Previewing U.S.-Argentina with ESPN's Ian Darke

Superstar midfielder Lionel Messi headlines Argentina's roster for tomorrow night's friendly against the United States at the New Meadowlands Stadium. (Andre Penner/AP file photo)

Yesterday afternoon, I got an exclusive interview with ESPN's lead soccer play-by-play voice, Ian Darke. He is in New York this weekend to call the U.S.-Argentina friendly at the New Meadowlands Stadium tomorrow night on ESPN2 (7 p.m.). 

If you were paying close attention to your Inquirer this morning, you might have noticed that both of the upcoming U.S. national team games were mentioned in the "7 Hot Games" box on the weekly Soccer Report page.

(Hint: It's on page D2 today.)

You might also have noticed a certain byline at the bottom of the box. I'm happy to announce that I'll be contributing this feature to the Soccer Report page on a regular basis. My goal is to highlight seven games around the world that are worth checking out over the next seven days.

They might not always be easy to find on your television, and they might not always be games you expect to see. I hope to throw a few curveballs (apologies for the non-soccer metaphor) out there every once in a while. I think it's a nice complement to the Union coverage in the paper, and I hope you do too.

You can read all of the stories on the Soccer Report page, as well as Kerith Gabriel's Union Meeting column in the Daily News, by scrolling down to the headlines list on the right side of this post.

Now for the main event: my interview with Ian Darke. Enjoy.

First of all, tell me what you’re looking forward to in the U.S-Argentina match Saturday night.

Well, I think it’s a good barometer of where the United States national team are, whether they can cope with somebody with the talent of Lionel Messi. And although it’s a friendly, Argentina are a bit like Brazil in that they don’t really soft-pedal in friendlies.

They play every game because they’re playing for their national pride, and it’s such a superpower of the game. And then the atmosphere it will be in, it will feel almost like it’s a World Cup match.

Given how recently the New Meadowlands Stadium was built, I figure you haven't been there before. Did you ever go to the old one?

No - this is the first time I will have covered a U.S. international match in the USA. I covered the game in South Africa back in November. That was a mostly experimental side in Cape Town, but this is a bigger deal.

Did you call games at the 1994 World Cup?

Yes, but I don’t think I covered the United States then. I was working for ESPN back in 1994, but I don’t think I covered a U.S. game in that World Cup.

What venues did you get to?

I got to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit I remember doing, Orlando when it was about 95 degrees out - Ireland and Mexico, I think it was. Chicago’s Soldier Field. Not New York - it’s a long time ago now, I’m trying to think.

I always remember the Rose Bowl because it remains to this day the most difficult commentating position I’ve ever worked from. It is so high up. I was commentating with binoculars against my eyes to try and identify the players from so far away.

You’re lucky that you never worked a game in the old Giants Stadium, because the press box was even higher there...

Oh, God.

I haven’t been to the new one yet, so I don’t know how high that press box is - I think it’s closer to the field.

I’m dreading that a little bit. There are one or two bad ones I’ve been to- Barcelona’s is very high, and Soccer City was in Johannesburg. I was doing something for somebody else and I said that commentators tend to judge stadiums by how good their commentary position is.

I know you’ve seen some of the players on this U.S. roster. Are there any in particular that you’re looking forward to seeing this weekend?

Oh yes. They’ve not really been together properly since they were knocked out of the World Cup. For the most part, since then, barring that Brazil game - that was a bit of a funny one, really, coming so soon after the World Cup - this is the first time that they’ve all gotten back together again.

So the player I’d like to see given a bit more of a run, a player I liked a lot for the U.S., was Benny Feilhaber. I thought that when he came on, he always seemed to give the team another dimension as a playmaker. Though Bob Bradley tends to use him mainly as a game-changing substitute. I like him because I think he’s a real good creative spark-type player.

A guy who I know you’ve seen a fair amount of, especially in that U.S. game in South Africa, is Juan Agudelo.

I’ll tell you what’s interesting from his point of view. That game was a very experimental, let’s-give-a-few-people-a-tryout game. The fact that he’s on the roster for this game - or the squad, as you might say here - says to me that he’s making a very good impression. I know he scored his first MLS goal the other day.

And the player who set up the goal in South Africa, Mikkel Diskerud, he’s a good young player too. He’d be a sort of new name to fans who haven’t seen a lot of him in the United States, but I saw a lot of him training in South Africa. I liked the look of him. He put in a couple of sort of impudent chips from the edge of the penalty area in training. He looked like a confident, young player.

I would not expect Agudelo to get more than some kind of late run-out against Argentina. I guess Bob Bradley would be looking to use him more in the Paraguay game. I think Bradley will pick as strong a side as he can put out against Argentina, at least to start with. They’ve got the CONCACAF Gold Cup coming up, and I know Bradley relishes these games against the big teams.

One player who was on the U.S. roster for the Argentina game, but isn’t now because of injury, is Stuart Holden.

Yeah, what a shame.

Bolton Wanderers don’t get as much attention in the United States as Manchester United and Arsenal do, but what kind of a season had Holden been having in England?

Fantastic. Stuart Holden has had more than one rave review in the national press in England for his performances for Bolton. He really has had a standout season. He’s had some quite influential people singing his praises in the English press. It’s terrible luck.

