Ian Darke called the game-tying goal for the USMNT vs Algeria at the World Cup in South Africa

Nearly two weeks ago, ESPN made the announcement that they have hired Ian Darke to be their lead soccer voice in the United States. Darke has been involved in broadcasting soccer for nearly 30 years, starting with BBC radio (also covering boxing and athletics) before making the move into pay TV in 1992. American soccer fans will know Darke best as a result of his excellent commentaries in the 2010 World Cup, including the call on the Algeria-USA game, in which his excited summary of the events leading up to Donovan's equalizer has become the abiding memory of South Africa for many fans.

Most fans seem to have reacted very positively to this news, and on the surface it appears that this is a good step forward for ESPN’s coverage of soccer. Darke is a very good commentator who also has the respect of a lot of the players, particularly in England. He has apparently not been considered the top man at Sky (that would be Martin Tyler) but for the past few years, Ian Darke has been heard at a lot of Premier League games, particularly in the States, where he commentates for the international broadcasts for Transworld International.

ESPN is an internationally recognized broadcaster, and they’ve recently started making inroads to other domestic markets. Just last year the company started broadcasting Premier League matches in England. They picked up those games as a result of Setanta Sports’ collapse, and it is felt that part of the company’s long term strategy includes bidding for more Premier League games when the TV rights are next negotiated. ESPN is presumably very well placed, especially given their world reach, but as Yoda might say, impossible to see the future is. In any case, soccer is definitely part of ESPN’s plans in North American, and apparently it is important to them to have a commentator of Ian Darke’s calibre involved.

The question that I think needs to be asked, though, is Why Him?

I'm English, and I have an English accent. It's a cliché but the accent does interest people more than it really has a right to. But speaking in a certain way does not automatically make me more knowledgable, and I certainly don't claim to know more about soccer in the USA than a lot of other people, who have followed the progress of the game here for the past 15 years and more.

There seems to be a trend that almost all soccer coverage in the US must be accompanied by at least one English accent, and in truth that is somewhat worrying. It speaks to a distrust for American soccer callers, and an almost sycophantic following for all things ‘English’ that will not encourage soccer in the United States to develop its own culture, and that is one of the most important challenges that MLS faces in future years. Being such a young league, it has not yet had a chance to develop its own identity; by which I mean the fans have not yet worked out what kind of supporters they want to be.

The reason for this is simple; the people in charge of MLS do not currently appear certain about which type of league they want to develop. Do they want MLS games to be family-orientated, where children can come without expectation of hearing a barrage of swearwords, or would they prefer a more ‘working class’ experience, in which the chants and taunts that you see in most other leagues are more prevalent? At the moment, MLS is neither one thing or the other, and ends up being a pale imitation. There are parts of other leagues that have been 'borrowed', presumably to make it easier to assimilate existing soccer fans into MLS fandom. But for MLS to move onto the next level, it needs to step out of the shadow of other, more storied leagues and have the self-confidence to say to all and sundry "Hey, we are MLS. If you don't like us, that's fine". At the moment it seems that the league panders to wavering supporters just so it can retain them. I am fully aware that this is necessary for such a young league, but at which point do we need to cut the proverbial apron strings and have the league stand on it's own merits?

I speak to soccer fans in Europe and when I mention MLS there's a snort of derision, usually followed by an attempt to find a comparable - in terms of quality - European league. That MLS is recruiting players that are familiar to Europeans suggests to people that it is content to be perceived as EPL-Lite, and the Ian Darke becoming ESPN's lead commentator doesn't help that perception.

True, Darke will be commentating on English Premier League matches as well as USMNT and 'select' MLS games, but naming him as the go-to guy for soccer calling is a de facto way of saying that American commentators are not good enough. And while that may be true right now, there should be a concern that is setting a precedent which will essentially exclude American commentators from being considered as a top play-caller in the future. Practically speaking, it's the old 'job experience' paradox; how can you get experience in a job if you're not being given the job to get experienced in? If ESPN decides that importing voice talent is the way that it wants to go, then it consigning American soccer commentators to the periphery, and in all likelihood making commentating on the sport an unattractive proposition for anybody who might otherwise have been interested in it as a career.

In the grand scheme of things, the nationality of the play-callers is not very important. It is already pretty amazing that so much soccer is now available in the United States; for a country that doesn't "get" soccer, there is an awful lot of it on television. And as already stated, Ian Darke is an excellent broadcaster, and I'm sure that future commentaries will become just as iconic as the call in the USA-Algeria game. I just feel that there is a danger that the soccer in America will become homogenised to the extent that it is indistinguishable from other leagues, and that would be a shame.
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