MLS Cup Final 2021: ESPN Covers Championship Match With Pico Pole Cam, Full Onsite Effort

Portland Timbers–NYCFC will feature 28 cameras, pair of NEP production trucks

In a postseason that has featured last-minute game-winning goals, multiple penalty shootouts, and a handful of shocking upsets, the 2021 season of Major League Soccer comes to a fitting close tomorrow afternoon with the MLS Cup Final on ABC between the Portland Timbers and New York City Football Club. In a venue with one of the league’s most electric atmospheres, Portland, OR’s Providence Park, the title match will live up to its billing with technological ingenuity that includes a pair of Pico Pole Cams, a quartet of Goal Cams, and a full onsite production.

“The scene will be amazing,” says Amy Rosenfeld, VP, production, ESPN. “We couldn’t have asked for a better environment. We found out about the final’s location only a week ago, but, despite the busy time of year, this production will be in very good hands.”

Around-the-Goal Tech: Bringing the Viewer Closer to the Net

During the MLS Cup Final, ESPN will look to cover every nook and cranny of the playing pitch with a total complement of 28 cameras. The core of the broadcast will be captured via nine hard cameras, a couple of handhelds, and an aerial perspective through Skycam. Typical of its MLS efforts, the broadcaster aims to offer the viewer into a field-level view of the fast-paced action, and the effort involves two main pieces of technology: Pico Pole Cam situated behind the net and Goal Cam embedded within each goalpost for a total of four. The former has been used throughout the MLS Cup Playoffs at one end of the pitch, but one will be deployed behind each net for a total of two this weekend.

Throughout the postseason, the Pico Pole Cam has been able to offer unique angles on incredible saves, sublime goalscoring, and near misses. For instance, the camera’s ability to run in super-slo-mo has been used for cinematic replays of late-game equalizers and go-ahead goals or as a teaching tool to highlight a player’s footwork and technique. Last weekend, during the Eastern Conference Final between NYCFC and last year’s Supporter Shield winner Philadelphia Union at Subaru Park, the Pico Pole Cam was slotted behind the twine of the netting at the perfect time to show that the first goal of the match was indeed an own goal:

“I think that’s an innovation that has been additive to our editorial coverage,” says Rosenfeld. “We want to own that space around the net, and I think we’re doing that reasonably well.”

Closer to the inside of the net, Goal Cam will provide shots of elements that can be experienced only by the goaltender, such as saves made off the goal line or ricochets off a post or crossbar. Having become a staple for MLS on ESPN, the technology debuted seven years ago during the 2014 MLS All-Star Game in Portland and was use continuously during the MLS Is Back tournament in the Orlando bubble in July 2020.

The camera feeds will be shared with a side-by-side presentation of the match on Univision’s TUDN. The Spanish-language network will supplement its coverage with three dedicated cameras, giving ESPN three additional angles for replay purposes.

Globally, the match will be available live in more than 50 million homes on ESPN 1 in Mexico, Central America, Brazil, the Caribbean, and Oceania; ESPN 2 in South America; and ESPN EXTRA in Argentina.

Back Onsite: Technicians, Talent Head to the Pacific Northwest

The new Omicron variant is the latest threat in the fight against COVID-19, but, with the effective vaccines and steadfast implementation of health and safety regulations, ESPN has created a compound that allows all personnel to return onsite. This has been true for all MLS Cup Playoff broadcasts on ESPN and ABC. NEP’s Supershooter 8 and ST mobile units will handle the day’s programming.

A lot has changed since the last time ESPN aired the MLS Cup Final in 2019. For one thing, the pandemic was not even on the horizon. From a technological standpoint, the broadcaster has changed its philosophy and production strategy in regard to Major League Soccer matches.

Pole Cam captured this save by Philadelphia Union goaltender Matt Freese in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“When we produced the playoffs in 2019,” Rosenfeld explains, “we had double-headers where one game on ABC was done in [an onsite] truck and the other game was a REMI. It’s interesting because the bulk of the team has been doing REMIs, so what’s old is new again since we’re back in a truck.”

Along with the behind-the-scenes staff, on-air talent will also be onsite to preview the match and call it live. Starting at 2:15 p.m. ET, X’s and O’s on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and the ESPN App will present a special 45-minute edition of 2021 MLS Cup Countdown Live with host/anchor Sebastian Salazar, three-time MLS Cup Champion Alejandro Moreno, and Colorado Rapids head coach Robin Fraser. The trio will migrate to the linear side at 3 p.m. ET for the 2021 MLS Cup Pregame Show. The studio set will be located in the far-right corner of the concourse for two reasons: the background is an impressive view of the pitch and provides cover from the expected inclement weather.

Up in the booth, play-by-play commentator Jon Champion and analyst Taylor Twellman will be behind the mic for the title bout. Sam Borden will make his MLS Cup debut as a sideline reporter.

With Mark Clattenburg debuting as MLS Cup rules analyst, the match is getting a boost of officiating expertise. He has refereed at some of the highest levels of the sport and participated in the most-lauded events on the calendar:  the 2016 UEFA Champions League Final, the UEFA Euro 2016 Final, and the 2016 FA Cup Final. For his first match, the crew will be giving him all the camera angles necessary to give his best opinion on a play.

“He’ll have multiple monitors and a quad feed of several camera outputs in addition to naturally watching the game live,” says Matt Leach, coordinating producer, ESPN. “He’ll also have the output of the video-review monitor that they’re looking at in the review room.”

Familiar Environment: Crew Preps for Third Broadcast in Portland

Goal Cam was able to show Real Salt Lake’s game-tying goal vs. Sporting KC in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Saturday’s match won’t be the first time that ESPN has visited Portland, OR, since the network produced two games at Providence Park in May during the regular season. Despite the weather’s being much colder and wetter, the crew is familiar with the confines that it will be operating in. From knowing the physical layout to understanding where the envelope can be pushed by seasoned local technicians, the crew has a slight advantage.

“The benefit of soccer being popular in the Northwest is that, usually, one of our biggest shows every year is Seattle vs. Portland,” says Leach. “We know Providence Park pretty well. It’s intimate, which is great because the supporters make it loud, but the camera positions are built for a soccer match. Our familiarity should create a pretty good atmosphere for both the in-person experience and the broadcast.”

The main personnel have remained busy on other soccer-centric productions as well throughout the MLS season. During the first week of July, the broadcaster produced a pair of international friendlies for the U.S. Women’s National Team vs. Mexico at Rentschler Field in Hartford, CT — 24 miles from its Bristol, CT, headquarters.

Championship in Primetime: ESPN Concludes 32-Game Linear Schedule on ABC

After a combined 380 matches on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN+, the production team responsible for MLS broadcasts is excited to put a bow on the 2021 campaign. The final will be a stellar conclusion to a nearly eight-month-long schedule: the Timbers are playing in their second final in four seasons while NYCFC plays for its first championship in its eight-year history. Led by Rosenfeld, director Bob Frattaroli, and Leach, who will be assuming the role of coordinating producer after having produced this game for six years, the experienced crew is more than ready to highlight the beauty of the MLS Cup Final.

“This match will be a testament to a league that we love and believe in,” says Rosenfeld. “Since this is being done on ABC, we’ll be getting a broader audience than the soccer fan who’s going to be tuning into the game.”

Coverage of the 2021 MLS Cup Final will begin at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, Dec. 11 on ABC.

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