The Gus show, and more

By Paul Kennedy

I'll say up front I am more a Jim 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 asked readers 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.
18 comments about "The Gus show, and more".
  1. charles davenport, July 27, 2013 at 8:48 a.m.

    bring back JP Dellacamara. Philadelphia is enjoying him now.

  2. Tom G, July 27, 2013 at 9:40 a.m.

    well done - good analysis. Fox's weak link is Cobi who is likable but provides little. will be interesting to see if FoxSport One formula will work - irreverent and more humor than ESPN - see Bloomberg/Businessweek article thsi week's edition.

  3. Walt Pericciuoli, July 27, 2013 at 9:53 a.m.

    All I wish for from the match announcers is a lot less talking. Identify who has the ball,made the foul or made a run is all I need. On the replays,don't mind a little narrative as to what or how they saw the play. I don't mind if they show a little emotion after a great play or goal, but thats it. Its' not radio, I can see what's happening on the field. I think we are well past the days when the broadcast guys have to explain for the audience in detail everything thats going on.
    The pregame, halftime and postgame shows have been very good. I like Barton, Wynalda and Stone. Jones and Lalas I have no use for.

  4. Scott O'Connor, July 27, 2013 at 10:56 a.m.

    Surprisingly, I actually like the Gus and Eric show. The Eddie Johnson entry and goal with the "DEMOLITION MAN!!" exclamation was pretty epic and couldn't have been scripted any better by the soccer gods.

  5. Pat Sharp, July 27, 2013 at 11:20 a.m.

    I agree with Walt. The (non-soccer) announcers talk way too much. They should listen to a game broadcast in Europe. Minimal talking, as you can see what is going on. They don't need to talk about what happened last week, or records, stuff unrelated to the immediate game play. I find it very distracting, and when they won't shut up I turn the volume down or off so I am not distracted. I think they try to make it like American sports; baseball, football, where there are lots of stoppages in play, gaps in the action. They try to fill every second with chatter. Just let me watch the game!

  6. Mike in SoCal, July 27, 2013 at 12:28 p.m.

    Didn't expect it but Gus to be quite enjoyable to listen to during this tournament, he has worked well with Eric. As cringe-worthy at times as it was to hear Gus call BPL or UCL games a few months back, this tournament seems right up his alley. He's bombastic but it's not golf and TBH who doesn't want to hear the announcer get loud when calling a goal? He's got that down but his style has improved too.

  7. Brian Bouhl, July 27, 2013 at 1:20 p.m.

    Eric Wynalda does NOT belong in the booth. He's absolutely awful. There's a reason he got canned at ESPN however many years ago and he hasn't changed. I'm warming up to Gus, but they need to find a color guy to go with him and Cobi Jones and ESPN has beens are not going to cut it. If they're going to be doing World Cups they need to go out and snatch the best in the business from ESPN and NBC: Kyle Martino, Steve Macca, even Taylor Twellman would be an improvement over every single person they've put out recently. ESPN and NBC have gotten it right lately, I don't want to watch a FOX World Cup with people who were doing the ESPN World Cups in 02 and 06, that's just pathetic.

  8. richard sacks, July 27, 2013 at 1:29 p.m.

    Cobi Jones needs to go to announcer-school. You simply cannot use the phrase "a little bit" 5000 times a match. "A little bit of a blow to the head?" "A little bit of an elbow?" Nooooooooo. As for Gus and Eric, it troubles me that when Gus asks Eric a perfectly legit question, Eric will often ignore the question. Announcers ought to illuminate. Often, they're merely windbags.

  9. Caroline Lambert, July 27, 2013 at 2:15 p.m.

    I didn't have much time to watch the game, so watched most of it in fast forward. At one point I when I stopped to watch in real time, I heard the word "offsides" a couple of times. The audio went off after that. As for Gus - he was painful to listen to during EPL matches. He didn't say anything that wasn't obvious or that I didn't already know. The benefit of having an announcer who has watched the game since birth is that they can bring up interesting and relevant bits of trivia about the players and teams and competitions that adds a great deal to the commentary, especially during quiet moments during the game. I miss that.

