ESPN's coverage of the 2010 World Cup has received widespread acclaim ,both from lay viewers experiencing soccer for the first time and from hardcore fans desperate for a Marcelo Balboa-less tournament. This year, ESPN has followed a similar formula, with largely positive results.
Although Martin Tyler was one of the main selling points of the 2010 coverage, ESPN's decision to jettison Tyler and hire Ian Darke as lead commentator wasn't particularly surprising. Darke, who famously shouted, "Go, go USA" after Landon Donovan's winner against Algeria, is pretty popular around these parts.
Darke calls dramatic late goals better than anyone. But when the game slows down, his commentary becomes far less assured, and he sometimes makes silly mistakes – the chant is "I believe that we will win," and Joe Biden isn't the US president. Darke usually commentates alongside Steve McManaman, with whom he has developed an amusing rapport. McManaman is a mediocre analyst—Stuart Robson, who partners Jon Champion in ESPN's secondary commentary team, is significantly more astute—but his liveliness and jocularity make him a good match for Darke.
ESPN's other commentators are generally impressive. Derek Rae, once the voice of the Champions League, now the lucky guy calling Iran-Nigeria, deserves higher-profile games, Daniel Mann is competent if unspectacular, and Taylor Twellman has quickly become one of the finest color commentators on American television. But Adrian Healey is a different story entirely. During Colombia-Ivory Coast, on one of the rare occasions when he couldn't think of an apt cliché, Healey deployed the cringe-worthy line, "Move over Shakira—there's a new Colombian number one" to hail James Rodriguez's goal. Healey also harbors unhealthy delusions about the metaphorical potential of Belgian chocolate (but the less said about that the better).
ESPN seems to have made an effort to produce multicultural coverage: Darke and McManaman are English, and the studio team features analysts from Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Holland, Spain and the United States. (The absence of Asian and African analysts has provoked legitimate complaints.) But ESPN shouldn't have assigned Mexico's games to Fernando Palomo and Alejandro Moreno, two Hispanic commentators. Despite their wonderful pronunciation, Palomo and Moreno—talkative but inarticulate, enthusiastic but predictable—are distinctly inferior to everyone else on ESPN's roster, including Healey.
ESPN made headlines before the tournament when it announced that the recently snubbed Landon Donovan would help analyze the United States' games from a studio in Los Angeles. Frankly, this approach was destined to fail: it is impossible to listen to Donovan, who clearly disagreed with Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to cut him from the squad, say that the US might need "someone like Chris Wondolowski" in the second half without thinking that what he really means is that the US might need someone like Landon Donovan.
Studio hosts Bob Ley and Mike Tirico have done a good job moderating the discussions among ESPN's Rio-based analysts, many of whom are excellent. Roberto Martinez, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Michael Ballack are all intelligent readers of the game, capable of explaining a team's tactics and suggesting sensible changes. Gilberto Silva and Santiago Solari are a bit inconsistent, but they've both produced occasional flashes of insight. Alexi Lalas, however, remains a controversial figure. He is not quite as insufferable as the fiercest retweeters of the #firelalas hashtag claim, but he is a little smug, and watching him squirm after the United States' draw with Portugal was satisfying.
World Cup Tonight
World Soccer Talk's Christopher Harris recently complained that ESPN sometimes rushes its post-match coverage in order to finish in time for the start of the evening's MLB game. There's something to that. But it's also true that ESPN dedicates plenty of time to game analysis during its daily World Cup Tonight highlight show: the day after USA-Portugal, Lalas and Ballack spent about three minutes breaking down Silvestre Varela's equalizer.
During the last third of World Cup Tonight, the pundits gather around a table to casually discuss the tournament. Then Michael Davies and Roger Bennett, the hosts of Grantland's "Men in Blazers" podcast, perform a short comedy routine in a tiny studio they call "Bob Ley's panic room." Sometimes they mock Roy Hodgson's facial expressions. Sometimes they use cupcakes to predict match results. Their segment of the show is a relaxed, and often hilarious, conclusion to the day's action.
Ideally, shows like World Cup Tonight will provide a blueprint for Fox, which owns the rights to the next two World Cups and seems intent on the Gus Johnson-ification of American soccer. But there isn't much reason for optimism. After all, we're talking about the network that brought Warren Barton to America. ESPN's coverage will run for another week. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.
David Yaffe-Bellany is a New Jersey-based soccer writer. Read more of his work at inforthehattrick.net and follow him on Twitter, @INFTH.
Photo credit: ESPN