Trying to make it as a sports commentator.
Detail from the 1994 USA World Cup poster.
The world’s third-largest youth soccer tournament, Schwan’s USA Cup, is held each summer on a vast stretch of converted farmland in Blaine, Minnesota. The complex comprises fifty-two full-size fields and an inadequate number of shade trees; it is a desert of grass. Throughout the week of play, parents huddled beneath umbrellas, protecting themselves from the sun, if not the heat. They shouted encouragement to their children and epithets at referees.
On the final day of competition, John Hadden sat at a folding table beside field A-1. He’d been hired by a local public-access channel to call play-by-play for a U-19 women’s semifinals match. His pants were khaki; his loafers, shiny; his briefcase was leather with brass clasps—his appearance and bearing resembled that of an accountant. He estimated that no more than two hundred viewers would tune into the broadcast. “There’s an if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest quality to gigs like this,” he told me, “which, if your aim is to reach people, isn’t ideal.”
Hadden’s aim is to reach people. He wants to announce for Major League Baseball one day and has spent the last decade traveling the country to call games for farm clubs: the Idaho Falls Chukars, the Yakima Bears, the New Orleans Zephyrs. Every summer he lives somewhere else. Winters he returns to Minnesota, his home state, and picks up whatever commentary work he can get. He has called Pee Wee hockey tournaments. He has called high school gymnastics meets. While he admitted he was somewhat disappointed, at thirty-one, to be working youth soccer, he took his assignment seriously. Before the morning’s game he’d done three hours of prep work, he said, researching the teams and their previous results, the players’ names, the facility, the weather forecast. Rain, for the first time all week, was predicted. The parents’ umbrellas would be put to new use.
The Blaine Shock were playing the Saskatoon Horizon—the hometown club facing down an international threat. As the teams warmed up, Hadden conducted the pregame show. His headset was earmuff-style and striped with masking tape. It was hooked into a switchboard that was also heavily covered in masking tape. I saw now that the tangle of black and orange cords connecting the switchboard to a conversion van roughly twenty feet away were bound together, here and there, with masking-tape strips.
“The Blaine side advancing to this stage possibly with the benefit of a light schedule—a home team schedule,” Hadden said. His diction was clipped; each word came out of his mouth as its own fully formed square. “They’ve played only one game a day, while Saskatoon had a doubleheader not long ago. We’ll see if that gives the Shock any advantage when things get underway.”
The game began. Blaine started with the ball. Unable to make progress, they passed it back into their own territory, and then passed it back farther. They were outmatched and this became clear quickly. Their defenders were tall but slow. They outmuscled Saskatoon’s players, but couldn’t keep up with them. Within fifteen minutes, the score was 2–0.
“Cloudy skies and a cool breeze as things get going,” Hadden said into his headset. “And it’s been all Saskatoon so far.”
The Canadians focused their efforts on defending their lead, and play lulled. There wasn’t much to describe. Hadden at times struggled for subject matter. (“The A-fields named after Argentina,” he said at one point. “We’ve been over on Laos—the Ls—earlier in the week. I’m not sure how the countries are selected.”) Yet whenever one of the teams came close to scoring, Hadden became excitable. He spoke more quickly, as if caffeinated. His enthusiasm was contagious. He made the game feel urgent, and at certain moments one forgot that the women were competing only for the honor of facing, later that afternoon, the Lady Lumberjacks of Cloquet.
Play-by-play emerged as a profession in the 1920s, when radio stations began broadcasting boxing matches and college football games. The task for announcers was to make the action plain for an audience that couldn’t see it. Television created the demand for colorful commentators—viewers wanted analysis, not just description, of what they were watching. But play-by-play remains integral.
“It’s a little strange, I guess,” Hadden said. “Play-by-play announcers also provide context to viewers—they help generate excitement. But a lot of viewers just want to hear what they see. You go to bars for big games and everyone wants the sound turned on. And I’m one of the guys, when I go to a baseball game, who listens to the play-by-play through headphones while I’m watching what’s on the field.” Commentary enables a sensory triangulation, maybe, that affirms one’s sense of reality.