  10. Barry Ulrich, July 27, 2013 at 2:41 p.m.

    As a referee advancing through the badges, my mentor strongly advised that I never render an opinion on the sideline regarding decisions/non-decisions by the referee. To do so could cause further problems for the referee from sideline spectators. My replies were usually, "My attention was at another part of the field when the whistle blew," or "He may have been screened from seeing what you saw," or "He may have determined that the foul wasn't as bad as you thought it was," or "He may have decided to give advantage, but didn't give audible or arm signals to indicate such."

  11. Rich V, July 27, 2013 at 4:09 p.m.

    I can't stand listening to GJ. It is so distracting to hear him screaming all the time and his over-emphasis at the wrong moments. And screaming 'Demolition Man!' over and over made no sense. He needs to stop using those nicknames, like whatever nickname he kept using for Baltimore which he said about 5 times in a row. I agree with others here, that they need to talk far less and actually do the play-by-play that they are there for. Just tell me who played the ball. Wynalda (and Twellman too) just sound smug most of the time. Last, I wish that both ESPN and Fox would stop zooming in all the time on a players on the ball, especially bc it is normally when the player is close to the cameras on the sideline, and right when they are about to cross the ball. I want to see the wide angle to look at who is actually in the box, not the guy with the ball. And needing Joe Machnik shouldn't be necessary, if you had guys in the booth that knew the rules. Most of the time they cut away it is very awkward, and leads to the same dumb joke every time from Wynalda about how surprised he is that Joe agrees with him. Let GJ do the radio broadcast if you must, just get him off of my TV.

  12. Nate Nelson, July 27, 2013 at 4:54 p.m.

    I watch it in Spanish because Gus is such a tool...his comments about Anthony Weiner were misplaced to say the very least.

  13. Terry Denton, July 27, 2013 at 6:28 p.m.

    Gus Johnson's style is all wrong for soccer. It would be helpful if FOX hired someone who actually knew something about the game. I will probably watch the Gold Cup final on the Spanish-language channel. And I don't speak Spanish.

  14. John Burns, July 27, 2013 at 6:50 p.m.

    Agee with the numerous comments above but the truth is I have solved the problem by simply hitting the mute so I can watch the action without all the distracting commentary. Works quite well.

  15. nick p, July 27, 2013 at 11:26 p.m.

    Best part about the premier league being on NBC next year is no Gus Johnson

  16. Kevin Sims, July 28, 2013 at 9:19 p.m.

    I rather like the hint of excitement GJ brings to his announcing. His observations are growing more accurate. I think the announcing team in place will draw more attention from those who are not soccer nuts like those of us who read SA and post here. Anything that broadens the attraction of the game to the masses in the USA wins my favor. Cobi is a rather weak link just now, for sure. But there is a group out there that thinks he is cool. We must market soccer broadly rather than to the soccer snobs. Great to see USA win Gold Cup deservedly ... but this talk of best American soccer right now over past 40 years is hyperbole indeed.

  17. Nicholas Adams, July 28, 2013 at 11:32 p.m.

    I'm sure Mr Johnson is a decent guy but he doesn't have the culture in the game which is important if you are going to comment authoritatively on the game.
    I preferred Fox when they showed EPL with the Sky Sports commentators like Martin Tyler. I know they want to bring a more 'Americanised' viewpoint on games but you have to have the background and culture of the game. Gus gets too excited at the wrong time.

  18. J Sagett, July 29, 2013 at 11:54 a.m.

    I, too, agree w/ Walt & John. Johnson & Wynalda weren't too bad yesterday, but why do American announcers (except for Dellacamera) think they must talk non-stop for two hours? I find my self using the mute button more & more. Haven't these people ever watched/heard Tyler and Darke? If the continuous prattling/babbling is needed to attract U.S. audiences, count me out.

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