Gus Johnson, the self-described “soccer novice,” settled in behind the microphone for his television play-by-play debut on Wednesday afternoon. With Fox ambitiously trying to get him ready to become the voice of World Cup 2018, they tossed him straight into the fire by assigning him the most high-profile Champions League round of 16 tie: Real Madrid versus Manchester United.
So how did he do? Goal.com kept a running diary of the first leg of the massive showdown, aka, the dawn of the Age of Gus.
15 minutes to kickoff: We start with Gus and his sidekick for the evening, Warren Barton, giving us a pre-game talk on the match. Gus, as per his wont, is shouting. Warren speaks at a normal tone. We can only hear Gus. Point, Johnson.
5 min to kick: As the players stride onto the pitch, Johnson calls the game a “championship match.” Uhh . . . close enough?
2 min: Early impressions: Gus likes to talk. After an early Sami Khedira chance, we learn about the midfielder's cultural heritage. Then on the ensuing goal kick, Gus informs us about David de Gea's origins in Madrid. Backstories: A staple of American commentary, and one Johnson doesn't appear to be holding back on.
5 min: “Angel di Maria is 23 years old and will be 25 tomorrow.” Clearing the early cobwebs, then.
6 min: Fabio Coentrao fires off the post and Gus is ready, his voice reaching a crescendo as the ball hits the far post. That one was right in his wheelhouse.
9 min: In the early going, Johnson is sticking to his “play-by-play” role, leaving any tactical commentary to Barton. When you're as green as Gus, this is far from a terrible idea.
11 min: Karim Benzema's shot is well blocked by Jonny Evans, but Gus is silent. When broadcasting soccer, recognizing quality defensive plays is quite a bit harder than acknowledging positive attacking play. This will come up again.
13 min: Gus still keeping it simple. He's announcing every player's name as he touches the ball (which is easy, but probably unnecessary), but rarely elaborating on the action when plays reach their conclusion.
16 min: Backstories, backstories backstories. We've heard about press conferences, pre-game interview attempts, player nationalities and ethnic origins among other things. It's sometimes interesting, but mostly distracting. This isn't 60 Minutes.
20 min: Goal Manchester United! Gus opens his call strangely, saying “Van Persie breaking to the football,” which sounds like something a NFL cornerback would do. Then his voice slowly rises as he realizes Danny Welbeck's header has nestled into the far corner. Overall not bad, but still a bit subdued considering the magnitude of an away goal.
Gus then says “Manchester United is undefeated in 17 games in which Welbeck has scored.” Well . . . that's actually kind of interesting. Having seven pages of stats in front of him paid off there.
25 min: After a foul, Johnson states, “It's been a physical affair.” Except it hasn't been.
28 min: Cristiano Ronaldo is fouled and Johnson fails to mention that it's a foul. Does he not see it's been called? Or does he think it's obvious to the viewer? Either way, we have to wait until Ronaldo lines up the free kick before we know the referee has blown his whistle.
30 min: Johnson is in the middle of spinning a yarn about Mesut Ozil's performance for Germany in a friendly when he plays a cross to Ronaldo, who leaps up and heads home to make it 1-1. Gus is subdued during the goal call, to the point where it seems like it's purposeful restraint in the face of concerns about too many Gus-gasms.
33 min: Van Persie “crosses over”. Our first basketball-ism. He'll go on to use that one a couple more times.
36 min: Better from Gus as he ably recognizes Raphael Varane defending Rooney well on a corner kick.
38 min: Gus with maybe a tad too much excitement when De Gea saves from Ozil. The German made it pretty easy by going near post, but Johnson made it seem like the world-class save it wasn't.
41 min: Maybe the most animated call of the day as Di Maria goes down in the box after a shove by Evans. Madrid's penalty shout is waved away while Gus kicks the volume up to “Gonzaga in the Elite Eight” levels.
44 min: I like the way Gus's voice rises slowly when a play gets more dangerous. He does a good job of conveying the magnitude of each chance.
47 min: A United cross comes in and Diego Lopez tips away. “Kagawa can't get there” is the call. Johnson misses the Madrid keeper's vital touch on the ball.
52 min: Alvaro Arbeloa's overlapping run is correctly identified as “overlapping” by Gus. Should I compliment him or is that just condescending? I'm honestly not sure.
54 min: Some tactical analysis! Gus mentions Madrid's midfield is starting to win the battle. Barton wholeheartedly agrees.
57 min: Ronaldo with a run in the area and again, I'm enjoying the inflections in Johnson's voice. He's letting us know there's a situation developing as Ronaldo gets closer and closer to the United goal.
58 min: Gus is still struggling with changes in possession. An intricate Madrid move around the box is broken up and the only thing Gus mentions is “Van Persie” when the Dutchman collects the ball, rather than how the play was broken up and by whom.
61 min: Big kick save by De Gea on a sliding Coentrao effort at the back post. Gus-o-meter is cranked up to a solid 8.5. Nice work.
65 min: During a stoppage of play, Gus gives us some background information on Ryan Giggs, who just entered the game. That's how you do it: informative and doesn't distract from the action. Except he calls Giggs English when he's actually Welsh. Oops.
68 min: “Madrid probing, patient.” Solid call. Pretty accurate as Los Blancos move the ball around the perimeter of their midfield.
72 min: Two huge chances for Van Persie. The first is appropriately called by Johnson, who notes that Lopez gets a fingertip on it before it hits the post. The next is botched, as Van Persie scuffs his shot, allowing Alonso to clear off the line. As the shot moves towards goal and the ball is then cleared, we hear silence.
76 min: As the game wears on, Johnson has tamped down the play-by-play a bit, allowing some ambient noise to filter though. I'd like to hear more of that during non-threatening spells of possession.
79 min: De Gea makes a nice save on a shot from the top of the box and Johnson oddly complements his positioning. Barton cleans it up with the right complement, noting he safely secured the shot without a rebound.
85 min: Gus is completely silent as Ronaldo's fantastic free kick dips just onto the roof of the net. Baffling. It's as if he didn't comprehend how close that was to a goal. It's a tie game with less than five minutes to go, meaning this is Gus Time™. Come on!
That's it! Madrid and United tie 1-1.
Final thoughts: Overall, for his first televised game, Johnson didn't do a terrible job. It was quite apparent he'd been preparing diligently for the game, but maybe a bit too apparent. Rather than letting the play do the talking, too often Johnson would serenade us with anecdotes not related to anything happening on the field. It was informative, sure, but it got a bit distracting. The perfect example came on Ronaldo's goal when Gus barely caught up to the play while in the middle of a story about an international friendly last week. To his credit, there was less of this as the game wore on.
His cadence and excitement were high points of the afternoon. Johnson is a unique commentator who has an uncanny ability to sweep a viewer up in televised action. He just needs to learn the right time to do so, as some of his more excited calls came on plays which were less important than moments which found him more subdued.
Johnson doesn't know much about soccer, but he smartly allowed Barton to handle most of the analysis and he stuck to calling what he saw on the pitch. He's not a very good soccer announcer right now, but he avoided any huge gaffes, and that portends well for his future. We'll likely have to endure some more shaky moments as he finds his feet, but Johnson has the ability and professionalism to develop into a very solid soccer announcer.
Final Grade: C
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