Dan Wiersema of The Free Beer Movement puts together a star-studded broadcasting panel
As American crafts its own soccer identity on the field and in the stands another front has opened as well in the broadcasting booth. Major League Soccer’s first generation of players (Jamie Moreno, who retired in 2010, was the last player to have played in the league’s inaugural 1996 season) has taken off their boots and several have made the move behind the mic.
Today we’re talking to a few on-field American soccer pioneers that are now doing the same in front of the cameras; creating a distinctive “American” voice in soccer broadcasting.
Let’s Meet the Participants
Alexi Lalas was a member of the 1994 and 1998 USMNT World Cup squads with 96 caps to his name. In his eleven years playing professionally he was the first modern American to play in Italy (Padova) and featured for the New England Revolution, the NY/NJ Metrostars, Kansas City Wizards, and Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer. He was also the general manager for both the Metrostars/Red Bulls and the Galaxy. For the past five years he’s worked as an on-air analyst for ESPN.
Taylor Twellman is in his first year of the broadcasting business. Alongside JP Dellcamera, this 31-time USMNTer is the color man for Philadelphia Union matches and also appears on ESPN. Twellman played professionally for eleven years in Germany (1860 Munich) and the U.S. (New England Revolution) before medical reasons forced him to retire.
Kyle Martino is a three-year veteran of the booth and currently works for Fox Soccer Channel. Martino played in MLS for eight years for the Los Angeles Galaxy and Columbus Crew. He also featured eight times for his country.
Brian “Dunny” Dunseth has been in broadcasting since 2006 as a commentator for Fox Soccer nationally and Real Salt Lake locally. During his nine year professional career he played for several MLS sides including New England Revolution, Miami Fusion, Columbus Crew, Dallas Burn, Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA, Los Angeles Galaxy, and abroad for Bodens BK. Dunseth is also the co-founder of Bumpy Pitch, a soccer t-shirt maker and, The Original Winger, a soccer-lifestyle blog.
The Shin Guardian: You all spent your entire lives playing soccer. Talk about your decision to retire and start thinking about life beyond the pitch.
Taylor Twellman: I didn’t have a choice as brain damage from concussions left me with no choice. I was asked, “Do you want to live healthy past 45/50? Then you must retire now and stop working out”.
Black and white issue for me so it was simple. Right now I am enjoying the media side of MLS and covering Boston sports locally and hopefully it’s a future that I have.
Alexi Lalas: I finished playing at the end of 2003 and was told that my contract would not be picked up. One door closes and another opens. I was lucky to be offered the opportunity to go right into an MLS front office. Although I could have hung on and played for a few more years, I recognized the gift that I was being given. Very few players get to go out on their own terms, so if a jumping-off point comes along you have to be mature enough to see it and brave enough to take it – because it might not be there further down the line.
Kyle Martino: My decision was pretty much made for me. After several surgeries to put me back together, humpty-dumpty style, I was advised by doctors that the party was over. Deciding to retire was probably the most difficult moment in my life so far. To give up something I loved so intensely, something that I worked my whole life to obtain left me with a gigantic void. The silver lining (although to me it seems more like clear skies altogether) was getting the opportunity to fall in love with soccer in a whole new way. Broadcasting has given me a new appreciation for the sport that has been so good to me. It has taken time, but I can still get the buzz up in the booth that I used to get down on the field.
Brian Dunseth: I really don’t think anyone professional is ready for the day they decide to walk away from the playing side of the game, regardless of how long they’ve played. For me, it was more about having control over my own life and the direction I decided to head into.
If you look above, I’ve played for pretty much every team in the history of soccer in the United States and I was completely fine with it. Playing the game was never about establishing my life in just one spot; it was about the life experience that came along with the game on and off the field.
My wife (who was my Fiancée at the time) was dealing with the decline of her father at the time of my release from the Los Angeles Galaxy and, after owning three homes and not living in a single one of them for more than nine months, I decided my playing path had come to an end
TSG: How did you get into broadcasting? Is that something you considered realistic as a post-retirement career?
Martino: Getting involved in broadcasting was kind of a fluke. We were on a two game road trip with the LA Galaxy and I had received a red card for my skinny guy feisty-ness in the first game. I was forced to sit on the sidelines to serve that one game suspension during the following game at New England. The broadcast team asked me up in to the booth to do an interview for a few minutes during the second half. I guess they liked what I was doing because they ended up keeping me there for most of the game.
