Number Don’t Lie: Soccer Commentator Ratings

Ever since the United States Men’s Soccer Team narrowly missed beating mighty Brazil in the Confederations Cup final in South Africa a few weeks ago, there’s been a lot of talk about how much US soccer has advanced. One way American soccer writers attempt to address this question is by numerically rating US players after every match, trying to give a sense of who played well and how well they played during a particular game. These scores are always annotated by a pithy sentence fragment or two justifying the numerical “grade.” (For examples, see the NY Times Goal blog or ESPN Soccernet.) These attempts at precise numerical scoring of a player’s performance are fascinating to me—can you really focus on an individual’s performance in a 90-plus minute soccer game when there are 22 players on the field?

But the basic question underneath all this—Is the US improving as a competitive soccer nation?—is not really that interesting. This is partly because we know the answer: Yes, US soccer has improved a ton since 1990. No, we still can’t withstand a grand old powerhouse like Brazil or Italy once their hackles are raised. The US Men’s Team is a competent counterattacking squad with more heart than skill; they can be dangerous despite their lack of finesse. So good. The team did well enough at the Confederations Cup in South Africa that some of the American players, including the staunch defender Oguchi Onyewu, have since landed impressive contracts with European teams in Serie A and the Premiereship. The experience should be valuable for the US Men’s Team as a whole.

The more troubling question here, I think, is this: How much has American soccer broadcasting and commentary improved in the last 25 years? In an effort to address this difficult issue, I’ve attempted to assign numerical scores and pithy justifications to some of the key players in the US soccer commentary and broadcasting scene.*

JP Dellacamra: 4. Still doesn’t seem to understand the nuances of the game. Because of this, JP often sounds excited at odd, inappropriate moments. In other words, dicey in his emphasis and overall soccer understanding. But unfortunately understanding soccer is sort of his job.

John Harkes: 5. Not very good, but at least he used to be a decent player. Would be nice if he didn’t sound like he was hanging upside down in a barometric chamber while calling games. Still, has the sense to not talk very much.

Alexi Lalas: 3.5. At the half of US-Brazil, when the US was still leading 2-0, Lalas said something like, “My knees are literally trembling right now.” Five-tenths of a point for being unintentionally funny.

Guy sitting next to Alexi Lalas: 2. Who is this guy? I can never remember a single thing he says. Needs more interesting neckties.

Tommy Smyth: [No score]. In Italo Calvino’s book Cosmicomics there is a recurring character named Qfwfq, a conscious entity who witnesses the creation of the universe, later becomes a dinosaur, then evolves into a mollusk (“Form? I didn’t have any; that is, I didn’t know I had one, or rather I didn’t know you could have one. I grew more or less on all sides…”). Most touchingly, the eternal, shape-shifting Qfwfq at one point takes the form of a vertebrate from the Carboniferous period, a creature who climbs up out of the water and makes a go of living on land, abandoning his fishy, water-breathing past. On the one hand, Calvino is suggesting that even our most studied, objective scientific understandings are riddled with subjectivity and narrow human narratives. On the other hand, Calvino may simply be attempting a biography of Tommy Smyth. I suspect that Smyth is the latest iteration of Qwfwq, the fictional (?) creature who was present at the Big Bang and has managed since then to survive every eon of cosmic existence. How then can we approach Smyth? Can we assign him a score from one to ten? Can we understand the true import of the words he speaks? No, of course not. All we can do is watch and listen to the echoes of an infinite past.

To sum up, then, American soccer is better than it used to be. But American soccer broadcasters and commentators—the ones we can begin to comprehend, at least—have a long way to go.

There’s my commentary. What’s my score?

*Note: All of these analysts and game-callers work for ESPN / ABC / Disney, because that corporate structure has a near-monopoly on English-language soccer broadcasting in the US.

Yeah. But our American yardstick is Troy “there is no question about it” Aikman and Joe “take me back to the wax museum” Buck. I give them all 5 in this comparison….

— Tyson    Jul 28, 09:47 AM    #

Your Lalas grade was for his studio work. He did a few games for the World Football Challenge(Two Italian, one English and one Mexican team represents the world?). His grade for his play-by-play work – 2. Hopefully, he won’t last as long as Marcelo Balboa.

Chris Sullivan – 3

Gentry    Jul 29, 02:21 PM    #

Fantastic piece. I assume Ray Hudson gets a 37?

Brian Phillips    Jul 29, 09:04 PM    #

can someone please tell me how many soccer fields are in the united states ? Ive been searching for that but it’s kind of imposssible…

anna    Jul 31, 03:43 AM    #

Anna, you might try the National Spporting Goods Association. they do sports participation studies.

AK    Aug 11, 04:19 PM    #

After watching a replay of the Olympic Women’s Final (fine match BTW), I have this to say regarding “JP”:
1. Just because you’ve memorized the roster and can pick out the players doesn’t mean you should mention their names at every touch. Sometimes less is more. Relax.
2. Makes it sound like “THE BOX” (um, penalty area?) is some magical, transcendent zone of unimaginable potential. Plenty of goals are indeed scored from within the area, but the more spectacular are scored from outside, and who really cares if you cross a chalk line (unless someone does then commit a foul).
3. English announcers make the most by adding “color” to a game which we happen to be watching and largely understand. While being droll, witty, or amusing can’t actually be taught, I wish I weren’t being talked at as if I were listening on the radio about a sport I know nothing about. (I think even folks who don’t know the game so well might enjoy some levity during 90 minutes of anguish… but we are talking about an American soccer/football audience…)
4. Which confirms your observations, Brian; this guy wouldn’t know nuance if it were sitting in the chair next to him. Really, save the excitement for the really dynamite play, not the might/could turn into something. Sheesh!
5. JP’s most fundamental fault is that his grasp of the game is so shallow that he can’t offer any sound opinion about anything that goes on onfield. Card foul? Hard foul? Cheap shot? Just unlucky? Seriously, watch about 200 more games (from various leagues and tournaments) and you might have something to offer besides jersey identification.
Thanks for putting such a fine point on a real obstacle to the enjoyment of the sport.
Just don’t get me started on Tim McCarver!

— mike    Aug 17, 11:22 PM    #

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