At times during Fox’s hour-long pregame show in advance of the U.S. Soccer 3-1 victory over Australia in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the five-person studio crew showed all the reasons why the network put this group together.
At other times, in going from the news desk set with its scenic “we’re in Vancouver check out those mountains and water” background to the “on the field” segments and back to the “hey we’re just a bunch of soccer people sitting on these couches over here” roundtable discussions, the Fox telecast felt like the living embodiment of restless-leg syndrome.
They couldn’t sit still.
The bells and whistles of Fox’s production notwithstanding, there’s something there, assuming Fox has the time to figure it out.
Through the first few days of the World Cup—and the first U.S. match—those in charge still haven’t figured out what the show wants to be.
For the U.S., Fox struggled to fill an hour of pre-match commentary without falling back to the jingoistic tendencies that got them in trouble over the weekend, when spinning the Hope Solo domestic violence story into something of a rallying cry for the player and team was universally panned.
To give Fox credit, they’re either listening to our criticism or had the good sense on their own to go with a more international panel for the United States’ first match after the all-USA panel from the weekend.
A comment about that weekend panel: While Alexi Lalas tried his best to explain why people care about Solo’s story off the field—and how it directly ties in to her success on the field—the rest of the group, which included former U.S. international players Heather Mitts, Leslie Osborne and Angela Hucles—seemed to focus more on how the news would impact the team, and Solo herself, than what Jill Ellis and the higher ups with U.S. Soccer should, or could, do in response to the ESPN report.
— FS1 (@FS1) June 7, 2015
Oh, and Eric Wynalda was also there and said some words. More on him later.
Hucles stood out as someone willing and able to discuss the issue head on, but the rest of the panel seemed uncomfortable at best and enabling at worst, with Stone wishing he had someone else to go to for help, which is where Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl offered a lifeline via satellite from the U.S. presser. It wasn’t enough to save the segment.
Thankfully, it didn’t take Fox long to learn from that.
On Monday, Hucles and Osborne were replaced by German world champion Ariane Hingst and England international Kelly Smith to pair with Stone, Mitts and Lalas and the panel worked much better than the previous day’s couch session. Wynalda was simply removed from the equation in one of the better moves Fox has made so far this tournament.
What Fox may have missed with Hucles being relegated off the U.S. coverage, they made up for with Smith, who is clearly the best analyst Fox has at the tournament.
Not only does Smith know the game as well as anyone they’ve brought in, but she’s very good at expressing her thoughts on camera in a way that seems learned without coming off as over-rehearsed.
Mitts may be more polished on air, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. She serves her best role for the U.S. matches as a recently-departed player, sharing insight from a player who has been in the locker room with everyone on the current team.
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) June 8, 2015
There aren’t many other analysts who can share that intimacy with the current U.S. team, and it’s something Mitts needs to figure out how to balance so as not to come off as a cheerleader for her former teammates. She was better on Monday at sharing analysis, and that’s a credit to Stone for asking the right questions as much as Mitts for finding a better balance than the first few days of coverage.
Hingst is playing the “Michael Ballack” role ESPN employed in previous World Cups, in that she’s a former German star who immediately adds a needed European perspective from the standpoint of what it takes to win a tournament this big.
The problem on Monday—both in the U.S. pregame and in the studio show surrounding Sweden and Nigeria with Kate Abdo hosting in place of Stone—is that there are too many people on the set, and with Smith and Big American Personalities™ needing to share the screen, Hingst is always going to be the one they go to last. She is much better served in situations where there are other “secondary” analysts, which is unfair to her ability as an analyst, but a reality given how many people Fox puts on the set at the same time.
At one point on Monday it was so obvious they had too many people on the set that Abdo literally just said, “Ariane?” to see is she had anything else to add. Fox’s presenter had literally run out of both questions and time before she ran out of pundits.
From the studio to the stadium, the crew of JP Dellacamera, Cat Whitehill and Tony DiCicco were solid calling the match. If that sounds underwhelming, that’s how Dellacamera likes to call his matches—he’s notoriously solid and underwhelming, but he does that with the expressed purpose of letting his analysts shine.
That proved to be hit or miss during the match, as DiCicco has the personality that dominates any conversation, leaving Whitehill to often play off the former U.S. coach instead of jumping in with her own insight to set the pace of conversation herself.
