It is a rare moment in American soccer when a person or event captures attention on a truly national stage. But Ian Darke has done that twice in this calendar year.
The first occasion came during the World Cup, when Darke was at the microphone for Landon Donovan's historic game-winning goal in the U.S.-Algeria game. The second came a few months later, when ESPN announced that it had hired Darke to be the network's signature voice on its soccer telecasts.
Since then, though, we haven't heard much from Darke. There have been a few English Premier League broadcasts on Saturday morning, but no involvement with the American game. ESPN had initially planned for him to call the U.S.-Colombia friendly at PPL Park last month, but Darke's busy schedule in England prevented him from coming across the Atlantic.
The wait wil finally end today. Darke and John Harkes will call the U.S.-South Africa match in Cape Town at 2 p.m. on ESPN2, then fly to Toronto to call the MLS Cup Final on Sunday night.
To preview both of those big games, Darke, Harkes and studio analyst Alexi Lalas spoke with reporters on a conference call yesterday. Here are some highlights.
Darke on the MLS Cup Final:
I know that's an unexpected matchup between the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas, but I just think tales of the unexpected are what creates the drama of sport. I have a feeling those two teams have just come to the boil at the right time, which is why they've made the final.
From what I've been watching on tape, both of them play some pretty good football and have got good catalyst, creative-type players. So it should be a very, very good spectacle.
Lalas on the U.S.-South Africa game and the MLS Cup Final:
It's going to be fun to watch it with a critical eye, to see how many of these players will be potentially starring for the U.S. in the future, whether it's at the next World Cup or at an MLS Cup. Which segues right into the weekend, and certainly not a matchup that many people predicted.
But I also think [it's] a matchup that features some incredible players, and two teams that have consistently performed at a high level throughout the year. I don't think that there's underdogs in Major League Soccer.
I'm excited to head up to the Great White North and be on-site for that game, and obviously the doubleheader tomorrow with Bob Ley and Steve McMannaman. Then Steve and I will head up to Toronto to tear that town apart.
Darke on the impression that the World Cup left on American sports fans, and whether it helped to grow soccer in this country:
I was pretty new to the ESPN team. I've known historically that obviously, soccer is not the biggest game in the United States. But I'll be honest with you again, I could not believe the size of the reaction - particularly to the winning goal against Algeria, which I think did capture the nation's imagination.
I think the viewing figures were phenomenal, and I think it was a breakthrough moment for the game in the United States. That whole U.S. campaign was full of drama, even if they only did reach the last 16 in the end. My view is, you're pulling in casual sports fans who might not have appreciated the game before.
And maybe, more and more people are beginning to understand why this game is such a huge global phenomenon. Maybe a penny is dropping. That can only be good news, and you hope it drips through to MLS and stirs up more interest in that competitions.
Darke on whether the perception of American soccer has changed in Europe, especially in England, given how many American fans watch English soccer and consume its media:
Well first of all, I'm not quite sure that England remains the model, after the lamentable performance of the English side at the World Cup. But I know what you're talking about, how big the English Premier League is, and I'm glad that there's increased coverage of that on ESPN these days.
In the last 10, 15, 20 years, I think there is a definite respect for, certainly, the United States national side. Because the United States national side have gone to World Cups and largely performed with distinction. They've been sides with great spirit, camaraderie, and there's no easy game against the United States.
I think England knew that when they got to the World Cup this summer, and sure enough, they were unable to beat the United States and finished behind them in the group stage - which kind of underlines the point. So I think the United States, the aren't a side you would fear at the World Cup, but they are a side you would respect. And because of that, I think United States soccer has a new respect over the last 15 or 20 years in Europe - not just in England.
What I'd like to see happen now is for MLS to become a stronger competition, where maybe the kids who play the game form allegiances to these teams, and grow up and pass it on to their children. And then maybe it really can take root as an even bigger sport than it currently.
Lalas on whether the MLS Cup Playoffs format needs to be changed:
The fact that the Western team won the Eastern Conference championship, I don't see this horde of people that we are having to explain this to, that are just so completely lost as to why this is happening out there that they can't even function.
Is it strange? Yeah, it's strange, but we can fix that by naming [the conference finals] something else going forward. What really needs to be examined - and if I'm not mistaken, the commissioner [Don Garber] addressed this today in his State of the League address - is how teams that play for seven months, and play well, are properly rewarded.
That's not an easy thing to do with playoffs, but I think they are going to try to tinker it as much as they can. Whether you have a situation where you have 1 through 8 [seeds] and 1 plays 8 and 2 plays 7, I think those are no-brainer type of ideas.
But I think because we have a playoff system - and I'm not necessarily against a playoff system - it's hard for teams that work so hard for seven months and do so well to not be rewarded for their efforts.
Darke on the playoff format:
I don't think the geography should be a factor in it. What should be a factor is that the two side who come through the format as it exists, and show the best form, get to the Final. Now whether you agree with the whole idea of playoffs generally is a much more open question.
There are some purists who would say to you that the L.A. Galaxy finished top [in the regular season], and so should be declared the champions of the MLS season. That's how it works with the English Premier League - there is no playoff, it ends the way it ends after everyone has played each other.
But I think, with where soccer in the U.S. is as I understand it, that these end-of-season playoffs are a good idea because they give a climax to the season. And it all culminates in a spectacle, as it does in Toronto this weekend. I think the game needs a spectacle like that.
Lalas on Tim Ream, who is likely to make his U.S. national team debut today - and who plays the same position as Lalas did, central defender:
What impresses me the most is his ability with the ball. As much as I love defenders who impose their wills and their physical abilities on attackers, the ability to play with the ball and play out of pressure, and have composure as a center back, is an ability that we lack at the national level. ...
Whether he can transfer that to the international level is yet to be seen, but this game is important that is really going to test these players. The score is not inconsequential, but it shouldn't be looked at as the first thing. It's going to put players in situations in front of a big crowd, playing against a good team, where they are going to be tested unlike they have been in what they've been doing. ...
I'm going to be looking at this game on Wednesday with a critical eye to the individual and how he performs his role. Not necessarily how many goals are scored, or how many passes are completed. It's more about the individual in every given moment, how they react and how you can take that to the next level.
Finally, here's ESPN senior coordinating producer Matt Sandulli talking about the technical side of the MLS Cup Final broadcast:
Our coverage will be typical big-event coverage. We will have 17 cameras covering events on the field - multiple super-slow-motion cameras, steady cameras, robotic cameras, a jib camera. We will have Alexi on site with Steve McMannaman and Max Bretos. They will host the pregame, halftime and postgame portions of the show.