I spent a few minutes Thursday afternoon chatting with Arlo White, NBC's lead soccer broadcaster, amid his busy schedule calling MLS and EPL games. He doesn't need any further introduction, so let's just get right to the conversation.
How has it been being back in the United States for the MLS playoffs?
It’s been great. I’m thoroughly enjoying it. We had a very exciting first leg in Houston at the weekend and we know what happened at the end there [Tuesday night]. It was great to get back to Major League Soccer. I’ve been following it since going back to England to do the Premier League. And while here, I’ve taken in a couple of NFL games - including Bears-Packers at Lambeau Field. That was an all-time bucket list moment for me.
This is your second year calling MLS games, and I know you’ve done a lot of research on the history of the playoffs. There have been a lot of goals this year - 18 in the six conference semifinal games so far - and some really entertaining action. Do you think something particular has happened that has made the play more open?
It’s an interesting question. I was thinking this morning that we have seen lots of goals, and the play appears less cagey than it has been in previous years. There seems to be a desire to play attacking soccer both home and away.
I think one or two of the teams, like New York, tend to be counter-attacking teams. So they score goals on the break but then sit back and absorb the pressure, and when your opposition are Houston at home it’s a tall order to keep them out for 90 minutes.
We’ve seen mistakes that contributed to goals, and then you’ve got the nerves factor and pressure factor. I can’t put my finger on one single thing but I’m delighted that teams are playing in an attacking manner. The desire seems to be to score goals both home and away.
You mentioned that pressure, and it’s something that comes up a lot at this time of year. The kind of pressure that exists in the playoffs is not the same kind that exists in the regular season, either here or elsewhere in soccer around the world. As you’ve been away from MLS for a little while now, do you notice the psychological side of that in a different way than you might have before?
I think it works in both ways. I would counter by saying that three points in a normal league season, possibly carry more value in the Premier League than they do in Major League Soccer. There is a culture of “get three points,” and you do everything you possibly can - week in, week out, day in, day out - to ensure your team wins and gets three points. It’s a culture that’s very unforgiving in that regard.
In Major League Soccer, it’s more forgiving, because you need to finish in the top five in your conference. So you could argue that the pressure is longer in the Premier League.
But when it comes to playoff time, there is a difference in Major League Soccer.
And we most tend to hear about that pressure in the context of foreign players who haven’t dealt with it before. Many observers say they aren’t always up to the challenge. Do you think that’s fair?
They have dealt with big two-legged games. They’re equivalent to cup matches. A lot of these players have played in them in different countries.
I think one of the issues maybe with New York - although they would never admit it - they said to us in Houston that they were mentally prepared for the challenge playoffs. But they won the Supporters’ Shield and celebrated because it was the first trophy they had won, and it was the first time the club had tasted success after all those years.
But I wonder what the effect is of winning a trophy before you win *the* trophy. Only six out of what will now be 18 No. 1 seeds have won MLS Cup.
It’s a different scenario than what some have been used to. But I would argue they have been exposed to it in their careers, so I’m not entirely sure what it’s down to.
You are plenty familiar with the Pacific Northwest, having called Seattle Sounders games when you first game to MLS. Now you’re back in Cascadia for the huge Western Conference semifinal second leg between Seattle and Portland (11:00 p.m., NBCSN). How excited are you for the game?
I’m thrilled to be doing it, and to be here. I know what it means to the people of the Pacific Northwest and soccer fans beyond. It’s an enormous occasion for the clubs. I’ve been watching clips of the Timbers’ victory in 1975 in the NASL playoffs in front of 30,000 at what was then Civic Stadium.
Both teams don’t want to come out second best and have the opposition fans and opposition club hold it over them.
I think the tie is very nicely poised. Portland played a very nice first leg. They had that approach of bend-but-do-not-break, and they got two tremendous goals on the counter attack. They managed to keep Seattle at bay until the 90th minute, and I wonder if Ozzie Alonso’s goal is a mood changer.
And although Caleb Porter said it hasn’t changed anything, he said he wants to turn it to his team’s advantage. There could have been a sign of complacency at 2-0, but 2-1 keeps them honest and focused on the task at hand.
