In just two days, the World Cup kicks off from the (hopefully) completed Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo with Brazil against Croatia in the opening game. Ian Darke and Steve McManaman will call the match on ESPN. Here introductions to ESPN’s six play-by-play men for the tournament, along with snippets on analysts and studio hosts.
Ian Darke – Much has been said and written about Darke, who completed a rather remarkable journey to the top of the American soccer broadcasting mountain by unseating Martin Tyler as ESPN’s lead commentator for this World Cup.
Darke’s easy affability and charm make him a joy to listen to, and his commentary has only gotten better over the last ten years. Darke has always been quality, but if you go back and compare his commentary on the world feed at the 2002 World Cup, for instance, to his commentary today you’ll notice marked improvement.
Simply put, Darke is in the form of his life right now, with something of a dream job.
Darke will call all USA matches with Taylor Twellman, and all England matches with McManaman. Darke will have around 18 games to work in the tournament, including the final. What will be interesting to see is who his partner is for those latter games – ESPN might want to play that assignment by ear. Darke, on the other hand, is the undisputed #1.
Jon Champion – When ESPN made the decision to let Tyler go for this tournament, they knew they were going to need a top announcer to pair with Darke. Jon Champion is the man.
Judging by his early assignments, which include Spain – Netherlands and Germany – Portugal, Champion the clear #2 announcer, and he looks a good bet to work the semi-final and third-place game down the road.
Champion has worked World Cup Finals in the past, and is one of the best and most respected commentators in the game. He has been paired with Stuart Robson, and will mostly focus on European teams. Champion, who is impeccably prepared for each game he works, is a slam-dunk for ESPN who makes this roster of talent even better than the one ESPN took to South Africa.
Adrian Healey – Speaking of affability, Healey is possibly the most gregarious and funniest commentator ESPN has, and is a familiar voice from his years of work on the network.
Healey has worked the last two World Cups for ESPN and not made it out of the group stage, and it he appears to be a bit of a handyman for this tournament as well. Healey is set to work four games in the first week with three different partners, including Twellman – who he is familiar with from their MLS coverage – Alejandro Moreno, and Efan Ekoku.
Healey isn’t nearly as polished as many of ESPN’s other announcers, and his calling card is his enthusiasm during games. Healey tells a good story, but his games often feature a lot of dead air. In any case, Healey is a fun commentator, and all of his games thus far feature South American or African teams.
Derek Rae – No one going to this World Cup for ESPN has as much experience with the network as the impeccable Derek Rae, who has been working in some capacity for ESPN for more than 20 years.
Classically undervalued, Rae is heard calling the Scottish Premier League on BT Sport nowadays, but he remains one of the best announcers in the sport. Rae will feature on the first weekend of the tournament, calling two high-profile matches including Argentina – Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Maracana with Roberto Martinez, one of the most mouth-watering pairings of the tournament.
Rae, the only Scotsman calling games, should slide in as ESPN’s number three man for this tournament, and he should be around for the quarterfinals. Rae will also work with Ekoku and the insufferable Kasey Keller during the group stage. A joy to listen to.
Daniel Mann – A young broadcaster, Mann worked the 2010 tournament for ESPN in 3D, and his duties included calling the final.
Mann may be familiar to viewers through his work on the English Premier League, and he’s an up-and-comer in the business – someone for FOX to potentially keep their eye on for 2018.
Mann won’t be pulling any glamour assignments for regular television in this tournament; he seems to be ESPN’s #5 announcer – which shows you how deep ESPN’s pool of talent is.
Fernando Palomo – Fernando Palomo, who has covered Mexico for ESPN since the network won the rights to their home games in 2013, will also cover Mexico in English for ESPN during the World Cup.
Palomo, an El Salvadorian, is most notable for his Spanish commentary. He will only call Mexico games in English. His partner for all those games will be Alejandro Moreno. Palomo has great passion, even if his commentary can be choppy at times.
Steve McManaman will split time between the studio and stadiums. He appears to be Darke’s main partner for all games other than the ones involving the USA, and he is the color analyst for all England games.
It will be interesting to see if his partnership with Darke continues into the knockout rounds. Macca, as he is affectionately known, will be terrific wherever he’s employed.
Taylor Twellman will also split time, doing US games, along with a few other select broadcasts like Columbia v. Greece on the opening weekend. Possibly the best analyst the United States has ever produced. He’ll be in the studio more as the tournament progresses.
Efan Ekoku will also split time, but primarily be a game analyst. Four years ago, he was paired with Martin Tyler on the first team that called the final. His role appears to be reduced this time around, but he’ll be used as an expert on African teams – he has three in his first four games.
Stewart Robson will call marquee matches with Jon Champion, and will be around as primarily and perhaps only a color analyst into the latter stages.
Alejandro Moreno will do more than call Mexico matches; he’s also calling games with Adrian Healey. Moreno could see some time in the studio too.
Kasey Keller call low-profile games alongside Daniel Mann, and be featured on all USA broadcasts. He’ll be used more in the studio as the tournament progresses, and it’d be good to see some progress from his as an announcer this time around. His preparation appears to be lacking at times.
Roberto Martinez will call one game, but do most of his work from the studio, where he is excellent.
Studio analysts include Alexi Lalas (USA), Santiago Solari (Argentina), Michael Ballack (Germany), Ruud Van Nistelrooy (Netherlands), Gilberto (Brazil), along with many of the people listed above.
Bob Ley is the primary host and perhaps the face of soccer on ESPN, so it’s interesting that Mike Tirico will host the Final. In any case, Tirico will do a good job. Lynsey Hipsgrave is the third host here, she may be ESPN’s answer to Rebecca Lowe. It’s her first time on American television.
It’s disappointing to see Chris Fowler miss out here, but his duties with Wimbledon conflict. He was fantastic from South Africa.
With that, let the games begin.