I guess the Powers That Be took notice because a few years later when I had announced my retirement, my phone rang. On the other end was ESPN asking if I wanted to try covering a game. I said yes, and the rest is history as they say.
Twellman: Tom McNeeley from ESPN always told me I should give it a shot when I was done and that I may be good at it, but as a player I was Bull Durham, TT the cliché HA! So Now that I am done playing I can be the personality that I wanted to be as a player but not worry so much about saying something about the opponent or my own head coach that would be controversial.
Dunseth: It’s funny… I had a conversation with Christian Miles and Alan Hopkins in 2006 about getting into broadcasting. This was a follow up to when I first came into MLS and I watched my teammate Alexi Lalas go on camera and absolutely turn it on. I knew then I wanted to learn how to do what he was able of doing.
Less than a week after my release from the Galaxy, I moved back to Salt Lake City so my wife could be with her Father and decided to suck up my pride and go to a game. When I got there about 45 minutes before kickoff, I heard the Pre-game Radio show and the guys breaking down the upcoming opponent. I felt like I could do a good job doing that considering the fact I knew all the teams / players in the league and offered up my services. From the Pre / Post-Game show, it turned into a Color Analyst role on radio and then when Robin Fraser took the Assistant Coach role alongside Jason Kreis, I was fortunate enough to be offered the Color Analyst role for Real Salt Lake broadcasts.
Lalas: In 2008, I was fired from the Galaxy and ESPN immediately called. Throughout my career I had made a point of seeking out and making time for TV work (World Cups, Olympics, highlight shows, commercials etc…). My limited appearances showed people that I knew what I was doing and had a potential future in broadcasting. I’ve always considered myself an entertainer and I enjoy performing. I had a successful career on the field which opened up doors for me off the field. But it only opened the door; the rest was and continues to be about hard work and commitment. It’s one of the most enjoyable jobs I’ve ever had and it enables me to remain in the game I love.
TSG How would you describe your broadcasting “style?”
Dunseth: Honest and Accountable. Being able to say to a player face anything that I say to the camera.
Martino: My style is critical, but fair. I am in a unique position starting this career at my age. Most people get involved in TV after a long career stretching into their mid to late 30’s. Being so young, I will be covering guys I played with, and against, for many years to come. It gives me a great advantage to know the games I am covering so intimately and have that inside edge.
With that comes a great responsibility to hold players accountable, while at the same time trying not to project my personal opinions on the game. It is a very fine line to walk. An analyst should have very strong opinions, but they have to be supported by what people see. Talking about my career, or moments off-camera that shaped my opinions of certain players, teams or coaches, can alienate and frustrate fans. I try to be the best analyst I can be by simply commenting on what the viewer is seeing. I use my experience as a tool to better explain why what they are seeing is good, bad, or ugly.
Lalas: It’s probably a lot like my playing style. I take what I do very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously. My job is to inform in an entertaining way. In doing that, I hope I can help promote more discussion about the game. At times I’m critical, but I think I’m fair. You may not always agree with what I say but I hope you respect that I say it.
Twellman: I am trying my best to be ‘less is more’. When I watch games in Europe the color guy is short and sweet and the play-by-play guy is the voice you remember so hopefully my style has a future in the game. I want to call the game in front of me without so much history/opinions of people dominating my talk.
TSG: Do you feel any pressure to be outlandish or say thinks to generate promotion of either your own commentary or the broadcast?
Dunseth: Absolutely Not.
Martino: I don’t really have a gimmick like that. I have nothing against the guys that do because it is very entertaining and creates good conversation. That tactic is one part who that person is, and another part marketing strategy. There is a place for it in sports; I am just not the person to deliver it.
Lalas: No pressure, but how you say something is as important as what you say. This is the entertainment business and viewers have a lot of choices, so it’s important that we give them a compelling performance. Even if you only have a few seconds on-air, you have to try to make them memorable. Don’t be a clown, but don’t be a bore. Find the proper balance.
TSG: You all were some of the pioneers of the American domestic league, playing in the early years of Major League Soccer. Now you’re a part of another group of pioneers, Americans in soccer broadcasting. How do you feel about being able to contribute in helping build soccer in the United States twice?
