- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

HAMBURG, Germany — Imagine John Madden doing the play-by-play for the World Series. Such a crossover wouldn’t go down too well with the baseball crowd. So it’s understandable why many soccer fans gasped when ESPN and ABC hired baseball play-by-play announcer Dave O’Brien to be the primary voice of the networks’ coverage of the World Cup.

If you haven’t heard of O’Brien before now, you’ll have plenty of chances to hear him in the next month. O’Brien and analyst Marcelo Balboa, a three-time World Cup player, headline the five commentator teams for ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. O’Brien is calling a number of the key games, including all the U.S. matches, starting with the U.S. team against the Czech Republic on Monday.

“It was a calculated risk,” said Jed Drake, a senior vice president and executive producer with ESPN and ABC Sports. “We wanted to take a signature voice from a mainstream sport and make it the signature voice of this event. We hope it pays off.”

It’s hard to blame the networks for naming their own man. After all, ESPN, ABC and Univision purchased the rights to the World Cup and other FIFA events through 2014 for a whopping $425million. And fans should be happy that all 64 games will be broadcast live.

I must note here that while I have never met O’Brien, he is a relative of mine by marriage.

I spoke to O’Brien on a recent conference call.

“In the soccer community, there is controversy about a baseball guy, which is a dirty word to some, getting involved in soccer,” O’Brien said. “But I’m curious about the sport — I love the sounds of soccer.”

O’Brien hasn’t had much time to catch up on the game, but one hopes by now he understands the difference between a direct and an indirect free kick, and that he has mastered the tricky offside rule.

“There are so many challenges doing soccer,” said O’Brien, who has called baseball games for ESPN since 1992. “You can’t go by the numbers because the numbers are hard to see. You have to get to know the player and there are 32 teams at the World Cup. You have to try and remember what color cleats a player is wearing. … Soccer has no breaks until halftime, so all your preparation has to be done in the run of play. It’s not like basketball or baseball where there is time to prepare in the timeouts. Soccer is a whole different ball game.”

O’Brien crammed like crazy for the job.

“It’s been daunting — like learning a new language from ground up,” he said.

O’Brien played soccer in high school in Keene, N.H., and calls himself a “an American soccer dad” with two children who play in Wellington, Fla.

In April, O’Brien took his family to see a number of English Premier League games, including watching American striker Brian McBride play for Fulham at Craven Cottage in London.

“I can’t describe what it was like at Craven Cottage, recently watching Fulham,” he said. “To see how much the fans love their players.”

As for the fans not happy with the choice of O’Brien, they have collected more than 4,000 signatures in protest on an online petition.

“Putting someone who has never done soccer commentary at the head of your broadcast team will only serve to alienate fans and move more viewers to Univision and other networks covering the games,” wrote one fan on petition.com.

That doesn’t deter O’Brien.

“I hope my passion and enthusiasm for this game come through,” said O’Brien, who won an Achievements in Radio award for Best Play-by-Play for his call of Mark McGwire’s 59th home run in 1998.

Soccer fans will be familiar with the other teams reporting from Germany. JP Dellacamera, working his fifth men’s World Cup as a play-by-play announcer, is paired with former American captain John Harkes, and ESPN2’s primary Major League Soccer play-by-play commentator, Rob Stone, is teamed with former MLS star defender Robin Fraser.

Sixty-five percent of the games will be called live from Germany and the rest will be done in the studio, in Bristol, Conn., by two teams: Glenn Davis and Shep Messing, and Adrian Healey and Tommy Smyth.

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