John Strong was eating at Jake’s Famous Crawfish, a Portland, Oregon institution since 1892, when Portland Timbers President of Business Mike Golub offered him his dream job. Strong, who was 25 years old at the time, jumped at the chance to become the voice of his hometown soccer team as it moved up into Major League Soccer. Strong was too excited to remember anything else from that evening—Golub says they probably ate chowder. It was January of 2011.
Strong had “the innate sort of chops, the voice, the work ethic, commitment to being really good, a good collaborator,” Golub said in a phone interview. “The voice of the broadcast is the outward sign of a huge team of people putting a show on-air,” and Strong was a team player. He had, by that night in January, been a part of the team for some time—a fan of the Timbers since the club re-launched in 2001 in the old A-League, Strong later interned and helped with Timbers broadcasts while in college. He filled in on radio broadcasts for Timbers games while they played in the lower divisions of American soccer, and Golub gave him a shot on some early TV broadcasts. The first note he received from the front office was to shave before he went on camera.
He learned on the job over his first season and his call for Darlington Nagbe’s incredible goal against Sporting Kansas City—it was later named the best of the 2011 MLS season—went viral. After a Timbers free kick is punched out by Kansas City goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen, Nagbe takes the ball out of the air at the edge of the penalty area on his right foot, juggles it twice, pops it deftly into the air out in front of his body, and then unleashes a right-footed volley into the top corner. Strong stays steady in describing the action until he can’t anymore, at which point he bursts into a controlled frenzy. Both the goal and the call are brilliant.
Seven years after that lunch date, Strong is calling all the big games at the 2018 World Cup. In Strong, Fox saw an American who could captain its World Cup coverage with authenticity—the antithesis of Gus Johnson and Dave O’Brien, two broadcasters from other sports who were thrust into the most important soccer games in the world to moderately disastrous results. ESPN later found success with British announcers at previous World Cups, but Fox believed that the American audience no longer needed to hear a foreign voice. While Strong is hardly the first American to be the sport’s official voice—Phil Schoen, the first voice of Major League Soccer, is still calling games for beIN with the immaculate Ray Hudson—but unlike such predecessors as Bob Ley in 1998 or Jack Edwards in 2002, Strong was not tasked with being a tour guide or an evangelist. He was a soccer native, part of the new generation of soccer fans who’ve grown up with the sport and to whom it is as normal and All-American as football, baseball, or basketball.
Strong is part of the first generation to have access to a reasonable amount of soccer from across the globe, as well as MLS games on national TV. He navigated the roadblocks between himself and soccer and learned everything he could about the game that had become his obsession. He joined the Timbers supporters’ group when the team was in the lower divisions. He begged his parents to get Fox Sports World, the precursor to Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Sports, so he could watch more soccer from across the globe, and then he watched it. He played FIFA and listened to John Motson, trying to imitate him while learning players and clubs from around the world. He became a Olympique Lyonnais fan because he needed a team to play as in FIFA, choosing the team because a kid at his high school was from Lyon. In a time before instant access to every Premier League game or HD streams from Argentina or Serie A, he sought out the malware-laden online streams that were the only way to watch. He rushed through the SAT’s to watch Lyon win its first of seven straight Ligue 1 titles. As a freshman in college, he woke up at six to watch England play Turkey in Istanbul in a European Championship qualifier. Every taste deepened his appetite.
Without a United States team in the field, Fox has no choice but to bet that Strong will be able to make his own experience of discovery real for the millions tuning in for the World Cup. The pull of the game long ago made him a believer. Now, he has to make it work for everyone else. It’s a big ask, but it’s the shot he’s worked for all his life.
Strong grew up in Lake Oswego, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, and he knew what he wanted to do for as long as he can remember wanting anything. As a kid, he sat in front of the TV and narrated games. He’d pretend to do play-by-play duties for his friends when they played basketball in the driveway. “When I say that this is the only job I have ever wanted my whole life. It’s true,” Strong tells me over the phone. “I’ve been doing it in one form or another, almost as a compulsion, for most of my life.”
Like any suburban kid around the turn of the millennium, Strong played soccer—he started in kindergarten and stuck with it into high school—and watched wrestling, but was generally happier observing than playing. “I have always wanted to be a part,” he says, “but I have never felt comfortable being in it.” When his friends filmed their own backyard wrestling matches on a trampoline, Strong was happy to be the referee. When he listened to Bill Schonely call Portland Trail Blazers games on the radio, Strong didn’t dream of being Damon Stoudamire or Rasheed Wallace—he wanted to be Bill Schonely. “That romanticism of being connected to your team through someone’s voice is something that always really appealed to me,” he said.
Early in his senior year in high school, Strong roped a friend from the school paper, Eric Olson, into helping him launch an online radio station. Olson helped with funding and the two split announcing duties while broadcasting their high school’s football games. This was 2002, at the tail end of the dial-up era and three years before the launch of YouTube. No one in charge of the school knew what the pair of friends were talking about, but the principal signed off all the same. A few months later, Olson and Strong were calling Lake Oswego football online, with the help of a computer whiz friend who handled the technical aspects. At the time, there were roughly ten such high school stations broadcasting online anywhere. “Do I have the first clue what I am doing?” Strong remembers. “Not really. I am taking all those years of doing it in my head or out loud at the tv and all the stuff I have heard on the tv and I am sort of trying to figure it out. We didn’t have commercials; it was just us online.”
