ESPN starts its 22nd season of broadcasting Major League Soccer on Sunday at 5 p.m., with Orlando City vs. New York City FC. It's the first game at Orlando's new soccer-specific stadium, and the first game with a few new additions to ESPN's presentation.
To get the details on what the network has in store this season, I talked with ESPN's executive producer of all things soccer, Amy Rosenfeld.
The biggest new item this year is an expanded use of the goal post camera that ESPN has used at select games in recent years. It debuted at the 2014 All-Star Game, and has drawn rave reviews from fans across MLS.
Rosenfeld hopes her crew will be able to install the cameras for every game the network televises, though it might not be possible in some stadiums.
"There may be some technical complications in a few of the stadiums, but we're working to correct that," Rosenfeld said. "The target is that every match will have them. I think that's an innovation that really advances the viewer's ability to enjoy the match [and] for ESPN's ability to document the match."
The idea of putting a camera inside the goalpost was first dreamed up at ESPN by Bob Frattaroli, the network's longtime director of MLS broadcasts. Rosenfeld said Frattaroli had the idea "for at least 10 years" before it became reality, and it wasn't easy to do.
"We had to prove that the area that has the plexiglass that the camera shoots through, that there was no difference if the ball hit the plexiglass or hit the [rest of the] post square on," Rosenfeld said. "The second part of it was to create a housing for the camera itself within the post, because you can imagine the force if it's hit dead-on. The housing has to be able to keep the camera in place and almost cushion it in case it takes a direct hit."
So Rosenfeld's colleagues bought some goalposts, sawed them into pieces, and tried to figure out how to get a camera into them. Once they did, it did not take long for the crew to convince MLS to give the green light.
"We utilized them last year on about 10 to 12 matches, and I really missed it when they weren't on a match," Rosenfeld said. "Something great would happen in front of the net and I would become crestfallen because I knew we wouldn't have that angle. And when we had it, it was just magic."
(A hat tip to the crew at Total MLS for digging out those old tweets for me.)
Another change you'll notice in ESPN's MLS coverage might be a bit more subtle. Rosenfeld said she wants to change the orientation of halftime shows from focusing on highlights of the weekend's games to focusing on breaking news and trending topics in the league.
That should prove beneficial, not least because lead color analyst Taylor Twellman has established himself as a leading reporter of breaking news and transfer rumors. A halftime show focused on news that hasn't been reported yet also probably stands a better chance of keeping viewers engaged at intermission, since many fans will have already seen highlights elsewhere.
"We're not so sure that's a necessary component to be on the television side, [because] the soccer audience is so digitally-savvy [and] social media-savvy," Rosenfeld said. "I think we can really take advantage of [color analyst Taylor] Twellman's contacts, his relationships around the league both on the field and off the field."
Twellman gets ribbed by some of his colleagues in the media for being MLS' version of renowned ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter. But the two roles really aren't the same, because Twellman analyzes games and is a former player. That can make for a difficult balancing act. Rosenfeld believes Twellman handles it well.
"He is able to, in my opinion, balance his relationships with his ability to call a match and still criticize when necessary, laud when necessary," Rosenfeld said. "Taylor sort of has this journalistic side, but then also has to preserve some of these relationships for the access he gets to be able to do his job as a commentator. ... Taylor gets a lot of scoops and is still able to call the game and criticize, but he does it fairly. I think he has developed a reputation - I hope - among the players where they understand his criticism is fair and he will laud as much as he will critique when warranted."
Twellman and play-by-play announcer Adrian Healey will be joined by a few new faces on this year's broadcasts. The most prominent is Julie Stewart-Binks, who will be the sideline reporter for all of ESPN's games this season. She's plenty familiar to MLS fans from her time at Fox. ESPN hired her last December to work at MLS and U.S. national team games.
"We really felt that we were lacking in not having a reporter at every match," Rosenfeld said. "There were moments where I think we all here at ESPN [saw] something would happen and we missed not having a reporter. ... When you can add someone of the caliber of Julie Stewart-Binks, and plug her right in, that's a big win. That's a huge elevation of the show."
There will also be new faces on ESPN's studio set for the MLS games where there is one. Sebastian Salazar will be a host, and former U.S. national team and MLS cult hero Hérculez Gómez will be an analyst. They might also travel to games to do videos for ESPN's website, even if they don't get on a television broadcast.
Both men bring terrific knowledge of and passion for the American game. They also bring an element that many MLS broadcasts have lacked over the years: fluency in Spanish.
MLS is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual league more than ever. Rosenfeld believes broadcasts of its national television games should reflect that. (And she isn't alone.)
"Our goal is to get as much access as possible, and not have language be a barrier," Rosenfeld said. "So having Spanish speakers, it just gives us that ability to conduct a full interview in a native language, whether it's on tape or live, and not have to eliminate those individuals from our coverage because we don't have the ability to talk to them."
To close the conversation, I asked one question not about MLS. Rosenfeld has long been part of the women's soccer broadcasting community, going back to her days on the production crew at the 1999 World Cup. This year, the National Women's Soccer League comes into ESPN corporate parent Disney's broad empire, thanks to the new TV with Lifetime. The channel is run by A+E Networks, which is part-owned by Disney.
I asked Rosenfeld whether she's been approached by the NWSL or Lifetime parent A+E Networks to offer any advice to the new partners. She told me she has not, though she's aware of conversations between ESPN president John Skipper and A+E president Nancy Dubuc.
"John Skipper made it very clear that we're partners with all of our Disney family, so I would not be surprised and would welcome any contribution I could make - any advice, any counsel," Rosenfeld said. "I take it as a very, very, very positive good sign that I haven't been contacted, because my sense is that they have a really good plan, and that they are well on their way."