We are now about a month into the Gus Johnson experiment, and it sounds like many are still getting used to his style. With a mix of Premier League, FA Cup and UEFA Champions League games under his belt, Johnson has been met with mixed reviews.
He is still learning the game, and has admitted as much, but his backing from Fox to eventually become its lead announcer in World Cup 2018 has put some fans on edge. Still, for a network that is always trying to push the envelope, particularly when it comes to soccer in the United States, the Gus Johnson experiment has to be seen as a positive…even if it fails miserably.
The process of becoming a broadcaster in a specific sport, particularly a play-by-play man, can be long and arduous. That is why I’m not going to debate the merits of Gus Johnson as a soccer commentator.
It’s too soon.
No, he does not have a true feel for the game yet. He can get loud, and at times it sounds painfully obvious that his analyst is teaching him the nuance and tactics of the game as it's happening. But at the same time, Johnson’s ability to bring a game to life, with escalating "airplane runway" types of calls, is what has made him a star in basketball and football commentary, and what could endear him to casual and die-hard soccer fans here in the United States.
Even though I cannot debate the quality of Johnson’s work so far, what I will debate is the decision to try him as a soccer commentator in the first place, and argue that grooming an American voice to call both international and domestic soccer games is incredibly important to the soccer culture in the United States.
One of the biggest turning points in the history of American soccer culture, along with Caliguri’s shot, World Cup 1994 and Major League Soccer, was the creation of Fox Soccer Channel in 2005. Re-branded from Fox Sports World, which began in 1997, Fox Soccer Channel beamed in games from all over the world every weekend, allowing the American fan access to the world’s best and brightest.
Since then, networks like Fox and ESPN have continually worked to integrate Americans into the global soccer market, whether by discovering (relatively) unknown media talents like a Rob Stone for studio shows, or attaching an established broadcast name, like Bob Ley, to marquee soccer events.
Not surprisingly, many of these American media members have been met with skepticism, similar to what Johnson is facing now. Critics believe that Johnson is an example of how Americans do not, and never will, understand the game.
But after qualifying for six consecutive World Cups, and building a 19-team league with credible stars and solid attendance numbers, is that criticism still relevant? More importantly, the fact that virtually every game broadcast in the United States is dubbed with European announcers only reinforces the stereotype that Americans are ignorant, and need some kind of heightened European influence to explain the nuance of what is actually happening in the game.
The numbers show that Americans do not in fact need that influence, as Johnson’s debut was still the most watched UEFA Champions League match of all time, and represented a 258 percent increase over previous Round of 16 coverage, according to the New York Times.
So please, American soccer snobs, give Gus Johnson a chance. Agreed, Johnson is not a former player, or necessarily an authority on the game itself. But he is a highly respected member of the broadcast community, in the prime of his career, choosing to take on this opportunity.
And yes, maybe it is a little too soon to throw him into the deep end of UEFA right away, but as a network Fox is never afraid to take risks, and as I alluded to earlier they deserve some credit for shaping American soccer culture into what it is today. They recognize that the United States must keep pushing toward creating its own voice in the soccer world (whether that is Johnson or not), and will take whatever criticism necessary in order to make that happen.