Monday, September 22, 2014
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A voice worth listening to

Seattle Sounders broadcaster Arlo White has an especially unique perspective on American soccer.

A voice worth listening to

Arlo White has become quite a popular figure in Seattle since joining the Sounders. (Ted S. Warren/AP file photo)
Arlo White has become quite a popular figure in Seattle since joining the Sounders. (Ted S. Warren/AP file photo)

We are lucky that J.P. Dellacamera is the play-by-play announcer for local broadcasts of Philadelphia Union games. He brings decades of experience with American soccer to the booth, and is capable of speaking both to the seasoned soccer fan and the curious new observer.

But of all of the play-by-play announcers in Major League Soccer, the one whose viewpoint I think matters as much as Dellacamera's is the Seattle Sounders' Arlo White.

White came to Seattle after spending much of this decade working at the BBC's flagship sports radio station, Five Live. He was the studio host of of Five Live's Saturday sports programming, and did play-by-play of Champions League soccer, the Olympics, England cricket matches and the Super Bowl.

I remember hearing White's voice on those cricket broadcasts. Test Match Special, the official name for the BBC's cricket programming, is a true institution in England. It's widely regarded as the pinnacle of sports radio in the country.

Yes, I'm a cricket fan; and no, I'm not even going to try to sell you on it. I'm well aware of how boring it can be. But that's a big part of why TMS is so great. Test matches last four or five days, so the commentators spend much of their time spinning yarns and cracking jokes. Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn would have fit right in.

Anyway, back to the soccer. The Sounders invited White to come to Seattle last season as a freelancer, and this year offered him a full-time position as the team's signature voice. White's commentary is simulcast on both local television and radio in Seattle, and he doesn't work with a color commentator.

That would be an impressive enough career arc on its own. But this month, White went back to the BBC to call World Cup games during Major League Soccer's two-week break for the group stage. Among the games he was at the mic for were Cameroon-Japan and New Zealand-Italy.

White's last game in South Africa was Argentina vs. Greece this past Wednesday. So he went from Polokwane to Johannesburg to London to Philadelphia in a span of just over 48 hours. Glamorous, to be sure, but also a heck of a lot of jet lag.

By Sunday, White was ready for the Sounders to face the Union. We met up in the visiting radio booth at PPL Park, and he was glad to give a few minutes of his time for an interview.

When not calling games, Arlo is active on Twitter at @arlowhite. Be nice to him, though - England's blowout loss to Germany on Sunday morning was a bit tough for him to stomach.

You've just come back from two calling games at the World Cup for BBC Radio Five Live. How much fun was that?

That was the greatest experience, and so far the pinnacle of my broadcasting career. I've been in this game for 11 years now - I started relatively late at the age of 27. Going down to South Africa, and being a part of that tournament, and being on the world stage like that, was just extraordinary.

It's almost like working for the BBC in that situation is like being selected for your country. The last game I did, funnily enough, was Wednesday night in Polokwane: Argentina against Greece. So I got to commentate on Lionel Messi - I almost got to commentate on him scoring a goal, he hit the inside of the post.

I announced the New Zealand goal in the 1-1 draw against Italy, which was just extraordinary. And it was a fabulous all-around experience. I've learned as a broadcaster in football as a result of it. You can't go to an event like that and not learn. So for me, the two weeks were too short - I was home before I knew it. But the experience was invaluable.

You were at the United States-Slovenia game in Ellis Park. I haven't been following soccer for as long as other people have, but I've never seen that many American flags and American fans at a World Cup match. It was remarkable to see, and a sign as much as anything of how much soccer has grown in this country. What did you see when you were there?

Well for that match in particular, I went in obviously knowing just how many American fans were going to South Africa. Which, just on the level of geography, is impressive. I guess there are direct flights to Johannesburg from New York. But the actual task of getting from the Untied States, often via Europe, to the southern tip of Africa, is both expensive and time-consuming.

So for so many to do it, that is a real sign of the passion. We'll probably see more American fans in Brazil because it will be easier to get there. But to me, that geographical hurdle, and the number of people who went, said a lot.

I went to the U.S.-Slovenia game as an observer with my BBC commentating colleagues. And they were slightly mocking, partly to have a go at me and we had some back-and-forth. It was all in good fun, and all in good taste and all that. But when they saw the amount of American fans there, I think they were genuinely impressed. And when they saw the team play in the second half, I think they were quite impressed.

So to me, to get that many American fans down to South Africa was very, very impressive.

When the U.S. played Turkey here, a couple of English writers - Kevin Garside of the Telegraph was one of them - came over here. They were pretty surprised by what they saw both technically from the U.S. and in the stands.

