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Behind the scenes at USA-Mexico: The pinnacle of ESPN’s soccer revolution

COLUMBUS — As a rabid group of American soccer supporters sing and chant behind the ESPN FC set Tuesday before the USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier, you can't help but believe this event represented more than just another soccer match. Everything about the atmosphere in Columbus, Ohio suggested this night was the culmination of a movement that has changed the American sporting landscape. For a second, you would be forgiven for thinking you were standing on the set of College GameDay 2.5 miles across town at Ohio Stadium and not ESPN FC. Perhaps the only differences between the two are the scarlet and gray colors being replaced by the red, white, and blue and the creative signs being replaced with creative chants like "We'll send you postcards from Brazil." ESPN lead soccer analyst Taylor Twellman is firing up a crowd that needs no extra incentive to lose their minds two hours before kickoff. The fans respond by taking turns chanting for Twellman, Shaka Hislop, and Alejandro Moreno. It's an atmosphere and a level of excitement that would rival any other sporting event in America. This is the moment ESPN's soccer team and the sport as a whole has been building towards. A moment where the USA-Mexico qualifier is no longer just a soccer game, no longer just a rivalry game, but a transcendent game in the American sporting culture.

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Columbus Crew Stadium is an unlikely place for that transcendent game. Its location in the city is nondescript to the extreme. To the south is the spacious Ohio State Fairgrounds. To the north, a Lowe's warehouse and a Frisch's Big Boy. To the west and east are the railroad tracks and I-71 respectively, which make any meaningful revitalization such a challenge. For the fan that's looking for added spice to the gameday experience, the Ohio Historical Society is located next door. Completed in 1999, the country's first soccer specific stadium already feels a little rustic just 14 years later. It was a big deal when the parking lot was paved a couple years ago. The scoreboard caught fire at a game earlier this season. The attendance for the USA-Mexico game was less than one-fourth the crowd that saw Ohio State and San Diego State play a glorified exhibition three days earlier at Ohio Stadium.

Perhaps it's fitting that in spite of that unlikeliness, Crew Stadium has become the spiritual home of American soccer as the sport has catapulted into the mainstream sports landscape over the past decade. For this USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier, the quaint stadium between Hudson Street and 17th Avenue is once again transformed into a cauldron of passionate, loyal American soccer fans and a venue US Soccer can comfortably call "home." As a Columbus resident, there's a massive amount of pride in our city rising up for this occasion and being that home for US Soccer. With the ascent of soccer and the USA-Mexico rivalry, the game may someday outgrow the physical Crew Stadium, but it will never outgrow the spirit that exists in this now revered fortress of American soccer. In many ways, this site, Crew Stadium, and this game, USA-Mexico, come together to symbolize the past, present, and future of the sport in this country.

At those crossroads of the sport's past, present, and future stands one of the most critical players in American soccer and this budding USA-Mexico soccer rivalry.

ESPN.

For Tuesday night's World Cup qualifier, ESPN dedicated more resources to the broadcast than any single stand-alone soccer game that came before it. 32 cameras. 26 field effect and 18 broadcast microphones. 13 replay machines. 11,000 feet of video cable and 8,000 feet of audio cable throughout the venue. 220 credentials for the crew, staff, and technical personnel. Not one but two pregame shows. Three set locations including one for the main broadcast, one for ESPN FC, and one for ESPN Deportes. 18 on-air commentators, analysts, and reporters.

