Sometimes, the biggest news in American soccer doesn't happen on the field.
In one of the most stunning announcements ESPN has made in quite some time, the network revealed today that it has brought back Ian Darke to be its lead soccer voice across all platforms. This includes the English Premier League, broadcasts of U.S men's and women's national team games and select Major League Soccer games.
I have been told by sources that Darke's debut Stateside could come when the U.S. national team plays Colombia at PPL Park on October 12.
Darke will make his official ESPN debut on Saturday morning, when he'll call the Manchester City vs. Chelsea match. To ESPN's credit, Darke will be live on site at the City of Manchester Stadium. That's a new step for a network that has often had its announcers call European games off monitors from Bristol.
For many years, ESPN's philosophy was that American soccer needed to be announced by an American voices. This view was certainly controversial. No one will ever forget suffering through Jack Edwards and Dave O'Brien as they called the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, respectively. Nor will some of us forget ESPN's botched attempt to strip Scotland-born Derek Rae of his accent when he called MLS games in the mid-90's.
Yet there were also diamonds in the rough, most notably Bob Ley and current Philadelphia Union play-by-play voice J.P. Dellacamera. Going all the way back to the U.S.' first World Cup qualification in 1989, they showed a generation of soccer fans in this country that it's possible to be American and have a genuine understanding of the sport.
Ley and Dellacamera laid the groundwork for the many qualified American voices we hear callig soccer today. ESPN's Max Bretos and Allen Hopkins, Fox Soccer Channel's Mark Rogondino and GolTV's Phil Schoen (a former voice of MLS on ESPN) are just a few examples.
Today, that chapter of history was tossed into the trash can - and with remarkable speed. But just as the last 21 years had their share of controversy, so too will the new era.
There will always be a school of thought in American soccer circles that among the English-speaking nations, the British are the ones who really "understand" soccer. So for the sport to be at its best, the voice has to carry a British accent. This view is especially espoused by British expatriates and other so-called "Eurosnobs" who spend their Saturday mornings in pubs watching European soccer on television.
The other side of that argument is that the above paragraph is patronizing to Americans who do understand the game. It's a case that probably would not have existed a generation ago, but it does now. I suspect it will be especially hard for people in this latter camp to listen to U.S. national team matches when Darke calls them.
(One such person is BigSoccer.com's Aaron Stollar. His view can be found here.)
There's also a third group of people who just want the best announcer at the mic, no matter where he's from. The passion and excitement that Darke brought to the broadcast booth during the World Cup was impossible to miss, especially when he called U.S. national team games. Darke's style brought more than a few comparisons to CBS football and basketball announcer Gus Johnson, who's one of the most popular broadcasters in America. If Darke can make soccer equally exciting for Americans, it will be a very good thing.
(Among the members of this group is On the DL Podcast host Dan Levy. His counter-argument to Stollar can be found here.)
Before we draw any big conclusions, there are a few serious questions that need to be asked. First and foremost, will Darke hold Major League Soccer to the standard of play set by the English Premier League? I hope he doesn't. MLS has earned the right to be taken for what it is, not what it isn't. Go back and read my interview from this past summer with Seattle Sounders broadcaster Arlo White. He's an example of an outside who has come in and kept his perspective in balance.
The second question is: just how many MLS matches will Darke announce? ESPN's press release says he'll work "marquee Major League Soccer events." Presumably this means MLS Cup, but what about regular season matches? ESPN2 has David Beckham's visit to PPL Park on October 7. Given that Beckham was a guest anchor on SportsCenter last night, I would think any appearance by Beckham on one of the ESPN networks would qualify as "marquee."
Finally, how much does Darke know about women's soccer? We don't really have an answer as of now. Which is not to say he doesn't have any experience or interest, but we just don't know.