Martino: It’s amazing to be a part of that thread. Anyone who has been able to align their job with their passion is very lucky. To get paid to do something I love so much not only once, but twice in a lifetime, is a blessing. Even bigger than that is idea that things I have done and continue to do are helping to grow a sport I love so much. That idea puts a smile on my face every single day.
Twellman: Refer to Alexi on this one as he is one of the true pioneers of our sport and our domestic league. I just hope I made the American fan proud of our game on the field and hope that continues off the field.
Lalas: I’ve been fortunate to be at the forefront of the U.S. soccer revolution. Breaking new ground and being a pioneer is a role I accepted and embraced long ago. Of course it means that there is no play book, so you end up making plenty of mistakes along the way. I’m always amazed and flattered when players ask for my advice. I don’t always have the answer but I try to at least steer them in the right direction because I never really had that resource to tap into. Having said that, I’m still making much of it up as I go along. I suppose we all are one way or another.
Dunseth: I just feel incredibly honored to be a part of the game in a different realm while being able to talk about the game in a ‘homegrown’ way.
TSG: How does your playing experience help make you a better commentator?
Dunseth: I think it has allowed me to explain the game and the subtleties that maybe the common fan might not think about… It’s always easy to point out what’s going wrong, not as easy to talk about how to fix it.
Twellman: Understanding the League and CONCACAF region helps tremendously with knowing the players/style etc but as a player in general no matter what the game is (EURO,EPL,MLS) you can maybe see things that is tough for the fan to see. I try to comment on the game as if we are watching the games with fans in a bar, living room, etc.
Lalas: It gives you credibility and perspective. But you have to be able to access that and articulate it in your comments. There are things that players automatically understand, but you need to be able to explain that to someone who hasn’t necessarily played at your level. To be good, I think you have to be able to access the unique honestly that exists in a locker-room and have the courage to bring it out publicly in your analysis.
Martino: There are plenty of people out there who know the game of soccer and can analyze it. But former players have a unique perspective that can only come from being in the very moments they are analyzing. The ability to call on experiences from the highest level can be a powerful differentiator. That edge is very helpful when it is used the right way.
TSG: On the other side, do you think that having played also “colors” your opinion/analysis of the on-field action? That sometimes you are critiquing based on comparing players to what you know or have done yourself on the field?
Twellman: I was just one of the many players to play in this league and wear the US jersey and comfortable enough to call any and all games with no opinions. Everyone has their own style on the field and should be appreciated. In saying that, Alexi reminds me consistently of 2002 MLS Cup so I am sure at some point my bitterness will come out HA!
Martino: That is a fine line we walk as analysts. We can’t help bringing our preconceived notions of players and situations in to the booth with us. I think good analysts are able to use those past experiences to enhance their commentary without threatening their ability to be objective in their observations. The line between good and bad analysis is that, in the end. Our style comes from who we are, and who we are comes from those past experiences. I think that it is important to be true to your style without over doing it.
Lalas: Yes, we all were successful in part because of healthy egos. You are always colored by your past and it informs your opinion. But you have to be able to accept that the game is not about you anymore. Your playing experience is a tool that you need to use wisely. I think it’s very difficult for players to be effective in TV coming immediately from the field. Often a little time and distance is necessary to find an authentic and compelling voice.
Dunseth: Hahaa… I’ve always felt like I never should have been playing at the level I achieved, so me comparing myself to any player would be an injustice to them!
If anything, my playing career helps me to hold players ‘accountable’ for their actions because I understand exactly what they’re going through at that moment.
TSG: There’s an on-going discussion in American soccer circles between the value of “British” commentators versus American ones. A few months ago, commenting on ESPN’s decision to go with an English-heavy contingent of commentators for the World Cup, Jason Davis of MatchFitUSA wrote the following:
“We’re conditioned, as fans, to believe British is better. ESPN’s decision on their World Cup announcers is just another example that the media decision-makers understand that fact; add that the country’s highest profile/most popular soccer radio show is hosted by Brits and that Brits populate the analyst chairs on our studio shows, and we’re it’s clear that as a soccer nation we struggle to assign credibility to those with American accents. The inevitable consequence is that aforementioned inferiority complex; not only do we defer to the British on matters of opinion, we begin to feel anything done by Americans is inherently less valuable. This sense of inferiority colors how many of us view any domestically-bred soccer, including our nascent top-flight club competition, the efforts of our national team, Americans as players, coaches, etc.
If it’s American, it’s can’t possibly be good.
