When Arlo White was announced as successor to Kevin Calabro as Sounders announcer in February, he was met with some mixed feelings.
On one hand, the Sounders had hired someone with soccer pedigree, having both hosted a studio show and announced matches for the BBC.
On the other, he was replacing a Seattle-announcing legend. Whatever soccer diehards thought of Calabro's work during the inaugural season, his presence provided an undeniable level of legitimacy to the unconverted. In contrast, White was a relatively unknown commodity to most Seattle-area fans, and the team drew criticisms in some circles for hiring a Brit.
Two-thirds of the way through his first season, I think it's safe to say White has clearly stepped beyond anyone's shadow. He has shown himself to be highly informed, impeccably researched and, in my opinion, a near perfect fit for this soccer community.
In a medium dominated by over-the-top jingoism, his subtlety and honesty are breaths of fresh air. That smooth accent is punctuated with pitch-perfect enunciation, and he even makes a point of getting the pronunciations of names and places correct, all habits that are unfortunately rare in the world of play-by-play announcing. He artfully straddles the line between omnipotent observer and subtle homer, rarely questioning motives and often coming to the defense of referees, but never being ambiguous about which side he supports.
If there's been one complaint about the announcing this season, it is that too many Sounders games have been picked up by national broadcasts. Sitting through ESPN's talking heads is bad enough, but being subjected to the clowns at FSC is downright intolerable when you're used to White's sweet mutterings.
White was amazingly gracious with his time when he sat down with me for about half-an-hour during a Sounders training session at Starfire. Our conversation focused mainly on his impressions of MLS, Seattle and Sounders fans, but touched on bits of his personal history and his desire to be here long enough to see the Sounders win multiple trophies.
Rather than subject you to one long interview, I've split this into two parts. Part 2, where he talks about replacing Calabro, his early career and even gives us a lesson the rules of cricket, is here.
Sounder at Heart: What are your impressions of Seattle and your first year?
Arlo White: My impressions of Seattle is that it’s a really interesting city. I like the city when the sun comes out.
July the 4th has changed many things: the Sounders form and the weather. It is a jewel, an absolute jewel. My family came over on July 7 and I told my wife "This is what it’s like February onward."
It’s a terrific place, I’ve got to know it gradually. I’ve been very busy, so I haven’t been able to see it all at once. But that time with the family was great because we got to do things like Ride the Duck, and go up the Space Needle. Went to Woodland Park Zoo. Seattle has a lot to offer and we got to do a lot of those things that you generally don’t do when you live someplace. I was actually a tourist for a week and got to look around.
In terms of how it’s gone, I couldn’t have enjoyed it anymore, especially with this recent winning run.
S@H: When you were hired, were you thinking that you'd just see how it goes or was it more of a move where you figured you'd be here for the foreseeable future?
AW: The latter. It was one of those things where you think to yourself this is where I want to spend the next few years unless something happens. It is a complicated situation, as modern life is when you have two incomes in families and both partners are professionals (his wife is an account executive and lives in England with their twin daughters). How do you get a situation where one career is deemed more important? That’s where compromise comes into it and that’s where we’re headed, which is great and we're working on a solution. Hopefully this will be where I am for a few years and that would be tremendous for my career, for my family and hopefully I get to follow this team, who will at some stage in the next few years certainly win a championship and I’d love to be a part of that.
S@H: How good of a league do you think MLS is at this point?
AW: I think it’s getting better. I was on Twitter the other night and I think the DC-Chivas game was on and I think it may have been on in England. I don’t know how, whether they were watching it online or how they were consuming it. But the tweets were "Oh this is a good game," "There’s some good passing going on here," "Oh the MLS has come a long way hasn’t it?" I wanted to say, "and this is two of the worst teams in the league."
I think there’s an overwhelming desire to try to play football. I think when Monterrey came there was just a glimpse there of what life is like in an echelon just above. But again, and I stressed this at the time, the Sounders could have gotten more out of that game. They created lots of chances.
You look at the drama, 36,000 in the grounds, going into injury time to see Freddie Ljungberg coming back for the first time, it’s just all set. The storyline was there and Fredy Montero provided a moment we will never forget and Sounders fans will never forget. It was a night that clubs' histories are built on. Those collective moments where you hug complete strangers and just start crying. That’s what football is about, that’s what building a club is all about.
In terms of building MLS, it is getting better. It’s exciting that all these designated players are coming into the league. It will be interesting to see how the dynamic works going forward because there’s a huge discrepancy between the money they earn and the money a lot of their teammates earn. Generally speaking, there’s an upward curve happening here and it’s very exciting to be a part of it.
S@H: Would you say that Chicago match was the highlight of the season (keeping in mind this was before the USOC semifinal)?
AW: Well, there was the Kansas City match. I like drama. The first half of New England was brilliant, but in context it was actually a false dawn. We figured we’d stick one on DC on Thursday and go into the break on a high and then they just fell down again. But watching us score three goals against a rookie goalkeeper who was just watching goals go by ... that was exhilarating. But in terms of results, that Montero goal, and the Sturgis cross by the way, was absolutely brilliant and was one of the moments of this franchise, not just for the season.