During halftime, I set off to buy a hot dog. By now the majority of teams had been eliminated from competition, and most of the complex’s fields were empty. But here and there games were in progress. I felt a special sympathy, passing by a U-13 girls’ match, for a goalkeeper who kept her eyeglasses in place with an elastic band.
To reach the concession stand I had to pass through a parking lot. A fair number of the minivans sported bumper stickers for Ted Cruz, and a fair number sported stickers for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or both. (I saw no stickers in support of Donald Trump.) Now an SUV backed into a space, and child after child, in matching royal-blue uniforms, like a streamer of flags, emerged from it. Their athletic bags were strapped across their chests horizontally, bandolier-style, and their water bottles clucked with ice. A moment later, their chauffeur—one of their mothers—slid down from the front seat. Her sunglasses were pushed into her hair and she looked a little tired, but not bemused, as she walked around her car and slammed shut all the doors.
I reached the concessions only to realize I’d left my wallet in my car. A referee’s whistle blasted three times from a distant field, and then a great cheer erupted like fireworks; one or another team had just won their bracket’s championship. I reminisced about the teams I’d played for in the USA Cup when I was a teenager, between fifteen and twenty years ago. Soccer had been my life then; I was no great shakes—I rode the bench for my high school team—but I’d thought that somehow I would play in college, and I indulged in fantasies of playing professionally, overseas. When I was fifteen, my team, the Saint Paul Blackhawks, made it to the USA Cup’s semifinals. We were tied 0–0 against a group of boys from Montana or Colorado. One of their midfielders had elbowed me in the throat early on, and all through the match I wanted to retaliate. But whenever I had the chance, I relented, afraid of hurting him, afraid of him getting me back—and drawing, I suppose, a bit of moral superiority from my restraint. Late in the second half, I took a shot from outside the goal box. It struck the crossbar, but the rebound came directly to me and I shot again. I hit the crossbar again.
I could still hear, or imagine hearing, the thunk and clang of reverberating metal.
The winds picked up as the second half began. Light drizzle fell. Both teams had scored late in the first half, and now Blaine scored again, in the forty-eighth minute, but within five minutes Saskatoon answered on a breakaway to maintain their lead—4–2. In the seventieth minute, Blaine scored on a set play after a foul—4–3. For the first time that morning, the air was crisp with tension.
“It’s been Saskatoon all day but suddenly the match is competitive,” Hadden said. “With about twenty minutes to go, we’re watching to see if the Shock can tie things up.”
The game’s pace increased. The women began to chatter, shouting directions at each other. Hadden’s chatter increased, too. One sensed that, in his way, he’d entered the field and was chasing the players. “Bastyr passes ahead to Ngene,” he said. “It’s a bit behind her but Ngene recovers before the ball goes out of bounds. Passes inside to Miskowiec. Miskowiec by herself with three defenders, looking for help but finds none. Takes a shot and—wide of the net.”
Blaine kept up their attack. In the eighty-eighth minute, their striker, Alexandra Miskowiec (rhymes with Bisquick), broke free with the ball. “She moves past the last defender,” Hadden said, “there’s just daylight between her and the goalie.” It was unclear whether he was aware that he’d stood up. “She’s about thirty yards out,” he said. “Twenty-five. A defender gives chase. She’s ten yards out. Miskowiec raises her right foot and—goal!” Briefly, Hadden lifted his arms above his head. One could see he was smiling. “The ball’s in the back of the net,” he said, “and Blaine has completed what looked like an improbable comeback.”
When the game had finished—Saskatoon scored the only goal of overtime and advanced—the rain began to fall heavily, and lightning flashed. Players from all around the complex rode in golf carts toward a central shelter. Hadden and his crew struggled to load cables and equipment into their truck. He sprinted across the field, a khaki blur, to retrieve a microphone from the opposite sideline. He paused briefly in front of the goal. He mimed taking a shot, raised his arms in victory, and then continued on with his tasks.
Max Ross has written for The New Yorker’s Page Turner and the New York Times.
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