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Soccer on TV, Arlo White, and the splendid one-man broadcast booth

Arlo White, now in the booth for NBC
Arlo White, now in the booth for NBC

Arlo White now has his boots in the booth for NBC Sports Networks, and his successor behind the microphone for Seattle Sounders FC has been revealed.

I’m sure Ross Fletcher will do a bang-up job, and I’m truly intrigued to observe how Kasey Keller makes the transition from player to TV analyst, especially considering he’s in the starting blocks at one of Major League Soccer’s more important and higher profile regional broadcast positions.

But I can’t help thinking the larger soccer broadcasting scene just went the wrong way. Not because Seattle hired the wrong personnel to replace (the somewhat irreplaceable) Arlo White. Rather, because they hired two men to replace one.

I’m not just blowing wind up White’s trousers here, although I do believe he does a wonderful job. And I'm sure he'll crush it at NBC. Rather, I’m talking about how much I loved White as a solo act in the booth.

Finding the right chemistry between a play-by-play voice and an analyst is such tricky math in soccer – and almost nobody in our country gets it right.

It’s really about the history of traditional American sports, in my opinion, and the wildly different pace compared to soccer. The two-man booth in other American sports made perfect sense because its history was rooted in football and baseball. What do you have in those sports? Down time. Lots and lots of down time.

So the play-by-play voice absolutely did need a helping hand, a complement for better booth balance. And the back-and-fourth could be conducted at a relatively smooth, conversational pace.

But soccer’s pace is so very different, with constant action that really doesn’t jibe with the two-man system, not the way it’s built in the United States, at any rate. So we get this rattle-prattle effect, with two men in the booth scatter shooting in a conversation that too frequently takes the focus away from the on-field action. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go on about it.

Yes, it can has been done correctly. Mostly, however, the two-man booth becomes a distracting rattle-trap.

So the original (and bold) broadcast choices in the Sound were important, I thought. White was a one-man band who almost always nailed the right notes. Through efficiency of words and smart descriptive outlay, he provided the perfect blend of self-contained action-reaction. He showed that one man, well-prepped and well-chosen, could handle the job with a smart aplomb.

So I had this hope that more MLS clubs might follow. Alas, maybe we’re just not there yet.

Marc Stein and I had White on Soccer Today our weekly radio show/podcast last week. Click forward to hear what the former Sounders broadcaster had to say when I asked him about this matter. Not surprisingly, his answer was thoughtful and insightful.

First, we reached White in England, where he was part of the "Blue Army," en route to see his beloved Leicester City. The day was blustery, wet and generally miserable, and yet White couldn’t have been more excited about it, talking up the rare chance to buy his own ticket, to occupy the stands with his fellow Leicester fans and maybe even "shout at the referee every now and again," something he certainly avoids on the job. It was a pleasure (And a real hoot!) speaking to White. Only regret: that we didn’t roll tape on our 10 minutes of the off-air chit-chat and let everyone hear that, too.

You really should check out the entire interview from Soccer Today. (By the way, we’ve got U.S. international and Sporting Kansas City striker Teal Bunbury lined up for tomorrow, along with FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman. Getting top guests is our calling card on the show, so check it out. Here’s the link.)

As for White, here was his terrific answer about working a one-man booth for the Sounders:

"It’s Interesting because I have the experience of both, I suppose, at the BBC before I joined Seattle. When they told me that’s the route they wanted to go down, I was frankly a little concerned, and they had to persuade me a one-man both was away to go. Once the decision was made, I was happy to go along with it and I had confidence in myself that I would be able to pull it off. So it worked. Now, whether that’s the model for everybody I’m not entirely sure.

"The times in my career in Seattle when I found that having someone to bounce off would have nice, it was the big decisions, the big, controversial moments. Was that a hand ball? Was it not a hand ball? Was that a foul? Was it not a foul? Ninety-five person of the time I was loving every second of it. But just every now and then, it would have been nice to look over at somebody and say, "What did you think?"

"Because it’s not necessarily the play-by-play man’s job to come down on one side or the other. So you find yourself coming out with sentences like, "Well, I’ve seen it given," when it comes to hand balls, whether it was deliberate or not? Then you kind of lurch into clichés sometimes, which is something I don’t like to do.

"So, 95 percent of the time, absolutely fine. I loved it. Every now and then, would been nice to talk to someone.

"Now, whether that person is next to you all the time, chirping in all the time, I’m not entirely sure I would have liked that either. So there is a happy medium to be struck here. … There is medium in between letting the play-by-play man describe the action and the color man come in at pertinent moments and not just talking all the time. And I think that’s a situation I think we will achieve this year on NBC."

So there you have it from the man himself.

I’d still like for more clubs to try a one-man booth – but I suppose we’re just not quite there yet.