Do you think there's been a change in the perception of American soccer in the U.K.? A lot of people over here sort of judge themselves by what England things. It may not be fair, but there was a lot of back-and-forth between the two countries.

Well, it's interesting. Because if you get on YouTube and look for some of the comedy shows, there have been a few skits about uninitiated Americans trying to interpret and broadcast the sport of football. And I think that has, in a way, permeated into the general view of the American sports broadcaster, football broadcaster and football fan.

It's clearly wide of the mark. I think Brits sometimes see Americans and hear Americans using their own sporting language and vocabulary in the sport of football, and it jars a little bit.

And Brits find it easy to mock, and to say, "Well, they just don't get it, do they." Because they're talking "time-outs," and "hitting the pipe," and "driving into the paint," and all that sort of stuff. Which I do hear from time to time, but I do think it's getting an awful lot better.

Frankly, American football fans should care less what British football fans think of them. Every nation has its own identity, creates its own identity, and should be free to express themselves in whatever way they want.

If you want to try and be like British football fans with the singing and chanting, fine. If you want to blow vuvuzelas for 90 minutes, do that too. It's fine. Everyone's got their own identity. I can understand why the British football fan is something to aspire to; I understand as well why the England national team isn't something to aspire to.

The culture is strong in the U.K., but it's getting stronger here. It should be allowed to move on organically, and not necessarily try to mimic or copy another nation.

When you call games, are there American things that you've picked up? Do you mostly call it football, or soccer?

I mostly call it football. There are certain situtations when it would be, I don't know, just slightly wrong to emphasize my Englishness. I call it the locker room instead of the changing room.

But there are certain things - I'll never call it a PK. I'll never call it overtime, it's extra time, or stoppage time, or injury time. That's not overtime, to me. I keep hearing "first kick." To me, it's a kickoff, and always will be.

Now, I've commentated on five Super Bowls. I'd never call a quarterback a halfback. I wouldn't change it because it sounds better. So a fullback in soccer, a right back or a left back, is not an outside back. It's a fullback. I wouldn't change a running back in American soccer to a third-back, you know what I mean?

These are established phrases and established terms for positions and events within a game, and I wouldn't adhere to the American way in that. I would stick to what I know. Because I believe it's the language of the game. And the same if there was a basketball game being commentated on in the U.K. If there was a layup, I wouldn't call it a lay-in. That's the parlance and terminology of the sport.

Every now and again, I might throw a "soccer" in. Every now and again, there might be a brief explanation. But there's a sophisticated audience in Seattle, so I find I don't really have to.

It really is. But when you got there, how much did you know about how soccer has taken hold in Seattle?

I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't know. I'd never do something like this blind, because things were going quite well for me at the BBC. I was at a couple of Premier League games each week. But I was brought in to do a single game last season. In fact, it goes back further than that - I was brought in to do a 'mock commentary,' if you like, a mock broadcast for the inaugural game against New York [in 2009].

So I got a sense of what the crowd was all about, what the atmosphere was all about, what the knowledge level was all about there. Then I was brought back in when the Seattle announcer, Kevin Calabro, went on holiday. I was brought in to do a game on TV against Houston in July.

It was a similar-sized crowd, it was a sunny day, it was a 2-1 victory. And it was a great experience. From that moment on, I always thought I'd like to keep this going on a freelance basis. If they needed me a couple times a year, it would be terrific.

But when the opportunity of a full-time position came up, obviously I had the basis of knowledge and experience to make the decision.

Lastly, as you have traveled around the league so far, are there places - here, New York, elsewhere - that have stood out?

So far, the road trips haven't stood out for me as much as I thought they might. There was a decent crowd in Colorado. I find that some of the attendances might be inflated.

That won't surprise anybody.

There was a game in Dallas where the announced crowd was 8,000, and there just weren't 8,000 people there. The people who were there were enthusiastic and loud, as loud as 2,000 people can be. Colorado was a decent-sized crowd, but again, it wasn't a sellout, because I could see the empty seats.

Real Salt Lake was good, Rio Tinto Stadium was pretty good early in the season. That seemed to be virtually full. New York was a huge disappointment, actually, because I love that stadium. I think it's fabulous. I think there was an incident at the subway station up the road that denied people access to the stadium. So that was disappointing. I can imagine that 25,000 people in Red Bull Arena, being New Yorkers, would make a fair bit of noise.

So I've yet to have that captivating, 'wow' moment on the road. Even Toronto, it was horrible weather - there was rain lashing down, it was absolutely awful. So that was a mild disappointment too.

Maybe here in Philadelphia - it's a steamy hot day, it's the opening of the park. Hopefully 18,500 here today will make a lot of noise. And hopefully the World Cup will change that too, and we'll start seeing some fuller stadiums around the country.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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