FOX wants an American voice to call the 2018 World Cup. That American voice will be Gus Johnson. A significant segment of the soccer community detests the idea outright. But “the experiment” now is not whether Gus should be in the booth, but how to make a booth with Gus work. Individually, he has been improving. But FOX has undermined him with their choice in color commentators, whether it has been Ian Wright, Warren Barton or, now, Eric Wynalda.
This quote from Eric Shanks is worrisome.
"“Clearly, one of the goals Gus has is to have his own insights so he can tee Eric up. Clearly the analyst is the star of the program. When Gus is able to see the field and predict what is going to happen, I think he and Eric will clearly reach some of the goals we have set.”"
The analyst has never been the “star of the program” in soccer. Martin Tyler, Jon Champion, Ian Darke, Andres Cantor. Clearly, the stars are play-by-play guys. Who did the color commentary for them? The answer: it doesn’t matter, provided that individual is not intrusive.
Soccer is fundamentally different from commentating on American sports. Football, baseball and basketball have stoppages. The action takes minutes. The coverage takes hours. Commentary must fill gaps. Soccer has continuous action, negating the need for excessive analysis. Color commentators exist in soccer, because it’s awkward to listen to Martin Tyler talk to himself for 45 minutes.
Soccer is also similar to American sports, and other facets of life. What makes a great partnership is balance. John Madden was a large, gregarious personality prone to going on tangents. Pat Summerall was a restrained minimalist who kept him on track.
Gus is Madden. He should be the personality in the booth. He’s there to explode with enthusiasm and be the English-language Andres Cantor. But, instead of providing a partner who would balance him, an even-keeled and seasoned soccer analyst, FOX has opted for even more “boldness,” pairing him with equally inexperienced analysts heavy on personality. FOX is trying to offset jalapenos with Tabasco sauce.
We can quibble about Wynalda’s weaknesses as a match analyst. He talked right over a dramatic Arsenal equalizer (and, really, the entire match). His outspokenness often provides insight into his opinions, rather than what transpired on the pitch. There were a few factual errors. “Zonal marking does not work” was laughable. He is clearly better suited for being the “character” in a studio than calling games. Pairing them together is overburdening the booth with personality, in the sport least accommodating to it. Forcing Gus Johnson to table-set, to wrangle and to sublimate himself gets the least out of him.
Gus has been prepared and professional. He will improve and become more fluid with experience. The World Cup is four years away. But, for him to grow into that “American” soccer voice, he has to be put in a position to succeed. Thus far, FOX’s commentator pairings have done him a profound disservice, leaving many of those with an open mind about “the experiment” questioning its wisdom.