When Manchester United travelled to Spain to take on Real Madrid, the game didn't just have huge implications in Manchester and Madrid. No, across the pond here in the United States, the game was being scrutinized very closely as well.
Why, you might ask?
Because Gus Johnson was calling the game, that's why.
One of the most popular announcers in American sports—if not the most popular—Johnson is known for his intense energy, boisterous calls and general ability to elevate an exciting moment into an epic one.
For my money, there's never been a better announcer at calling a game-winning shot in the NCAA Tournament.
But Johnson is totally new to soccer, and it surprised some folks when FOX announced he would be the go-to play-by-play announcer for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
It was obvious that Johnson was out of his element a bit. He mixed up players' names on a few occasions and generally was very cautious in his call of the game, letting color commentator Warren Barton have an opinion on the proceedings while Johnson mixed in some factoids and let the game breathe.
Still, the fact that he let the game breathe at all was a positive for the most part. Like baseball and unlike football or basketball, soccer doesn't need constant banter. Allowing moments for the crowd chants to fill the space or a play to develop without too much commentary is actually quite nice for the viewer.
Mind you, extended periods of silence is awkward, but there isn't something to analyze at every second like in football.
A major concern coming in was that Johnson wouldn't allow those moments the space they needed. A popular critique of Johnson is that he tries to pipe in too much excitement in a broadcast, even when that excitement isn't there.
Sometimes, there is something very inorganic about a Johnson broadcast.
That wasn't the case in this game, however. Most of his calls were him rattling off the names of the player on the ball. In fact, as I watched I wanted a little more from him.
Make an observation. Ask Barton about what a player should have done in a given situation. Anticipate what a fan might be curious to know about more in a given moment. Heck, ask what you want to know about more in a given moment—nobody is watching the broadcast under the pretense that Johnson is a soccer expert.
A lot of that will simply come with time. Here was Johnson, announcing one of the biggest matchups of the year and still familiarizing himself with the game. Honestly, he did as well as you would have expected.
And he was at his best as the play developed around the box and tension naturally built. There, you could hear the tenor of his voice start to crackle and rise, bit by bit, until he was ready to shout. Those moments were vintage Gus.
Johnson will always be at his finest in those moments. He thrives off of anticipation, and generally excels in the biggest moments of a game. In a sense, he has the potential to be the perfect soccer announcer, really.
In a game where goals are so hard to come by, every time one is scored it has the feel of a game-winning shot or long touchdown run. Theoretically, Johnson should settle into one the great announcers at calling a goal.
I'm torn over whether or not he should develop a style or routine for each goal or simply let the moment happen. One thing I can say—stay away from anything resembling the Mexican "Gooooooaaaaaaal" call, Gus. Do your own thing.
I think Johnson has the opportunity to become a great soccer announcer. I think as he learns the game, grows a better understanding for what he's seeing and gains confidence to have an on-air opinion, he'll flourish.
If he lets the game breathe and saves his best for chances near goal, he should settle into an announcer that American audiences will embrace. There were times in his broadcast where the hairs on my arm stood on end. It helped that the atmosphere in Madrid was electric, but still.
I saw the potential in him on Wednesday, and I saw the possibility that just having Johnson announcing soccer could bring in a bigger American audience. I look forward to seeing him grow as an announcer for the sport.