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First Impressions: Soccer Night in America

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The Union's first appearance on Fox Soccer Channel this season was a rather special one, for the club's first-ever match against the Portland Timbers marked the debut of Soccer Night in America. It appears to be a two-pronged effort for Fox Soccer: one, to give MLS matches the "marquee event" status that have come from CBC's Hockey Night in Canada and NBC's Football Night in America, and two, to give Fox an opportunity to, in a sense, start anew with their MLS coverage.

In its eight years of holding a national broadcast package from MLS, Fox Soccer's coverage has, frankly, ranged in quality from "not unwatchable" (and that's on their best days!) to "call the FCC". Their graphics were blocky, ugly and way out-of-date. The on-air personalities were at times homerish and at other times crude in their analysis, and their production quality often looked plain unprofessional. It's why this past offseason, with Fox's contract expired, MLS was interested in potentially replacing FSC as a national partner with Versus. That didn't work out, likely due in part to the folks at Versus simply not having the time to launch a brand new facet of their network, given their then-impending integration with NBCUniversal.

So MLS re-signed with Fox Soccer for another year, perhaps hoping that by this upcoming offseason, NBCUniversal will be ready to talk about taking on national broadcasts. To their credit, the folks at Fox Soccer, recognizing their faults, and that they may be facing competition to carry MLS for the first time, have entirely relaunched the presence of their coverage.

Fox's changes started with graphics. No more is Fox using custom graphics created specifically for their in-house soccer coverage. They now have a complete graphic package built for soccer with the same style that Fox uses for its national MLB and NFL telecasts, as well as Fox Sports Nets' regional MLB telecasts. Fox has even tweaked their standard scoreboard slightly to show literally just two things: the teams and their scores, and the time. That's it. It gives you the information it needs, and it gets out of your way, which is all you can ask for -- especially with soccer. The graphics look sharp, modern, and, perhaps most importantly, familiar to almost every American sports fan. No longer does Fox Soccer project the presence of a minor TV channel that just happens to have Fox in its name, but instead now as a true part of the Fox and Fox Sports brands.

Also changed is the in-broadcast talent. The main crew for Fox, starting with this season and carrying over into Soccer Night in America, is J.P. Dellacamera with play-by-play, Kyle Martino with color analysis and Brian Dunseth with sideline analysis and reporting. All three are true professionals and are very good at what they do. Dunseth has always been excellent in his work over the last number of years with Fox Soccer, but Dellacamera and Martino are leaps and bounds more polished than many of the other personalities FSC has used over the past few years. As an interesting but pretty minor sidenote, Dellacamera was always calling the telecast "Soccer Night in America on Fox", as opposed to "on Fox Soccer". Whether that was just a strange miscue is the question at hand, but Dellacamera must have said it half-a-dozen times.

In terms of the production itself, the new graphics were used properly at all times, and replays seemed to be better timed to avoid missing any on-going action than in the past. With the exception of just a couple of instances, camera angles were transitioned to and from smoothly, and there wasn't a ton of "let's stop showing the main camera feed so we can show you a close-up of an area of the pitch where nothing's going on anymore" moments, if that makes any sense. One oddity is that throughout the duration of the telecast, the production crew, for whatever reason, felt it necessary to pull up their graphic about which team is wearing which color almost a dozen times. Sure, it should be shown at the beginning of the match and the beginning of the second half, but isn't the point of the scoreboard having the 'PORT' over a green background and the 'PHIL' over a blue background to inform the viewer of which team is which?

By the end of the telecast, it was pretty clear that the first Soccer Night in America broadcast was very much an improvement over some of the telecasts Fox Soccer was delivering in the past. It wasn't perfect; to be sure, when roughly half of your commercials still involve Katy Perry endorsing Proactiv, you've got a long way to go. But it shows that Fox and Fox Sports do have a true desire to see MLS grow and to see that their coverage of the League, however minor in comparison to some of the other sporting events they televise, doesn't remain obsolete. Will the station's effort to create a Hockey Night in Canada-like aura around Soccer Night in America be successful? No, one certainly can't imagine that, but their commitment is resulting in a net gain for MLS fans -- and truly, that's what matters here.