Goal-line technology? FIFA corruption? Landon Donovans magical
mystery tour? America's biggest soccer controversy is, unexpectedly,
Gus Johnson. Upon the announcement that Fox would use Screamin Gus as
its lead announcer for the 2018 World Cup, public reaction sorted
itself into two extremist camps. Depending on whos shouting, this is
either a brilliant idea or the networks greatest mistake since the
The knee-jerk reaction from the anti-Gus drones was as predictable as
it was parochial. No one mans the barricades like the American soccer
fan when he feels his niche is being threatened. An ardent fan of any
sport becomes fascinated with its minutiae and subtleties, but the
American initiate acts like the intricacies of that sport are special
and unknowablethe average football- or baseball-watching simpleton
could never fully appreciate the delicacy of a perfectly weighted
through pass or the tactics that inform a good counterattack. But
heres what comes with soccer: gooners chanting anti-Semitic slurs,
supporters taunting African players with monkey sounds, and 45-year-
old men wearing full kits to the grocery store. Europhilia wont save
you from idiots.
So feel free to dismiss anyone who dismisses Gus Johnson because hes
from Detroit instead of Liverpool, but there are valid concerns about
his chops. Johnson, by his own admission, is still learning the game.
So its worrying that with just a handful of MLS radio broadcasts
under his belt, Fox threw him right into the fire of the Champions
With the caveat that his body of work is small, Johnsons deficiencies
have already come to the fore on the big stage. During the first leg
of Bayern Munich and Arsenals Champions League tie, only Johnsons
second televised match, he screwed up a call just outside the box in
the 15th minute. He identified a hard foul by Thomas Vermaelenone
that earned the Belgian a yellow cardas a nice slide. Johnson,
aware that he had missed something, noticeably stumbled his way
through the next 15 seconds of commentary. It was only when the ref
pulled out a yellow card and Bayern began to set up a free kick that
the incident was made completely clear to the viewer.
In the 73rd minute, Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud hit a volley point-
blank into Bayern keeper Manuel Neuers hip. Johnson praised Neuers
reflex action as a terrific save, which it wasnt. His broadcasting
partner Ray Clemence would sheepishly point out that Neuer barely had
time to react to the shot, and if Giroud had put the ball a foot or
two either way, he would have scored.
Five minutes later, Bayern scored on a fast-developing sequence that
tried Johnsons ability to improvise. Arjen Robben drew in an Arsenal
defender and then laid the ball off to Phillip Lahm, who slid it
across the six-yard box for a lunging Mario Mand?uki?. The ball popped
up in the air off Mand?uki?s boot and into the back of the net.
Johnson didnt quite know what to do with this series, in part because
he had trouble identifying the players, but the incident illuminated
one of his biggest problems: He doesnt yet know how to structure his
calls for climatic moments. Johnson snarled when Lahm played in his
cross, then fell silent on the actual goal. His lack of attunement to
the rhythms of the game was laid bare. We got a clumsy call because of
If you watch an old pro like Martin Tyler, hes able to work on the
fly in a manner that comes with thousands of matches worth of
experience. Take, for example, his call of this Thierry Henry goal.
Tyler provides some rudimentary analysis: Leedss back line is playing
high, which should allow Arsenal to run free with the right pass.
Serendipitously, Robert Pirs lays the ball into space, and Henry is
off toward the goal. Like this. Like this. Electrifying.
Electrifying! He doesnt even need to name the goalscorer. Everything
great about Tyler is on display in this clip: He can talk about the
game on a basic levelnot unlike the way Al Michaels is adept at
delineating the essential details of footballand he can also quickly
transition from explication to e***ment when the action calls from
it. He understands what he needs to give the viewer during a matchs
doldrums, its climaxes, and most crucially, the transitional moments
between the two.