S@H: What has been your impression of Sounders fans?
AW: They haven’t disappointed. Even through the dark times ... there were times during that 10-game spell where they were 2-7-1 -- which started in Toronto, a game we should’ve won or at least should have got a draw, and culminated with what I call the watershed game on July 4 -- 2-7-1, seven points out of a possible 30 and the crowds were still 36,000. You know the season tickets have already been sold, but you know it would have been easy for people to say "I’ve got a barbecue Saturday night" or "I’ve got some shopping to do" or something other than going to the game to watch what was at the time a losing team, but no one seemed to do it. So the loyalty is there. The passion is there.
(This next part came out of nowhere, but I think it was triggered by the idea he was talking about passion) I go into fan group websites, I get a lot of tweets about referees and I try not to complain too much about refs. The Terry Vaughn thing at the start of the season (where he called a phantom penalty in stoppage time), I actually made a case for him. I tried. You know it was a dive, but then you have to try to see what he sees. And the Jeff Parke situation (a questionable handball in the box that led to another penalty). I’m a big advocate of helping referees. I’ve said it before, the laws of football were written the same year as the Battle of Gettysburg with a few tweaks here and there. But the essential premise of two linesmen and a referee has been there 140 years and it’s ludicrous. I think there’s an awful lot of moaning about referees.
I’m going to invite the ire of Sounders fans, but it’s not always the referee's fault and they do have a difficult job. I thought (Ramon) Hernandez did a reasonable job because of the ambiguity of the laws that the Jeff Parke call was a handball. You can make a case.
(And then he picked up right where he left off about the fans) By and large the way they travel in their number, it’s tremendous. The atmosphere is great. It’s a sophisticated audience that knows its football. So it feels like you’re at a proper football match, a proper football occasion.
S@H: What do you think is the big difference between what's going on in Seattle and what's going on in the rest of the league?
AW: The Red Bull Arena is a magnificent stadium. Whether the signing of (Rafa) Marquez and (Thierry) Henry can entice people across the river to go to New Jersey -- they do it for Giants and Jets games but they won’t for football -- it’s a tremendous place. The other stadiums are -- San Jose is one, it’s a glorified high school stadium but there were 10,000 there, it was a decent atmosphere it wasn’t the experience I thought I was going to have there -- but I’m sure there are moves afoot to rectify that situation.
My only criticism is the same criticism of stadiums in the UK. We’ve gone through this era of cookie-cutter stadiums, of generic stadiums. So Rio Tinto is similar to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, all the new ones appear to be out of the same design. Having said that, the backdrop of Philadelphia with the bridge and the Delaware River, it’s a wonderful place to watch football.
What appears to be happening now is that MLS is awarding franchises -- but it’s one of the only ways MLS is making money at the moment is franchise fees -- they are awarding to proven hotbeds of football. It started in Seattle, through Portland, Vancouver and I hear Montreal has a huge fanbase for the game. Instead of going to places and building stadiums in suburbs where no one is going to go, they are wising up and taking football to where there’s a proven heartland of passionate supporters and not, I use this term endearingly, the soccer-mom audience which you tend to get in Colorado, in Dallas, those sort of places. I think the league is going in the right direction. The stadiums don’t blow you away, but they do a job and if they really take off you can extend them. They’re intimate and it creates an atmosphere when you haven’t got rows and rows of empty seats.
S@H: What was your World Cup experience like? Did it make it easier or harder to come back?
AW: It made it easier. I wasn’t a fulltime soccer announcer before I arrived in Seattle. So to announce soccer fulltime in Seattle and then go to the World Cup -- and it went well, if I say so myself -- I just wanted to announce matches. I just loved it. To come back from Johannesburg on a Friday to London and then fly to Philadelphia on a Saturday and then call a game on Sunday, it’s exciting.
I was also excited to discover what kind of effect the World Cup had on a fan level, interest level, but a player recruitment level as well. I couldn’t wait to get back and get in amongst it. I loved the World Cup experience, it was the best experience I’ve had professionally. And I will be in Brazil 2014 if I have to pay my own way or not.
S@H: After working with a color guy in South Africa, was there an adjustment period to being in a solo booth again?
AW: It didn’t take any real adjustment because that’s what I was used to. I just reverted back to the first 90s of my career, if you like. That was easier to adjust to.
I really enjoy the lone booth now, but there are times like with the Jeff Parke alleged handball against Chicago that it would be nice say to someone "What do you think?" so that you could absolve yourself of all responsibility. And someone else can say "That’s an absolutely shocking decision." I don’t want to say things like that because I don’t think it’s my job. It’s an ambiguous law and if it happened on the other end of the stadium you’d be howling for a penalty for the Sounders. The only time where it’s difficult is when someone has to say whether they agree with that decision or not. If they think something should happen. I don’t think that’s my role.
By and large, over the course of the 90 minutes, I love it and don’t miss having someone alongside me. If someone does come alongside me at whatever stage, because of the standard we’ve set, they have to bloody good. It would be a case of finding someone that’s up for the job, if we change, and I don’t think it will change.