By Paul Kennedy
I'll say up front I am more aJim Nantz guy rather than a Gus Johnson guy. Just like I was more a Billy Packer guy rather than a Dick Vitale guy.
I don't like screamers. I'd like to say that's the Berkeley in me, but I know others will say that's just me.
But I have to say I'm warming up to Gus Johnson. Or I'll put it this way: I like Gus a lot more on FOX's Gold Cup coverage than on its European coverage. And credit for that goes to FOX and the supporting crew around Gus for making the Gold Cup more than just the Gus show.
The cult of personality is big in sports television, but it is new in soccer television.
This isn't the first time soccer has had an outsider take over the booth. Dave O'Brien -- by his own admission a "baseball guy" -- called the 2006 World Cup for ABC and ESPN and got ripped.
(The New York Times got so many complaints about O'Brien and the coverage it askedreaders to top sending them in. O'Brien responded by saying, "There’s kind of a petulant little clique of soccer fans. There’s not many of them, but they’re mean-spirited.")
But O'Brien wasn't exactly a national celebrity like Johnson, whose background is in football and college basketball and who comes with his own unique style that emphasizes, shall we say, the excitable.
Yes, the anti-Gus forces were quickly out in force, just as O'Brien says those petulant soccer fans were out to get him in January 2006, long before the World Cup started and his mistakes came flying.
But the advantage that Gus has is that he has five years to get it right. That's when FOX will take over for ESPN as the broadcaster of the World Cup.
Johnson's first games this winter from Europe weren't great, but he didn't bomb either, so the experiment continues. Like all broadcasters new at a sport, he had a tendency to tell stories like he was reading them off the notes prepared for him and he'd get overly excited -- his forte -- at the wrong times, the buildup to goal-scoring opportunities that weren't or chances that weren't as close as they first seemed or were nullified by offside calls or fouls.
The fear on a broadcast of a game like last Sunday's USA-El Salvador that was loaded with goalscoring opportunities -- the final score could have been something like 15-5 -- was that it would be the Gus-gone-mad show, but the broadcast had a pace to it that allowed the viewer to enjoy the game for what it was: a thoroughly entertaining display of attacking soccer from both teams.
Credit for that goes, in part, to Eric Wynalda, Johnson's sidekick. The irony is, Wynalda wasn't even supposed to be working in the booth. FOX Sports' pre-tournament release had Wynalda working in the studio back in Los Angeles and Cobi Jones at Johnson's side for the three FOX weekend broadcasts, like Jones was for the opening Mexico-Panama game from the Rose Bowl on FOX Soccer.
Unleashed from the FOX studios, Wynalda has hit the ground running, calling the first U.S. goal against El Salvador and setting up the third. "This game is screaming for Eddie Johnson," he said before EJ came on and scored with his first touch of the ball.
The USA-El Salvador broadcast wasn't perfect. It was one game too early with its this-should-get-chippy warning. "Expect a lot of people on the ground today," we were told without any evidence backing up the claim. The only ones who spent a lot of time on the ground in Baltimore were the two keepers.
The broadcast also benefited from not having too much buildup or too much history to get wrong. This is the Gold Cup after all with most teams fielding "B" squads, not Barcelona or Manchester United with 100 years of history and the best players in the world. Johnson could also go to Sports Illustrated reporter Grant Wahl on the sidelines to provide the factoids he didn't need to memorize.
FOX's greatest challenge is that it must develop, largely from scratch, broadcast teams and production crews for the FIFA events it will take over beginning in 2015. It isn't like ESPN that's been in the business of covering soccer, pretty much since its infancy in the early 1980s. And FOX largely relied on English feeds for its signature events, the Premiership (which moves to NBC next month) and Champions League (which moves from FOX Soccer to FOX Sports 1).
The one thing FOX has in place is the workings of a solid studio crew, beginning with Rob Stone, who hosted the FOX Soccer studio shows around the weekend EPL and midweek Champions League action. Stuck on the bench at ESPN, where he was a jack of all trades, Stone is perfect for the role of studio host, quick with his soccer references and in the role of traffic cop, setting up FOX's team of studio analysts.
Warren Barton has emerged as the best of the ex-British players who have been paraded through the LA studios and he doesn't like to complicate things. "They are having fun," he simply said to explain the USA's success at the Gold Cup. Even Heather Mitts looks comfortable in her new role on FOX as a studio analyst.
FOX doesn't yet have the bells and whistles that we've come to expect from ESPN's soccer coverage, but it has something better: Dr. Joe.
Probably the best thing FOX has done is to create the new role of referee analyst for Joe Machnik, the former college coach and longtime soccer operator who headed up MLS's referee program for many years.
Dr. Joe has been effectively called on to analyze critical calls -- red cards or no red cards? penalties or no penalties? -- and provide insight into what Concacaf referees were instructed to emphasize as the new rules of the game took effect on July 1.
In this new role, Dr. Joe is a big help to those in the booth, you can now hold off trying to immediately render a verdict on the call -- and get it wrong -- and instead defer to Machnik for his analysis of what are, he will admit, sometimes borderline calls.
On Wednesday night, Machnik even got it right on the effect of Jurgen Klinsmann's dismissal late in the USA-Honduras match. While almost everyone else was assuming Klinsmann would automatically be suspended for Sunday's final, Machnik dug through the Gold Cup regulations and found them to be vague about the disposition of a dismissed coach.
Yes, there's more to FOX's Gold Cup coverage than just the Gus show.