Whoever invented the full sports package should win a Nobel Prize. After years of being limited to D.C. United matches and the occasional game of the week this year the Maslin household finally bought the Major League Soccer Live television package for the 2015 campaign.
Like Moses parting the Red Sea it has been a remarkable experience of watching new players on an everyday basis, Sebastian Giovinco, derbies from across the league, and oh Sebastian Giovinco. But perhaps the best experience of all is being exposed to the different voices of Major League Soccer.
Now there is nothing like watching a game live and in person. Whether one is in the stands or is often the case these days for yours truly a press box hearing, smelling, and being part of the match is an intoxicating experience. Even the worst matches can suddenly become interesting if the crowd is involved or if some level of controversy occurs. Beer is also cures the doldrums of a game.
But if finances or distance are an issue watching a match on television these days is not a bad option. As a kid growing up in Southern Maryland both of these reasons were why I normally caught D.C. United matches on television. Driving 50 miles to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium for every match when my family was working four jobs to make ends meet just was not in the cards.
However an education in football can take on many forms and for me it was listening to the play-by-play commentary of Dave Johnson and Gordon Bradley calling D.C. United matches. Johnson, who is a local sportscasting legend in the Washington D.C. Metro area, was able to articulate the game to a brand new audience and seemed to understand the cadence and flow of a football match. Although his goal-scoring call of “It’s in the net!” might sound simple it is an incredibly effective goal call.
Bradley, who once coached Pele with the New York Cosmos, could explain differences in style between Bolivian players like Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry and Salvadoreans like Raul Diaz Arce. While soccer wonks now might now the difference twenty years ago the American audience was in its infancy. To explain a new game to a new audience and not sound like a college professor is incredibly difficult. Bradley pulled it off in spades.
What is interesting now as the Major League Soccer world flattens and spectators are exposed to different commentators from all across of the league is how loyal supporters are to the voice of their team. Of course there is still love for luminaries like Bob Ley, Rob Stone (the hardest working man in soccer,) Derek Rae, Tommy Smith, and Ian Darke are all fantastic.
But it is the local commentator, the one who knows the ins and outs of every player, and can draw upon previous match experiences. Even the drop of the name of a local business or a beer seems to bring joy to even the most jaded of football fans.
It seems that this admiration for one’s local commentator goes back to the grassroots aspect of Major League Soccer. Supporters of MLS clubs are used to watching games on tape delay or on illegal feeds and thus the voices that they get to hear on these experiences become that much more valuable. It is why Portland Timbers fans were elated when veteran play-by-playman John Strong was named the lead voice of Fox Sports’ coverage of Major League Soccer.
It is also the same reason why fans of the BBC World Football Phone In are happy to hear Richard Fleming calling Colorado Rapids matches or having Ross Fletcher commentate on the Seattle Sounders or Arlo White on the Premier League.
There is also the closeness that supporters have with their commentators. Johnson is perhaps one of the most responsive sports broadcasters on Twitter, frequently replying to supporters before, during, and after United matches.
Real Salt Lake’s color commentator Brian Dunseth has a Twitter game called Drinking with Dunny where fans take a drink every time he says a keyword or phrase. Although these things have no real bearing on the match it adds a little extra to the game for those who are at home.
Of course not every team has a great set of commentators. Even today one can find English language commentators using American football references or color commentators fumble their words.
The lack of resources invested in local Spanish language coverage across the league is also worrisome (although it should be noted that Univision’s coverage is fantastic). But the overall crop of people talking about the game is fantastic and a good sign for a league that is looking to improve their media product going into the next decade.
The future is also bright for American commentators. Broadcast journalists like Marc Serber and David Gass are breaking through as two of the top future voices of U.S. Soccer while color commentators like Dunseth and Monica Gonzalez are breaking ground in providing excellent in-match analysis. And yes even Eric Wynalda can pull together a salient point from time to time.
For a league and a game that is expanding everyday it is comforting to know that supporters are receiving some of the best information and insight possible. Making live matches is great, but what is more important is that wisdom and knowledge is being imparted whenever possible.