ESPN plays a massive role in the sports world revolving around Crew Stadium on this unseasonably warm September evening thanks to all these resources. If ESPN puts the weight of their billion dollar empire behind an event, it's going to gain significance. The investment of ESPN has the power to make or break an event, and many would argue even entire leagues.  So perhaps it's more than coincidence that ESPN's increasing commitment to international soccer has mirrored soccer's rise in popularity and significance the past several years. The culmination of that commitment is the USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier in Columbus. Outside the World Cup, it's the most important quadrennial soccer game for the network. But the story of this USA-Mexico 2013 qualifier actually goes back three years and 8,300 miles to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

* * * *

Just how important was the 2010 World Cup to soccer on ESPN? Spend a few minutes talking with anyone from the ESPN soccer crew about their coverage of the sport and they go back to 2010 as the event that changed the game. The 2010 World Cup is on the short list of the best productions any sports network has done on American television. In the 30+ year history of ESPN, it stands as one of the standard bearers for the best of what the network can achieve. Bob Ley, who has been at ESPN since its birth in 1979, said about his experience, "I will never be prouder to be in a team picture than with those 200 people. That was a cultural and sporting accomplishment."

Coordinating producer Amy Rosenfeld has been on hand for every men's and women's World Cup since 1999 and she views South Africa 2010 as the turning point for televised soccer in America. "I was part of the '99 Women's World Cup. As fabulous as it was it didn't carry over and impart to the network 'this is real.' The 2010 World Cup was a signature moment for ESPN to recognize that soccer is a big event," Rosenfeld said. "That laid the foundation for what would then be a recognition of how important these US qualifiers are and when you hit US-Mexico it's the perfect storm where everything comes together."

Veteran producer Chris Alexopoulos looks back at 2010 as the springboard forward to how ESPN arrived at a record commitment for the USA-Mexico game three years later. "ESPN as a company was willing to take a leap of faith in the World Cup in 2010 that got everybody over the hump. The leadership, John Skipper and Jed Drake, took it extremely seriously and set the tone for the rest of the company to say the 2010 World Cup is big and hit every single department to get that event as big as it was."

The fingerprints of South Africa are here in Columbus. Bob Ley continues to steer the ESPN soccer ship, adding instant respect and credibility to the coverage. Ian Darke remains the voice of the USMNT after his legendary "Go Go USA" call made him a cult hero in the states in 2010. International veterans like Taylor Twellman, Alejandro Moreno, Alexi Lalas, and Kasey Keller provide dedicated soccer analysis that would rival coverage for any other sport. Every ESPN international soccer telecast is treated with the respect and care of the NBA Finals or Monday Night Football.

It wasn't always this way.

* * * *

"There's kind of a petulant little clique of soccer fans. There's not many of them, but they're mean-spirited. … And they're not really the audience we want to reach anyway."

- Dave O'Brien, June 14th 2006, USA Today

While 2010 was a landmark moment for the network, the 2006 World Cup doesn't quite carry the same reverence both inside and outside ESPN's soccer team. The broadcasts from Germany were routinely panned by soccer fans and media critics alike. The relationship between ESPN and the soccer community became strained before a ball was kicked when baseball announcer Dave O'Brien was named as the lead announcer for the tournament with little experience calling the sport. The relationship became toxic when the broadcasts actually took place. Soccer fans didn't appreciate O'Brien and ESPN's coverage and O'Brien took the rare step of publicly criticizing the hardcore soccer fanbase.

After the 2006 World Cup, ESPN realized the alienation of loyal soccer fans wasn't a sustainable situation. While most individuals point to the 2010 World Cup as the turning point, the 2008 European Championships were just as significant in ESPN's soccer transformation. Experienced soccer voices at the network like Derek Rae and Adrian Healey were given a more prominent role. Respected analysts like Sky's Andy Gray were brought aboard from overseas to lift the coverage. ESPN made the conscious decision to stop treating soccer like a foreign sport that needed to be Americanized and explained to viewers and fully embraced the beautiful game.

That embrace is clear in men like Alexopoulos, who speaks with pride about where ESPN soccer has been and where it is now, with the home USA-Mexico qualifier in Columbus firmly established as one of ESPN's top events. "As production people we've been working on it for 6-7 years. We take every game seriously and we've all grown as a crew. We've all been on the difficult broadcasts, we're all very passionate about soccer, so all those moments, games, away qualifiers over the years when no one was watching, we were getting ready for this moment when everyone would be watching," he said.