He had the fractured cheekbone, then he broke his leg last season, and now just at a time when he’s going really well again, he’s going to miss the rest of the season for Bolton. And they’re going to be playing at Wembley Stadium in the semifinal of the FA Cup, and they might even get to the Final. So it’s a luckless blow for him.

I would have suspected he’d have probably started this U.S.-Argentina game, given the form he’s been in. So yeah, I really feel for him.

Given the trajectory that Holden came from, where he came out of Major League Soccer and went over to England and succeeded, do you think that players like him and Clint Dempsey have opened the door that much more for American players? I know it’s sometimes hard to get work permits to play in England.

The players who are internationals won’t have too much of a problem, but undoubtedly, I think that U.S. players have got a good amount of respect. The ones that have played in the Premier League, in particular the goalkeepers, have made a thoroughly good impression.

I think there was a time 20 years ago where U.S. soccer was looked upon as sort of a Mickey Mouse thing in that it wasn’t played seriously over there. People would look down their noses if England didn’t give the United States a good hammering. Now, I think everybody has a good respect for the U.S. team, because they’ve done well - or pretty well - at a series of World Cups now. And they topped England in the group this time.

I remember in the build-up to the World Cup, people were saying that we’ve got the United States - yeah, they work hard, but we ought to be beating them. And I said that I wouldn’t be too sure about it. I think it’s a mighty tight game.

To get back to the U.S.-Argentina game for a moment, it sounds like Lionel Messi is going to be on the field for Argentina, and maybe even starting. People like to debate whether he, Xavi Hernández or Cristano Ronaldo is the best player in the world right now. Do you think it’s Messi or somebody else?

Yes, it’s definitely Messi. It’s definitely Messi. He is phenomenal. He is just a phenomenal footballer. I know some people say that he’s not as good for Argentina as he is for Barcelona, but since his level for Barcelona is stratospheric, that’s not necessarily a condemnation.

Since the World Cup, I think he’s scored three times in five games for Argentina. He scored a brilliant goal against Spain in the 4-1 win, he got the winner against Brazil. His stats are incredible.

If you let him get the ball and run at the defense, there’s almost nothing you can do about him. You’ve almost got to stop him at the source - either stop the supply to him, or have somebody right on him as he’s getting possession. Because once he gets the ball and starts running, you’ve got a big problem.

I just think it’s great that he’s going to be appearing in New York, and it’s a thrill for soccer fans over here to see him in the flesh.

I want to ask you a question about the English Premier League, because I know you do a lot of work with that. Right now, Manchester United is in first place with 63 points, five points ahead of Arsenal. Arsenal have a game in hand, and so do Chelsea.

It seems that on one day, people think that the title race is over, and then on the next day, Manchester United slip up and the race is back on. Do you think it’s over yet?

No, it’s not over. There’s more football to be played than you might think. Manchester United still have to play Chelsea at Old Trafford, and they still have to go to Arsenal. And at the moment, they’ve got a lot of key defenders out injured. So I think there are one or two chapters left to write in this, and maybe one or two twists and turns.

I just think it’s been a superb season in England, in terms of tales of the unexpected. Half the division is involved in the relegation fight, and you couldn’t really predict who’s going to win the Premier League with that much confidence. You’d have to say Manchester United are favorites because they’ve got the points on the board, but it’s not a done deal.

People look at Arsenal, and the way they play soccer has won them a lot of praise. But I would bring in an analogy from the college basketball that’s going on right up the road from you this weekend in Newark: that maybe Arsenal don’t know how to win, and Manchester United do. Is that a fair statement?

Well, that’s the accusation. Arsenal went out of three competitions in 13 days. I think it wasn’t the fact that they lost at Barcelona in the Champions League, it’s that they were played off the park. The gap between the two sides is very evident.

Yeah, there’s a feeling that it looks like being six years without a trophy for Arsenal. For a side that’s entertained everybody royally in that time, that’s way too long. There’s just a feeling that they’re a team of poets, passers and dreamers, but they just need some of the old steel that they used to have in order to get the blend right. Arsène Wenger doesn’t seem to quite appreciate that point.

One last question for you, and this is about ESPN. From watching the Premier League games that have been on ESPN2 over here, I get the impression that some of those are produced for the United States as opposed to being simulcast on ESPN in the United Kingdom and the U.S. Is that true?

Oh, definitely. The shows that we do aren’t on in the U.K. at all. This is a new departure this season, which is basically why I was hired. To do U.S. national team games, and to ramp up the coverage of the English Premier League, and do it for the American audience.

And we do it from the grounds, which nobody had ever done before - it was always just taking the world feed, which is what Fox Soccer Channel does. I know they have their own studio though.

We do it from the grounds and for the American audience, which is why, if it’s a game with, say, Clint Dempsey or Tim Howard, we’ll usually run some kind of feature or have some kind of American angle on that. And we maybe talk a little more about the American players who are involved in the game.

Did you ever think you’d be presenting soccer from an angle like that?

Heh. No, I didn’t. But I enjoyed working for ESPN at the World Cup. They were great to work for, and they were very enthusiastic about this idea. It just seemed to come at the right time for me. I covered the Premier League before, and I’m still covering the Premier League, but with some U.S. national team games and maybe some MLS thrown in.