One of the most prolific voices in American soccer over the last three decades, beIN Sports USA play-by-play man Phil Schoen has been heard calling soccer games on outlets including ABC, ESPN, Fox Sports and SiriusXM. For ESPN, he called the inaugural MLS game in 1996 best remembered for Eric Wynalda scoring the first goal in league history. Schoen is also a SiriusXM host and the founder of VoiceGoals, Inc., which provides voice-overs, voice acting and narration.
SOCCER AMERICA: How did you get into broadcasting? Was there a moment you knew you wanted to commit your professional life to your voice?
PHIL SCHOEN: I don't want to say I backed into it, because it was always something I was interested in doing. I was the kind of kid who brought a transistor radio to bed with me, and I'd move the dial fraction by fraction just trying to pick up whatever sports were out there.
Down here [Miami] we had a lot of Braves baseball, but I remember listening to the Cardinals, the Yankees, the Indians. One time — I don't know how it bounced around the airwaves — I remember hearing Vince Scully call a Dodgers game.
I loved sports, and broadcasting always interested me. I was fortunate enough that my high school had radio and television. I really hope there are no tapes of that stuff, because I was awful. But I did it enough to where I looked for it when I went to college. At Bowling Green, I did some more of it. Back in the day, you were pretty much locked into the big three networks and maybe a couple of big cable networks. Broadcasting soccer was barely on my mind because there were only a couple guys doing it.
Working in New Jersey and getting Started with ESPN ...
PHIL SCHOEN: Things progressed to where I got to my senior year of college, went out to New Jersey and got a job at WCTC, the largest radio station in Jersey. The Rutgers soccer coach at the time, Bob Reasso, started a coach's show on WCTC. Peter Vermes was in school. Alexi Lalas was there. I pestered my boss offering to help so much that he eventually said, 'Here, you do the show.'
New Jersey was enough of a soccer hotbed that people were listening, including the people who ran the ASL team up in Paterson [New Jersey Eagles]. They called me up and said, 'Hey, we're going to do a broadcast game, would you like to announce it?' At that point in time I was happy just to be broadcasting high school football and basketball. Here was a chance to cover the sport I loved since I was a kid watching Ray Hudson, Nene Cubillas and Gerd Mueller at Lockhart Stadium back in the day. So it was a thrill.
I was walking down to the dressing room at the end of the game, feeling really excited that I got to broadcast my first pro soccer game. I'm just watching the players sitting there — I don't want to say dejected, but they weren't as excited as me, they were getting checks of probably $500 in it or wherever — but it tells you where the sport was at that time. The desert between the death of the NASL and the birth of MLS.
It gave me the hunger to do more. When I came back to South Florida, I did some [ASL] Strikers games. Too ignorant to think that I shouldn't do it, I had enough stuff to put on a resume tape and sent it off to ESPN for the World Cup in 1994. They were interested, but they had already set everything up. So they said, well, if you wouldn't mind, let's hold onto this and when MLS starts, would you be interested?
SA: You were one of the first voices of MLS. What do you remember about those early days in the booth? What stands out to you looking back on those times?
PHIL SCHOEN: It's a great question because there are so many things. For fans nowadays, they have no concept of the emotion that fans then had. There was APSL, ASL, WSA and all of these lower-tier professional soccer leagues. But nothing close to what the NASL used to be or what we were watching on TV.
In many ways, it was a combination of joy and relief. Finally, the 10 years in the desert were over. Soccer was back. Teams were feeling their way through it — even D.C. United, at the end of the season, looked a lot different than they did in the beginning of the season in both style and personnel.
Every big journey has to start with a first step. That first step was maybe not the prettiest — at least Eric Wynalda had a sparkling highlight — I think if anything, that early part, even for teams that were struggling, there was a celebration that top-flight soccer was back.
As things got better, fans got a lot more demanding, and deservedly so. I think we saw the clubs held to account for shortcomings. Maybe the numbers aren't quite as good as they in other established sports, but they are getting there. The quality of the game and of the performance improves year in and year out. Back in the day, we were happy to have it and it was a great launching pad for what we are experiencing now.
SA: Talk about voice upkeep. Do you drink lemon tea with honey for back-to-back games? Voice coaches?
PHIL SCHOEN: Well, it's like a squad of 25 support staff, vocal cord massages, etc. [laughs]. No, it just a gift from God. And I just thank God I haven't screwed it up to this point. I do drink tea but I also drink coffee. I drink lemon water. With toddlers, I probably raise my voice a little too much. It is a gift and I try to use it as best I can. Hopefully, it's the words that are being said rather than just the voice. I do appreciate the gift that I have been given.
SA: You mentioned watching Ray Hudson early on in Florida, but how did you get into soccer? Were you always a fan of the game? Was it a family or environmental influence?
PHIL SCHOEN: Back then — it's kind of funny. The voice of soccer was PBS. They had soccer from England and Germany. It was intriguing. I grew up in North Miami Beach and everything back then down here, considering the Dolphins were coming off a perfect season, was Dolphins football. When the Strikers came and basically transformed the Miami NASL team into the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, it was a lot closer and more accessible.
