The opening weekend of MLS featured two new clubs and a new stadium.
The action opened Friday night as Portland hosted new entrant Minnesota United FC, a team that has spent the last six seasons in the second-division NASL. FOX Sports was broadcasting the match and did a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere in Portland, which is arguably the best in North America. John Strong, who previously broadcast Timbers games, was well prepared as usual, and called a great game. Alexi Lalas was excellent in co-commentary, often delving into some of the concerns about Minnesota’s defending in describing the poor shape at the back but also giving lots of tidbits about players and midfield movement.
Technical problems marred the first half of the game, and halftime was marked by Caleb Porter’s rather tense interview with Katie Witham as well as MLS Commissioner Don Garber saying nothing of value at halftime. Porter is a character, the likes of which MLS needs more of, but you could see in his eyes he didn’t want to do the interview and he did not seem at all pleased by his team’s unwillingness to press the issue after an opening goal. This brings the issue of halftime interviews up – mandated by MLS in a very American sporting way but not something that happens in the rest of the world during broadcasts of this sport. Porter is an intense manager and probably doesn’t want to be bothered with spilling his emotions in the middle of a match on national TV – but is forced to. What is the logic of these interviews and do they give any real insight or enhance broadcasts? Occasionally yes, but usually no.
On Saturday, the lone national TV game was the new-look LA Galaxy hosting Supporters Shield winners FC Dallas on UniMas. Even without the injured Mauro Diaz, Dallas looked good value and Univision’s broadcast featured excellent production value.
As has been regularly the case in the last few seasons, MLS Digital was hard at work during the matches cutting highlights and producing analysis pieces about the games on Saturday, making it a must-visit destination for MLS fans. It’s a pity European leagues don’t take their cues from MLS in this regard.
Sunday’s ESPN broadcast of Orlando City-New York City a match, which was the first at Orlando’s new stadium, was excellent from the broadcast crew perspective. Julie Stewart-Binks is an outstanding addition to the ESPN team and Taylor Twellman, as usual, was in form. I do have an issue with the camera work during this match, however. Many of the wide shots were difficult to follow and were unacceptable. This brings up the issue that plagues many American soccer broadcasts – that cameramen and women still don’t know how to shoot this sport properly and often make mistakes because they are shooting soccer the way they shoot American football or baseball. I can’t pinpoint specific wide shots that annoyed me, but it happened multiple times during this broadcast.
FOX’s Sunday night broadcast of Atlanta vs. New York Red Bulls was crisper in terms of production than the Friday night match in Portland. Broadcasting Atlanta’s first game gave John Strong and Alexi Lalas plenty of material during the first half, and the broadcast team did well as they had during the Portland-Minnesota game two nights earlier.
For whatever reason, though, Lalas’ analysis was simplistic and unimpressive during the second half of this game. It was a far cry from Friday night in Portland when the former USMNT defender and MLS GM was on his game, describing defensive positioning errors with great confidence. Instead, the analysis became lazy by comparison. In fairness, Lalas has worked an awful lot lately between UEFA Champions League games, an FA Cup replay this past Wednesday and then jetting cross-country following the Portland-Minnesota game. It’s important to remember broadcasters, particularly those like Lalas who serve as match co-commentators AND studio analysts, probably need rest and time to prepare for matches much like active players and coaches.
Controversially to some, Lalas had expressed support for the US Soccer Federation’s new policy regarding the national anthem that was passed at this weekend’s AGM presumably in response to Megan Rapinoe’s protests last year. That attracted far more attention on social media than any of Lalas’ comments during the game.
With Mark Geiger officiating the Atlanta match, his first in the city since the controversial July 2015 Gold Cup semifinal between Panama and Mexico, all eyes were on the center official. Geiger was again harassed by fans and had a beer thrown on him late in the match. During the Gold Cup, Lalas was in the studio while fellow analyst Eric Wynalda was extremely annoyed by Geiger’s poor night (and that is an understatement) that cost Panama a spot in the final. Wynalda took exception to the official claiming where he intimated that “someone who probably never kicked a ball has ruined this tournament.” That night, Lalas leapt to Geiger’s defense in an impassioned way. For the Atlanta-RBNY, however, Strong didn’t force Lalas into a position where he had to strongly defend Geiger. Strong is such a professional that sometimes he doesn’t necessarily push the buttons that could get Lalas wound up.
All in all, the first weekend of MLS action was well-covered. Now the big question is how will the networks push to maintain interest in a product that has historically seen a dip in viewing numbers as the season wears on.