There weren’t too many verbal pyrotechnics, and that was OK.
FOX Sports play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson kept it simple in his eagerly-anticipated pro soccer television debut on Wednesday, showing impressive preparation and poise but only modest zeal during FOX Soccer’s broadcast of the Real Madrid vs. Manchester United UEFA Champions League match.
Johnson built his reputation on colorful, emotional calls of dramatic moments in NCAA basketball games, so there was rampant speculation – some intrigued, others apprehensive – about how he would adapt that style to the beautiful game. (He began handling radio play-by-play duties for the San Jose Earthquakes last year, but Wednesday’s match in Madrid was the Detroit native’s first TV soccer assignment since being named FOX’s lead announcer for World Cup 2018 in Russia.)
Partnered with former English Premier League player Warren Barton, Johnson was economical with his words for most of the tense 1-1 draw, stumbling over some soccer vocabulary but maintaining a good cadence as two of Europe’s top teams traded blows.
His voice conveyed the power of the moment without excess adornment when the visitors grabbed an early lead off a corner kick – “And it’s headed up and in! Danny Welbeck gives Manchester United a one-nil lead here in Madrid!” – and he followed up with a useful stat about United’s strong win-loss record when Welbeck scores.
Later, he let the Estadio Bernabéu crowd’s lusty reaction shine through on Cristiano Ronaldo’s equalizing goal – and speaking of which, Johnson was wise to employ soccer-savvy terms like “equalizer” smoothly, but judiciously. A veteran pro, he’s clearly learned that an utterance as simple as a player’s last name can be packed with drama and meaning by a tuned-in announcer.
His hoops roots snuck into view with his repeated use of the term “crosses over” to describe a player swiveling his hips and changing direction, and he laid down one noticeable clanger when Ryan Giggs entered the match in the second half, referring to United’s Welsh legend as an Englishman.
But on balance, he was clear and consistent, showing signs of promise as well as ample upside as he becomes more familiar with the sport’s rhythm and pacing.
And just like many of the world’s best players, Johnson made those around him better. His restraint allowed Barton to edge out of his shell as the English color man’s match analysis rose to the fore.
Will it will take some time for Johnson to grow comfortable enough to call soccer matches with his customary gusto? Of course. But he certainly earned a solid result in the first match of his new challenge.