In a small makeshift office at the end of one of ESPN's trailers in the parking lot across the street from Lowe's, Amy Rosenfeld reflects on her 89 year old father, a soccer fan for 8 decades. The father who told her every day that he didn't want to be talked down to as a soccer fan. Rosenfeld has led the sea change at the network that was implemented by executives like current ESPN President John Skipper and Executive Producer Jed Drake. "The network listened," Rosenfeld said. "We made mistakes. 2006 was that signature moment when we listened to the fan and then adapted what we were doing. We've done a 180. We now basically take the mantra that we are going to speak to the soccer fan and the value of the event and beauty of the sport will bring along the casual fan. That is the approach. We've got to be honest with ourselves and our core fans on how great the sport is. It's an example where ESPN listened to the fans and then responded."

* * * *

Former Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop has been with ESPN since January 1st, 2008. After the first live on-site episode of ESPN FC on the Crew Stadium plaza Tuesday night, Hislop exits the set and greets fans who want a picture with the Trinidad & Tobago international. Weaving his way back to the production area through a throng of passionate American soccer fans, Hislop knows he and the sport have come a long way from when he started at ESPN.

"Every now and then I have to pinch myself and look back. We were doing Press Pass twice a week. It was myself, Tommy Smyth, Janusz Michallik, and Derek Rae. Now to see this show grow to where it is now on 6 days a week with the talent we can call on, it says there's a market for it. I've always thought there was a market in the US for the game, but they want it covered in a way that all the sports get covered. They want to see the game at the highest level," Hislop said.

In many ways, the existence of ESPN FC is validation for what ESPN has invested into soccer. The daily studio show is now a part of the ESPN weekday lineup alongside shows like NFL Live and College Football Live. Although soccer may still not be a daily presence on SportsCenter and other ESPN platforms, the network now has a flagship show for soccer fans that offers news, highlights, and analysis for global and domestic soccer that didn't exist on ESPN airwaves even a month ago.

ESPN FC host Dan Thomas looks out at the GameDay-like crowd and knows something special is happening on this night in Columbus for American soccer. "If you look around here the fans that came to watch this game, it shows how the passion for the sport is growing," Thomas said. "The fact that ESPN is investing so much time, we've been on the air since 5:30 with kickoff at 8 and post match into the evening. That commitment shows the desire for people who thirst for more soccer and soccer analysis on ESPN and the FC platform."

Is ESPN's increased commitment to quality, in-depth coverage a sign of soccer's growth in the United States, or is soccer growing in the United State because of ESPN's commitment. In truth, it's not an either-or relationship. Those forces build off one another and exist symbiotically. Ratings for soccer, especially for the World Cup and USMNT have been rising. The 2010 World Cup was up 32% over 2006 and averaged 3.2 million viewers for the 64 games. The Final between Spain and the Netherlands drew 24.4 million viewers between ABC and Univision. The USA-Mexico game at Azteca Stadium in March drew 2.4 million and doubled the audience from four years prior. The fleet of trucks, arsenal of cameras, and over 200 ESPN personnel are here not just for altruistic reasons and the love of the game. Business is good and getting better. Tonight's game would set another record for a World Cup Qualifier on ESPN, drawing a 1.9 nationally and a 5.1 overnight rating in Columbus.

After the game a slightly hoarse Ian Darke comes downstairs from the broadcast booth and glows about the wonderful atmosphere inside Crew Stadium and the bubbling USA supporters. The fact that the voice of American soccer would be a Brit in his 50's could have never been predicted seven years ago. But like the aura of Crew Stadium, much of soccer's rise has defied conventional logic. Darke speaks fondly of his time with the USMNT and what it's meant to his lengthy career calling the top games and leagues around the world.

