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.