In a way, you could say that there was not much noise made during the USA-Trinidad & Tobago match Wednesday night. Yeah, a 1-0 victory was tainted by quiet showings from many of the American players and inharmonious play amongst the entire team, but literally, for most those watching the game, there was no noise.
In typical American fashion, United States soccer supporters were left to watch their national team from a live stream on the Internet through ESPN360. But it was not the blurry picture or the lagging feed that was their biggest issue. Throughout the past few years, since ESPN decided soccer was worthy of its time, American fan-faithful have become accustomed to a new TV series we call “The USA on Mute.”
“The USA on Mute” is ESPN’s latest gift to American soccer. The all-too-soccer-friendly sports network now provides its audience with an all-new interactive feature, one that enables those watching to personally control the volume on their very own feed! It’s quite brilliant, really, and after enjoying ESPN’s commentary teams for the USMNT games through recent years, we now often find ourselves taking advantage of the new audio feature—turning the volume completely off.
To put it bluntly, the commentary for ESPN’s USMNT broadcasts is awful. The team of American soccer analysts at ESPN basically consists of former National Team players and then, recent sports-guy-soccer-converts. Those who have represented our country on the soccer field deserve the utmost respect—but that does not mean they are shoo-ins for a job of play-by-play commentary. Furthermore, someone new to the game should be the last person to land a similar position. Think—Would ESPN ever assign anyone other than a basketball expert to commentate a basketball game?
The latest culprits here are John Harkes and JP Dellacamera, the commentary duo for the T&T game Wednesday night, and for the USMNT in recent months. For these two, the problem is not that neither lack knowledge of the game—Harkes was fantastic midfielder for the USMNT in the 90s and Dellacamera has been commentating soccer since the 80s—but rather that neither know how to present the game. During broadcasts, Harkes is too busy trying to explain the “world’s game” in an American context, while Dellacamera is left reading off of stat sheets all night and occasionally asking Harkes for his translations.
Harkes and Dellacamera are by no means ESPN’s worst, though. You might remember, when ESPN first picked up the rights to USMNT soccer, before the 2006 World Cup, the infamous Dave O’Brien. O’Brien, a longtime play-by-play baseball announcer for ESPN, was one of ESPN’s attempts at a “soccer-convert.” But convert he could not quite do.
Having never called a soccer game prior to the 2006 World Cup, O’Brien’s performance from the broadcasting booth was a disaster. O’Brien polluted the atmosphere of his games with inadvertent stats, mispronunciation of players’ names, and incorrect usage of soccer terminology. (A shot on goal was referred to as “blasting a kick” and free kicks were often deemed “penalty kicks,” for example.) Quite comically, Marcello Balboa, O’Brien’s partner in the booth, was left interrupting and correcting the novice on air for his frequent errors.
To be fair, though, O’Brien, Harkes, Dellacamera and their studio counterparts cannot be entirely blamed for their inabilities to call soccer games. Rather, the fault falls at the feet of ESPN. Despite its great success as a sporting network, ESPN is the epitome of the American sports scene. Their ignorant and naive approach to a sport foreign to mainstream America, like soccer, is entirely unprofessional.
Take, for instance, two explanations from ESPN regarding Dave O’Briens appointment as commentator back in 2006: For one, it was hoped that O’Brien’s “signature voice from a mainstream event” would popularize that summer’s World Cup broadcast. And two, it was suggested that “soccer [had] been given its due to have [Dave O’Brien] delivered to the sport.” Based on these assertions, we can only infer that ESPN is encouraging their soccer commentators to translate USMNT broadcasts to an American context, as John Harkes and JP Dellacamera are too often guilty of doing.
What ESPN and their commentary crew must realize is that they cannot “Americanize” soccer. The network seems to want to appeal to their average viewer by compromising between the game and the American sports fan. In reality, however, they are merely losing attendants, because of a poor, inaccurate portrayal of the game. For someone new to soccer, they need not to be taught by play-by-play commentary, but by simply watching the game through the most natural experience. More importantly, for those who know soccer, the last thing they want is a commentator explaining to them what they already know.
Soccer fans in the United States are admittedly happy, though, that unlike in the past, they now at least have access to watch their national team perform. It would just be nice if they didn’t have to watch the USA on mute.