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Gus Johnson 1-on-1: "I want to create an American sound" in Soccer Broadcasting

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Last May, Gus Johnson found himself strolling around the edge of the field of London’s Wembley Stadium hours before kickoff of the all-German Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. At that point — barely three months into Fox’s grand, multi-year plan to turn him into its voice of soccer leading up to the 2018 World Cup — he’d received nothing more than a simple printed translation guide for the slew of challenging names involved, hardly the ideal situation for any anglophone, when the match featured tongue-twisting names like Piszczek, Błaszczykowski, Schweinsteiger, Müller and Großkreutz in the starting lineups.

As luck would have it,  Johnson crossed paths with Dortmund’s midfielder İlkay Gündoğan — perhaps the trickiest name of the 22 players on the field. Johnson flagged the Turkish-German rising star down in the tunnel and asked the proper way to pronounce his name, receiving a smile and a thumbs up when he mouthed an accurate version.

As Johnson prepares to call the upcoming FA Cup Final and Champions League Final on Fox over the next two weeks, that brief exchange is still the closest Johnson’s come to interacting 1-on-1 with a player or coach in his game preparations.

“Last year, the whole world got dropped in my lap,” Johnson told me over lunch at the Red Line Diner in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan he calls home. “(Fox Sports President) Eric Shanks patted me on the back and said ‘Good luck and let me know when you get good.’ So I had to figure it out, we had to experiment in some areas.”

Experiment? Listening to Johnson, 46, tell it, his first year of calling the world’s game — world football as he finds himself calling it — hasn’t been very different than dropping someone who’d never watched an NFL game into the broadcast booth for the Super Bowl. In other words, the deepest end of the pool.

Adept at announcing most American sports, ranging from the New York Knicks to NFL to college basketball and everything in between, Johnson’s only previous experience with soccer was calling a few games on the radio for the San Jose Earthquakes. A Chris Wondolowski bobblehead sits in his home as a reminder.

“Nobody told me anything, they just said go call the games,” said Johnson when asked about using British terminology like “pitch.”

Nothing, however, in Johnson’s American approach and background in broadcasting games prepared him for the the world of European media and its adversarial press conferences, “mixed zones” and overall lack of locker room access (the norm on the other side of the Atlantic.) Even acclimating himself from the standard American press box to the European style outdoor gantry, where he’s usually seated around the “20” of a would-be NFL field rather than at the center of the action, has taken time if only to develop a system to see the action on the far side of the field.

Johnson and his researcher Nick Bernstein laugh about it now: they attended a press conference last year before Barcelona played Bayern Munich, only to find out there wouldn’t be an English translation on the headsets passed out in the press room. UEFA only requires translation to the languages of the nations involved in the match. Since they were sitting in the middle of the row, they couldn’t even leave.

Or take earlier this year, when Manchester United played Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. Johnson asked what in his mind was an innocuous question at the pre-match press conference to Ryan Giggs — sitting on the dais next to David Moyes – wondering if the long time Manchester United star ever envisioned himself moving “six inches” over on the bench. Given the context and Giggs’ contentious relationship with the then-Manchester United manager, it set off a ripple of shock in the press room. Johnson said he only meant it to ask if Giggs wanted to manage in the future — not be the man to immediately replace the under-fire Moyes (as Giggs eventually did on an interim basis.)

Call it a lost in translation moment, even if the language involved was English.

Absent the American-level of access to players and managers, Johnson is trying hard to learn, through a combination of observation during matches and reading as much as he can. He casually mentions the impressive defensive abilities of Miranda and Juanfran — key players at Atletico Madrid — two of the last players I’d figure he’d cite from the La Liga title chasers. He rattles off Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba as a reason why France, at 25-to-1 odds, is a sleeper team at the World Cup.

Bayern’s Dutch star Arjen Robben, a far more household name, though, remains his favorite player to watch.

“He’s like one of those basketball players who’s all left hand, but you can’t stop him from going left and I like that about him,” he says between nibbles of a tuna salad. “He plays with tenacity and ferocity.”

And then there’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the best player in the world who’ll feature prominently in the Champions League final for Real Madrid.

“He has a god-like presence,” Johnson said. “First of all, not only is he the best player in the world, but he’s one of the best-looking athletes in the world and he knows it, but he’s incredibly poised and talented. He’s carved out of a mountain. He’s what the best player in the world should act like and look like.”

The topic of Ronaldo’s girlfriend, Russian model Irina Shayk, comes up from the other end of the table and her appearance in Nike’s brilliant World Cup promo commercial.

“Most of those players we’ve seen and I’m proud of that. I’m looking at that commercial and I’m like, wow I’ve called David Luiz, I’ve called Cristiano Ronaldo. I’ve called him, him and him, and that’s kind of neat,” he said, noting he thinks he’d be comfortable enough to handle a World Cup.

Critical Fire

Soccer fans, myself included, are a finicky bunch. Perhaps it’s due to the years the sport was ignored and ridiculed by the mainstream media; perhaps it’s just our nature. Whatever the reason, soccer fans as a group tend to obsess and kvetch over announcers every bit as much, if not more, than fans of other sports. We all tend to think this is “our” sport and that we know more about it, care more about it than soulless television executives.

In 2006, ESPN dropped in Dave O’Brien — a perfectly fine baseball and basketball voice — to handle its top World Cup responsibilities a few months before the tournament. The experiment didn’t work and O’Brien lashed out at his critics as a “petulant little clique.” In turn, ESPN has used an increased roster of British voices, including Martin Tyler and Ian Darke. This summer in Brazil, ESPN will use six non-Americans, including five Brits for lead play-by-play duties.

