Soccer

FOX's Gus Johnson Soccer Experiment Still a Work in Progress

Manchester United v Chelsea - Premier LeagueIn the second half of Chelsea’s eventual 1-0 win Sunday over Manchester United, Fernando Torres prepared to enter the match.

Calling the game for the American audience on Fox Soccer, Gus Johnson informed the viewers that Torres won the Golden Boot at Euro 2012 after scoring three goals for Spain.

It was a fairly innocuous comment, the standard throwaway play-by-play factoids that we’ve all come to expect on American sports broadcasts.

Therein lies the crux of what doesn’t exactly sit right only a few steps into FOX’s grand experiment to turn the bombastic Johnson into its lead voice for soccer heading toward the 2018 World Cup. Right now, he’s doing “Soccer Broadcasting for Dummies,” reciting facts devoid of context, rattling off player’s biographies and other things that are unnecessary and show a glaring ignorance toward the audience.

Where an eyebrow raises slightly is that anyone who’s watched Torres over the years — or the Euro last summer — knows that his Golden Boot rings quite hollow. More than that, the Spaniard shared the award with six other players and has been a walking punchline ever since his mega-money move from Liverpool to Chelsea in 2011.

Johnson, through no particular fault of his own and with only a few soccer games under his belt since debuting with Manchester United/Real Madrid in mid-February, figures to once again be under the microscope even more this month, as he calls Saturday’s FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic as well as the all-German Champions League final May 25, both games on network FOX.

Odds are, anyone that’s spending a beautiful spring weekend morning on their couch in America, watching a soccer game thousands of miles away in England, already has a passing interest in the sport. That’s not saying everyone watching has a Manchester United full back tattoo, or has had John Terry sleep with their girlfriend, but it’s a safe bet most people choosing to watch last Sunday’s match would consider themselves fans of the Premier League.

They don’t need to be spoon fed.  It would be like watching an NFL game and every time a receiver caught the ball the play-by-play guy informed you where he played in college.

To be fair, Johnson is still learning the game. Unlike ESPN, which disastrously dumped Dave O’Brien into the lead play-by-play chair for the 2006 World Cup, Johnson is going to be given plenty of time to absorb some of the game’s nuance and history, and understand the audience that’s listening to him before FOX broadcasts the 2018 World Cup from Russia.

If he calls Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta, “Ian-Esta,” … honestly is that a big deal? Getting hung up on the minutia of Johnson’s work is foolish and why I’ve tried to wait for at least a few games to offer my opinion in more than 140 characters.

[RELATED: Gus Johnson: Goal Calls For Danny Welbeck and Cristiano Ronaldo]

Let’s forget too, Johnson’s over-the-top style. That has nothing to do with soccer or this foolish idea soccer fans want to “protect” their sport. Either you like Johnson’s excitable screaming whenever something happens that could create a goal, or you don’t and that’s independent of whether he’s calling basketball, football or soccer.

Discussing the somewhat controversial move has been a cottage industry in the American soccer online circles since FOX announced the Johnson hire earlier this year. It’s been hailed as everything from a brilliant move to attract casual viewers, to a grotesque parody of the old “Center Holds It”  line from an old Simpsons episode.

Ultimately everything written about Johnson calling soccer works in FOX’s favor since it mentions his name and makes the notion of Johnson calling soccer seem more credible.

Perhaps what irks me the most, more than anything Johnson does, is the way FOX, in all its sports broadcasting, has shown itself to be almost willingly tone deaf toward its viewers. Hey, we have the NFL and if you don’t like “Kenny, Moose and Goose” or robots … tough shit, you’re still going to watch. We pay billions for the rights, you don’t … deal with it, here’s Tim McCarver singing Barry Manilow showtunes.

The question moving forward is how quickly Johnson will develop a working knowledge of soccer so when he presents a factoid during a broadcast it has actual value rather than simply regurgitating Wikipedia. Compare this to beIN Sport’s Phil Schoen, an American who knows the sport inside-and-out, and presents a knowledgeable, authoritative voice next to the bombast of analyst Ray Hudson. That has come from years of following the sport as a fan and as a broadcaster.

[RELATED: Gus Johnson: Champions League Announcing Debut Looks Promising For World Cup]

It doesn’t matter, either, whether soccer in America is called by an American like Johnson or a British voice like Martin Tyler, Arlo White or Ian Darke, as long as the broadcast is tolerable to sit through, which so far the Johnson/Ian Wright pairings haven’t been.

Why FOX has decided to pair Johnson, himself a neophyte calling soccer games, with Wright an ex-Arsenal star who’d never worked in a game broadcast before doing the Manchester United/Chelsea FA Cup match a few weeks ago, is baffling. The downgrade from a year ago when FOX used Tyler and the excellent Gary Neville for its Champions Leauge matches in the latter stages is disappointing regardless.

Nothing personal, but Wright has been tough to listen to, from both his analysis (Barcelona need to play the ball wide), to his uncanny ability to never stop talking. There are some decent kernels from Wright and he seems to know how to analyze the game, but let it breathe.

Sunday when Wright rattled off yet another meandering point of analysis, to Johnson’s credit he actually asked what Wright meant by it.

A few weeks into this Gus Johnson as the voice of soccer experiment, we at home are often left to wonder, too, what the hell they’re talking about.

[photo via Getty]

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