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Made in New England: The rise of America’s soccer media

Don Garber speaks with soccer media
Dec 20, 2017; MLS commissioner Don Garber speaks to reporters after awarding Nashville an MLS expansion team. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Pro Soccer USA examines the evolution of the game’s footprint on television as Major League Soccer prepares to hold its 23rd MLS Cup, which will air nationally Dec. 8 on Fox Sports. A number of people and events transpired over the decades to bring the sport into the mainstream. But in addition to the famous moments that have advanced the sport on the field, there’s a single lynchpin that helped bring soccer coverage to where it is today: New England.

Part 1: Kickoff

To this day, Seamus Malin doesn’t know what inspired the PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston to make soccer a primary emphasis of a new program in 1965 called “College Sports of the Week.” Malin, a Harvard graduate, was his alma mater’s assistant men’s soccer coach at the time and the Crimson’s practice field was just across the street from the station’s studios. So when producers asked then-head coach J. Bruce Munro to recommend someone who knew and understood the intricacies of the game and could deliver it well to a broadcast audience as an announcer, all he had to do was look across the field and say, “Go talk to Seamus.”

That endorsement gave Malin an in with PBS and launched a decades-long media career that would help catapult soccer into the American mainstream, first through the college game and eventually with the North American Soccer League, U.S. national teams and Major League Soccer. But Malin became a trendsetter, too, though he certainly didn’t know it then and won’t acknowledge it now. He was the first in a long line of broadcasters and commentators with New England roots to help bring soccer into the national conversation.

Today, at least 20 of the nation’s leading soccer voices have ties to New England. Some were born and raised in the region, while others came for school, work or to play professionally.

The number of people with New England ties in the national soccer media is no mere factoid – it’s a matter of historic record and had enormous implications on how networks came to understand and subsequently market the game.

“It is interesting,” Malin, now 78 and living in Santa Fe, N.M., told Pro Soccer USA. “New England has been associated with the game forever and ever. It thrived for many years, but quietly, as an ethnic sport. Immigrants from all over, but particularly from Europe were also more likely to come east than west, as it’s a little closer to where they were coming from. It’s a combination of circumstances, really. Some are circumstantial, others rooted in what this place is all about.”

This is an undated photo showing ESPN World Cup 98′ commentator Seamus Malin. (AP Photo/File)

That backdrop applies to Malin, who immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1958. First and foremost, Malin was a lover of sports. He grew up playing soccer in the streets of Dublin despite instructors at his Jesuit high school insisting that rugby was the true gentleman’s sport.

His father, Brendan T. Malin, was a European politics reporter for the Irish News Agency and helped him combine his love of sports with his eventual future in media. Even as a teenager, Malin drew inspiration from his father, opting to take classes on typing and shorthand. He started announcing sports at age 16 for a 30-minute Irish program called “Junior Sports Magazine,” which was produced by one of his father’s colleagues and covered soccer, field hockey, rugby and track.

When a recession hit Ireland in 1957, the Irish News Agency lost its government funding and Malin’s father lost his job, prompting him to accept a position as a politics reporter for The Boston Globe and relocate his family.

Malin arrived in Boston via New York. His transatlantic voyage by boat culminated with a stunning visual that left a lasting impression for so many immigrants in the 20th century.

“I woke up on the morning of my 18th birthday,” Malin said. “When I rose, I looked up and through a porthole in my cabin I saw the Statue of Liberty. It’s one of the most endearing, searing memories of my existence — I gasped. An icon of America, which was known all over the globe, and there it was outside the window of my ship. My younger brother Patrick and I couldn’t say anything. It was very moving and very powerful.”

Malin graduated from Harvard in 1962. He studied English, American literature and French, and also played on the varsity soccer team as an attacking midfielder. He kept up with the game after matriculating by playing on teams largely composed of immigrants and ex-college players.

When Malin started announcing games for WGBH, he had been splitting his time coaching, teaching and working in Harvard’s admissions office. But then his career focus shifted toward media. Not only did he broadcast matches, he also followed in his father’s footsteps by contributing to The Boston Globe as a sports writer. His soccer coverage in the 1960s and 1970s preceded the newspaper’s first soccer column, which wasn’t launched until 1990.

In June 1978, he became a commentator for the NASL’s New York Cosmos, one of the most desired beats in sports at the time. Malin credits that opportunity for opening more doors for him since all eyes were on the Cosmos and their iconic star players Pelé and Giorgio Chinaglia. 

