In 2006, ABC and ESPN shocked U.S. soccer fans by choosing baseball announcer Dave O’Brien as the voice of that year’s World Cup in Germany. O’Brien had no previous experience with soccer, and it showed. Not only did he get names and facts wrong, but he couldn’t get the rhythm of the sport down. O’Brien wasn’t helped by his analyst, Marcelo Balboa. One of the most charismatic members of the famous 1994 American World Cup team that had dragged the sport into public consciousness, Balboa should have been great in the booth, but he combined terribly with O’Brien. Eventually the two managed to get to a point of basic competence, but for the biggest soccer tournament in the world, basic competence is a failure.
If you flipped on ABC or ESPN for a World Cup match this year or in 2010, you were almost certainly greeted by an announcer with an English accent. For the four World Cups prior, between 1994 and 2006, ESPN had used American voices like O’Brien—but the decision to change announcers wasn’t merely an aesthetic one. The networks took sides in an ongoing war over the nature of American soccer, where announcing is one of biggest battlegrounds about whether the sport should be Europeanized “football” or reflect a home-grown American soccer. It’s a conflict that encompasses media culture, fan culture, and even the overall philosophy of U.S. Soccer’s attempts to improve the national team.
American soccer fans are an understandably prickly sort, thanks to years of disdain from mainstream sources. In the 1990s, ESPN was often the source of that disdain, thanks to SportsCenter anchors who openly questioned why they were showing soccer highlights. But the soccer branch of ESPN had shepherded the sport almost from the beginning of its modern era, and the network’s consistently good broadcasts of the World Cup, as well as Major League Soccer and the European Champions League, eventually won soccer fans’ trust. Hiring O’Brien in 2006—seemingly because he could speak to non-fans—eroded that trust. And it wasn’t just about the announcers: The failure of the national team to win a match, combined with the failure of storytelling in the booth, constituted a crisis in the American treatment of the sport as a whole.
The backlash was strong: ABC/ESPN didn’t just pick announcers with existing soccer experience for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they picked a group made up of British announcers and mostly British-accented analysts (Efan Ekoku and Roberto Martinez hail from elsewhere in the world, but they played and/or managed almost entirely in England.) The only American to remain in the booth for the 2010 tournament was another of those 1994 World Cup heroes, John Harkes.
Many fans loved the changes. The lead broadcaster, Martin Tyler, was a well-known English broadcaster and the lead voice in the FIFA series of video games, and he delivered instant gravitas. In the 2010 World Cup, Tyler was as effective as ever, exuding his usual technical aptitude and calm competence. But the breakout media star of the 2010 tournament was the announcer on the No. 2 team, Ian Darke. Darke most memorably provided the voice for the biggest American moment of the tournament, Landon Donovan’s game-winning goal against Algeria to send the U.S. into the second round. But beyond that, Darke’s dry wit, conversational style, and most importantly, his ability to raise his excitement level to the proper pitch and then bring it back down, made him fully deserving of the praise he received. It also led to a promotion: Darke is the lead voice of the current World Cup in Brazil, and his deserved ascendency seems to justify the post-O’Brien backlash.
Yet the backlash against American announcers was so successful that it’s driven those voices out, and this is a bad thing. It’s also part of a growing trend across the entirety of the sport in this country, where European styles are fetishized at the cost of home-grown American soccer culture.
One of the great arguments in American soccer circles in the 1990s was about the need for a genius “flair” player. Known as the “number 10,” for the jersey number worn by South American legends Pelé and Diego Maradona (and traditionally given to the most creative attacking midfielder on the field), the theory was that American teams, especially the national team, would never come to world prominence until they managed to get a player who could single-handedly control a match. This was a Latin American conceit. The “flair” theory is an adaptation of the idea of soccer as “the beautiful game,” which imagines the sport as an exuberant jazz-like combination of virtuosic geniuses, passing, moving, and dribbling in harmony. It continues to hold true today—Sports Illustrated recently published a fascinating piece about the flair of current Brazilian superstar Neymar.
The then-new Major League Soccer chased the “number 10” by grabbing two of those creative South American midfielders: Bolivia’s Marco Etcheverry, and Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama, who became the league’s biggest non-American stars. This also meant putting as many eggs as possible into the development of youth players. The last of them was Freddy Adu, who signed a professional contract at age 14 and never panned out. The most successful, however, was Landon Donovan, the face of American soccer through the 2000s. But as good as Donovan has been, he’s never been the Maradona-style creative flair player of the “number 10” theory. Instead, Donovan has been a technically skilled, hard-working, effective player, great at sprinting down the field on the counterattack, and the entire American team—indeed, American soccer culture as a whole—has joined Donovan. The U.S. Men’s National Team became a team of Martin Tylers: hard-working, technically competent but not terribly exciting and thoroughly lacking in flair (with the exception of players named Clint, oddly enough).