There have been fans camping out overnight in the rain at JELD-WEN Field for this game. It’s as authentic as any rivalry as you’ll see around the world in terms of what it means to the teams and coaching staffs.
* - Alonso scored in second-half stoppage time to cut Portland's lead to 2-1. Yes, it was late at night on the East Coast, and yes, tonight's game is going to be even worse in that regard.
Another thing that has come up - especially during Tuesday night’s Eastern Conference semifinal second legs - is the fact that MLS doesn’t use the away goals rule. There are arguments for and against it in terms of whether the rule leads to more attacking soccer. What do you think?
We’re certainly not seeing any cagey approach this year. We’re seeing a counterattacking approach at times, but there is that desire by road teams in particular to soak up the pressure and hit on the counter.
The system was devised for the European cup in the 1960s because replays, before the advent of penalty kicks, were very expensive affairs. They got in the way and were hard to administer in the middle of the season with the travel conditions at the time.
The away goal was introduced to try and get the road team to try and grab one and not park the bus. Times have changed. You tend to get the same teams all the time in the Champions League, the pitches are fine, the travel is fantastic.
There is an argument that the reason why away goals was introduced is no longer relevant. What I would like to see is scrap the away goals rule and let’s see how many ties to go extra time and are decided by penalty kicks because the away goals rule was withdrawn.
It may prevent more ties going to extra time and to penalty kicks. Whether it leads to more cagey or more open play at times, I think it lends more nuance to the game within the game. But I’d like to see a study done on how many games go to penalty kicks - which is undesirable in my view - if the away goals rule is scrapped.
The soccer fan base in the U.S., as we both know, pays attention to television production. There are some little things that people have seen here and there, such as your use of handheld microphones throughout a game. From your perspective, what differences are there between calling a game over there and calling a game over here?
Information, for one. We don’t get the starting lineups until everyone else, gets them an hour before the game. So it’s an exhilarating scramble to set the board up for the game call. You can make a pretty good guess but often teams rotate or a player’s carrying an injury you didn’t know about. You are spending that hour before the game digesting the team news, sometimes on camera, talking to Lee Dixon and Graeme Le Saux* about what it means for both sides.
The view that we get varies from ground to ground. You mentioned the handheld microphones - every time I put one on Twitter people go bonkers about it. There are technical reasons why we do it. They trap the voice of the commentators and they cut put the peripheral sound of everyone around us.
At Anfield, for example, that’s important because we didn’t make into the media gantry for the Manchester United game. We were in the stands with season ticket holders next to us. So inevitably they are going to shout and cheer and sing their songs, and you wouldn’t be able to hear us.
Aside from that, not a massive amount of difference. The booths in the facilities at MLS grounds are terrific. It’s a little more agricultural at Premier League grounds, but we are looked after brilliantly. And when you get on the gantry and are looking over the halfway line it’s fantastic.
* - White's color analysts.
Lots of people took notice when you had Everton and U.S. national team goalkeeper Tim Howard in the booth as your color analyst for the recent Chelsea-Manchester City game. How did it come together and what was it like for you?
I don’t know how long it took to get him - I think that’s a question for others. In terms of the experience itw as tremendous. And bearing in mind that he played so well against Aston Villa the day before, that allayed any fears of Everton manager Roberto Martínez calling him for training on Sunday and I’d be working alone.
We had breakfast together on the Sunday and a chat about the game. He had been drilled by the NBC hierarchy during the week - in the nicest possible way - about how things work, and he took it all on board very well.
We went through the basics - how to wear a set of headphones, what button to push if you need to cough or to talk to the guys in Stamford. I thought he did tremendously well. His breakdown of what happened at the end* - he’s not the arrogant type that will really openly criticize current players, but he did it constructively. “Allow defenders to defend” was his quote.
There’s work to be done, as there is, with everybody but I think he’s keen to put the hours in as and when required. It’s something he’s interested in doing further down in his career.
* - Chelsea won the game with a last-minute goal by Fernando Torres after a communication breakdown by City defender Matija Nastasić and goalkeeper Joe Hart led to a long ball bouncing over both of them. It was as ugly as it sounds.