While much has been written about the flag-waving, delusional broadcast of the United States v. Argentina Copa America semi-final, one part of the broadcast that was a pleasant surprise was the color commentary by USMNT legend Landon Donovan. This was not Donovan’s first match; he had called the U.S.’s victory over Ecuador and has been a contributor to past FOX Sports broadcasts, as well as the LA Galaxy in addition to Spanish-language work for Univision. However, he was still a very inexperienced choice for this match when FOX could have chosen a more veteran analyst like Brad Friedel.
Donovan brings a few obvious advantages: He has years of experience playing for the national team and in various professional leagues, he had a high-profile dust-up with Jurgen Klinsmann that gives him a profile as more than a U.S. cheerleader, and he is well connected to the current team, which allows him to share insights other broadcasters cannot. Prior to this tournament, Donovan had been an awkward studio host on FOX Sports and showed what he was – a former player struggling to vocalize aspects of the game he knew instinctually to an audience that likely does not. His place in the commentary booth, however, is perfect.
While Donovan had been pretty good in the Ecuador match, he really came into his own in the game against Argentina where simply being a cheerleader for the U.S. would have been a strained and forced presentation (see Alexi Lalas). The best thing the producers did was pair him with veteran broadcaster J.P. Dellacamera, a man who has called high profile games, leans pro-America in his calls, but yet is underwhelming enough in his presentation to not automatically overshadow his partner. With Dellacamera in the booth, this freed Donovan to mix serious commentary with an emotional edge.
From the start, Donovan did a good job balancing optimism for the U.S. with a stark realism. He noted prior to the first goal that the U.S. had to weather the first 15 minutes, and when that did not happen, he didn’t simply shake it off but noted that the U.S. needed to adjust its strategy. Later in the first half, when Dellacamera pressed him about whether pressure was getting to the players about the importance of the match, Donovan was frank that, when he was a player, he and his teammates simply focused on the game. Whether that was an accurate memory or not, it showed Donovan’s style of more straight-forward analysis based on his experience without falling too much into talking points or analyst-speak. The aspect people most wanted to hear – his criticisms of his one-time nemesis Klinsmann – for the most part failed to appear in the blowout, maybe due to the fact that he and Klinsmann had a reconciliation prior to the Ecuador match.
The experience was far from perfect, though. A major issue Donovan needs to work on is his cadence and volume; too often during the broadcast he sounded like he was about to scream into the microphone, which was unsettling to the listener. Listening to how his partner moderates his voice during a broadcast would help, and that will come with more practice. In addition, Donovan tends to lean too hard on his U.S.-soccer experience and knowledge during broadcasts, which limits what games he could work to just U.S. games and sometimes makes him stumble into homerism. Both things, however, can be fixed with time and practice, and if FOX Sports wants him to be more than just a foil to pro-Klinsmann voices, then he could develop into a good color commentator.
If FOX Sports is going to improve its soccer product, it needs to work to develop people like Donovan as a way to rival ESPN’s superior coverage.
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