcompensating for their inadequacies. It’s also frustrating because it takes us away from the game itself. All we want to do is hear about the match and what they’re seeing on the pitch. Not what happened off it in the past.

Many of the criticisms of Stone and Twellman can be leveled against most B-level soccer commentators in the United States. Twellman, to be fair, was in the color commentator seat for the first time ever for ESPN, so it’ll take time for him to improve. But based on first impressions, it was a terrible performance. Stone, meanwhile, is a much better presenter than commentator, so he was definitely out of his element this past weekend.

But whether it’s the team of Stone-Twellman or other commentators, the fact of the matter is that there’s huge room for improvement in the level of commentating of soccer games in the United States. But the reality is that there are few decent role models in the States. Phil Schoen of GolTV is the best one. JP Dellacamera, while not perfect, has the experience. John Harkes, despite the criticism, is improving and we saw that improvement as the World Cup evolved this summer. Adrian Healey and Robbie Mustoe are getting better and continue to hone their craft, but despite living in the States for several years, they’re technically English commentators, not American. Kyle Martino is likable but needs more experience.

The reality is that there aren’t a whole lot of decent soccer commentators or analysts in the United States, hence the reason ESPN hired most of its talent from Europe this summer. However, US sports networks have an opportunity to groom talent. Consider how many hours of games are available for them to work on throughout a typical season even if the games themselves are using the international feed. There are still plenty of time before, at half-time and after games to hone their craft.

The other option is for ESPN and other broadcasters to hire foreign talent on a permanent deal. While Martin Tyler, Ian Darke and company are well paid for their services in the United Kingdom, there still may be room for other English commentators to ply their craft in the States on a permanent deal. What about bringing over a Steve Banyard or Stewart Robson on a 12-month contract? Someone with quality who can help mentor some of the less experienced U.S. commentators and analysts? It’s definitely worth a consideration.

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