ESPN's Ian Darke on U.S. WC Qualifiers, Bocanegra, Donovan, Klinsmann & Panic

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ESPN's Ian Darke on U.S. WC Qualifiers, Bocanegra, Donovan, Klinsmann & Panic
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
How much pressure is on Jurgen Klinsmann heading into these two WC Qualifiers

ESPN will be televising the next two U.S. Soccer World Cup qualifying matches as the team plays host to Costa Rica on Friday night (9:45 p.m. ET, ESPN) before traveling to Mexico on Tuesday (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman will have the call for both matches.

I had the opportunity to chat with Darke in advance this vital set of games and we talked about everything from the current state of U.S. Soccer to Jurgen Klinsmann's roster predicament to how Darke calls a match, even during the English Premier League season, knowing he has an exclusively American audience. 

Darke (Via ESPN)
First, we touched on the biggest point of panic for U.S. fans, which must be the makeshift back line Klinsmann has selected for the two matches. (Throughout the article, Darke's quotes will be in block to make it easier to distinguish his comments from mine.) I asked how concerned we should be with the relative inexperience among the back line.

I'd be very concerned going to the Azteca with as depleted a defense as this one, but I was pretty concerned about the defense when I saw it in Honduras, which was lost.

All four of the defenders who had played there had never played in the Hex before, and the manager, Jurgen Klinsmann took the decision not to play Carlos Bocanegra, the one player with huge experience. It seemed to me he was vital to play in that game, especially with no Steve Cherundolo there to be a leader. I do think, with respect to the coach, they got that wrong. 

Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
Speaking of Carlos Bocanegra, how has he fallen out of favor so quickly with Klinsmann, going from the captain of the squad to not even making it to camp with a depleted defense that could use veteran leadership?

I think the problem with Carlos Bocanegra at the moment, for Jurgen, is that he's playing—or not playing—at a team who are struggling in the Spanish second division. So that is obviously a bit of an issue that he's not getting any game time and, therefore, there would be a worry about his level of sharpness.

But there is certainly an argument for saying what you just said: you have him turn up anyway to be a mentor and a talker and leader in camp. You have to ask yourself the question, 'Would Carlos Bocanegra turn up on those terms and travel the Atlantic on those terms when he has so recently been the captain of the side?' 

I wondered if it might be a distraction for Bocanegra to be there and not play, and asked Darke if he thinks that's the real reason to not bring him in at all.

No, I do think it would be a good thing for him to be there, but whether Jurgen Klinsmann thinks it’s a good idea—and whether Carlos Bocanegra thinks it's a good idea—you'd have to ask them.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
We shifted to another player who isn't in camp and may not be for quite some time: Landon Donovan. With the current state of the roster, this felt like a bit of a Bat signal in the sky for America's soccer hero. With Donovan still taking time off before rejoining MLS and, potentially, the USMNT, should we be concerned that his time on the national team is done and everyone is just playing nice publicly?

It's such a big topic. The first thing to say is that he's given such long and distinguished service to the USA that everybody should take their hat off to that and, maybe even, we should respect the fact that after this long in the game, he does feel as if he does needs to recharge his batteries.

Now the best-case scenario it seems to me here is that Donovan comes back from this rest, he's really fit and firing again, he's got all his enthusiasm back and he's playing as early as the June qualifiers and he helps the USA, gloriously, qualify for the World Cup and he puts on a tremendous performance in Brazil.

More likely I would say—because I think he's only played eight times for Klinsmann so far—is that he may be done with the USA team and it may be even that Jurgen Klinsmann, after everything that's happened, may not pick him for the USA team. That has to be a possibility too.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Whispers being what they are, I heard rumors during the MLS All-Star Game in Philadelphia last season that Donovan was telling people (media people) he was headed back to Everton on loan after the season in, perhaps, an effort to move there full time. Clearly that didn't happen, and Donovan announced after MLS Cup he was burned out and needed time away from the game.

I asked Darke if he thinks MLS has done a bit of a disservice to Donovan, or if U.S. Soccer should have done more to keep their biggest star fresh and excited about the game.

I don't know. I'd like to be definitive about that but without hearing it from Landon Donovan and putting words in his mouth, I don't know. There does seem a certain tiredness and disillusionment with Landon.

The one thing I will say is that perhaps because the game is not as huge here as it is in Europe—had a player of his standing wished to take a sabbatical from a national team in Europe, I think he would have had a very, very bad press about it if it were in England or Italy or Germany or Spain.

Perhaps the fact the game is lower profile on this side of the Atlantic has meant the media are rather taken with other things that are going on.

Let's look on the bright side, there's one thing for certain: the USA, especially in this transitional period, really need a fit and firing Landon Donovan.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
There has been much chatter lately about division in the USMNT camp. While Klinsmann and the players have publicly said everything is fine, certainly those inside the camp are feeling the pressure. What, other than winning, can quell this sentiment?

