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Danielle Slaton on her preparation, approach and goals in calling soccer games

Commentator gives peek behind process ahead of Olympics.

Courtesy of Danielle Slaton

Danielle Slaton has embarked on quite the broadcasting career in soccer. A regular on her hometown San Jose Earthquakes broadcasts, the former U.S. Women’s National Team star has considerable experience around men’s and women’s soccer as a commentator, and she’s also called a number of World Cups and Olympics tournaments.

Slaton is scheduled to call soccer games during the upcoming Tokyo Olympics this summer, and she admitted in a recent interview with Center Line Soccer that she gets a special thrill from calling the big tournaments.

“I mean I’m just blessed, and I’m over the moon about getting to call the Olympics this summer,” Slaton said. “It’s my second Olympic Games. And I just think there’s something really special about the story of a tournament. Obviously it’s great calling the Earthquakes or it’s great calling individual games here and there. There is a compelling story when you cover a World Cup, when you cover an Olympics, in a way that doesn’t exist outside of that, and it’s fun to be a part of that energy, it’s fun to play your role in something that is far bigger than you. I really, really do enjoy the times when I get to call tournaments like the Olympics or the World Cup.”

Slaton explained that her approach in preparing for a big tournament like the Olympics, which will likely feature a few teams that we don’t see stateside on television much, if ever, differs from calling the Earthquakes over the course of the season.

“It’s a little bit different depending on what I’m doing,” she said. “Mainly, do I have the bandwidth and the time, if I can allocate it. When I cover a Quakes game, it’s nice because you’ve seen the team consistently. You know the ebbs and flows that are happening throughout the season, you have more access to be able to talk to players or coaches. So it’s a little bit freer, in that sense and you’re also trying to be objective and you want to call and reference the away team as much as you reference the Earthquakes but you are calling for a local audience. So, I’m maybe not quite as down the middle, I guess, as I would be if I was calling a national broadcast or like I am when I call an international tournament.

“When it comes to these big major events, the prep work starts super early,” Slaton continued. “And so for me it’s a lot about watching games, it’s a lot about trying to understand the tendencies of that team, that individual player, that coach. It’s not only watching their international games but if I can have access to watching club matches that they play that’s helpful, and you’re really trying to build this foundation of knowledge, which you don’t know what you’re going to rely upon or need to call upon when the time comes during the match at the Olympics or the World Cup but you’re first trying to build a base knowledge of everything that is in and out about this team.”

So how do announcers figure out their approach in terms of their audience? For Slaton, her goal is to reach as big of an audience as possible, especially during the big tournaments.

“When you’re calling games in an Olympics or World Cup the soccer heads are going to tune in to everything, all of the time, right? Like the people who are very into the game of soccer will tune in 24/7, but some people just tune in because it’s the Olympics, and so you have the more casual viewer, and you have to find a way to speak to the casual viewer, while also speaking to the soccer expert and not make it too high for the casual viewer and not make the expert feel like you’re dumbing it down,” she explained.

One of the revelations in hearing Slaton’s process is how she first learned to cope with nerves and how she continues to think about who she’s talking to on any broadcast.

“It’s a fine needle to thread, but I think where my approach kind of comes from is when I first started calling games. I first worked with the Big 10 Network. And I was so nervous, but I used to just tell myself the only people who are watching are these people’s parents. As long as I pronounce their names right, and I explain to them what’s going on, then that’s okay. And I really feel like maybe it’s because I come from a family of teachers, where if I could just teach the viewer something, if I can approach this like I’m sitting on the couch and talking to my dad, who was a football guy who never really learned that much about soccer until I started playing, if I can just picture my dad in the back of my head and saying you know what, I’m just explaining to this like I would be explaining it to the mom of a student at Ohio State, or like my dad is sitting next to me on the couch, that’s kind of my brand, my philosophy, the way I want to be and present myself as an analyst on television.”

Another fascinating part of Slaton’s process? She visualizes outcomes before the game in order to feel prepared if that scenario comes down.

“I don’t worry too much about the statistics, I’ve never been great with numbers so that kind of can be the role of the play by play [announcer], so for me I really do rely on stories, I rely on tactics and I rely on what I want to see out of the play, and or what my experience was and how my experience can relate to what they’re thinking or feeling on the field,” Slaton said.

“And then when it comes to a specific match, oftentimes, the night before the game I will do my final prep work, I will go through scenarios in my head like, if they play in this formation, 4-4-2 — let’s just take an example of the U.S. and Canada, let’s say they’re playing in a match in the Olympics. So if the United States does this, how would Canada respond and if Canada responds and does this, how would that change the tactics of the United States and if they made this change then how would that change for Canada? So I kind of go through the mental gymnastics of that, keeping in mind everything I know about that team, those personalities, that coach, and try to walk through what potential tactics could happen, what potential scenarios could arise so I can have those in my back pocket, but when I do have to articulate that or when I do have to speak it, it comes out articulately.”

Given Slaton’s quality as an announcer, it’s little surprise to hear about all of her forethought going into each game, but it’s still fascinating to really learn about the extent of preparation and mental approach in trying to illuminate games every time out. You can catch Slaton on many Earthquakes broadcasts and on the Tokyo Olympics on NBC Sports networks from July 21 to Aug. 7.

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