Normally a three-person booth in any sport is rife with problems, but Dellacamera’s tone and cadence allows for enough room for both analysts to get solid points across. Still, it’s a work in progress, but not terrible by any stretch.
Are they Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman? No. Are they Arlo White and the cavalcade of former players NBC gives him? Nope. But they were solid, and they certainly didn’t pull any punches with decisions players made on the field or those made by Ellis from the bench.
So there we go. Good job by Fox in covering the U.S. women’s first match-day. Nothing else at all to discuss about their coverage. At all. Nothing.
Well, now. That tweet was deleted, so at the risk of sounding more awful and jaded than whatever someone (not me!) said about him on this site (ok…maybe me?) before, let me preface (Eric, if you’re reading this) this comment by saying as a forward who also wore number 11 as a boy, Wynalda was my favorite U.S. Soccer player growing up. I loved the guy. Let me also say that this piece was in the works long before he tweeted-then-deleted he was blocking us because we are awful and jaded. Caveats being what they are…
Eric Wynalda is useless on television. When Lalas was hired away from ESPN to join Fox’s crew, the higher ups at Fox decided to relegate Brian McBride instead of using Lalas’ arrival to spell the end of Wynalda’s tenure in the studio.
Lalas has a tendency to oversimplify everything, but he does it in a wide-eyed un-cynical way that plays fine to the average fan. Let’s not forget that most World Cup viewers are not hardcore soccer fans, so Lalas provides Fox with a recognizable name and easy to digest analysis most people probably appreciate. (Insert set-piece comment here.)
And while McBride was really coming into his own as a studio analyst with an expertise on tactics, Wynalda provides the same oversimplified take on the game as Lalas, but does it with an undeserved cocksureness that makes you want to scream.
At one point in the weekend roundtable on the U.S. team, Wynalda condescendingly warned the rest of the panel not to overlook Carli Lloyd’s importance in this World Cup, a comment so ridiculous that two members of the panel actually replied on the air, “we’re not.”
They’re not, Eric. Nobody is overlooking Lloyd, and unlike his work covering UEFA Champions League or Europa League on Fox where he can take the most obscure player from a team from Switzerland or Russia or some island off of Greece and pull off that kind of “trust me I know what I’m doing here folks” moxie, it doesn’t work when talking about the U.S. team at the World Cup.
Wynalda’s contribution to the Solo panel was a perfect expression of his uselessness. While Mitts and Osborne wrongly tried to spin Solo’s issues into a way for it to motivate her as a player, Wynalda replied with a tone that felt like the voice of reason was coming, instead offering, and I’m quoting from memory as best I can, “do we have to talk about this? I’m here to cover the World Cup, not talk about domestic violence and FIFA.”
Yes, Eric, you’re not at the FIFA World Cup to talk about FIFA. You’re not covering the U.S. team to talk about the U.S. players. Thanks for your insights.
It seems either Fox got the same message we did or they are saving Wynalda for the late-night show where his pace of analysis and insight is better suited. Whatever the reason, his absence from the coverage of the U.S. match on Monday was noticeable, and welcomed.
— FS1 (@FS1) June 9, 2015
Was that just jaded enough, or too jaded? I’m honestly trying to be fair. (Oh crap, today’s his birthday. Definitely too jaded then.)
It’s as if Wynalda has little interest in actually covering the event, which doesn’t really work with something like the Women’s World Cup where Fox needs to constantly and incessantly sell its importance by any means necessary.
In the wake of Sepp Blatter’s resignation, more people were turning to Fox for soccer coverage than anytime before, given the run up to the World Cup was in full swing. Fox called on former USSF president Alan Rothenberg to talk about the FIFA scandal and while Stone and Lalas asked interesting and engaging questions, the most interesting thing Wynalda offered to the conversation was a joke about whether or not he called Rothenberg “boss” when he played under him, before offering him “dinner and a nice bottle of wine on me next time I see you.”
The thing with Wynalda is that he forgets he’s on TV, and while that’s good for someone to feel comfortable enough with the cameras on to present information and analysis in a cohesive manner, Wynalda seems more concerned with the former than the latter.
Good for Fox, the rest of the crew seems to get it, and while there have been some enormous early growing pains, the rest of the crew—led by Stone—is doing just fine. Now if only they can get those ridiculous seaplanes to quiet down while they’re on the air!