ESPN's Adrian Healey previews Union vs. Red Bulls

Carlos Ruiz and the Union look to get back on the winning track on Saturday against the Red Bulls. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to interview Adrian Healey, the play-by-play announcer for ESPN's Major League Soccer telecasts.

Healey is one of the most experienced soccer broadcasters in ESPN's stable, even though he's relatively new to American viewers. We spent a long time talking, so I figured I would split the post into two parts.

This post has our discussion of tomorrow's Union-Red Bulls game at PPL Park. Healey and John Harkes will have the call live on ESPN2, with the broadcast set to start at 7:00 p.m.

Tomorrow morning, I'll post the second half of our conversation: how Healey became the voice of MLS on ESPN, and a look at the rest of his soccer broadcasting portfolio. It's quite an interesting story, so be sure to check it out.

I'll also be back on here later today with the SEPTA schedule for tomorrow evening.

Talk about the game on Saturday, and what you're looking forward to.

It's a real treat for me to get what I think is such a pivotal game so early on. I think a league campaign is always a long road, and there are so me important staging posts along the way. You just get the sense that this is one of those moments already, early on in the season. It's one of those games that seems to be worth a lot more than the three points that are actually at stake.

I think there's a chance for both teams to really send a message that they are going to be major contenders in the East. Obviously everyone expected that from New York heading into the season, and it's been a real pleasant surprise that Philly has started the way they have too. It's going to be fascinating to see how they deal with New York.

There's so much to look forward to in terms of story lines, but I'm particularly looking forward to sampling the atmosphere at PPL Park again. I've been down to Philly twice for U.S. national team games, once at Lincoln Financial Field and once at PPL Park, back in October for Colombia. But I've yet to sample the full impact of the Sons of Ben. I think this rivalry could develop into something really special - and something that could rival the Pacific Northwest.

I think it's great what's been happening in the Pacific Northwest this season, with new teams coming on board, but I think there's no reason why the Philly-New York-New England-D.C. axis could be just as fertile and competitive - and I think it will be.

I was going to ask about that. I think it's fair to say that Major League Soccer didn't quite come around to emphasizing the passion of soccer fans and those rivalries in the league's earlier years. Is this game on Saturday the kind of game that could bring in the more casual fan?

I'm very happy to watch Los Angeles vs. Real Salt Lake, but the rivalry games might create a little more buzz.

Absolutely. I think it's ideal to bring in the more casual observer, and I'm with you that I think it's vitally important for the growth of this league that the fan rivalries are nurtured and developed. And it doesn't really take anything special from the league - it's happening organically. I think it's fantastic what's happened with the fan groups, and the league has obviously reacted to that and started to make it more of an important part of the puzzle for them.

But in terms of attracting more casual viewers - maybe viewers who would watch an English Premier League game or a Spanish league game, but haven't watched an MLS match - this is the sort of game that absolutely is going to sell the league to them. No matter what happens on the pitch, no matter if it's 0-0. The authentic atmosphere, the authentic experience, will be what we're trying to produce on the TV broadcast.

I think they've thought long and hard, and very carefully, about what games to with this season, and there's a reason they're putting Philly-New York on. It's a genuinely passionate rivalry, and I think that will come through on the TV screen. So yes, if any game is going to bring in a more casual fan, or continue to convert a fan who's starting to watch MLS, this will be it.

It's a Saturday night, it's prime time, there's no other football on at that time anywhere in the world. It's all tailor-made, isn't it.

I wanted to ask a couple of on-the-field questions. The first is about Philadelphia and goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón. Can a goalkeeper have that much of a difference in improving a team’s back line? It seems with the Union that he has been a really big factor in their success so far.

Oh, it’s enormous. People don’t realize that it’s not just what the goalkeeper can do in terms of his athletic ability or shot-stopping ability. It’s so much more than that. There are perhaps more intangibles with a goalkeeper than at any other position.

Just look at what happens when you don’t have that – Arsenal [in England] are Exhibit A. If your defense doesn’t have confidence and trust in its goalkeeper, then you don’t have a defense. Or you certainly don’t have a reliable defense. It is absolutely essential in terms of communication, organization, leadership.

Those four defenders have to just feel that they can always rely on the goalkeeper being there. Even the slightest seed of doubt, then chaos ensues. And again, look what’s happened with Arsenal in the last month. They have everything else, but they don’t have that goalkeeper they can they can defend on – and they’re out of four competitions, pretty much, as a result of it.

So Mondragón was an inspired signing. His level of experience and what he’s done and seen and been through in the game, you can’t put a price on that sort of experience. Even at the age of 39, he’s still a great shot-stopper. And that’s the great thing about goalkeepers: they can go on.

Look at what Edwin van der Sar did Wednesday [for Manchester United, recording a shutout at Chelsea in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals]. Actually, that’s probably a good analogy. Móndragon can have as big an impact for the Union as someone like van der Sar has had over the last few years – and I don’t say that lightly. I think it’s that important.

For New York, Thierry Henry has obviously gotten a lot of attention since he came over. But he’s come in for some criticism early in this season because he didn’t play much last year, and now he’s injured again. Do you think that criticism is fair, or is it still too early to judge Henry?

Well, people always want results, don’t they. When the big money is paid, especially when it’s for a goalscorer, they want results. Look at the criticism that Fernando Torres is getting at the moment at Chelsea, with that price tag [a $79.5 million transfer fee from Liverpool] weighing on him.

So in some ways the criticism is understandable, because Henry is a Designated Player. He’s earning a lot of money, and people think he’s not producing enough in terms of goals. But I personally am prepared to still say that Thierry Henry can still be a vital player for the Red Bulls.

Perhaps not so much in terms of goal production – he will get his goals, it’s almost inevitable that he will get his goals. But with [Dwayne] De Rosario and [Juan] Agudelo there, I think he’s going to be a very, very important part of the puzzle.

And maybe his role has changed a little bit as he is maturing, shall we say. He doesn’t have the blistering pace that he had in his Arsenal days. He didn’t even have it, to be honest, at the end of his Barcelona days. So there was no illusion about what New York were getting. They weren’t getting the Henry of 2004. They were getting the Henry of 2010, 2011, which is a slightly different player.

That isn’t to say he can’t be enormously effective, and I think he will be. But patience is going to have to be a virtue, and when players are injured, players are injured. They’re never going to produce their best. It has been frustrating, the number of niggling injuries he has picked up.

But I also think you should look at it as a positive for the league that he hasn’t just come here and waltzed around, and stroked in 20 goals. It tells you that it’s not that easy to do, even for a world-class player like Henry – you can’t just turn up here and go straight to the top of the goal-scoring charts. Because the standard is good, and it’s a lot better than people realize.