Malin joined ESPN in 1979, two months into the network’s existence, but also kept ties with other media organizations.

“The Cosmos took over New York,” Malin said. “To be associated with a team that had Pelé, Chinaglia, Beckenbauer, and was run by Warner Communications, meant a whole lot in terms of new media. I ended up at ESPN because of that opportunity.”

 

In 1981, he was tabbed by PBS to travel to Australia with a small crew to cover the FIFA World Youth Championship, a prelude to the modern-day U-20 World Cup. Roger Twibell, who at the time announced New England Patriots games for Boston’s CBS affiliate, commentated on the games alongside Malin.

The U.S. participated in the tournament but went 0-2-1 in the group stage and got out-scored 8-1. Malin vividly remembers Qatar, of all teams, losing in the final to West Germany 4-0, but stunning England in the semifinals 2-1 thanks to a well-rehearsed offside trap.

More importantly, Malin made history. PBS’ coverage of the tournament marked the first time an American production team carried and covered an international soccer event for a national audience.

That said, a majority of people in the media wouldn’t have known West Germany from East Germany when it came to soccer and disagreed with giving the sport such prominent treatment. Even at ESPN, where his job was to exclusively support the network’s soccer coverage, Malin ran into road blocks with some of his colleagues and higher-ups as well as a mentality that couldn’t see past low-scoring games, a lack of commercial breaks and a dearth of American talent.

Malin still remembers all of the struggles to give soccer its due: “I was a lone voice crying out in the wilderness a lot of times.”

Part 2: Set in Stone

“I mean, was I that lone wolf crying out in the darkness?”

Captain Chaos paused.

“Yeah, a lot of the time I probably was.”

Getting soccer its fair share of the spotlight became one of Rob Stone’s sacred callings long before he appeared on television for Fox Sports or ESPN.

A former announcer turned studio host, Stone fell in love with the game early while growing up just north of Hartford, Conn. Even during a phone interview, Stone’s excitement talking about soccer is palpable. You can sense his eyes widening like Snap, Crackle and Pop on the Rice Krispies cereal box as he explains Connecticut’s soccer landscape, from the Oakwood Soccer Center where he grew up playing to UConn and the Connecticut Bicentennials. It’s like he’s perpetually carrying the proverbial pompoms for the world’s game.

For years, viewers nationwide have also been the recipients of Stone’s enthusiasm and flair. His Wikipedia page includes “Stone-isms” from his days calling the PBA bowling tour, and respected media critic Chad Finn featured Stone for his stewardship of soccer in a column leading to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Though Stone is no longer involved in play-by-play, many of his calls live in infamy for the sheer glee he brought to the telecast. Stone says he was just as expressive in college when he called basketball games at Colgate University.

“The energy was always there for me,” Stone said. “I’d call Colgate’s basketball games and the athletics staff used to call me Captain Chaos. They’d be like, ‘Rob, your announcing in that game was fantastic!’ Meanwhile, the final score would be like 42-28.”

But that attitude was precisely what soccer needed to gain footing on the national media landscape. Stone was a soccer evangelist still combating the narrow-mindedness Malin encountered in the 1980s.

Rob Stone

Oct 23, 2016; Carson, CA, USA; Fox Sports announcer Rob Stone wears a jacket with MLS team logos prior to the game between the LA Galaxy and FC Dallas at StubHub Center. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports)

The stereotypes of soccer being a boring, un-American game persisted when Major League Soccer formed in the mid-1990s. Then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter had to refocus the new league’s upstart organizers, who were contemplating using nets larger than regulation size to artificially increase match scoring.

MLS launched in 1996 and Stone served as a color commentator for the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny. In 1997, he returned to ESPN to call college football before eventually working his way into covering MLS and the 1998 World Cup.

The network had been pointing its cameras to soccer for more than a decade at that point, but soccer coverage was still far from getting equal treatment. Stone hosted an inconsistently-scheduled program called “Worldwide Soccer” on ESPN in the lead-up to the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and the show alternated broadcast times from 2 p.m. and 2 a.m. (and also once at 4 a.m.). Surprisingly, a press release announcing the showtimes is still posted on network’s online servers 20 years later.

The timing of the show wasn’t the only thing that irked Stone. Though the content was strong and he was a passionate host, he was typically recorded in front of a soccer goal on a random field near ESPN’s Bristol headquarters. Stone didn’t think it made sense for the program to be stuck in one place.

worldwide soccer on espn

ESPN’s broadcast schedule for “Worldwide Soccer” in 1998.

