Buried in the avalanche of weirdness that was the USA versus Mexico Nations League Final was a blink-and-you-missed it moment during the CBS Pregame show.
The infamous clip of Oguchi Onyewu giving the side-eye to Jared Borgetti is shown, and Clint Dempsey roasts his co-host – a towering central defender, mind you — for wearing Mercurial Vapors.
It was a quip so millennial, it probably went right over a few listener’s heads. With that little jab at his co-host, Clint Dempsey reconnected and resonated with a thousand other soccer fans and former players watching the broadcast last Sunday. It was a form of esoteric nostalgia that all at once reignites the passion for the sport you love.
It brought back memories of tryouts at Beachside FC, where a tall centre back friend (as injury prone as Gooch, regrettably) trots out for warmups in Vapors. The responses were likely “dude, what do YOU need Vapors for?!”
“You’re slow as hell anyway, 7.8 ounces on your feet won’t help”
“Good luck getting stepped on with paper mache on your feet.”
It wasn’t just the Vapors comment. The entire pregame show was fun, informative, and engaging. Dempsey later roasted Gooch for the calculator in his pocket. They ragged on Charlie Davies for doing the Stanky Leg dance on the field as he walked out with the Nations League trophy. Before that magical moment unfolded, the group text of college alumni started buzzing: “I wonder if he does it.” “He has to do it.” “How cool would it be if he does it?”
A screenshot of Jozy and Charlie doing the Stanky Leg was my profile picture on Facebook back in the day. Playing soccer in the 90s and 2000s rarely meant you were ‘cool’ in of itself. For many millennials, Gooch, Charlie, and Deuce represented the first intersection between coolness and soccer.
Someone else in the group chat reminded everyone that he in fact did the Stanky Leg after goals in honor of Charlie (and Jozy). That broadcast took washed-up 30-year-olds and reminded them what it was like to be 19 and in love with soccer.
You’d be forgiven for having a shred of skepticism that Oguchi Oneyewu and Charlie Davies would combine with prodigal son Clint Dempsey to form a dynamic soccer broadcast. After all, they probably had to dig Deuce out of some fishing hole in Texas the way MI-6 goes knocking on random islands to find a wayward James Bond.
It’s such a delicate dance bringing former players up to the booth and into the world of sports media. You have to avoid becoming a walking caricature and troll like Alexi Lalas. You can’t be a human valium. You have to, you know, watch enough soccer, or at least do enough homework beforehand to appear knowledgeable (looking at you, Shaq).
Somehow, Clint, Charlie, and Gooch pulled it off. Now of course, the venerable Kate Abdo was there to keep everything on track in ways only she knows how. But the USMNT trio showed enough promise that offered a glimpse of what to expect should the Abdo-training wheels come off.
What makes NBA countdown on TNT so successful isn’t the cutting-edge analysis of Charles Barkley (footage not found). It’s the chemistry between him, Shaq, Kenny Smith, and Ernie Johnson. There’s ribbing that makes you wonder if these people even like each other. Alliances are formed and broken within an entire argument. There are inside jokes that you come to understand and appreciate. There are little comments here and there that resonate with a former hooper in the way the Vapors comment resonated with fellow footballers.
But on top of all that entertainment is sprinkled just enough analysis and reflection that makes it respectable. American soccer media has something similar in Gooch, Deuce, and the Stanky Leg. Now of course, they are still a little rough around the edges. Onyewu’s comments toward Janelly Farias went way way way too far and made for a cringeworthy moment. But he stepped up, apologized (on air!), and vowed to do better. These guys are still new at it; they’re working out the bugs. This was the first time the three shared a booth together. It’s probably the first time Deuce wore a shirt with sleeves!
To put it bluntly, American soccer is still finding its voice. We have more often than not outsourced the talking head roles to non-Americans, often with an English accent. Recently the American analysts, ala Alexi Lalas and Hope Solo, can be brash, hot-take artists that leave you wondering if what they are saying is actually what they believe, or analysts that take the company line rather than be overly critical (we still love you Stu!).
Kate, Gooch, Deuce, and Charlie cut through the bullshit. Do you know how difficult it is to do what they did live, and still show chemistry at it? There is promise here, and with it brings something that the American soccer media landscape sorely lacks: unseriousness. They can be fun, insightful, and informative without the unnecessary bravado and pomp and circumstance we typically see from a studio show. The foursome has an innate genuineness to the show that is borderline impossible to create and even harder to cultivate.
You have the superstar that goes to the beat of his own drum in Clint Dempsey. A man who has performed both for the USMNT and his English club teams. His word carries weight that few in the US soccer circle have earned and a personality that is real rather than generated.
With Gooch, there’s a player who had infamous scuffles with soccer legends like Zlatan and Borgetti. He pulls no punches and sticks to his opinions. Charlie, much like Kenny Smith for TNT, is the role player. A career marred by a horrific accident and a bout with cancer, Davies has experience on screen with MLS, which shows in his ability to fill in the gaps. Then there is Kate Abdo who asks the right questions, keeps the squad on track, and maybe most importantly, allows those three to be who they are and let that shine through over the course of the show. Does that not sound like Ernie Johnson, the most respected and talented of the quartet? Can she wear a bowtie next segment?
Google ‘USMNT’ and you’ll find dozens of articles featuring buzzwords like “double-pivot,” “low blocks,” or “high press.” We are drowning in a sea of xG and tactical minutiae that we forget this is supposed to be fun. And that’s not to downplay the effectiveness of such think-pieces or tactics-driven analysis. It demonstrates an enthusiasm for the sport that wasn’t stateside 30 years ago. Admonishing that analysis is the opposite of inclusion, and soccer in the U.S. must be as inclusive as it can be.
American soccer needs both swagger and analytics to thrive, though. The true joy of watching and playing soccer is found in banter, chemistry, and moments of brilliance. For 20-odd minutes, Abdo, Gooch, Davies, and Deuce (sounds like quite the law firm) provided just that.
Additional words by Robbe Tarver