How has the Houston area changed as a soccer community since you’ve been there?
Well, the obvious thing is demographics. When I came here in 1984, so much revolved around oil. Now it’s a city that certainly is diverse. We have people from Central America, South America, Europe. We have 100,000-plus Nigerians, a strong Salvadoran community and a small Turkish population. This is a city that encompasses every ethnic group. Its location has obviously made a direct impact on the soccer community on every level, whether it’s youth, adult or professional. It’s only been scratched. There’s an incredibly high ceiling for Houston as a soccer city.
When the first San Jose franchise relocated to Houston in
2006, outsiders might have considered it a gamble, yet the Dynamo have
quickly caught on. What were the key factors?
I never thought it was a gamble at all. The infrastructure and the interest were here to embrace a team. Fortunately, we got gifted an excellent team. With any franchise, it’s important how you start off, that initial first impression. We played Colorado, it was pretty much sold out, Brian Ching scored four goals and it was a great way to start. Then of course, you win a couple championships. When you get a team the caliber of San Jose, players that are willing to work in the community, people in the front office willing to extend the olive branch to people rather than being viewed as a threat–a lot of things fall into place.
You played and you coached youth. How does that come into play with your media work?
I’ve been lucky getting opportunities. I took the ethic of being a soccer player into the media. I took seriously how to be a better journalist, a better broadcaster and a better radio host. Now I feel very comfortable handling a variety of roles. Many people were willing to help, be supportive and believe in me. I have confidence in myself and a decent perspective from my experiences. I didn’t play in the heyday of the professional game, but I did play against teams like UNAM Pumas, Olympiakos and Sheffield United. I also played with a lot of world-class players, guys who played in World Cups and captained countries. All those experiences go together and hopefully add to your insight. But it’s a process that never ends. There’s never a game on TV that I don’t think I could’ve done differently. In the future I hope we get more ex-players who really want to work at being a good broadcaster. To relay it articulately, passionately, and in a way that engages people watching is very important.
How did your work in TV begin and then blossom?
It began by calling indoor soccer as an analyst. I broke into broadcasting in ‘94, doing indoor soccer. In fact, [in 1997] I called the indoor championship series between Seattle and Houston. I enjoyed it, sought out advice and slowly I got more and more games. Then I said to myself it would be great for a player who played to branch out into play-by-play. That’s pretty rare in sports. I would be able to lead my partner in with relevant questions, and rather than a baseball or football guy being real generic I could challenge my analyst appropriately. In the late ‘90s I started doing play-by-play for Fox Sports World, getting repetitions doing Serie A and CONCACAF Champions Cup games. It laid a good foundation, gave me opportunity to grow, get feedback and then you go from there.
How about radio and print?
My first work with the Houston Chronicle was a preview of the 2002 World Cup. I’ve been fortunate in that I really get to go after different topics. You get tremendous feedback. I wrote an article on Spain and suddenly I get a handful of emails from Spain. The gist of the article was how they won the tournament, and how it was great for soccer. Not just winning it but how they won it, by staying with their natural instincts. They controlled the ball and by the end of the game the Germans looked like a bunch of docile puppies. The life was literally sucked out of their legs and their brains. They got the first goal and then siphoned the life out of them. That’s something that should be a priority at youth fields: ball possession. There are countless ways to put in little hints. The weekly radio show started on public radio [for three years, before moving to a commercial station]. I love the instant impact and reaction from fans. I love people calling in who don’t agree, getting that conversation going.
When you’re in the booth for TV, how do you see your role, be it color or calling the action? Do you model after anyone?
It’s a whole bunch of different people. You can learn from great people in other sports, but I listened to great soccer commentators from around the world. I love when American fans rave about the commentators from Latin countries, saying how they’re so passionate. They’re right, but those guys also have a romance language to work with. It rolls off their tongues beautifully. Unfortunately, English is not the most romantic of languages. For fans, it’s different things that connect for them with a commentator. We all have to remember it’s really about the teams and the product. I try to keep my emphasis on the product: the teams, the coaches, the action, the tactical side. That what’s exciting and will sell the sport. I don’t mind a little bit of anecdotal information on the side. But ultimately it’s about the product, the players and the environment that’s presented on television.
While there was praise for ESPN’s presentation of the Euro,
there was a recent online story that it was done so with a heavy
British accent when comparable American on-air talent was available.
First and foremost, people wanted to see the teams and the players. It’s up to the commentators to add to it. Soccer knowledgeable people are important. You may have your favorite commentators and they’re very important. I’ve done the last two World Cups for ESPN, and of course you want to be part of that. It’s a privilege. I think we have competent American commentators, but the guys who worked the Euro for ESPN did a fine job. When you have the European Championships, it’s more about not messing it up. Let [the game] tell its own story. People weren’t turning on the final to listen to the commentators. They wanted to see Spain and Germany play for a title.
Calling a soccer game on radio is altogether different, is it?
In 2008, I did the U.S.-Mexico game at Reliant Stadium and I went down to Saprissa [Costa Rica] and did radio for the Dynamo in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. On radio, obviously you have to use words. You have to imagine a father and son laying down in their living room with their eyes closed, like I did as a kid, listening to sporting events. You have to describe the picture vividly. Actually, in Saprissa, I hung a microphone out the window of the booth. The crowd noise was so deafening I couldn’t hear my producer back in Houston. So I decided I was going to say something and then hang the mike out for 30 seconds as the press box was shaking and I was praying. It rocked back and forth, and I must have turned white, thinking I was going to be part of a Central American stadium disaster. Even the local guy next to me was nervous. So in radio it’s about being a wordsmith, trying to paint that picture for someone. Close your eyes and imagine what’s going on.
You’re going to be calling the Olympic tournaments for both men and women on NBC. What are the angles you will be following?
You can be nationalistic. A lot of people were not born here in the U.S., and they will be following their country of origin. For us born in the United States, of course we all want to follow the U.S. men and women in this event. There’s also the added intrigue of these famous players added as overage players. It’s interesting to see the dynamic of overage and the impact they have on their teams. What type of leaders are these guys? The other cool thing is seeing emerging talent. We all know how many famous players have gone to amazing careers, but they came out or began playing in the Olympics. The general soccer fan can watch it because it’s a great little glimpse into the future of talent around the world. I’ll be working with Shep Messing and Lori Walker. Every game will be live on some form of NBC programming. [NBC is] taking it seriously and that’s great.
The No. 1 storyline, for me, is that this league is at a point that it truly has to extend its salary cap. The players union agreement is coming up. It’s time to give these teams more resources. It’s time for us to stop being participants in international tournaments such as Superliga and the CONCACAF Champions League. It’s time for the league and everyone to come together to support these teams in a way that they have a shot at winning these international competitions. These tournaments represent an amazing opportunity to make gains in credibility. When I hear Roman Abramovich has given $500 million to Scolari to go out and get players, and the MLS salary cap is $2.13 million, I wonder if people realize what phenomenal jobs these guys are doing with limited resources. So let’s expand some rosters, let’s throw some money at the players and let’s start winning these competitions instead of just participating in them. And we’ve been close. That’s a great storyline.