“There were a lot of battles in the early stages, but I didn’t understand why we were on this field when there was so much going on around us,” Stone said. “There were league matches and college cups and the MLS Cup and there was no reason we couldn’t be there. It was very much a first-world soccer problem.”

That scenario is a far cry from where the networks are today. Fox, which Stone joined in 2012, will use 26 cameras to broadcast the MLS Cup live this year on Dec. 8 from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This year’s title match is the 23rd all-time and features Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers, two teams that didn’t even exist when the league launched. This year’s telecast and the teams competing for the title are a testament to how far the game has come in recent decades, and the national media’s receptiveness to giving soccer a proper place.

Most pundits and insiders agree that soccer’s growth has been a slow process, but that it’s also never stagnated thanks to the expansion of MLS and the success of American soccer globally. Though the U.S. men’s national team has had hiccups in recent history – most notably its failure to qualify for last summer’s World Cup – there’s a clear line of progression from the 1994 World Cup and 1999 Women’s World Cup. Those two events, both hosted in the U.S., went a long way to establishing soccer as a permanent fixture. Meanwhile, other strong performances by the senior men’s and women’s programs from 2002 onward helped maintain the game’s growth across the country.

Today, America’s soccer audience is still growing. Every MLS game is now broadcast live and viewers can find foreign matches with little trouble. In short, the national media has come to embrace soccer in large part due to its prevalence in today’s culture and the recent success of the domestic product.

Seamus Malin (left) provides expert analysis, and Bob Ley will call the play-by-play of the World Cup Soccer Tournament games airing on the ABC Television Network. ABC Sports together with ESPN and ESPN2 will combine efforts to televise the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament. This marks the first time in tournament history that all 64 games will be covered live.

But there have been people inside the various networks turning heads for decades.

For his part, Malin was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005 as a media representative, though he insists he wasn’t a one-man show. He credits Bob Ley, his longtime friend and an ESPN original, for believing in the game and making the case for its inclusion with producers and corporate executives.

Stone, a fast-talker who will speak to anyone about soccer who will listen, has been beating his drum for years as well. In 2003, he took prominent sports writer Bill Simmons to a U.S. women’s national team game at Gillette Stadium, an experience which Stone says made “The Boston Sports Guy” into a fan of the game. Stone has been a preacher at Fox as well and his bosses are listening with open ears.

A few hours before kickoff of a USMNT-Mexico CONCACAF Cup tilt in October 2015 – Fox’s first-ever USA versus Mexico game as part of its revamped coverage – Stone went into a Fox executive’s office and shut the door behind him.

“I asked if I could speak my mind, and he nodded,” Stone recalled. “And I said, ‘This is a major opportunity for us. … This game is the biggest game, and no matter what, we have to do this right.’”

Part 3: Lights, Dellacamera, Action

The Waltham High School class of 1970 yearbook contains a prophecy.

In it, next to a foggy black and white portrait of a beaming young man with a wicked combover and a full smile is the caption, “John Dellacamera … He hopes to have a career in the media.”

American soccer has produced a small number of special moments that superseded sports and captured the attention of the public, which in turn helped elevate the sport in the national mainstream. But when people recall those moments, they don’t just remember the sights and sensations, they bring back the sounds, too.

JP Dellacamera

JP Dellacamera’s yearbook photo and caption from Waltham High School. (Photo credit: Antonio Cardillo)

JP Dellacamera narrated arguably the biggest soccer game on American soil in July of 1999, when the U.S. women’s national team captured the FIFA World Cup in a shootout victory against China at the Rose Bowl.

A record crowd of more than 90,000 got to see history made live from Pasadena, Calif.

For those watching at home across the country, Dellacamera’s call of the game was almost as enduring as Brandi Chastain’s winning spot kick and celebration.

“I was lucky. In this business, luck does play a part,” Dellacamera told Pro Soccer USA in a phone interview from his home in Connecticut. “I was at the right place at the right time. It was up to me to try to make the most of that opportunity.” 

By the time the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup arrived, Dellacamera had established himself a reliable on-air talent for soccer, which prompted ABC to name him as the tournament’s lead play-by-play announcer.   

That job was the result of years of work establishing himself in the field and honing his skills in the broadcast booth. It took some foresight, too. Dellacamera’s earliest broadcasting gigs were in hockey. He was the voice of the Long Island Cougars — a now-defunct team in the now-defunct North American Hockey League — in 1973. Dellacamera had others gigs covering hockey, too, from the college game all the way up to the NHL.

