Gus Johnson is not a good soccer commentator. He yells at unimportant moments. He gets even the most basic parts of the game wrong. And he fails to understand—at all—that calling soccer requires a certain amount of subtlety. You have to make love to the game; Gus Johnson does not do this.
Fox Sports decision to hire Johnson, a highly regarded college basketball announcer but a man who is still learning how soccer works, was both a slap in the face to hardcore soccer fans as well as further proof that Fox cares more about attracting casual sports fans than providing a quality product for those who already love the game. Many American fans either turn to illegal streams to avoid all things Gus Johnson, or they tweet out their anger as they listen to his calls.
But here’s the deal: with Fox Sports owning the rights to the Champions League, the FA Cup and the next two World Cups, and with Johnson on a long-term contract with the network, American soccer fans have two choices: continue to tweet angrily into a vacuum, or try to find the good in Johnson’s call—or at least get to a place where they don’t think he is the worst thing to ever happen to the game.
Here are five thoughts to help you get on board with the Augustus Cornelius Johnson Jr. Experiment:
He is going to get better. Johnson is a professional broadcaster who has been calling sports for nearly 25 years. And has quietly moved up the ranks from calling local Minnesota Timberwolves games to calling the FA Cup Final. He knows sports, he knows how to call sports, and as such, he will get better at calling soccer. Fox should not have thrown into the deep end right away, but they know – as we should – that improvement in his call will come sooner or later, and will only come with experience. And you also have to respect the fact that despite all of the criticism, he continues to show up and call games—which speaks highly of his desire to do the job and do it right. He will be vastly improved broadcaster by the time 2018 rolls around.
And his time spent calling other sports might be seen as a drawback now, but it is truly an asset as it serves as important base to his soccer commentary – AND it might even allow Gus, with time, to see the game better than those announcers that have only called soccer their entire careers.
Yes, Gus Johnson yells. But you know who else yells? Ian Darke. And, yes, he uses basketball metaphors. But if I had a nickel for every time an English announcer used a cricket metaphor or Derek Rae made a hackneyed Scotland reference, I would be a rich man. And, yes, he gets things wrong more often than he should, but so do other announcers. But for some reason, probably because he isn’t English, American soccer fans are not interested in cutting Gus any slack whatsoever. The next time you watch an English Premier League match on NBC, pay attention to how many times the announcers mess up the players’ names. It happens more often than you think.
Soccer has a race problem. This is something we know all too well. Every season during the Champions League we hear reports of black players having bananas thrown at them, or suffering through racist, despicable chants. But the problem isn’t just in Eastern Europe, it’s also in England—following Chris Hughton’s sacking last spring, the EPL doesn’t have a single black manager. Sol Campbell called the dearth of black managers a “sad indictment” on the state of race relations in the English game.
And the whiteness of the game extends to the broadcast booth. As Johnson himself pointed out on Twitter when he was first hired to call soccer.
You shouldn’t like Johnson just because he is black. But you should be applauding the hire as a step forward for the game, and you should feel pride that America is the vanguard for improving soccer’s poor history when it comes to race.
American soccer will only step out from its shell and become a true soccer power when it sheds completely its adherence to the European aspects of the game. Right now, MLS borrows English naming conventions, USMNT fans bemoan the fact that the squad’s best players seem to refuse to play in Europe, and American based fans think the game should only be announced by an Englishman. All of these things and more are holding the game back in the USA.
The Gus Johnson experiment is part of this shedding of all things European. His calls are uniquely American, and are an important step toward the Americanization of the game. He will give the USMNT a voice that is all their own. And this is vital not only to the growth of soccer coverage in this country, but also to the progress of the game itself.
Tiki-taka, lumping it long, parking the bus, all-out defense, counter-attacking, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, 5-3-2 … the brilliance of this game is found in the scores of different ways it can be played. That variety encompasses the players, the fans, the managers and the journalists and it should extend to the commentators, too. Gus Johnson’s style is unique and if soccer fans can accept the different styles on the pitch, they should accept and even celebrate variety in the broadcast booth too.
It is going to take time, but if American soccer fans can force themselves to see the GOOD in Fox’s Gus Johnson experiment and show a little more patience as he works on improving his calls, then this might actually be a good thing for the game in the USA in the end.