The football team marched towards the state championship game and Strong and Olson started recording themselves and listening back in an attempt to refine their craft. He still has the tapes of those games in his office, and while the audio quality is terrible, glimpses of his innate knack for the job shine through. After the game-winning touchdown that sealed a playoff win, Strong took off his headphones and held them up to the roaring crowd, stepping back and letting the noise tell the story. He still does it as the Timbers announcer, as in 2012 when the Timbers Army sang the National Anthem in the pouring rain before a game against the Philadelphia Union at Providence Park.
By the second semester of his freshman year at the University of Oregon, Strong had a spot on the station’s weekly sport show. The next year he started calling live streams for the new women’s lacrosse team, and then the softball team, and then the women’s soccer team. During his junior year, he got an unpaid gig as the voice for the Eugene Generals, a local junior hockey team and drove his great-grandmother’s rust-speckled beige 1992 Ford Tempo to games. There is no way to practice calling live sporting event unless you’re doing it, and no way to get better at it besides doing as much of it as possible.
Strong got a job at a local sports radio station after graduation, and when his program director asked him if if the Timbers would ever make it to MLS and succeed if they did, Strong told his boss that he was sure the Timbers would be big. He knew no such thing, but the director listened and had Strong start putting the games on the radio. He built the packages and produced the broadcast. Before the 2010 season, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson approached Strong and told him the team wanted him to call a few games on TV. It was not long before he signed on with NBC Sports and started calling national broadcasts. Then Fox came calling. Everything that got Strong to that point had been the result of unglamorous and mostly anonymous work, but it had when the time came it made him somehow seem like a natural.
At some point in a conversation with the voice of American soccer, American soccer is bound to come up. As we were wrapping up, I felt compelled to ask Strong about the USMNT’s shocking loss to Trinidad and Tobago, which caused the U.S. to miss out on its first World Cup since 1990. Fox’s bet on Strong and the World Cup clearly hinged to a certain extent on the belief that American viewership would continue to grow. The U.S. men’s game against Portugal during the 2014 tournament in Brazil drew more than 18 million viewers. The final between Germany and Argentina was the most-watched final of any men’s tournament in the sport’s history. The sport’s trajectory in the United States is clear, but the absence of a domestic rooting interest in the field certainly clouded things for the people that paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the right to broadcast these games to Americans.
Strong watched that game with his pregnant wife, who was home on bed rest due to some complications during her pregnancy. Strong’s wife, Nicole, a former professional player and leading goalscorer in the WPSL one year, was furious with the men’s team’s approach and screamed at the television, but he turned the game off with ten minutes left, secure in the belief that the U.S. would somehow claw their way back from 2-0 deficit. “I was sort of in the zen place of—part of it was the arrogance all of us had of like, they’re not going to miss the World Cup, something is going to happen and it is going to be fine,” Strong says. “But also trying to find this other zen place of, like, ‘I can’t control it.’” Strong felt it was only time before fortunes turned for the USMNT, and the team’s recovery from a disastrous qualifying campaign had nearly proved him right to that point. Strong learned he wouldn’t be calling any USMNT games at the next World Cup later that night, on Twitter.
“I 100 percent feel that the beard that I grew and kept through the MLS playoffs last year was me sort of emotionally processing this sort of thing,” Strong tells me. “But it also genuinely doesn’t thin my enthusiasm for this at all. I’m still here at a World Cup.” There’s a silver lining, and Strong has found it. If he had been calling the USMNT’s game he wouldn’t have been able to call Portugal and Spain’s epic 3-3 deadlock or Argentina and Iceland’s remarkable draw or Uruguay’s victory over Portugal in the knockout round that included a stunning Edison Cavani goal.
When Fox announced that it was going to send only two broadcast teams to Russia to call games live and in-person—the others are called from a studio in Los Angeles, with pre- and post-game shows produced in Moscow—the decision felt like a slight to many hardcore Americans soccer fans, including me. It seemed, at the very least, to be a sign that FOX didn’t see soccer in the same light that ESPN and NBC Sports have. At worst, it suggested that the network didn’t think the Cup was worth covering in full if the U.S. wasn’t there.
Strong took the criticism hard. He’s practically called it quits on Twitter now, and has leaned on his wife and a trusted crew of family and friends for support. He prefers to focus on what it might mean for American soccer if this World Cup succeeds at capturing the nation’s attention despite the USMNT not being there. “There are a million variables,” Strong says, “but it absolutely has the potential to be a real turning point. If a World Cup without the United States can still be a big deal, if that happens, what have we learned about the growth of soccer?”
Whatever the case, Strong’s presence behind the mic in Russia is a sort of victory in itself. When American fans watch World Cup coverage, they will hear the voice of someone immersed and versed in the sport and the way its American fans consume it, who grew up in the sport alongside a rising generation of American soccer fans and speaks in a voice that’s both authoritative and recognizably American. “All of us that are Americans, we know the sport as well as anyone else,” Strong says. “So we can now just get on with it.”