Talking to Tommy Smyth

By | March 12, 2011

According to Tommy Smyth, soccer has grown by “leaps and bounds” in this country, and his response to those who claim otherwise is symptomatic of his brogue-laden commentary: “are you kidding me or something? Look around, it’s everywhere.”

Tommy’s unorthodox commentary has made him one of the most recognizable faces in US soccer, and his hectic schedule testifies to the sport’s growth in this country. This season alone, ESPN will broadcast anywhere between 850 and 1000 games, and seemingly, Tommy has to have opinions on all of them.

There are perhaps very few people in sports television who are as well versed in American soccer history as Tommy is, since he’s been around long enough to remember when it was almost nonexistent. “As an Irishman, I’ve always had a natural interest in soccer, and there was no way of getting any information” forty years ago, he says about the sport. When he arrived from Ireland, there were places to play, and teams to join (Tommy played in New York’s famed Cosmopolitan League for the Shamrocks), so there had to be an audience. Faced with this reality, Tommy saw the opportunity to become the disseminator of the information he was seeking, rather than its recipient, by becoming a radio host for “Ireland Calls,” and announcing Gaelic games at Gaelic park (now Manhattan College’s soccer field).

Tommy’s big break came when the US was awarded the 1994 World Cup, which to this date remains one of the most successfully hosted world cups, boasting record attendances. “I called ESPN looking for a position,” Tommy says, and before he knew it he was announcing his first Brazilian league game off of a monitor alongside Ricardo Ortiz. However, the game – Guarani vs. Santos – presented Tommy with an unforeseen difficulty as he says, “people have no idea how difficult it is to call a game off a monitor.” During his second week, Tommy partnered up with JP Dellacamera (who has called US Men’s and Women’s national team games, and routinely covers the MLS), and when the 94 World Cup rolled around, he was calling the games on the radio.

The 94 World Cup marked a turn in America’s soccer culture, and spawned the first season of the MLS, which now in its fifteenth year, Tommy still claims is very much a fledgling league. He asks whether “in fifteen years the league has made enough strides,” and when he compares the league’s growth to soccer’s recent relevance, he sees a huge disparity. After all, one is much more likely to see fans sporting the jerseys of foreign teams rather than those of local ones, famed soccer pubs aren’t filling up for MLS games, and perhaps more telling, television audiences for foreign league games completely eclipse those from the domestic league.

So what accounts for the league’s stuttering progress? More money is being filtered into Major League Soccer, even though its leadership bemoans a very restricting budget (Tommy scoffs at that claim, saying, “when they need the money they find it.”). The league is better publicized now than it’s ever been before, its marketing is far broader, and the designated player rule has allowed big name players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry to make the leap across the Atlantic. For all intents and purposes, the MLS should have registered a substantial boom. Tommy dismisses the signings: “the signings are just spin, part of the publicity,” and he believes they do little more than create a short-lived frenzy. The real problem is the overall quality of play, and it is not being addressed. One or two players cannot raise the level of the entire league, only the few teams they’re on, and those teams will be the perennial contenders.

For Tommy, the league is having trouble finding the talent, because ironically, it isn’t looking in the right place. In other words, “good players are not being looked at,” and until that happens, the league’s “IQ” will not increase. He goes on to say that depending on college players is not the answer – an opinion that is shared by World Soccer’s Paul Gardner who told me a few years ago that college soccer actually hinders player progress. “I don’t want to sound like I’m anti education, but there is no real competition in college. By the time a player leaves college he’s already lost five years of high level competition compared to a player,” who is academy trained.

Many American soccer aficionados may dismiss the MLS’s stagnation, as their interest rests mainly on foreign leagues. Still, Tommy warns that if the league does not improve, we can forget about building a world beating national team. And ultimately, turning the US national team into a contender, and having a world cup trophy in the US, could prove to be the last step in the maturation process of the American soccer culture. Because, when all is said and done, America loves winners.