CHESTER, Pa. — On a recent April evening, a couple of minutes before the Philadelphia Union’s game vs. the Portland Timbers on kicks off, Tommy Smyth begins banging his hands together, an aggressive form of clapping. Soon, the Union's broadcasting partner in the booth at Talen Energy Stadium, JP Dellacamera, joins in.
Minutes later, they're singing along with the national anthem, then sitting on their stools, energy and focus never wavering. Smyth’s left leg bounces in anticipation, while Dellacamera meticulously studies the lineups cards in front of him.
It doesn’t matter that they’ve called nearly 3,000 soccer games together over the years, from the World Cup to UEFA Champions League finals. Here they are now, as the home broadcasters for the Philadelphia Union, in an early-season, inter-conference matchup, as fired up as they’ve ever been to talk about soccer.
That’s because they get to do it together — just as they have for much of the past 25 years.
“I think we started out as broadcast partners, then became great friends,” the 65-year-old Dellacamera says. “And we’re still broadcast partners, and I would say at this point in our careers, it’s fantastic to be able to do games with him again.”
“At this point, I can almost finish his sentences” Smyth, age 70, chimes in. “And he can probably finish mine as well.”
From UEFA to the Union
In some ways, the Union booth might seem like an interesting spot for two of the country’s most well-known soccer broadcasters to land. Both have called games on the sport’s biggest international stages -- including the famous 1999 UEFA Champions League final.
The Union, however, made veteran play-by-play man Dellacamera one of their first big “signings” before their 2010 expansion season began, and he’s been with Philly ever since. Meanwhile Smyth, the famous Irish color commentator, contributed to a couple of Union broadcasts during that 2010 campaign, but ESPN conflicts prevented him from doing more.
It wasn’t until his time at ESPN drew to a close last year -- and a spot on the Union’s broadcast team opened -- up that Smyth reunited with Dellacamera, first on a temporary basis.
It wasn’t temporary for long.
“He filled in last-minute for one gig,” says Carl Mandell, the Union’s director of broadcast and video production. “[Owner Jay Sugarman] was watching the game at home, and he loved JP and Tommy together. So it was done.”
It’s easy to see the chemistry the two share. During a production meeting a few hours before that April 8 Portland game, the laughs are endless, the straight-laced Dellacamera enjoying the witty remarks that his color man consistently provides. The relationship is the same in the booth, too, as Dellacamera takes Smyth’s brand of humor in stride, even if he doesn’t always understand the latter's Irish colloquialisms.
“I’ve probably smiled or laughed more with stuff that he has said than anyone else,” says Dellacamera, who's also worked worked alongside a slew of other talented Union color commentators in Kyle Martino, Taylor Twellman and Alejandro Moreno.
In part due to his unique style, Smyth has his share of detractors. But the longtime Irish announcer doesn’t believe he’s gimmicky, pointing out that he’s never used his most famous catchphrase, “a bulge in the ’ole onion bag" more than once during any match. (He came up with that one, previously, because some nets used to be red, like the onion bags he’d see in the supermarket.)
And even though he’s obviously well-versed in European soccer, he’s always cared deeply about MLS, from his time announcing for the MetroStars in the 1990s to calling a few games for the Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew SC and now for the Union.
"I’ve realized people kind of like me because I’m not your typical 'Eurosnob' in terms of announcing games,” Smyth says. “I announce the game as it is. I’m not gonna announce the game as it should be compared to Chelsea. This is a young league."
Blazing the soccer-broadcasting trail
Smyth also worked hard to rise through the ranks and become a central figure of the sport’s growth in the US. More than two decades ago, he placed a call to ESPN, asking, “Who’s the guy in charge of the World Cup?”
Soon after that, he was placed in a booth for the 1994 World Cup with Dellacamera, a pioneering voice in American soccer who began calling Major Indoor Soccer League games in the 1980s. Dellacamera’s initial thought, as he remembers: “Who is this guy? And why did they put me with him?”
The two, of course, really had no choice but to get along, considering there were days, from ESPN’s Bristol studio, when they’d call one European game in the morning, another in the afternoon, and then do a show at night. But they enjoyed each other’s company so much that in between all that, they’d have two meals together. Sometimes, Smyth even dragged Dellacamera to church with him.
“There was a time I saw more of him than I did my wife,” Smyth says. “And would you believe something? We’ve never had a fight.”
“Nope,” Dellacamera adds. “Not even a good argument.”
One reason their friendship and partnership works so well is because they never step on each other’s toes. And that’s due to the stark differences in how each approaches their announcing duties. Dellacamera is the one who diligently prepares his pregame notes, interviews the coaches, reads the ads, and stays calm and collected when any kind of issues arrive during the broadcast.
“I’ve never seen him get flustered,” Smyth says, recalling a few times when Dellacamera managed to call games without lineups and, once, when a team didn’t even have numbers on their jerseys. “If there’s somebody better than him, I don’t know who it is.”
Smyth, on the other hand, will happily admit he doesn’t do nearly as much preparation. For the Union-Timbers game, he sits in front of one lonely sheet of paper with each team’s lineups scrawled on each side, lying next to a half-cup of tea with the tea bag still in it. And when asked at halftime by a production person what some of his second-half keys are, he cheerily replies, on his way out the door, “Wait till I go to the toilet. That’s one of the keys.”
But he has a sharp eye for what’s happening below him, both on the field (he points to a cluster of players bunched around midfield on a goal kick, calling it a “forest of bodies”) and in the crowd. (Naturally, he immediately spots a fan wearing a shamrock sweatshirt).
When the time comes to watch a replay and analyze a play, he puts his whole body into it, swaying and gesticulating as the words come out in his thick Irish accent. (He moved to Ireland to Queens 54 years ago, and refers to himself as a “New Yorker with an Irish accent.”)
“I’ve never considered myself to be an announcer,” Smyth says. “I sit in the booth beside the guy that’s announcing the game and I try to tell you what’s gonna happen. Sometimes, I’m right. Sometimes, I’m wrong. But I like to think I’m right more often than I’m wrong.”
Many more calls to come
Right or wrong, Smyth has relished the opportunity to travel the world and call some of the sport’s most marquee events, often with Dellacamera. Among their favorite memories was the Argentina-Nigeria contest at the 1994 World Cup which would turn out to be the final game Diego Maradona played before being expelled from the tournament for drug use.
Other favorites? Manchester United scoring two stoppage-time goals to rally for a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich in that 1999 Champions League final, as well as the 2010 World Cup in South Africa that featured one of Nelson Mandela’s final public appearances. “It was like seeing a god, wasn’t it?” Dellacamera says.
While calling Union games is of more local interest, Smyth and Dellacamera enjoy making the trip to Philly for games (they call road tilts from the Comcast SportsNet studio) and interacting with fans. Dellacamera calls it the “cycle of life” that they’re back together again — and he doesn’t want to stop.
“I can’t speak for Tommy, but I’m not planning to retire soon, so I hope we can do this for a while longer,” Dellacamera says. “That would be my hope — that we can do this for a while and enjoy the games we have now.”
What about you, Tommy? Any plans on retiring?
“Not yet — maybe next week,” he says with a grin.
“We’re a good team,” he adds, looking over to his friend and colleague. “We’re a really good team. As much as I like the Union games and everything, the fact that it was JP that I was gonna work with, I didn’t give it a second thought.”