John Strong and Stuart Holden both are 32, quite young to be the lead announcing team for the World Cup, which opens June 14 in Russia.
But that is the second-most unusual thing about the Fox pair. The first is that both are Americans.
For most sports viewers in the United States, American voices are preferred. Soccer long has been different, though, with many fans leaning toward authoritative, old-school British accents.
Fox has been plotting to change that since it first secured rights to the 2018 World Cup in 2011, initially tabbing Gus Johnson for the job and sending him off on a crash-course in soccer announcing.
That experiment did not work out. Now the network has turned to a soccer specialist in Strong and paired him with Holden, a former midfielder for the U.S. Men’s National Team who played in the 2010 World Cup.
“I think that our use of so many American voices is something to be celebrated,” said David Neal, executive producer of Fox’s World Cup coverage. “It’s indicative of the continued growth of this sport in the United States. It’s not something that has to be called by non-U.S. voices.”
Eight of Fox’s 12 game announcers are American. (Holden spent his early childhood in Scotland before moving to Texas.)
Unfortunately for Fox and U.S. soccer, there will be no American team for them to announce because it did not qualify for the field of 32.
Strong, who grew up in Portland, Oregon, said he has “been a 24/7 soccer nerd since I was in middle school” and appreciates great British announcers. But he scoffed at the notion Americans cannot handle soccer’s biggest stages.
“I do think it’s an outdated perception, but I 100 percent am not going in with the idea that I’m going to change everyone’s minds, because I’m going to get myself in trouble,” he said.
Strong knows there will be resistance from some. There already has been. He said he has not logged onto his Twitter account since January because he “got sick of it.” But he does feel like a trailblazer.
“There are a bunch of kids in college right now and in high school — I talk to them a lot them — and it’s the same thing: They’ve grown up with the sport and they want to be broadcasters and now they want to be soccer announcers instead of a baseball announcer,” he said.
Not that Strong doesn’t have some British lingo in him. Having spent his life around the sport, he found himself lapsing into soccer-speak even when he was working sports radio in Portland.
“I would be doing the baseball scores and I’d say, ‘The Reds are leading the Yankees, 2-nil . . . sorry, 2-nothing!’” he said.
Growing up in soccer-mad Portland helped.
“My mom’s family was involved with the Timbers in the early ’80s,” he said, referring to the NASL version of the team. “When she would go out to garden, her cushion was a Timbers seat cushion from 1982. It had their schedule on it. So it was always sort of around me.”
Holden, whose career was cut short by knee injuries, said he never expected to be calling a World Cup at 32 — certainly not with a fellow 32-year-old American.
“We feel we have an opportunity to represent the modern soccer fan, somebody that’s grown up with soccer as a first-choice sport,” he said. “And also, there is the potential that John and I could work together for the next 30 years.”
Regarding the commitment to American voices, Holden said, “Fox is OK being different and OK trying things that haven’t been done before and perhaps taking risks. And in this case, I think it’s a calculated risk.
“You’re taking a risk on American voices, but you’re taking a risk on good voices that have earned the opportunity to do that. I think that’s how John and I look at it as opposed to an accent and getting caught up in American vs. British. I think we’re at a point with our game where we can stop feeling insecure about our history and what we’ve done and our knowledge of the game.”
Holden said it is “lazy” to assume Americans cannot do the job.
“All I ask people is to listen with an open mind and tell me how you feel after 90 minutes,” he said. “We’re going to do what we think is right in putting what we think is the best thing on television and what feels authentic to an American, this new wave of American soccer fan.
“There’s going to be criticism. There’s going to be backlash. But you know what? It doesn’t change the way he and I work and frankly I welcome that opportunity to prove it to those people.”
Another U.S. national team alumnus, Alexi Lalas, will be a Fox studio analyst. He called American soccer culture, “vibrant, passionate and discerning. I think it’s incredibly unique when you put it up against other countries and other cultures.
“To be able to recognize that and celebrate that and channel that through a broadcast, that’s kind of cool.”