In turn, when Fox announced its decision to prime Johnson for its long-term plans to call the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the reaction from the online peanut gallery was swift and almost universally negative — a combination of a) Johnson’s lack of soccer knowledge and b) his showmanship that often overshadowed the games he called. (My own take from last spring can be found here, which also questioned Fox executives but called it a ‘work in progress’. Meanwhile, our Ty Duffy called his first match, “promising.”)

Christopher Harris of World Soccer Talk is one of the harshest critics of Johnson and Fox. Harris maintains Fox, “(doesn’t) understand soccer. They’re run by TV executives who don’t know the game nor do they seem to care about what their viewers want.” Fox continually bringing in Piers Morgan — universally reviled by soccer fans on both sides of the Atlantic — for its studio coverage to complain about Arsène Wenger and Arsenal neatly summarizes this point.

Even so, Harris admits a noticeable improvement from Johnson compared to 2013 — something most, including myself, agree with. A year ago, it certainly felt like Gus Johnson calling the Champions League. This spring, it’s much more a Champions League called by Gus Johnson due to his noted improvement, which is much less like a guy rattling off Wikipedia notes during a broadcast, as it was last year.

“There was a lot of pressure starting out,” Johnson admitted. “Look at it this way, my first game was Real Madrid and Manchester United. So it’s like, okay, you’re first game you’re calling the Super Bowl basically and you’ve never called a game before. I like it though. I enjoy the challenge. I like learning something new and improving. Getting more confident, that sort of thing. I’m more familiar. More comfortable. More confident. I’m slowing myself down a bit. I know things, just letting the information I’ve brought into the match come out organically. Like anybody, it takes time with a new sport. I’ve made a comfortable transition to being a lot more relaxed.”

Johnson was a long-term project for FOX, with the 2018 World Cup in Russia as the target. His first call came on Feb. 12, 2013. He’s only called 13 total European club games, split between the Champions League and FA Cup. Fox did him few favors pairing him with four different partners in his first five games, including ex-Arsenal star Ian Wright, himself a relative newcomer as a game-analyst.

The Gus Johnson Soccer Experiment 1.0 still took him to some of Europe’s most hallowed grounds — the Nou Camp in Barcelona, Old Trafford in Manchester and the Bernabeu in Madrid, along with Wembley where he called Wigan’s shock upset over Manchester City, giving Ben Watson’s winning goal the proper gravitas it warranted.

Sunday’s FA Cup final between Arsenal and Hull City will be his fifth European game in 2014 — all called alongside former U.S. National Team star Eric Wynalda. Fox currently doesn’t have a weekly soccer league in its coverage, giving Johnson only sporadic chances to hone his craft. Executives are unsure if Johnson will call its new MLS weekly games starting next year, as it might conflict with his college football and basketball duties. Johnson says his top priority on the immediate horizon is the 2015 Women’s World Cup and he might not call as many Champions League games in the spring of 2015 as he preps for the tournament in Canada. (The 2015 Champions League Final is on June 6 — the same day Women’s World Cup begins.) He’s also unsure if he’d want to call European club matches full-time, since it would require a move across the Atlantic, which would separate him from his 10-year-old son, Che.

U-S-A

The Women’s World Cup represents Johnson’s second chance at calling international soccer, following last summer’s Gold Cup, won by the United States. When I asked him about the Gold Cup his face immediately lit up.

“The Gold Cup was awesome,” he said. “I was at home with my guys, with my coach (Jurgen Klinsmann) who let me watch practice, who talked to me about his players. I loved that. I got to hang out with the American Outlaws and drink some beers with them. They were happy I showed up. I’m a big fan of America and everything that is America. I love my country. I love watching our guys compete. It’s great, man, being in an American stadium and American fans and we won.”

As the lunch conversation progressed, it was hard not to get the sense Johnson is taking the American aspect of the job to heart. He’s dismissive of the idea that only European-trained voices are worthy enough to call the beautiful game for American audiences.

“I want to create an American sound and I think I’m on my way to doing it … and I like it,” Johnson said, his voice rising a bit. “What Americans love so much when they hear the English announcer, especially a guy like Martin Tyler, it’s almost like you’re listening to Shakespeare. He almost has a Shakespearean way about himself with accent of course, but with his language and using bold and vivid words because he’s so plugged in. But he’s been doing it 40 years. I think that’s what I want to do. I want to slow down a little bit more but underneath it keep my energy, keep my excitement for those big moments, but in telling the stories of (Atletico Madrid) coach Diego Simeone.

“What they teach you in broadcasting is you start low and slow. That gives you a chance toward an arc. Here’s Diego Simeone, the fiery coach of Atletico Madrid who was a great player for club and country and now he’s taken a team basically out of the dumpster and he has molded them into his image. Into a man who described his style of play as ‘holding a knife between his teeth.’ That’s gravity. I like that. That’s making me a better broadcaster, a better communicator.”

Whatever the reaction of soccer viewers on couches across America and the Twitter-sphere, Johnson says he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and work, critics be damned. He sees the big picture and opportunity in front of him provided by Fox, whether you like it or not.

“That’s the great thing about it. I’m blessed. I’m so blessed,” he said. “I feel like I’m investing in a blue chip stock. Right now it might be a penny stock, but it has a chance to mature into something wonderful. I’m very confident that what we have set out to do is working. I know there is some resistance out there, but that’s part of it. Most announcers at one particular time were revered. Now with social media it seems like we’re getting eaten up. And that’s all of us, everyone of us. I don’t know one guy that doesn’t get their fair share of criticism. That’s part of it. I have no problem with it. As I said I’m investing in a blue chip stock which is myself. So I know what I can control. Working. Preparing for the games. Soaking up the atmosphere, being able to understand the storylines of the games for both clubs and players. Laying out and allowing the passion and syrupy sweet emotion to just play out and be a part of something that is as big as the whole world.”

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