Me and my friends who I played soccer with — we'd watch Soccer Made in Germany then go to the park to copy what we saw that day — we were old enough to buy tickets and go to the games. We'd hop in my friend's mom's' VW bus, get dropped off at Lockhart stadium and come out two hours later
While we loved the experience and the entertainment out there, I don't think we appreciated the quality of the players that were there. I don't think I realized I was watching Gerd Muller and Nene Cubillas and Elias Figueroa. All of these guys who were world class — we got to see a young Ray Hudson grow up in front of our eyes and he was a fan favorite and cult hero. That whole gang made the soccer so fun and drove it deeper into my heart.
SA: What is the best game you have called?
PHIL SCHOEN: Oh boy. I love the sport so much that to call a Clasico from the Bernabeu or a Copa America final in Chile, or a World Cup game I was able to do here in the States, France and Germany.
I've been blessed to have had so many opportunities. If I had to pick one? For symbolism of what had been and what was to come, it's got to be the inaugural game of MLS. The first MLS final was very dramatic. with the weather and the golden goal.
But that opening match in San Jose was so personal to me because of what it represented and that I was honored to be able to be handed that microphone and be the fill-in for every soccer fan that was feeling the same emotions as me — that's impossible to be equaled.
SA: How about the worst game you have called?
PHIL SCHOEN: I don't want to pin it on other people, because I'm sure I've had a bunch of lousy calls along the way, but one of the most frustrating calls I've had was an Open Cup Final in Los Angeles where there were just so many technical problems along the way. Ray still laughs about it when we talk, but for part of the broadcast I had walked away from the window and was just banging my head on the wall, as I'm talking, trying to keep my cool and not let the people at home hear what was going on down on the field.
It was so bad, I just laugh about it now.
The thing I try to remember is that the game is bigger than the announcers. While it is a game, it's not brain surgery — no one has ever died from a soccer broadcast. So capture that joy of the game but also the respect for the sport — that's what I've tried to do along the way and hopefully more often than not I've been able to.
SA: What was it like working alongside Ray Hudson all those years?
PHIL SCHOEN: He was one of the reasons soccer tightened its hold on my heart. I grew up watching him play. To get the chance later to meet him as a person man to man and find out that effervescent personality that I watched on the field was exactly the same outside the lines — that that is just the person he was — and then to get to call games with him and to let him share that personality and that love with a worldwide audience — it's just a thrill.
There are some people who think he's just making stuff up, there are others who think he's just scripted it out like Shakespeare. The answer is somewhere in between: he does a lot of preparation, but it's his heart that tells him the right moments. He loves this game and loves what he does. It's been an honor and a pleasure to work alongside him for so many years and decades.
SA: What is your favorite sound bite or metaphor he’s used in the commentary booth alongside you? Did he try them for you before the game or did he come up with them on the spot?
PHIL SCHOEN: There were times early on where I tried to tee it up for him. The YouTube clip that's still up there about Tom Cruise and tennis players still makes me crack up. As far as his axioms — and this mirrors Lionel Messi in his prime — one of my favorite's is "He knows where the goalposts is and the goalposts ain't moving." Something really simple that just describes the moment so well. Ray is impossible to put into a bottle. The best cork ever invented won't hold him. He is a joy and I'm glad to know I had the chance to work with him.
SA: You’ve said before that you enjoy radio work more than television. Tell me more about that.
PHIL SCHOEN: What I mean is that you get to be a little bit more of an artist. You get a chance to describe the sound and colors and conditions. I've tried to limit myself — you pretty much have the five Ws and the H: Who, What, Where and When is kind of my job and the Why and the How is the color person's job. Working with Ray, the Why and the How take a lot of time. So I have to be very prudent with how I use the Who What, Where and When. I probably use a little more color because of my radio roots but I also try and give the game time to breath when it deserves it.
Soccer is one of those ones that allows for a little more "radio." But television, for the most part, if you say what you're seeing you're wasting the listener's time. However, I know broadcasters who I respect very much who aren't even looking out of the window when the ball is in play. They're looking at the television screen because if you're talking about something that the viewer can't see, you're distracting and confusing them.
SA: Advice to those starting their career in broadcasting?
PHIL SCHOEN: Remember you're not bigger than the game. Remember what your role is a play-by-play announcer. Set up your color commentator and fill in the rest. Have fun. It is a game and it's meant to be enjoyed. At the same point don't treat it so lightly as to disrespect it.
It wouldn't hurt to note what the best broadcasters out there do that you like as a listener, and note what you don't like. Then turn the volume down while you're sitting on the couch, hit the record button on your phone, and then a few days later listen back to it. You'll have a very good view very quickly of how well you're describing what's on the screen.
When you have a bad broadcast, learn from it and shrug it off. When you have a really good call, don't dwell on it, because life has a way of tripping you up when you're not watching where you're stepping. Go forward day by day and enjoy the ride.