I think there needs to be a clear the air meeting where Jurgen Klinsmann says, 'OK everybody, no holds barred, tell me what you think. Get it off your chest.' And really the bottom line is, Michael Bradley said this, 'We've got to close the ranks here and develop a siege mentality.'

Somebody needs to say, 'Look, it's the WORLD CUP in Brazil. You will never play on a bigger stage. Be proud to put on the USA shirt and go out there do it and stop griping.'

The problem there, of course, is that it's impossible to circle around and close ranks when there are always new players coming in. It seems as if, injuries aside, Klinsmann still can't figure out who the best players are or who should even be in the mix.

Somebody has to step forward. In the absence of Cherundolo and Bocanegra, someone has to be the torchbearer in that locker room who the other players can rally around. They've given Clint Dempsey the captaincy. It's difficult for Michael Bradley to be that person, historically, perhaps. But those kind of players—(Brad) Guzan—maybe even Geoff Cameron, which sounds ridiculous for a guy with 12 caps, but he's almost become an elder statesman in this setup.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Atypical of USMNT teams over the last few years, the attacking midfielders and forwards seems productive and in form. Jozy Altidore is playing as well for club as any U.S. striker in 10 or 15 years, since maybe Brian McBride (note: I still consider Dempsey an attacking midfielder, especially in his record-breaking role for Fulham last season.) Should we feel confident the U.S. can score, even if they can't defend?

It's odd, (Altidore) hasn't scored a goal in open play under Jurgen Klinsmann. The only goal he scored was a penalty and I don't know why his form hasn't been good for this coach for USA, but he has, what 25 goals for AZ Alkmaar.

I'll admit that during our chat, I vacillated between overconfidence and panic. I asked Darke to talk me off the ledge a bit.

Amid all this crisis and drama, we should remember that the U.S.' home record in World Cup qualifiers is great. I think they've only ever lost one Hex game at home and they won all three of the earlier qualifiers and played pretty impressively in those games for most of the time.

Maybe the drama shouldn't be a crisis...at least until Tuesday night.

I'm not sure if that worked or made it worse.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
What will happen to the game in America if the U.S. doesn't qualify for the World Cup? Is there more pressure than ever for Klinsmann to succeed because the future of the sport in this country is tied to his team's success?

I don't agree with you. I think this game is on the up in the United States. And while I think it will be a major setback if the USA not to qualify for Brazil, I do believe that progress will be maintained. I do think it will be. The kids play the game, there's a whole generation growing up who understand the game and are quite into it.

It would be a blow but—and I'm going to say this on the commentary—nobody has a divine right to get to the World Cup. Maybe the USA has started to take it for granted. England has failed to make it more than once in the modern era. France has failed to make it, in 1994. Four years later they were the world champions on home territory. 

Russia didn't make it last time. Argentina made it by the skin of their teeth last time with Diego Maradona.

It's a tough old road to qualify. What's really happening might be good for the whole CONCACAF region, generally. It might be making things tougher for the USA and Mexico, but those other teams are catching up. The standard of the game in CONCACAF is clearly getting better. 

We moved on to the future, sort of. I asked Darke about the U.S. Soccer perception around the world and if he thought the country could ever truly become a world power.

My tendency at the moment is to focus on the current predicament (of the Hex). Klinsmann's unlucky a little bit in that he's in charge in this era where Donovan is coming toward the end and we don’t know what's going to happen with him. Bocanegra's coming toward the end, Cherundolo is coming toward the end. So it has to be, just by its very nature, a transitional phase.

I would say, at the moment, don't try to run before you can walk. The job is getting to the World Cup finals and only that should matter at the moment. All thoughts about what you can do going forward, I'd say put that on hold for the next few months. Everything is about getting results, particularly improving the away performances in the CONCACAF matches.

That's what worries me. I think they've played OK at home, but in all four away games they have taken the lead and only won one of them and generally looked a bit flat and vulnerable.

So they're going to have to improve somewhere. They are going to have to get five points, I reckon, on the road somewhere from the last four games away from home. And that may be five from three if you knock out the Mexico game. Not that that's a formality.

With all teams, things are cyclical with groups of players. You have some periods where there are some very strong teams and then it's not so good for a while. They are in the process of building a new squad, aren't they? There have been a lot of changes; some of the changes have worked and others clearly haven't.

Stu Forster/Getty Images
I shifted gears a bit to talk about Darke's style of commentary. First, we talked about Darke's weekly match commentary with Steve McManaman for ESPN calling the EPL. I told him my five-year-old daughter seemed to not care a bit when I mentioned during the Everton-Manchester City match this past weekend that Darke and I were chatting.

Very wise. She's very wise. You shouldn't subject your children to the horror show of me and Macca on a Saturday morning.

