ESPN covered Tuesday night's USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier like it was the Super Bowl of soccer and their coverage delivered with a championship level broadcast.
ESPN's soccer coverage is one of the shining lights in Bristol. While much of the network's daytime and studio programming draws ire, its game coverage remains top drawer. That's especially true for the network's soccer telecasts. Since World Cup 2010, the commitment ESPN has made to global soccer - from USMNT games to FIFA tournaments to the English Premier League - has taken the game to new heights for American audiences.
Most importantly, ESPN made the key decision to not treat soccer like an alien sport from another universe. Once ESPN decided to cover soccer with the same depth and intent as they do the NFL or NBA or Major League Baseball, the sport truly blossomed. ESPN brought in the best English language commentators in the world (Ian Darke, Martin Tyler, etc.), moved some of their most respected personalities to lead the coverage (Bob Ley and Mike Tirico/Chris Fowler for the World Cup) and have developed a solid base of American analysts (Alexi Lalas, Taylor Twellman, Kasey Keller).
That commitment and growth was fully actualized Tuesday night in ESPN's broadcast of the USA-Mexico World Cup qualifier from Azteca Stadium. Ley anchored an hour long pregame on site with Lalas, Keller, and Jorge Ramos. Ian Darke called the action with Taylor Twellman and former MLS player and Venezuelan international Alejandro Moreno. John Sutcliffe and Monica Gonzalez filed reports from the respective touchlines. The sheer resources devoted to the broadcast made it feel like a big deal. The ratings validated that sentiment as the broadcast more than doubled any World Cup qualifier televised on ESPN with a 1.6 overnight.
Good soccer telecasts aren't a new phenomenon for ESPN, especially if you tune in Saturday mornings for the English Premier League. Ian Darke in particular has become one of this country's favorite commentators since his call of Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria 3 years ago.
What impressed me most Tuesday night was the depth of analysis I hadn't quite heard on an American soccer telecast before. In the studio, Alexi Lalas and Kasey Keller gave insights into the American team - changes to the starting lineup and the mindset of getting a tough point on the road. Ramos did the same for the Mexican team. And Ley showed why he has universal respect as ESPN's most professional anchor in flawlessly leading the conversation. To be honest, I wasn't fond of Lalas on television at first, but his honesty and insights are turning me into a fan of his work. Keller too has grown in his role since joining ESPN full-time.
I was skeptical of the three man booth ESPN used last night as it's a rarity on a soccer telecast. The network recently signed Moreno as a full-time analyst for Mexican league games and ESPN's broadcasts of Mexico's home WCQs. I was a bit weary of ESPN typecasting Moreno as the Mexican voice (even though he is Venezuelan, I'm not sure everyone watching last night realizes that) and Twellman as the American voice and having them duke it out. For the first several minutes, it looked like that might happen as the pair disagreed on calls. However, the trio settled in and found their rhythm late in the first half.
Again though, it was the depth of analysis that was impressive. Moreno talked about the jobs needed to be done by Jozy Alitdore and Javier Hernandez spearheading the attack and where the Mexican players were most dangerous. Twellman analyzed the available space in the midfield for the USA and what both sides were looking for on set pieces. He spotlighted events that initially didn't catch the eye like Graham Zusi sprinting 40 yards to break up a clear scoring chance or where Clint Dempsey was placed defending a free kick. Moreno and Twellman did go back and forth on occasion for debatable calls, but everyone was rightly on board with saying the USA got away with a clear penalty Maurice Edu should have given away late in the second half. Even the sideline reporters got in on the act as Gonzalez talked about how wide Javier Aquino was playing and how that challenged DaMarcus Beasley at left back, who was playing closer to his central defenders.
And to prove it wasn't a completely jingoistic broadcast either way, Twellman also criticized American mistakes, like a foolish Brad Davis foul in stoppage time. Over the last year, Twellman has become the best American soccer analyst ESPN has employed as he's miles ahead of where Marcelo Balboa or John Harkes were. He doesn't rely on cliches, works well off Darke, and is often very straightforward in his analysis. He and Darke should call the World Cup Final next year in Brazil.
Last night also showed how far Fox has to go to catch up with ESPN over the next five years. By nature of the Gus Johnson experiment, Fox can in no way shape or form deliver the analysis ESPN offered last night. While Johnson is still learning the sport, the commentary has to remain basic as a revolving door of analysts are brought in until one is chosen to move forward. I'm still open to the possibility of the Gus Johnson Experiment working, but it's going to take more time than anyone realizes to deliver a top class broadcast American soccer fans deserve - one ESPN produced last night in Mexico City. Here's hoping Fox learns from their blueprint.
Agreed. Well done. I enjoyed the broadcast and hadn't quite thought of the comittment it took. Here's to more!
Twellman is such a homer. Also he and Moreno were bickering like middle-school girls most of the night. No one seemed to bring up the point that the first potential PK looked like a dive in addition to the 'push'.
