JACKSONVILLE -- Yes, Ian Darke admits, he really did exclaim “Go, go USA!”
Of course, there remain pockets of doubters — those who believe a proper British soccer commentator must have repeated “Goal!” after Landon Donovan’s putback rippled the back of Algeria’s net in stoppage time four years ago. Replays have proven inconclusive.
But Darke, ESPN’s lead announcer at this summer’s World Cup, acknowledges his signature call that lifted the Americans from first-stage limbo to the top of their group somehow must have tapped into his inner Yank.
“Howard gratefully claims it. Distribution… brilliant. Landon Donovan… there are things on here for the USA. Can they do it here? Cross… and Dempsey’s denied again! AND DONOVAN HAS SCORED! Ohhh, can you believe this? Go, go USA! Certainly through! Oh, it’s incredible! You could not write a script like this!”
“Now don’t ask me why I said that,” Darke reflects. “It just came out — somewhere in the recesses of my mind, quite beyond logic. But there it is.”
And it worked. Darke found the perfect blend for the U.S. soccer audience — that poised British voice, but with fervor in reserve to accentuate the game’s most dramatic moments.
And, perhaps, a knack for having those dramatic moments occur on his watch. A year after calling Donovan’s goal, Darke was in Germany when the U.S. women were on the ropes in overtime of their World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil.
Until Abby Wambach’s header tied the contest two minutes into stoppage time.
“ Ohhhhhh, can you believe this? Abby Wambach has saved the USA’s life in this World Cup!”
“I’ve been lucky since I’ve had this job, getting two amazingly dramatic moments like that,” Darke said. “You sort of had a license to go to 9 or 10 on the Richter scale.”
With Darke’s voice resonating through two of this nation’s best goose-bump soccer moments, ESPN quickly moved to name him lead announcer for the World Cup that kicks off Thursday in Brazil. And judging from the blogosphere, few seem to mind that U.S. soccer gets its voice is from the other side of the pond.
“I’m just kind of glad people seem to like the way I do it,” said Darke, a tad bemused at the status he’s attained on these shores.
Beyond soccer, the 60-year-old veteran’s portfolio also includes calling Ben Johnson’s tarnished 100-meter gold at the 1988 Olympics, along with Buster Douglas’ stunning knockout of Mike Tyson two years later.
None of this could be foreseen, of course. When ESPN put together its announcer list for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the venerable Martin Tyler — on loan from Britain’s Sky Sports — was in the lead chair.
With the U.S. and England both drawn in Group C, though, Tyler wanted the England games. That meant other than the U.S.-England group opener, Tyler would be unavailable for the U.S. team’s broadcasts.
“They came to me and said, ‘Would you want to do the U.S., talk to an American audience?’ Yeah, of course,” Darke said. “So that’s kind of how I ended up being the commentator that day calling the Landon Donovan goal. It just fell into place.”
It wound up an inspired match. Though the cerebral Tyler certainly would have given Donovan’s goal the proper weight, Darke’s call tapped into the joy of fans back in the States.
Not that he was aware of how it was being hailed. In fact, Darke initially couldn’t even remember what he’d said.
“I think in all the bedlam, it got forgotten,” he said. “We were on the move all the time traveling around South Africa. People were saying, ‘Your call of that goal has created quite a stir in America.’ Yeah??”
Yeah. Donovan’s goal eventually won an ESPY as Best Sports Moment of 2010, and Darke’s call no doubt played a role.
“Maybe my style is a bit more like an American style,” Darke mused. “I suppose I am more enthusiastic.”
Darke and analyst Taylor Twellman, his partner for nearly three years on U.S. matches, have this yin-&-yang dynamic in the booth.
Twellman, the former Major League Soccer MVP, is the high-energy half. Meticulously prepared, he’s in constant conversation with the truck on this night over just how to present his insights before last Saturday’s friendly against Nigeria.
Darke relaxes on his stool, looking over his roster card, a well-placed phrase at the ready if the room needs a lighter touch.
“But you have concerns about that back line, don’t you, Taylor?” Darke says as they rehearse the intro.
“Yes. It’s no secret…” Twellman responds, taking an extra beat to recall the phrasing he wanted for his first point.
“Back to you, Bob,” Darke says, leaving a perplexed Twellman hanging in mock indignation.
Both men break into wry smiles. “He’s the funniest guy in the room!” Twellman exclaims.
“I call him Mr. Belvedere,” Twellman says later, recalling the late ‘80s sitcom about a British butler trying to herd a disruly household.
“We’ll be in the middle of dinner and he’ll randomly bring something up. We’re in the middle of talking about the game and he’ll jump in — ‘Can you believe the economy?’ One of those real random things that kind of makes everybody look at each other and chuckle.”
Darke also can be the voice of reason. When U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann throws a curveball with his lineup — inserting Kyle Beckermann as a third central midfielder for winger Graham Zusi — the crew scrambles to deduce the new formation.
Twellman pulls out his cellphone. Editorial chief Marc Connolly looks through Klinsmann’s past lineups. “They’ll get mad if we have it wrong,” he says.
“But they can’t be,” Darke replies, pointing out that Klinsmann and his aides could have provided context but didn’t.
Just before they tape the intro, Darke is given a napkin to wipe his sweaty brow. “It’s a little like a Ray Charles concert, isn’t it?” he said. “ Geor-giaa…”
Like most observers, Darke sees a tough road for a young U.S. squad to get out of a group that also features Ghana, Portugal and Klinsmann’s native Germany. He points out that 17 of the 23 players are experiencing their first World Cup, and remains perplexed over the decision to leave Donovan home.
“I know his relationship with the coach hasn’t been the warmest,” Darke said. “I can see where Jurgen’s coming from — he feels Donovan took a timeout [before World Cup qualifying], a sabattical, and most pros wouldn’t do that.
“Having said that, I can’t believe that when it came to writing 23 names with his pen, [Klinsmann] didn’t think, ‘I’m going to need him. Even if I’m not going to start him, I’m going to need him.’ It’s a very brave call.”
On the other hand, Darke does confess to having a soft spot for his adopted squad.
“I think they’re an honest bunch. I wish them well,” he said. “I hope they surprise and confound a few people. It’s good for the game in America if they do. … If they can make a ripple or two, that pushes the game on again.”
And if another fantastic finish happens for Team USA, Darke will be there to give it a voice.
“You hope you come up with the odd memorable one,” he said. “That’s the best any of us could hope for.”