Our beloved Brew.

Our beloved Brew.
R.I.P. Big guy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Christopher Sullivan makes even ugly MLS soccer seem intelligent

Loath as I am to watch MLS soccer, it is my habit to check out whatever is on Fox Soccer Channel at all hours of my viewing day. I happened on a game between DC United and Houston Dynamo last week while flipping channels and I had my finger on the channel changer just as I heard Christopher Sullivan's voice doing the color commentary. The game was a dreadful affair lacking skill, creativity, and style from either side. And yet, I stayed with it because I love the unique perspective Sullivan, a former professional player, and member of the US National Team brings to his commentary.

I've heard other former (and some active) players who lack the polish and perspective I think Sullivan brings. His delivery is measured, understated, and at times, melodic. Because of some questionable audio work during the broadcast, the commentators were often drowned out by the stadium announcer and the crowd. I actually found myself straining to hear what Sullivan had to say. Let me tell you, with all to few exceptions, that has not been the case with other soccer announcers in this country. Honestly, if I know a game is also being broadcast in Spanish, I prefer to tune that channel even though I don't speak the language simply because most English speaking announcers tend to be more distracting than contributing. Sullivan reports what he sees in a cadence that lends a rhythm to the game without distracting the viewer. Rather than just report the game, he brings you into its unique character. Too many other former players try to provide a player's perspective, but merely report the run of play.

Sullivan is an astute student of the game. His analysis blends team tactics, individual tactics, and a coach's sideline perspective. He has an amazing command of soccer history, players around the globe, and the fine points that comprise each player's game. Like the sport itself when it is played well, he keeps his commentary fluid, concise, relevant and insightful. He knows how to assess a team's game plan quickly, and at times, his ability to predict what a team is trying to do and when it will happen is uncanny.

I think a key to his success is he doesn't watch the game the way many fans and coaches in this country do. The norm is "ball watching," focus on offensive build up, or one's own team's execution. Coaches and knowledgeable fans watch three parallel aspects of the game at once: our own team's execution of the game plan, the individual and collective execution of what we believe to be the opponent's game plan, and the combined overall dynamics of the game with emphasis on individual match-ups that offer opportunistic advantages. In some cases, it is clear to me, coaches are so busy watching their own team's performance, they can't even tell you the sequence of events or key factors in an opponent's attack. This is especially true at the high school and college level, but I believe Bob Bradley, coach of the US National Team suffers from this at times as well. He's earned the nickname, "Bunker Bob" for a reason. As an aside, I was watching a game being coached by a protege' of mine, and at half time she passed by on the way back to her bench and asked if I had any observations. I took the occasion to ask her if she was aware that all three first half goals were scored on exactly the same play by two players who alternated positions, assists and goal scoring? It was clear to me that they saw a weakness and deliberately, repeatedly exploited it. It was equally clear that the coach and her defense hadn't adjusted to pick up the play after the first or second goal. I was very proud of her that she adjusted, and each time the opponent tried it after the break, it failed. Her team pretty much shut down the opponent altogether through her astute adjustments throughout the second half.

But back to Sullivan -- he has such a thinking man's soccer mind. He would make a formidable coach. If you caught the telecast of the Marathon (Honduras) and DC United game this evening you saw exactly what I am referring to in his ability to predict what Marathon needed to do to gain the advantage over DC United. As the game progressed he accurately predicted where the American team would be most vulnerable. Unfortuntely for the right back and central defenders who had a hellish night for DC United, Sullivan was laser accurate. Again, this game was a dull and lifeless affair, as evidenced by the meager crowd in attendance, until the Marathon coach took exactly the steps Sullivan had been suggesting early in the second half. A generally sloppy and unispired game was made almost bearable by Sullivan's analysis.

I know there are people who dislike Sullivan's work because of his European influences, or sometimes quirky pharsing, but rather enjoy those trademark aspects. There are very few people with whom I like to sit and watch a game because I prefer to analyze the play in my head rather than socialize and speculate as is done at most American sporting events. However, Sullivan is one person I'd love to sit with and compare observations during a match.