07 June 2013

On the job again, in a new role

CSN Houston broadcast team in tight quarters in Columbus:
from left to right: Sebastian Salazar, Glenn Davis, me.
I got to work on back-to-back weekends recently, as I was fortunate enough to fill in for Eddie Robinson as the color analyst on the CSN Houston broadcast of the Houston Dynamo's game against the Columbus Crew last Saturday.

Having covered Major League Soccer regularly since 2007 and followed it closely since 2001, I had no trouble getting familiar with both teams. But my role - that of color analyst - is one I have rarely filled in the past. My only other outing as an analyst came with a play-by-play man who did not know soccer, so my role was mostly to fill in the details. That came in stark contrast to Saturday's game, as my play-by-play partner, Glenn Davis, is one of the most respected soccer broadcasters in the country and has plenty of experience in both play-by-play and color roles. In fact, the only previous time that Glenn and I worked a game together, the 2011 MLS Cup final, our roles were reversed.

The Preparation

I know how the analyst's role works, of course, but I still wanted some advice on how to keep my analysis succinct and useful, how to watch the game, and generally how to be effective. So I made phone calls to Brian Dunseth, a colleague and friend who calls games for just about everybody in American soccer, and a less familiar acquaintance, NBC Sports analyst Kyle Martino. I also talked with Glenn on the day of the game to ask his advice.

They all gave different answers, of course, which was interesting in its own right, but here are four of the keys I used - or tried to use - in approaching Saturday's assignment:
  • Know your role.
    Obvious, but important: when to talk and what to say. As the analyst, it was not my job to provide the basic information of score, minute, subs, player background. Analysts also need to lay out - or get out, if they're in the middle of talking - when the ball reaches the final third of the field. For me specifically, however, it also meant trying to avoid over-reaching. I'm not a former player and cannot provide that exact perspective. My strength is my knowledge of the league, its teams, and their history, so I tried to put things in context, like pointing out that the Crew's only wins came against the three worst teams in the league, and keep historical trends in mind, such as five of the teams' last eight meetings ending in a tie.
  • Get your rhythm.
    Both Dunseth and Martino stressed finding a rhythm with your play-by-play announcer. The pacing of the back-and-forth is very important, as you don't want to step on each other or detract from what the other is saying. I tried to play it safe in the early going, only chiming in when I was sure it was the right time, but I grew more confident as the game went on, and I think Glenn and I worked out a good understanding.
  • Keep the big picture in mind.
    Another point that appeared consistently, though with several meanings. This can mean analyzing a play in the context of the season or a player's development (i.e. "This run by Sarkodie is exactly what the Dynamo were hoping to see when they drafted him, and they're starting to see it more often as he matures") or it can mean looking behind the play, off-camera, for the positioning of the back line as its team moves into attack. Given the luxury of being in the building for an away game, rather than calling it from a studio, the broadcasters need to take advantage of being able to see everything that's going on. This was helpful throughout, especially being able to spot how the Houston bench was reacting to on-field injuries and which players were warming up to come in.
  • Answers the questions, "Why?" and "How?"
    This might be the most important perspective to maintain as an analyst. All three guys that I talked to used some form of this as some of their main advice. Rather than only narrating the replay, try to answer those questions: Why did the play happen the way it did? How does this affect the team, the game, or the season?
    I'm not entirely sure if I kept my head enough to pull this off on a consistent basis or not. Once I get to watch the tape, I'll have a better idea, but this is certainly one of the areas in which I need the most work if and when I get to work another game as analyst.
A couple of other suggestions I heard in discussing the role of analyst: keep constant eye on the shape of the back four, try to break the game into short segments to assess which team is playing better, don't get stuck talking only about what's on-screen, and always ask, "Am I adding to or distracting from the game?"
Highlighter-themed uniform night?

The Game

So those were some of the things I was trying to do. On the whole, I felt the broadcast went pretty well. As I mentioned, I got a lot more comfortable and confident as the game went on. There may have been a couple of slight, "Who, ME?" moments before I remembered it was my job to talk through the replays!

I realized afterward that I missed a great chance to reference a stat I had written down: Kofi Sarkodie had three assists in his first six games but had not recorded one in seven games since. On Saturday, he made a terrific run down the right and cross to Warren Creavalle for the opening goal, but I was so caught up in how cool the goal was - really a classy move all the way around - that it slipped my mind. Definitely an opportunity missed.

Working on the broadcast also meant being part of a 30-minute pre-game show and 30-minute post-game show, which you don't find on many MLS broadcasts. The pre-game show turned out to be a lot of fun. We had a meeting about it Saturday morning, and I got a great rundown from our producer, Kevin Cedergren. It was my first time working with CSN's Sebastian Salazar, who flew in on the day of the game after watching Mexico-Nigeria the night before, and I think Sebastian, Glenn, and I got into a pretty good rhythm right away. We tried to have fun with the pre-game show - I think I interrupted both of them to suggest a "road trip!" to the Open Cup game against Dallas - and it actually went pretty quickly. Unfortunately, there were some technical issues that meant it was not widely seen in Houston, so that was frustrating to find out after the fact.

One of the highlights of the day was seeing former Dynamo president Oliver Luck, somebody who's been very helpful in my career, as he stopped by after making the two-hour drive from his current job as athletic director at West Virginia University. His son, Andrew (you may have heard of him) said hello as well, so I assume the Crew fans in front of us were gawking more at Andrew than at Oliver, Glenn, or me. Andrew has always been a class act in my limited interactions with him, but I will admit to being a little surprised when I discovered that he is the rare 21st-century athlete who is NOT on Twitter.

So it was a great night to be calling an MLS game again, and I definitely enjoyed my different role and working with Glenn, Sebastian, and the CSN team. I wouldn't mind doing it again some time, but hopefully without all the injuries that we saw in the game!


  1. Very enjoyable read JY. Interesting to see the advice you received and how you prepared.

  2. Gret post and great job once again. It was fun.