"It's been very refreshing and I've been blessed as a commentator with lots of dramatic moments to call with Landon Donovan against Algeria, Abby Wambach against Brazil, the snow game which was an extraordinary story, tonight, they're all a gift to cover," Darke said. "It's been a breath of fresh air quite late in my career for me. I like the enthusiasm for the national side here. In England everybody wants England to do well but there's a cynical view of the national side and its travails. It's been fun, great fun."

* * * *

There are few moments as a sports fan you're privileged to witness that get frozen in your memory. The thunderous "Dos A Cero" chants raining down from all around Crew Stadium after Landon Donovan's goal put the USA Men's National Team on track for another 2-0 victory over Mexico was almost mythical. Whether he did it on purpose or not, Clint Dempsey just had to miss a penalty with the last kick of the game to maintain the scoreline that has become legend. Even as Dempsey fizzed his shot wide, the chant kicked up again.

"Dos A Cero… Dos A Cero… Dos A Cero… Dos A Cero…"

Rivalry is one of the great fundamental elements of sport. With the atmosphere produced by the Columbus fans, the USA-Mexico rivalry has reached a level that was unimaginable more than a decade ago. Anyone who even thinks about moving USA-Mexico out of this Crew Stadium environment is crazy. There's something exceptional here for American soccer, whether it be history, mystique, or maybe even a little magic. The USA-Mexico qualifier in Columbus has become the centerpiece of ESPN's soccer coverage outside the World Cup and become a major selling point for the network. The sense of rivalry and the increased significance on this game isn't lost on those that have been through many years when this wasn't a rivalry at all.

Mexico dominated the region for decades. it was 40 years between World Cup appearances for the United States between 1950 and 1990. In 1980, the USA beat Mexico for the first time since 1934 in front of a couple thousand fans in Fort Lauderdale. Throughout the 1990s the game was played in largely pro-Mexican venues like the Rose Bowl. In 2001, the USA-Mexico qualifier was moved to Crew Stadium and the USA got the first of their four consecutive 2-0 victories. While the Columbus crowd draws much praise for adding to the rivalry, it's reached a new level because the USA is actually winning games against their southern rivals.

"The biggest change comes from success on the field," said lead analyst and former USMNT striker Taylor Twellman. "This wasn't a rivalry for a long time. When we drew in Azteca for the first point ever then win here in 2001 2-0 it started to change. The 2-0 win at the 2002 World Cup was big, but when we qualified here in 2005 that was a special party in Columbus. This thing's grown because both teams are good."

"I've been around the game for 40 years and the US National Team would play here domestically and you wouldn't have enough fans," Ley said. "Those days are over."

Although he never played in the clash, Shaka Hislop is a CONCACAF veteran who knows the importance of the USA-Mexico rivalry to the entire region. "These games are absolutely vital to CONCACAF as a whole. You talk about La Liga and the importance of Barcelona-Real Madrid. Manchester United-Liverpool to the Premier League. USA-Mexico does exactly that for CONCACAF. This is a game that spurs the region and excites it in a matter that it's more than just two countries and two sets of fans."

That's why ESPN is not just investing in the USMNT, but the Mexican National Team as well. A few days before the USA-Mexico game in Columbus, ESPN broadcasted another WCQ game. But it wasn't the USA playing in Costa Rica, it was Mexico hosting Honduras. ESPN acquired English language rights to the Mexican National Team through the 2014 World Cup to continue to grow the sport in new ways and reach a new audience, although it may frustrate some American supporters. With ESPN Deportes on site and experienced personalities like John Sutcliffe and Jorge Ramos involved in the telecast, the commitment from the network is there for both sides of the rivalry.

"This is a damn good business," Bob Ley remarked while sitting at a laptop in one of the production trailers a few hours before kickoff. "There's a huge untapped market of young Latinos in the United States who are getting their news and information in sports bilingually. If you can approach them with authoritative coverage that shows respect for El Tri and their tradition you're going to bring some people over. The numbers we did for the game at Azteca in March were incredible."

