Just for kicks, Fox to give Gus Johnson a soccer tryout

Fox Sports broadcaster Gus Johnson. Fox Sports broadcaster Gus Johnson. Photo Credit: Fox Sports

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

Many soccer fans already consider it a joke or an insult or both, and maybe it is. But it also could be brilliant.

We shall get our first hint Wednesday when Fox unveils its latest way-outside-the-box idea by putting Gus Johnson behind the play-by-play microphone for a Champions League match between Real Madrid and Manchester United.

It is the first step in what could well evolve into gigs for Johnson at the 2015 women's World Cup and 2018 men's World Cup, after Fox takes over those events from ESPN.

Perspective: This is roughly the equivalent of deploying famed soccer announcers Ian Darke or Andres Cantor alongside Tim McCarver for a World Series. In other words, apparent lunacy.

It's not just that Johnson is American, it's that he had neither played nor called the sport until Fox Sports president Eric Shanks approached him with the idea late in 2011.

Since then Johnson has taken a crash course, working San Jose Earthquakes games on radio, studying the sport's top voices, visiting Europe to watch matches in person and playing pickup games near his home in Chelsea.

(That's Chelsea as in Manhattan, not Chelsea in London.)

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But he knows full well what he is up against. "We're fighting tradition," he understated.

Johnson built his reputation as an excitable presence calling Knicks games on radio and TV and college basketball on CBS. He joined Fox in 2011.

Now this. "I'm excited, man, I'm not nervous at all," he said.

Johnson acknowledged, though, that his first reaction to Shanks' plan was: " 'What is he trying to get me into?' After thinking about it, I said to myself, 'I can stay safe the rest of my career at age 45 and call football and basketball and whatever. But I want to challenge myself to learn a new sport and maybe put my spin on it.' "

Shanks told SI.com, "This is something we are serious about and something we will continue to work at. Based on the radio games and practice games Gus has done, I think this is going to work . . . By no means is this meant to be a sideshow."

Johnson began by mimicking British sportscasters, but then "it dawned on me I could say the same things they're saying, but in my way."

So although he plans to preserve some British-isms, such as "nil" and "pitch," he said, "I think I have a chance to make it rhythmic, and American. I think there is room to combine both."

For example, he said one might hear something like this as a possession develops: " 'Real Madrid, they've got numbers!' That's going to be fun to me."

Regardless of whether Johnson turns out to be the right man, it is past time for the sport to have a signature American voice. ESPN tried it and failed with Dave O'Brien for the 2006 World Cup. For 2010, the network turned to British veterans Darke and Martin Tyler and heard nary a peep of protest.

Johnson called the fixation with British accents on soccer "irritating," and he's right. "I don't understand why we are so beholden to that sound," he said. (Warren Barton, Fox's analyst for Wednesday, is British.)

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There is no reason an American can't pull off calling the sport at its highest levels, but Johnson said "a network hasn't really made a serious commitment to establishing that voice and sticking behind that."

Fox has not committed to sticking behind Johnson, 45, in perpetuity, and he has not asked for that sort of commitment. All that is certain is that he will call a series of matches this spring, including the FA Cup and Champions League finals in May.

But 2018? "In five years, I might hit the lotto, the Mega Millions, and decide not to work at all and retire and move to St. Maarten," he said.

That could happen. More likely is that he will be busy in Russia that year for the biggest tournament of all.

This should be interesting. "Ronaldo! Pure!"

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