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Jersey Boys: Too many Red Bulls on the MLS Season Pass broadcast team

What’s with all the pundits from Harrison, and how will it color the experience of watching a game for NYCFC fans?

You know who this is.
Courtesy MLS.com
Welcome to the latest edition of Hot Take, in which a Hudson River Blue contributor takes a highly subjective stand on a topic and gives you their deeply biased opinion.

Yesterday, Major League Soccer and Apple announced the preliminary team of game analysts and play-by-play announcers for MLS Season Pass, the subscription service that will broadcast every MLS game this year. The roster of eighteen highly-qualified professionals includes some familiar faces — and three have deep ties with the New Jersey Red Bulls. No other team is represented as strongly.

As for NYCFC, there are zero announcers or analysts who are affiliated with New York City in any capacity. To go by the numbers, the league and Apple decided that MLS Season Pass is red.

This is a concern not just because of the intermural rivalry between New York City FC, the only MLS team to train and play in New York, and the Red Bulls, who train and play in New Jersey but use the aspirational “New York” in their name the same way a mid-market condo will brand itself “The Alhambra” — although watching a Red Bulls legend hold forth sounds like a high price to pay to see NYCFC play. It’s because it brings back the anxiety that MLS Season Pass broadcasts will always feel like watching a feed supplied by the other team.

When MLS and Apple announced their new broadcast deal last June it was understood that it was good for the league. After all, it aimed to take the balkanized world of local coverage and streamline it into one service that will show every game, elevate matchday standards, and be available in more than 100 countries. The popular, well-run broadcasts from NYCFC, the Seattle Sounders, and a handful of others would be sacrificed in the name of growing the global profile of MLS, and the professionalization of coverage across all games would benefit every club in the long run.

Still, NYCFC lost what was arguably the best broadcast team

in MLS. Setting aside the numerous shortcomings of YES Network, New York City’s supporters were spoiled by the Highland intensity of Ian Joy and the silky-smooth play-by-play of Joe Tolleson. The two had chemistry – Joy and Tolleson were informative, and fun, and disarmingly honest when discussing the strengths and weaknesses of New York City’s performances. Their insider banter will be missed on this side of the Hudson River.

Things look different if you spend time over in Harrison. MLS Season Pass broadcasts will feature Steve Cangialosi, who called the play-by-play for the Red Bulls for 21 seasons on MSG; Sacha Kljestan, who spent three seasons with the Red Bulls and served as team captain in 2017; and Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored 126 goals in all competitions for the Red Bulls over six seasons and remains the club’s all-time leading scorer. It’s an all-star crew.

We should acknowledge that Cangialosi is a seasoned professional whose experience will be needed when the new service launches, and Kljestan and Wright-Phillips will undoubtedly bring the full weight of their playing experience to their commentary. But their affiliation with the Red Bulls could prove to be off-putting to New York City fans, while catering to New Jersey supporters. Cangialosi, Wright-Phillips, and Kljestan are attuned to the history and culture of the Red Bulls, and will undoubtedly bring that intimate knowledge into the broadcast booth.

But who will do that for New York City? The MLS Season Pass team includes people who spent time calling games for Atlanta United, and played for New England Revolution, and analyzed matches for Minnesota United. Colorado Rapids are represented, as are Philadelphia Union, and LAFC, and CF Montréal, and Portland Timbers. Without question, all of the on-air personalities will be prepared and well-informed and will do their best to be fair. But bias is involuntary, and you can’t help but think that the coverage they provide of the teams they know best will be that much richer and more nuanced.

It should be noted that this is merely the preliminary team, and that more analysts and play-by-play announcers will need to be hired in order to cover the 14 games that will be played every week. It will be interesting to see who else is brought on board.

Still, it’s a little disheartening to see that three people who figure prominently on the New Jersey landscape will be there every matchday. Not only does it reopen the wound of losing Joy and Tolleson, it brings a note of skepticism about what it might feel like to watch a game on MLS Season Pass. Will another Hudson River Derby sweep for NYCFC be celebrated with the passion it deserves? Or will it be mourned by commentators pulling for New Jersey to win?

The truth is that probably neither will happen. Instead, national announcers will do their best to live up to the hype of a true rivalry like this one, but will miss the mark because they don't have anything at stake in the game.