This Ian Darke call of Abby Wambachs equalizer against Brazil in the
World Cup is also terrific. Darkes bit is to mirror the anxiety of
the viewer. (Its not homerism, exactly, but he never forgets that
hes calling a U.S. game for an American audience.) You hear the
urgency in his voice when he says, Lloyds got to get this pass off,
and he clues you in to whats going on off-screen when he tells you
everyones bombing forward. Then the cross comes in, Wambach snaps her
neck, and Darke goes crazy. Its a crescendo of emotion: tension, then
free, thundering release. This is what Gus Johnson could be, at his
Even if youre not Tyler or Darke, its hard to botch a goal call,
just as its hard to spoil a buzzer-beater in basketball. Yet somehow,
Johnsons lunatic energy didnt unleash itself during the Manchester
United-Real Madrid match, when Luka Modri? pinged the ball off the
inside of David De Geas post to reset the tie. The Mand?uki? goal was
a mess, but Modri?s strike was beautifulexactly the sort of moment
over which one would expect Johnson to resplendently lose his shit.
But there was no panache in his call. The second sentence out of his
mouth was something about Modri? being a former Spurs star, which is
true but misses the point. He was reading off a one-sheet as volcanoes
erupted all around him.
At first, you wondered if he didnt realize how impressive the goal
was, and was hesitant to explode in characteristic fashion. But this
gun-shyness might also stem from Johnsons habit of getting things
wrong. He messed up the Giroud call, after all, and during the Man
United-Real tie he rhetorically asked his partner, Warren Barton,
shortly after Nemanja Vidi? headed the ball off the post, that Vidi?
[had] to score there, right? Barton equivocated, not wanting to make
Johnson look stupid, but essentially said what any educated soccer fan
would have seen: Vidi? uncorked a furious header with a bunch of
traffic in front of him and nearly scored. He got a little unlucky and
hit the post.
(Johnson also announced a goal that wasnt, following the post-header
scrum, despite an offside call and the ball never actually crossing
the goal line.)
Johnson called Real Madrid manager Jos Mourinho Ho-say as opposed
to the correct Jo-say during the first half (someone must have told
him the right pronunciation during the break), and he has a habit of
using terminology as a crutch. He loves to mention the overlap
whenever a fullback receives the ball in the final third, even if its
not technically on an overlap, and he uses the phrase in the area
nearly every time an attacker breaches the penalty box. He struggles
to keep up when the ball is passed in quick succession. He
occasionally identifies players by the wrong nationality: Eden Hazard
is a Belgian, not a Frenchman; Ryan Giggs is Welsh, not English. And
for whatever reason, he half-detonates on dubious strikes from 30
yards out, even if they appear to have little chance of hitting their
target. He is so concerned with getting names right that he misses the
flow; alternately, he focuses so much on nailing a goal call that the
buildup loses him.
For long stretches, you cant hear Johnson at all. When a game is
relatively quiet and the ball is being passed around the center of the
pitch, good announcers step in with a general thought about how the
match has played out or a brief comment about a particular players
performance. This gives the viewer some perspective and cues the color
commentator to join in. Johnson has a habit of swallowing his tongue,
which forces his partner to meekly take the reins and provide
unprompted analysis. The fact that Fox has shuffled Johnsons analysts
for every match hasnt helped him find his footing.
Johnson mentioned on the Men in Blazers podcast in February that one
of the things he has noticed about veteran soccer announcers is that
they are willing to step aside and allow the viewer to listen in on
the crowd chants and the shouts of the players. Its encouraging that
he understands the game can be capable of telling its own story, but
he too often leaves the viewer wanting for information or context.
Were a long way from Johnson feeling comfortable enough to give us an
insight as basic as one team playing with a high back line. This
criticism is the polar opposite of the one floated when his gig was
announced. It was natural to expect Johnson would screech all over the
place in a sport that requires a steady hand, but no one predicted he
would be boring.
But thats where Johnson is at in his nascent soccer career: Hes
doing his best not to step all over a sport he doesnt fully
understand. This is admirable and entirely fixable, if he commits
himself to learning the game and its players over the next half-
decade. (More troubling is his not doing enough homework to have
pronunciations and nationalities down pat.) Theres no obvious reason
he cant become the voice of American soccer Fox wants him to be by
2018, even if hes currently miles behind the all-British crews of
Martin Tyler, Ian Darke, Adrian Healey, and Derek Rae that ESPN
utilized to much acclaim during the 2010 World Cup.
Americas most esteemed announcersAl Michaels, Brent ...
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