To tell you the truth, selecting ESPN’s Best XI commentators was a very, very tough list to compile. We just as easily could have selected an entirely different starting eleven to comprise our lineup – that’s how much ESPN’s World Cup roster is ridiculously stacked with on-air talent. Daniel Mann, Derek Rae, Kasey Keller, Mike Tirico, and Santiago Solari in particular just missed out. But really, you could make an argument to include the likes of Efan Ekoku, Steve McManaman, Adrian Healey, and Alexi Lalas as well. The group ESPN has assembled would be like combining the best players on Brazil, Germany, Argentina, and the Netherlands.
Although the final postscript has yet to be written, the coverage from Brazil has once again showed the self-proclaimed leader at its very best. If only ESPN could put the same effort and integrity into the rest of its 24/7 lineup, the sports world would be a much better place.
That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s true. ESPN (as much as they like to downplay it) controls the sports news/opinion/analysis cycle. They are the machine. They are the echo chamber. If they want to fill the sports conversation with dreck about clutch genes and what not, they can. If they want to fill the sports conversation with mature, insightful, entertaining discussion that puts the viewer and fan first, they can. The latter is what we have seen in Brazil, and everyone at ESPN and other sports networks should look to deliver the same kind of quality coverage round the clock.
That being said, here is ESPN’s Best XI from the 2014 World Cup…
GK – Bob Ley (C)
The General is the Tim Howard of ESPN. The backbone. The last line of defense. The anchor. There’s nobody else in Bristol you would rather have leading the way to cover the world’s biggest sporting event. If it’s at all possible, Ley is still underrated by the wider sporting public. While his journalistic and hard news credentials have earned him plaudits for years, his identity with the sport of soccer can’t be overlooked. Ley has been involved with the sport for decades so to see him so intertwined with the rise of the World Cup in American society is doubly sweet.
RB – Julie Foudy
The former USWNT star has been an ESPN soccer mainstay for years and a lead analyst at several tournaments prior. 2014 has seen her take on a different role though as a catalyst for ESPN’s primetime World Cup Tonight show and their Last Call segment. The more relaxed vibe has seen Foudy shine in a host/facilitator/analyst capacity as ESPN has loosened up the prototypical postgame show routine to surprisingly positive results.
CB – Jon Champion
CB – Stewart Robson
The only announcing pairing that has stuck together throughout the tournament features two veteran British commentators and very familiar voices to longtime soccer fans. Champion in particular has been a coup for ESPN and has largely been the breakout performer of this year’s World Cup as Ian Darke was in 2010. While Champion hasn’t had that “Go Go USA!” moment, he has called some of the most exciting and memorable games of this year’s tournament. Beside him, Robson has been excellent as well. They’re truly deserving of a semifinal spot and it’ll be interesting to see if ESPN can convince both to return for Euro 2016.
LB – Men in Blazers
Continuing the lighthearted mood of ESPN’s World Cup coverage, how could we not find space for both Roger Bennett and Michael Davies? The popular podcasters have transitioned to a television role reporting from Bob Ley’s Panic Room and have brought a much needed source of levity to the proceedings. The New York Times calling MIB “whimsical” is about as cutting-edge as it gets from them in acknowledging humor and a sure sign that the pair has made it on the big stage.
CDM – Roberto Martinez
The Everton manager has once again been a star in the studio for ESPN. There’s just something about Martinez that makes him so darn likable in that analyst position. The way he interacts with his partners on set, explains tactics, and breaks down the game is best in class. In fact, if Martinez was a television regular and not one of the world’s most renowned club managers, he could very easily become a Charles Barkley like presence for the sport on television. He’s that good. However, since he does have that little day job of managing Everton, American TV viewers will have to settle for these appearances at major international events.
RM – Michael Ballack
The former German star has come a long way since his American television debut. He’s developed into one of ESPN’s best and most interesting studio analysts and his jousting and continually developing chemistry with Alexi Lalas is fun to follow.
LM – Alejandro Moreno
Moreno is one of ESPN’s newest soccer announcers and has quickly proven to be one of their most consistently reliable analysts. Whether it’s calling the Mexican national team games alongside Fernando Palomo or other games with Adrian Healey, Moreno gives good insights into the game and has shown more energy in this tournament. Here’s hoping his role at ESPN continues to expand.
CAM – Ian Darke
Argentina has Messi, Brazil has Neymar, and ESPN has Ian Darke. As we’ve stated numerous times before, Darke’s popularity should no longer be confined to just being a soccer commentator. He deserves to be placed alongside the likes of Doc Emrick, Al Michaels, and other top American sportscasters. The ride that began four years ago in South Africa with Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
ST – Ruud van Nistelrooy
Before the tournament began, Ruud was pegged as the potential breakout studio analyst among ESPN’s imported former international stars. That has largely held true as Van Nistelrooy has proven to be a versatile asset in the studio. His partnership with Martinez has been ESPN’s best and most interesting analyst pairing so far. (Read more about it here in our Q&A with ESPN coordinating producer Amy Rosenfeld.)
And he’s had no qualms about wearing his orange heart on his sleeve for the Dutch…
ST – Taylor Twellman
ESPN’s lead USMNT analyst has been fantastic throughout the tournament, whether it be in the broadcast booth or the studio. Twellman deserves to be placed alongside any other soccer personality on television for the depth and quality of his work. He’s outspoken and honest with viewers without being antagonistic, can speak both to new fans and soccer diehards with his understanding and explanation of tactics, and can be self-deprecating when the time calls for it. Whatever lies in the future of ESPN’s soccer coverage, here’s hoping Twellman remains at the center of it.