Eric Wynalda is a breath of fresh air on ESPN and ABC
American soccer is still in its growth stages and throughout the evolution of our national team, ESPN and ABC have essentially employed yes men and rally around the flag jingoistic type analysts to cover the World Cup and Major League Soccer. Ty Keough and Jack Edwards were totally shameless in covering both the 2002 World Cup and numerous seasons of MLS. Keough, in fact would never criticize a member of the US player pool while calling MLS games, and would often times inflate the image of average MLS players just to make the league and thus US Soccer look better. Bob Ley who called the 1998 World Cup and many other US National Team games was equally weak despite his excellent journalistic instincts in covering everything but Soccer. Seamus Malin knew the international game well, but he too had real trouble critiquing American players or coaches. Other commentators like Rob Stone, Marcelo Balboa, and Alexi Lalas have been nothing short of colorless and defensive of every mistake or effort of US Soccer or MLS. Colorful Ray Hudson has been kept from working for ESPN/ABC even though his brand of commentary is probably something that could sell American fans on the game.
Finally though, a breath of fresh air has appeared on our television screens, in the form of Eric Wynalda. Not only is Waldo the leading scorer in US History, which makes him particlularly qualified to comment on the National Team, but he scored both (arguably) the most spectacular goal in modern US World Cup history off a free kick against Switzerland in 1994 and he scored the first ever MLS goal in 1996. Unlike his former Men's National teammates turned commentators, Wynalda holds no punches back. During an early season MLS Game involving Chivas USA he took on former teammate and current ESPN/ABC collegue Alexi Lalas for firing Coach Bob Bradley while Lalas was the GM of the franchise formerly known as the Metrostars, and called out John O'Brien for being too injury prone and a potential liability if included on the 23 man US roster for Germany 2006. Alexi Lalas in a public comment soon after attacked Wynalda and impuned his ability to pass judgement on Lalas' decisions, but isn't that what a commentator is paid for? Two months later, the two seem to be getting along fine on the World Cup Live set, although it maybe just that Rece Davis, who has plenty of experience controlling opinionated anaylsts from his College Football and Basketball work has been able to keep the peace.
Eric Wynalda's World Cup commentary has been the first consistent critical analysis of the USA team on Disney Networks since we became regular participants in the World Cup. Wynalda has criticized Bruce Arena, suggested replacing Claudio Reyna as the captain and holding midfielder with Pablo Mastroeni (who was a teammate of Waldo's with the Miami Fusion), and called out Landon Donovan for his unwillingness to take guys on and exercise leadership. Wynalda even rightfully implied that Donovan has become too Hollywood with all the magazine covers and billboards, something I privately griped about in the lead up the World Cup, but something I thought would never be aired by former national team player on the Disney payroll. After all Donovan, along with Reyna and Arena seem to be sacred cows for the soccer media in this nation.
My hope is that Wynalda fills a needed role for soccer commentary on the network. The lead analyst role has been a revolving door for ESPN/ABC since MLS began in 1996 as have the play by play announcers. (Dave O'Brien is a marked improvement over Rob Stone and Jack Edwards though) Waldo has the potential to be soccer's Johnny Miller or John McEnroe if the Disney networks just keep him on the air.