Goal-line technology? FIFA corruption? Landon Donovan’s 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 who’s shouting, this is either a brilliant idea or the network’s greatest mistake since the Glow Puck.
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 unknowable—the 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 here’s 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 won’t save you from idiots.
So feel free to dismiss anyone who dismisses Gus Johnson because he’s from Detroit instead of Liverpool, but there are valid concerns about his chops. Johnson, by his own admission, is still learning the game. So it’s worrying that with just a handful of MLS radio broadcasts under his belt, Fox threw him right into the fire of the Champions League.
With the caveat that his body of work is small, Johnson’s deficiencies have already come to the fore on the big stage. During the first leg of Bayern Munich and Arsenal’s Champions League tie, only Johnson’s second televised match, he screwed up a call just outside the box in the 15th minute. He identified a hard foul by Thomas Vermaelen—one that earned the Belgian a yellow card—as 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 Neuer’s hip. Johnson praised Neuer’s reflex action as a terrific save, which it wasn’t. 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 Johnson’s 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 Mandžukić. The ball popped up in the air off Mandžukić’s boot and into the back of the net. Johnson didn’t 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 doesn’t 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 it.
If you watch an old pro like Martin Tyler, he’s 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: Leeds’s back line is playing high, which should allow Arsenal to run free with the right pass. Serendipitously, Robert Pirès lays the ball into space, and Henry is off toward the goal. “Like this. Like this. Electrifying. Electrifying!” He doesn’t 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 level—not unlike the way Al Michaels is adept at delineating the essential details of football—and he can also quickly transition from explication to excitement when the action calls from it. He understands what he needs to give the viewer during a match’s doldrums, its climaxes, and most crucially, the transitional moments between the two.
This Ian Darke call of Abby Wambach’s equalizer against Brazil in the World Cup is also terrific. Darke’s bit is to mirror the anxiety of the viewer. (It’s not homerism, exactly, but he never forgets that he’s calling a U.S. game for an American audience.) You hear the urgency in his voice when he says, “Lloyd’s got to get this pass off,” and he clues you in to what’s going on off-screen when he tells you everyone’s bombing forward. Then the cross comes in, Wambach snaps her neck, and Darke goes crazy. It’s a crescendo of emotion: tension, then free, thundering release. This is what Gus Johnson could be, at his best.
Even if you’re not Tyler or Darke, it’s hard to botch a goal call, just as it’s hard to spoil a buzzer-beater in basketball. Yet somehow, Johnson’s lunatic energy didn’t unleash itself during the Manchester United-Real Madrid match, when Luka Modrić pinged the ball off the inside of David De Gea’s post to reset the tie. The Mandžukić goal was a mess, but Modrić’s strike was beautiful—exactly 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 Modrić 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 didn’t realize how impressive the goal was, and was hesitant to explode in characteristic fashion. But this gun-shyness might also stem from Johnson’s 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 Vidić headed the ball off the post, that Vidić “[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: Vidić 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 wasn’t, following the post-header scrum, despite an offside call and the ball never actually crossing the goal line.)
Johnson called Real Madrid manager José 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 it’s 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 can’t 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 player’s 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 Johnson’s analysts for every match hasn’t 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. It’s 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. We’re 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 that’s where Johnson is at in his nascent soccer career: He’s doing his best not to step all over a sport he doesn’t 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.) There’s no obvious reason he can’t become the voice of American soccer Fox wants him to be by 2018, even if he’s 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.
America’s most esteemed announcers—Al Michaels, Brent Musburger, Vin Scully—call multiple sports or have switched gigs at various points in their careers. No one asks the question, when baseball enthusiast Joe Buck calls football games, whether or not football is “in his blood.” He succeeds or fails based on his knowledge of the game and his ability to put words together. But Fox didn’t groom Joe Buck for the Super Bowl by having him call only conference championship games.
Johnson's biggest issue is that he's hindering enjoyment of some fantastic games. The Champions League isn’t bigger than the World Cup in terms of audience and spectacle, but the level of play is unparalleled. The arrogance of Fox isn’t in trying to develop Gus Johnson into a soccer commentator, but in letting him take his lumps while calling the network’s biggest matches. His on-the-job training will apparently take place during the most-watched and most-scrutinized matches on the calendar. For this, you can only blame Johnson’s bosses. He’s doing the best he can, early in a five-year quest to adopt a new sport. But letting him make his mistakes on the grandest of stages sets him up for insecurity, not improvement.