Overall solid broadcast. Good not great. Espn's commitment is clear to see and they are building/broadening their talent pool. Can't wait for Brasil 2014.
@TaylorTwellman Could not agree any more - awesome work Dude
sideline was great thanks to @monicagonzo
not a fan of Twellman at all. such a debbie downer. he's a pain to listen to. now if they can get the equivalent of a Ray Hudson in an American accent (cuz i dont always understand him), and save the over-analysis at the half and focus more on the culture and fans and the stadium - that'd be great.
You could mention that Monica Gonzalez is a former captain of the mexican women's soccer team in such could also be very good analyst for other matches in the future.
They had their only good studio announcer working in Bob Ley. He's the class of that organization. I do like Darke. He's not rah-rah and delivers a nice clean game with some nice British humor in it.
@CarsonC5 he really is top notch man!
I agree that the studio group was great with Bob Ley and that Ian is very entertaining. But I found the play by play to be uncomfortable for most of the game. Ian was left making comments time and again with no follow up from his two color guys. The bickering between color guys in the booth was also a turnoff. Not really any intelligent dialog from the color guys in my opinion. If you listen to Ian on Saturday mornings with Macca, that is a what a soccer broadcast should sound like. But the pre-game and halftime guys did a great job.
Only coverage I like on ESPN. Macca and Darke cam be trying at times but overall good. FOX still has the best (Sans Gus Johnson, of course) but ESPN soccer has been quite good.
@awfulannouncing couldn't agree more. ESPN has taken soccer broadcasting to a new level in the US. I'm bummed they lost WC '18 rights
@awfulannouncing Good take, Matt.
@awfulannouncing love the dedication now, but Lalas talks too much dominates the panel.
Monica Gonzalez gave one of the best sideline reports I can ever remember, explaining why Beasley was looking so bad because the Mexican team was spreading him too thin and he couldnt get wide.
It was seriously the most insightful thing I've ever heard from a sideline reporter. Two thumbs up to whoever she is. All around fantastic broadcast.
@myoder84 say what you will about how they handle everything else, but ESPN has always done well with soccer coverage.
@awfulannouncing they treated it like WC Final. Great stuff. Which is why it sucks they are losing everything to FOX & NBC after Brasil '14.
@awfulannouncing how does this effect the No. 7 LG in next months draft? Next ... This is SportsCenter.
Paraphrase of my favorite line from the article: "Last night in Mexico City, ESPN produced the top class broadcast that American soccer fans deserve." Our sentiments exactly!
@TaylorTwellman great work as always last night!
@TaylorTwellman good job on the match last night, Taylor. The draw feels like a win to me.
Thanks for this great article explaining how ESPN has chosen to give soccer the same broadcasting respect they give other "bigtime" American sports...It provides more proof that the tide is turning. It's about time for all the local and national broadcasters out there who cling to their tired old beliefs that nobody cares about soccer open their eyes, lay off the snide remarks, stop making it a "last resort and only-if-nothing-else-is-going-on-the-world story."
If you agree, join our little crusade on facebook and twitter for soccer talk on Dallas's most popular sports radio station. Even if you're not in Dallas, all follows are considered a vote for soccer talk and are treated equally. And remember, what's good for soccer talk anywhere is good for soccer talk everywhere! @p1sforsoccertalk @taylortwellman @alexilalas @iandarkeESPN Retweets highly encouraged.
O'Brien and Balboa was a total disaster in 06. ESPN stepped up by hiring Macca and Darke full time along with Tyler for only the World Cup coverage. It's too bad that Fox is going to use the overexcited Johnson for their Soccer coverage, especially in the upcoming Champions League in May.
Could the coverage improve? Sure, but coverage last night was unbelievably good. If you don't think so, you didn't watch even five years ago.
Interesting take, but it's too bad that ESPN treats all other World Cup qualifiers and their MLS broadcasts like red-head step children. Look and see what NBC Sports is doing with their MSL broadcasts and you'll see the future of American soccer broadcasting right there. I love Darke & Twellman, but ESPN has a long way to go if they want to really treat soccer like an important property for more than just the "big time" matches like Mexico and the WC.
Couldn't agree more. Look forward to more coverage like this as the WC Qulification fixtures continue. The broadcast did appear doomed in the first five-10 minutes with an awkward start (Would have liked to have seen a booth shot with all 3 before kickoff) and introductions didn't flow, but ESPN has clearly set a standard for FOX and NBC to live up to.
@JamesonReynolds yup, knows his stuff.
@Peartrl well said. the in-game was too slow and dull for me. I changed it to the much better, more intense audio on Univision en español.
@stholeary +1 Monica is talented.
@BrettMyhres absolutely agree 100%
@sjwolves I have faith in NBC's EPL coverage after seeing their MLS work and Arlo White, Fox WC is the big question mark
@awfulannouncing I love Darke & Macca on Saturday morning so...yeah the Gus Johnson era worries me for FOX future soccer endeavors.