Back to that pesky ESPN World Cup announcer for a moment. How much of the backlash I’ve received for my stance on ESPN’s decision is related to conditioning? I believe that people are being honest when they say that the choices are good because “there are no good American announcers”, but the cynic in me finds it hard to accept that that at face value; American announcers are held to such a different standard than their British counterparts that I wonder if fans aren’t simply deferring to the accent rather than objectively assessing the abilities of the announcers in question.”
How do you react, being American, and defend the idea that American commentators do have value, perhaps more, in calling their own domestic game, from MLS to U.S. National Team matches? (Certainly this isn’t meant to be an us vs. them argument… all of the English commentators are fine people.)
Twellman: That is exactly why I am trying to get in the business. I want to give the Americans a voice in the game of commentating and hopefully it turns out.
Dunseth: I think we have more than enough ‘American Commentators’ that know the game, have the ability to break a game down and relay their thoughts in a correct manner on camera regardless of an ‘accent’. It’s up to the higher ups in whatever network / team to make the decision what their viewers / supporters should hear.
The unflappable, and very British, Arlo White on the call(s) for the Seattle Sounders
Lalas: The ear wants what the ear wants. Two people can sing the same lyrics and provoke very different reactions from the listener. It’s hard to deny or change the perceived credibility of a British accent talking about soccer. It’s been imported and ingrained in our psyche over the years because of our lack of soccer history and culture. But what “we” can do is to continually strive to provide better quality content. When something is said about soccer with an American accent, it has to be so tasty that it starts to transcend the accent. Then slowly as tastes and attitudes evolve (and they will), maybe soccer fans will come to appreciate and even prefer a different voice because they feel better informed and entertained than in the past.
Martino: The deferral to English accents, in the past, has definitely been the result of a universal lack of soccer knowledge on the part of Americans. At the beginning, having a British accent was the only prerequisite, rather than what it should have been: having actually played the game past the recess days. Over the years, the average American soccer fan has developed an infinitely larger soccer IQ than before.
The emergence of American voices on TV in the soccer world is a result of a fan base with an acute understanding of a once foreign game. It has allowed them to look past accents, and make judgments based on the most crucial component: content. An American fan becoming more soccer savvy is a result of one other major factor as well: taking ownership of the game of soccer. Identification with the sport itself has caused the American soccer fan to desire a voice that is their own.
Could you imagine a French or Italian announcer covering the England national team games? That being said, there are some amazing British announcers. There is still the occasional lapse in this philosophy, but the cream should rise to the top. Accents should be as arbitrary as hair color when picking commentators. (*Outside of calling one’s own National Team game)
TSG: Which network covers “American soccer” (Nats and/or MLS) the best?
Dunseth: Historically it’s been ESPN who pushes the game to the masses… But I love (insert homer-ness here) what we’ve done this year at Fox Soccer with our MLS and Gold Cup broadcasts.
Martino: There would be no Soccer without ESPN. Lately Fox Soccer is gaining momentum and proving their worth in this arena. Instead of a Capulet v. Montague situation there is much more of a one game, one love, one team mentality. ESPN and Fox are working together to deliver the World’s game in the best possible way.
Twellman: Tough one to debate as FSC has pregame/postgame, Soccer Night in America yet not everyone can get the channel and some not in HD. And ESPN has the quality not quantity behind their soccer coverage. Either way both doing their part of growing the game but the time has come for MLS to get its due with the soccer stadiums, quality fans and growing notoriety for real time coverage somewhere.
Lalas: The one that employs me.
TSG: Who do you feel the two best soccer commentators in the game today (American or otherwise) are? Game call and analyst.
Martino: JP Dellacamera and Alexi Lalas.
Dunseth: JP Dellacamera for me will always be the best.
Lalas: We’re all a bunch of egomaniacs. I’m not feeding the beast.
TSG: Which current American player(s) do you think would make good on-air talent once they’re done with the game?
Dunseth: Pretty sure everyone else is thinking Jimmy Conrad, but I’m gonna go with Timmy Howard and Stu Holden.
Twellman: It’s a tough one to call because having personality and being able to bring that on TV is a different ball game. But I promise you that there are a couple of guys out there that will surprise us as fans at their ability to give their opinions of quality and deliver them on TV.
Lalas: Alejandro Moreno (Chivas USA).
Martino: Stu Holden and Jimmy Conrad