Watching as much of the sport as I do, I've found there are three distinct ways to call a match. First, there's the conversational style that balances the match with happenings in the sport, something Darke is quite adept at doing. Second, there is the style that merely identifies the players and lets the game breathe, allowing the sights and sounds of the stadium tell more of the story. Third, there is the more "American" style of announcing, where we get nearly every minute of play-by-play as if it were a radio broadcast. I asked Darke about his style, and how one chooses which way to go.

Style of play-by-play commentary, I think each of us who do it—and I respect everyone who does it—there's a DNA. I'd like to be able to tell you that I sat down and there's some sort of textbook for approaching it, but really I think everybody's style, in the end, evolves.

I would say, if I was talking to a young commentator starting out. I would say try to be a good house-guest in somebody's living room.

That's a good way of approaching it. Maybe you don't do that by providing a sort-of wall-to-wall noise and hectoring the viewer.

I think the beauty is in the blend. There needs to be maybe a bit a bit of humor, a bit of conversation, but I don't think the commentary should ever be bigger than the game.

The stars are the players, not the announcers. I remind myself never to even go there or think that.

If you've got a 3-3 game where it's all happening, you don’t want the commentators going too much away from the drama. So stick to it. Another time it might be a pretty dull, goalless game in the rain somewhere and maybe you have to feel where the viewer sitting at home is, and picture them thinking, 'Eh, this isn't really grabbing me' and reaching for the remote to go and watch something else. Maybe then it's good to pep it up and talk about stories that are going on and issues in the game and subplots. 

Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
Even on the European league matches, Darke is talking to an exclusively American audience (well, at least an audience in America). Does he tailor his commentary to that group?

Obviously we try to angle it to any American angles in the game we will point out. Obviously in England that isn't something we would do.

I think it's a knowledgeable audience and I would never attempt to dumb it down because I'm not talking to an English audience at all. All the tweets I get and interaction you receive say that people have a good knowledge of the game and understand it well. You try to give them the level of insight and commentary that warrants. 

Some people in America have said for a long time that, because we are more knowledgeable than perhaps TV networks give us credit, an American voice should be calling American soccer. Fox has pushed Gus Johnson to the forefront of their soccer coverage, sending him to the biggest matches in the world to cut his teeth in an unfamiliar sport. I asked Darke about the idea of an American being the voice of American soccer and while he politely (and rather professionally) sidestepped any comments on Johnson, having not heard him on matches, he did give some thoughts on calling American matches as an Englishman.

I'm easy with it. TV executives will make the decision they think is right and I'd like to think at the last World Cup the feeling I got was the majority of people did like what we did.

I realize it's a big talking point.

Here's my bottom line really, I don't think it matters if the commentator is British or American as long as it's good and people like it.

Harry How/Getty Images
I asked him if he had any interest in calling the NCAA tournament, what with March Madness going on as he's in America for this week's matches. In a word...

No. To be honest with you. One of my other little mantras is: know your limitations. It's pretty much a full-time job keeping abreast of the game I do cover. I can do boxing as well, and in the past I've done some track and field at the Olympics, but beyond that there are a lot of sports I'm interested in and would watch on TV and be enthralled by it—like I was enthralled by the Super Bowl this year—I wouldn't attempt to try to call them. The likelihood is, you could be found out in about 10 seconds. 

David Ramos/Getty Images
Last, we talk about the difference in calling different sports, particularly those—or even those teams—with which the announcer may be unfamiliar. How does one prepare for teams full of unfamiliar players?

Ninety-five percent of the job is identifying the players. So I spend a lot of time, I'll spend a lot of boring time over the next few days as I've already done at home, I've got tapes of all six teams in the Hexagonal and I'll put a tape in of Costa Rica and look at them again before I call the game. And I'll be saying, 'Oh yeah (laughs), Bolanos has a headband, he's got long hair, he's got a shaven skull, oh he wears orange boots, he hasn't got a right foot, he only plays left. A lot of the prep is extremely dull.'

Harder is when a lot of heads go up in the penalty area and you have to figure which one did (the ball) actually come off. Nowadays with the sophistication of the game with camera coverage, what you're seeing now, which you never saw before, is how many goals actually take a deflection on the way through. It's incredible how many just brush off someone else and you can see why the goalkeeper maybe got wrong-footed or was beaten by it. 

We're always on a bit of a wing and a prayer (as commentators at a live event). I'm quite convinced, and I'm sure all the Spanish commentators will protest hugely, but I'm quite sure that old style of the whole 'goal goal goal gooooooooal' thing started to give the commentator time to identify the goalscorer. That's my theory and I have to say, it was a very good idea.

That is an amazing theory and, to some extent it has to be true.

Darke has turned himself into somewhat of an American soccer institution since the World Cup. I had the pleasure of being the first person to interview him after his famed "Go Go USA" call of Donovan's World Cup goal over Algeria. It was a thrill to catch up with him before two vital U.S. matches this week. We aren't supposed to root in this business, but I think we both hope the U.S. pulls off a few wins.

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