Dellacamera turned to soccer, a game he enjoyed growing up in the Boston area, sensing it could open doors others in sports media didn’t even know existed. Though no one truly knew it at the time, the NASL was poised to burst into the American sports landscape thanks to the advent of the New York Cosmos and their eventual capture of stars like Pelé. Meanwhile, other parts of the country proved to be fertile grounds for the game, even for indoor soccer.

While some purists might regard indoor soccer as a Frankenstein-like offshoot, Dellacamera saw the game as an opportunity, especially in Erie, Pa., where he called games for the Pittsburgh Spirit from 1982-86.

“The crowds were really good,” Dellacamera said. “And I also found that indoor soccer was like a combination of regular soccer and hockey, which I had been already announcing. I thought of it as hockey on turf.

“I do cherish and miss the indoor days. A lot people today, especially younger soccer fans, don’t realize the role that indoor soccer played in the sport’s growth.”

Malin said indoor soccer was basically the only show in town for soccer fans in the years between the NASL folding and the launch of MLS. Teams such as the St. Louis Steamers and Tacoma Stars regularly drew nearly 20,000 or more to games, numbers that rival some MLS crowd sizes today.

It’s surprisingly easy to find clips of Dellacamera conducting interviews with yesteryear’s indoor soccer stars, which may also be a testament to the game’s popularity. In one clip, dated Dec. 2, 1983, a chestnut-haired Dellacamera with a thin moustache goes one-on-one with Joe Papaleo, one of the Spirits’ goaltenders — yes, goaltenders.

 

Despite some of the oddities of indoor soccer, Dellacamera considers his time with the game invaluable. By the time he joined ESPN in 1992, he had both an eclectic mix of announcing experience and a critical mass of assignments. Dellacamera estimates he called 200 games, across many sports, per year from the late 1980s through the early 1990s.

“When you’ve got that type of volume, you have to get better,” Dellacamera said. “You learn by experience. If I can give any young people advice about broadcasting it’s that you get better by repetition. Like with anything else, the more you do something the better you get at it. The clips I’ve got from years ago, from the early stages of my career, were different; I think I’m much better today.”

Dellacamera found guidance in unexpected sources, too. His most influential role model for calling soccer was Brent Musburger, who never announced a single game of soccer in his life. Musburger, a former sportscaster with CBS and ESPN, was primarily responsible for play-by-play on football games. Regardless, his style served as inspiration for Dellacamera.

“He captured the drama in sports by saying less, not more,” explained Dellacamera. “He lets the pictures tell the story. He never let himself get bigger than the event itself. He enhanced the viewer’s experience by not being bigger than what was going on in the games.”

JP Dellacamera

(Photo/credit: JP Dellacamera)

Dellacamera, who now calls games for Fox Sports, covered MLS as well as numerous international matches for ESPN. He also had stints doing play-by-play with the New York Metrostars and Philadelphia Union. But his style in the broadcast booth is a clear parallel to Musburger.

During the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and China, Dellacamera, in probably the biggest moment of his career, did his best to narrate from the booth — and stay there.

“I’d be lying if I said I prepare for all games the same way, or that I didn’t do things a little bit differently for the 1999 Women’s World Cup final,” Dellacamera said. “But I imagine the person who announced the Super Bowl would tell you the same thing. You do a lot of prep work for any game, but the bigger the game, the more you would prep.”

When the time came in July of 1999, Dellacamera let the visuals do the real talking. On the fifth kick of the shootout after a scoreless regulation and overtime period, he delivered one of the most famous calls in American soccer history.

With the net behind U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry as her target, China’s Liu Ying set the ball on the penalty spot and backed up. Then, on the referee’s whistle, she took half a dozen paces forward before kicking out at the ball with her right foot.

“The shot …” — Dellacamera said fast with a hint of panic in his voice — “SAVE SCURRY!” 

Part 4: ‘New England was the right place to start’

There were four more penalty shots taken before Brandi Chastain buried the pivotal one that won the U.S. the World Cup title, got her on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and changed American sports forever.

All Dellacamera said on the last kick was “goal!” – another minimalist call that let the visual do the talking – which isn’t remembered in the same way as the Scurry save.

 

Dellacamera has called a number of special moments, including Paul Caligiuri’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” goal against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 that sent the U.S. men’s national team to the World Cup, though none really measure up to Pasadena in 1999. Now a grandfather, Dellacamera is proud his grandchildren get to hear his call.

