Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Famed broadcaster Gus Johnson kicks around calling soccer games

If you follow college football or college basketball, you've almost surely heard Gus Johnson's voice before. The Fox play-by-play broadcaster, formerly of CBS, has developed one of the most recognizable announcing voices in any American sport.

Famed broadcaster Gus Johnson kicks around calling soccer games

Gus Johnson in the visiting radio booth at PPL Park. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)
Gus Johnson in the visiting radio booth at PPL Park. (Jonathan Tannenwald/Philly.com)

If you follow college football or college basketball, you've almost surely heard Gus Johnson's voice before. The Fox play-by-play broadcaster, formerly of CBS, has developed one of the most recognizable announcing voices in any American sport.

In recent weeks, Johnson has taken his talents to a new sport: soccer. His Twitter posts from European soccer stadiums such as Stamford Bridge in London and the San Siro in Milan have fueled rumors that he might be headed for a role in Fox's 2014 World Cup coverage.

And of course, there was the famous YouTube mashup of Johnson and Bill Raftery's commentary laid over Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup.

For now, though, Johnson has only put his toe in the wide waters of the world's game. He has taken a job as the radio play-by-play voice of the San Jose Earthquakes, and his second ever assignment with the team brought him to PPL Park on Saturday.

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(His first was the Earthquakes' game at the New York Red Bulls two weeks ago.)

I caught up with Johnson for a few minutes to discuss how he got the Earthquakes job, and what his future in soccer might hold.

How did your deal to broadcast San Jose Earthquakes games come about? 

My stat guy, Jeff Chapman, who does stats with me for college football, has his own consulting firm. They [the Earthquakes] mentioned to him that they were looking for someone to maybe do a couple of games. Jeff passed the Earthquakes’ recommendation on to me, and we hooked up. 

Now that you’ve done it a few times, how does broadcasting soccer compare to broadcasting college football and college basketball, in terms of pace and terminology and things like that? 

It’s a lot different. For me, because I didn’t have any experience, and now I have limited experience, it’s almost like learning a new language. But I think some of the same principles apply. 

In basketball, it’s far sideline and near sideline, in soccer it’s the far touchline and near touchline. In basketball it’s the half-court or mid-court line, in soccer it’s the halfway line. Instead of driving baseline, you drive to the end line in soccer. 

So some of the same words are applicable, but there’s a lot of different terminology that I’m still trying to get used to, and train my brain to be able to recognize when I see it. 

I’ve heard people argue before that there are some similarities between, for example, a basketball point guard such as Kemba Walker and a soccer midfielder such as Xavi Hernández. In their own ways, they have a kind of vision that leads to good ball movement and scoring opportunities. Do you see that too? 

Oh, yeah, no doubt about it. You see a lot of three-on-three breaks, just like you see in basketball. Guys giving, guys going, guys getting it back. Especially attacking midfielders. You see guys that can create for their teammates in space, you see overlapping fullbacks filling the lanes. 

You see strikers like a [Lionard] Pajoy who’s able to get set up by a great midfielder to get opportunities. So I think there are a lot of similarities between the two sports. 

You’ve been to some great American college atmospheres to call football and basketball games. How does soccer compare? 

I was really pleasantly surprised [by the Union fans]. I didn’t know that the Philly fans were that passionate. I know they’re passionate about every sport, whether it be hockey or football or basketball. But the fans at PPL [Park] were just amazing. 

And more importantly, they were so knowledgeable. They could see it when their team was coming back and they could see it when their team had an opportunity. It think PPL is, first of all, a beautiful stadium, on top of the fact that the fans were electric. It was a lot of fun.

Even when I was at Red Bull Arena for the first game I called, it was a similar environment. Not as many fans as in Philly, but it’s been pretty cool.

And you’ve been to Chelsea and AC Milan too. What’s that experience like, standing on the touchline in venues such as Stamford Bridge and the San Siro?

Well, you know that’s a whole other kind of experience. I had never experienced that kind of, almost tribalism I would call it. I’ve called big-time football games in college and the pros, and basketball as well. But there’s an electricity there, almost a cultural connection that goes beyond the lines of the pitch.

You can feel it – especially when I was at Chelsea, like you said, or Man City, or the San Siro for AC Milan and Barcelona.

How did that trip to Europe come about?

Well, you know, I needed to take a vacation, and my guys helped me. I wanted to go over there [to Europe] and see some soccer, so my bosses set it up so I could see some games all over the continent and have a good time. It was during the NCAA Tournament.

[Before you ask: I did not follow up to that last sentence, but I can't help thinking that was quite a coincidence of timing.]

Has Fox said anything to you about potentially broadcasting soccer some day?

Well, we've talked about it. But that's not an easy task. That's not something you just jump into at that level. I think that doing these [Earthquakes] games for the whole summer will show me whether or not I have the right stuff to do it.

I know a lot of soccer fans have tweeted at you that they want you to do it. Have you paid attention to any of that?

Yeah, I've heard some of it. Just tell them to be careful what they wish for, because they might get it. [He laughs]. No, I'm kidding. But I'd like to give it a crack. It's a different life. It's a different education. Because it's the world.

Sometimes I think we as Americans can be kind of ethnocentric - and I'm careful to word this correctly - and not be as familiar with what's going on all over the planet, as opposed to what's going on here in the States. It would be a great challenge.

And what have the Earthquakes said so far about your work wtih them?

When I’m dealing with the Earthquakes, I like to get constructive criticism so I can get better. That’s the most important thing for me, because for this sport I have to really understand the nuances.

When the ball is between the 18-yard boxes, the novice may think there’s not a lot going on, but there is a lot going on to understand. I get the Earthquakes to make sure they give me constructive criticism so I can understand how guys play, their philosophies, what a guy like [coach] Frank Yallop is implementing.

That’s the most important thing. All the rest of the stuff I’m not really concerned with at this point.

One last question: Those great catch-phrases you have, like "rise and fire," do any of them apply to soccer?

No, but I'm going to get some new ones. I'm thinking about it.

I've heard you dropped the famed Bill Raftery "onions" line during the Earthquakes' game against New York.

[He laughs.]

The goalie from New York [Ryan Meara] was doing a great job, from what I saw - my inexperienced eyes. So what I learned from when I went to Europe is that the key for goalies is to make decisions quickly. Don't wait.

Thanks very much to Gus for the interview. He's as charismatic a guy in person as he is on television - he even showed me some video clips from the touchline at the San Siro that he had shot on his iPhone.

Here's how Johnson's calls of the goals from Saturday's game at PPL Park sounded:


GUS by bubbaprog

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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