Not coincidentally, this hard-running technical style is the sort of play most often lionized in the English Premier League. Although MLS was founded in 1996, the modern era in American soccer began with the team’s qualification for the 1990 World Cup; the Premier League was founded shortly after, in 1992, adapting the rules and encouraging broadcasting in a fashion that swiftly made it the most lucrative national league in the world. For American fans—who, like most of the world, could see Premiership matches more easily than any others—this was the league that seemed to be biggest, best, and most authentic in the world. Our home-grown traditions, league, and announcers paled in comparison.
I was one of these Euro-snobs. But I firmly believed that trying to be more English was a perfectly legitimate goal for soccer culture here, and that English announcers were smarter and better. After all, I’d played enough FIFA to know that John Motson and Andy Gray simply had to be the best announcers in the world, right?
Then I started visiting English websites, reading their media criticism, and discovering that Motson and Gray weren’t the beloved titans of football media I’d thought. Motson was still liked, though criticized for being forgetful and unexcitable, while Gray was roundly disliked for providing virtually no analysis at all beyond “he’s done well” for things that were obviously good. Then I was able to watch and listen to matches called by these supposedly authentically smarter announcers, and my teenaged self discovered a then-shocking fact: Just because someone has a British (especially English) accent doesn’t mean they’re smart about soccer.
Meanwhile, in the biggest European and English club teams, as well as on many of the national teams, there’s little division between flair players and those hard workers. South American mega-stars like Neymar and Lionel Messi have their European counterparts like Arjen Robben of the Netherlands, Belgium’s Eden Hazard, Germany’s Mesut Özil, and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Whatever truth might have been behind the stereotype of efficient Europeans versus creative South Americans from years ago has long since dissolved in the globalization of the sport. Only a few vestiges of parochial English Premier League ideals remain—but they also remain in American soccer culture.
American soccer fans have, if anything, become more convinced that English-style everything is the ideal American soccer should shoot for. Fan culture is no longer the hodgepodge of European, Latin American, and American influences but is now a chanting, scarf-waving facsimile of English fandom. Some MLS teams have adopted the naming style of European clubs—the Dallas Burn became F.C. Dallas; the Kansas City Wizards became Sporting K.C. When Salt Lake City received a franchise in 2004, it inexplicably named the team Real Salt Lake, taking a page from Spanish super-club Real Madrid—“real” means “royal” in Spanish, which has no connection to anything except that it sounds like classy European soccer.
So when I watched the 2010 World Cup, I had some relief that the lead announcers from 2006 were no longer flubbing crucial calls. But just as much, I found myself missing 2006’s No. 2 crew, which consisted of Americans J.P. Dellacamera and John Harkes. Harkes was as good then as he was with Darke in 2010—a little over-exuberant, perhaps, but brimming with insight and prediction. (The lead American analyst at the current World Cup, Taylor Twellman, has similar qualities.)
Dellacamera, on the other hand, has been one of the most consistent voices in American soccer for decades, calling MLS and national team games all over the place, not to mention all-time famous American matches like the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final and “The Shot Heard Round The World,” the 1989 match against Trinidad and Tobago when a shock American goal qualified the U.S. for the World Cup, opening the floodgates to mass popularity in the States. Dellacamera was and still is good, maybe a bit more assertive and a bit less sly than Darke, but with the same gift for letting his voice rise and fall with the difficult rhythms of the sport. To not have Dellacamera and American announcers like him, who put in the work to help turn soccer into a mass sport, felt like an erasing of the history that American soccer that fans and players and broadcasters had put together.
In its place, we get the great Ian Darke, yes, but we get Darke paired with Steve McManaman, a British voice from the Andy Grey school of being able to say when good or bad things are obviously good or bad. (If I hear “oh, he’s done poorly” one more time...) To be fair to McManaman, he’s much better in the studio.
The battle over announcing and American soccer culture may have a current winner, with the Euro-fans taking the crown, but it’s not anywhere near over. Fox outbid ESPN and ABC for the next two World Cups, and the network made it clear that enthusiastic American Gus Johnson is their pick to announce the biggest soccer matches on Fox moving forward. Johnson is beloved in general sports circles primarily for his March Madness calls, demonstrating more flair than just about anyone in the booth, in any sport. He’s been given six years to get ready—instead of six months like Dave O’Brien. Yet soccer fans have not been kind.
Meanwhile, after four straight World Cups with American managers, the U.S. Men’s National Team hired German manager Jürgen Klinsmann, who has made no secret of his desire to move the team away from the hard-working, technically skilled model of his predecessors, and create a team in the new mold of world soccer, a creative, attacking team that relies on possession more than counterattacks—an idea that sounded wonderful up until Klinsmann dropped counterattacking star Landon Donovan from the World Cup team. The team still played well, but in their last two matches, against strong all-around European teams Germany and Belgium, the Americans showed impressive bravery without the creative flair they needed to progress.
The war for the soul of American soccer continues, in the booth and on the field.