Gus Johnson is the voice of soccer in America. Or at least he was until Monday when Johnson told SI.com that he was stepping down from his soccer play-by-play role with Fox Sports. Johnson, most famous for his yawping NCAA tournament calls, pointed out how steep his learning curve still is and how balancing it on top of his personal life and other duties with Fox Sports is just too much for him to continue taking on.
And thus ends the run of the highest profile announcer —and first since ESPN made baseball announcer Dave O'Brien the voice of its 2006 World Cup coverage — to step across the aisle from traditional American sports to the world's game.
When he was officially promoted in early 2013, Fox threw Johnson right into the fire and he started his soccer work at the top level, in the Champions League. Johnson was inevitably arrhythmic. He fumbled with the beat of the game and made explanatory blunders, like accidentally praising a Thomas Vermaelen foul and staring slack-jawed and silent during a flurry of activity in the box. (Neither Johnson nor Fox Sports returned calls for this story.)
Christopher Harris of worldsoccertalk.com was among the crowd of media who criticized Johnson and his exuberant style, calling his work a "car crash" among other things. I spoke with Harris on Tuesday about Johnson's promotion, which he suspects was Fox's way to "dumb down the coverage" and "conquer mainstream America." To him, the move was a calculated business ploy to engage the mainstream American sports fan, potentially at the detriment of the hardcore soccer fan. "Ultimately that's going to translate into bigger advertising dollars and make a lot more money for Fox," he said.
Even with Johnson gone, however, there are still other American voices in the sport. Harris named John Strong and Phil Schoen as American experts producing good work. Tim Howard does spot EPL coverage for NBC while still an active player in the EPL. Alexi Lalas plays the often daft but always loud voice on ESPN broadcasts and he partners with another former USMNT player, Taylor Twellman. Johnson isn't any different from them based on nationality, but because he works with a bombastic style more similar to Spanish language announcers like Pablo Ramirez.
All announcers, even Ian Darke, inevitably lose their shit on air. Losing one's shit isn't the exclusive province of Johnson, but he often does it with the most flair. Early on, he struggled with getting a sense of when to flex his throat muscles, but by the time he called Wigan's upset of Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup final, Johnson started to show improvement. Ben Watson smashed a dramatic header home in stoppage time and Johnson's call enhanced the gravity of the moment.
For all the rounding of edges Johnson had to do, soccer was an ideal foil for his theatrical enthusiasm. The game is defined by pressure building between two teams until a goal pierces the tension and acts as the ultimate release valve. Every goal is meaningful and Johnson's hyperbolic waxing gives the act of scoring the emotional heft it deserves. Johnson was too much of a square peg for his own liking, and potentially Fox Sports' as well, but by the time he stepped down, he certainly wasn't bad at his job. "Even though I was one of the harshest critics of him," Harris said, "I could see him do well. He could bring a lot to the table and do well in a World Cup atmosphere."
Still, the Johnson experiment probably won't be replicated soon. Despite his improvement, it may serve more as a cautionary tale than a trailblazing one. But Gus Johnson proved, if only for a little while, that you don't have to be born into soccer to be good at calling it.