Much like the presence of ESPN, soccer's rise in the United States wouldn't be where it is today without the increased significance of the USA-Mexico rivalry over the last decade. ESPN has brought a small village to Crew Stadium to cover more than just 90 minutes of soccer, but a cultural event. Rosenfeld added, "To see this fleet of trucks and all these people working on a soccer match is extremely rewarding. It speaks to ESPN's belief in the sport and the validation is in the ratings. Everybody loves a rivalry and this rivalry specifically is a revenue and ratings generator."

* * * *

ESPN's soccer coverage can stand toe to toe with NBC's Sunday Night Football as one of the best productions in sports television. If Bristol covered every sport with the care and attention they do international soccer, criticism of the network would be a gentle whisper. At the core of ESPN's soccer success story is the simple fact that everyone here loves the sport and working with each other.

With all of his other hats at the network, Bob Ley enjoys his work on ESPN soccer the most. "It's by far the most fun.  I get to go to Costa Rica and see the world on the company's dime to do soccer, are you kidding me?  I've been to South Africa, been to Azteca, stood on the floor of Maracana, shit!  We all hope we can keep this group together because we like each other a lot. There's a lot of good friendships here and no real agendas except the best broadcast."

The chemistry that exists behind the scenes plays out when the red light goes on. The cameramen in the booth joke about Ian Darke's American accent that somehow always sounds like John Wayne.  Twellman and Moreno take turns singing like they're trying out for the N Sync reunion before rehearsing analysis of the starting lineups. Hislop and Thomas are pantomiming a serious discussion about Shaka's favorite color while on the couch in the production truck. Rosenfeld teases Twellman about who's the favorite analyst. It seems improbable for a company so mammoth and an event so important, but there's a tight-knit camaraderie that permeates through the broadcast. Perhaps it's because many of the behind the scenes staffers have been with the crew since before it drew worldwide acclaim in 2010 and beyond. They've witnessed the growth of soccer in American sports first hand.

As for the future of ESPN soccer, the growth of the sport that ESPN has driven has led to increased competition. Even those working for ESPN speak highly of the job NBC is doing with the English Premier League. Fox shocked everyone by snatching the World Cup away from ESPN after 2014. ESPN will air the 2016 European Championships, but a few of the staffers wonder what the next steps forward for ESPN and American soccer truly are after losing out on some of the sport's most coveted properties.  ESPN has shown their future commitment through ESPN FC both on television and online.  But one of those key steps is bringing the coverage and interest in the USMNT to MLS telecasts, where the domestic league has failed to break through on television.

"The game of the week in MLS is where the growth has to go," said a passionate Twellman. "TV ratings for MLS have to grow. The TV product of US games is skyrocketing, but the next step is to be here for the Columbus Crew hosting the Philadelphia Union. It comes with every single soccer fan in the US that is a fan of the USMNT becoming a television fan of MLS. What's very important for us is to make sure it's not just regional. We need the Crew-Union game to be watched by Rapids fans. Until that happens salary caps won't grow, designated players won't grow, all those things come when the TV ratings go up and I hope fans realize that."

Rosenfeld is bullish on ESPN's chances for keeping MLS and USMNT rights when negotiations are opened. Although American soccer and ESPN's investment in the sport have grown considerably in recent years, there's still plenty of ground to cover in the future.  When anyone gets too carried away talking about the post-2010 soccer boom, the reality sets in that the sport is still well behind leagues like the NFL and NBA.  Perhaps it's that realization that the peak of soccer in America is still out there somewhere in the distance that keeps this team pushing onward looking for new ways to grow the sport and continue the evolution of soccer on ESPN. The 2013 USA-Mexico World Cup Qualifier in Columbus is the point in time where past history meets present success and future hope for the continued growth of American soccer, both on the field and behind the cameras.

Matt Yoder

About Matt Yoder

Managing Editor of Awful Announcing and award winning sportswriter. Bloguin consigliere. The biggest cat in the whole wide world.

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