Distantly related is that his grandchildren’s generation and future generations live in a country where the soccer landscape is exponentially different than when Dellacamera grew up. The national teams, particularly the USWNT, played a large role in establishing the domestic product through dominance on the world stage, while MLS has slowly developed a reliable following across the country as well.

America is currently more receptive to the game than it ever has been. Still, you don’t have to go very far to find naysayers. They are what Rob Stone – a longtime colleague of Dellacamera’s at both ESPN and at Fox – refers to as “the dinosaurs.” Some are behind-the-scenes executives and producers, others are more visible, such as syndicated radio talk show host Mike Francesa, who once asked on a hot microphone if soccer players kick with both feet. Even in Boston, arguably the top sports media town in the country and the hub of New England, there are voices who won’t give soccer the time of day. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy is a nationally-recognized sports journalist who recently won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award at the Baseball of Fame — and his contempt for the game couldn’t be more obvious. He even appeared to root against the New England Revolution during the 2014 MLS Cup, when they failed to capture the league title.

The media often functions as a gatekeeper, choosing which news matters most to the public. Soccer media still has work to do in that area if New England’s journalists haven’t fully embraced covering soccer on a regular basis and not just during World Cups, even though many people who came to call the region home helped bring the sport to where it is today. 

In his first column for the New England Soccer Journal in 2016, New England soccer historian and longtime Boston Globe sports reporter Frank Dell’Apa hit on this conundrum.

“The history of the game was living around us, but much of it had been ignored,” Dell’Apa wrote. “Soccer was lacking a narrative and there did not seem to be a foundation for one…I thought we needed to get back to the roots of the game. And New England was the right place to start.”

Malin helped kick off the movement as one of ESPN’s first soccer voices. Stone carried the baton as an outspoken media advocate. And Dellacamera called some of the most critical moments in the sport’s American history. But this trio hasn’t been alone in their quests.

Before he was an international commentator for Fox and ESPN, Derek Rae settled in northern Massachusetts to serve as a press officer for the 1994 FIFA World Cup and went on to call Revolution games from 1996 to 1999.

Adrian Healey, who is now at ESPN and lives in Connecticut, also called Revs games. Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman are both former Revolution players who are now leading voices in the sport’s national media landscape for Fox and ESPN, respectively. Twellman’s former coaches with the Revolution, Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner, are analysts with ESPN FC and continue to live in New England. Sirius XM’s Brian Dunseth is also a former New England player.

Like Stone, NBC Sports’ Kyle Martino was also educated in Connecticut – at Staples High School in Westport. New Hampshire native Jack Edwards held numerous broadcasting positions throughout New England and now serves as a play-by-play announcer for the Boston Bruins, but also worked at ESPN in the 1990s and helped cover the 2002 World Cup.

The now-defunct Boston Breakers of the National Women’s Soccer League were the final playing and coaching stops for leading voices as well, from the late Tony DiCicco to Kristine Lilly, Cat Whitehill and Heather O’Reilly.

Heather O’Reilly, front, celebrates her goal for the U.S. during a group match of the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup soccer tournament at Chengdu Sports Center Stadium in Chengdu, China, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007. The match end in a 2-2 draw. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)

Amy Rosenfeld used to work as a producer for Revolution matches — now she’s a senior coordinating producer at ESPN. Chuck Simmons is a coordinating producer for ESPN Español and International and is a Boston native and Emerson College alumnus. Jose Hernandez of beIN Sports is from Worcester, Mass., and is currently one of top Spanish language soccer play-by-play voices in the country. 

“It does make sense for so many of these voices to come from the region,” Stone said. “ESPN used to hire local. If you wanted to commentate on soccer, you could get in the face of producers and really succeed.”

Dellacamera, who still lives in Connecticut despite now working at Fox, buys into Stone’s argument, but also makes a case for New England being fertile territory.

A native of Waltham, which is less than 10 miles from downtown Boston, Dellacamera always felt sports was a key factor in the community’s identity, be it from the Red Sox, Celtics, or Bruins. When Dellacamera grew up, there was no New England Revolution or Boston Breakers, though the Boston Beacons competed in the NASL and played at Fenway Park.

“New England is a good soccer area, be it with the college programs, the Beacons, the old New England Teamen and now the Revolution,” Dellacamera explained. “There really has been so much soccer here, which has given media people here various opportunities with the game.

“It ties all together in New England. Now, is it a coincidence that so many of those national voices are from here or is it something else? I don’t know. But there’s no doubt about the amount of talent that did come through.”

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