Real Madrid and Manchester United will take to the field in one of the premier UEFA Champions League matches of the season Wednesday. The star power will be all over the field and the stakes will be unbelievably high for two teams with cup-hoisting aspirations.
In mainstream America, though, the individual drawing eyes to the television won't necessarily be Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Mesut Ozil, Javier Hernandez, Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho. It will be the man handling the play-by-play at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Gus Johnson.
When Sports Illustrated reported last week that Johnson would potentially be in line to become Fox Soccer's lead voice at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup and 2018 FIFA World Cup -- with part of that grooming process including Johnson calling Champions League action starting with Wednesday's clash -- it sparked an unprecedented buzz for a soccer announcer in the U.S. sports community. Not just the soccer community, but all across the board.
Johnson's reputation precedes itself. He has emerged from his status as a cult hero to a place of reverence among sports spectators. It all stemmed from his ability to elevate the broadcast of NCAA men's basketball tournament games, and the uncanny phenomenon of those games going down to the wire more often than not.
There's a Gus Johnson Soundboard website dedicated to his catchphrases. There are moments in NCAA basketball lore synonymous with his call of the shot, miss or steal. A creative YouTube artist spliced his and Bill Raftery's call of a Gonzaga-Oklahoma State basketball finish with Landon Donovan's game-winning goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. He might not have the spontaneous lyrical creativity of a Ray Hudson, but his unbridled emotion sure shines through like it does for the popular beIN Sport color commentator.
Now that passion is being brought to soccer, with Fox Soccer's bold, multi-year experiment set to begin. Will there be missteps along the way? Surely there won't be a seamless transition into calling the biggest games on the planet with little prior experience. It is not exactly Johnson's first foray into the sport, though.
He called a handful of San Jose Earthquakes matches on the radio last season, which, as it turned out, fused the most exciting late-game team in Major League Soccer with the ideal announcer for the occasion. No, not every call was perfect and faultless, but calling soccer on the radio is a much different beast than narrating a video broadcast. Radio calls require more imagination and attention to detail to illustrate the picture to the listener. Johnson won't be faced with that challenge with his television broadcasts.
Instead, Johnson's biggest challenge will be winning over the harsh skeptics who don't buy into his shtick. Many soccer die-hards will be looking past his over-the-top tendencies and instead be on the lookout to dissect every mispronunciation, every wrong usage of terminology, and every slight inclination that he is not fully understanding of a rule or situation, no matter if the perception is correct or not.
A number of questions need to be answered over the next few years before Johnson can win over both the die-hard spectators and casual fans and be entrusted with the hallowed spot of lead announcer for a World Cup. On a game-by-game basis, will he be able to spot formation changes and other game subtleties on the fly? Will he know the offside rule enough to know when to tone down the GusMeter and recognize a waved-off goal or halted play? The producers in his ear and color commentators to his side should be able to lend a helping hand if need be, but it's not going to be hard to tell how prepared and knowledgeable Johnson is for the difficult situations that may arise.
What happens if he is dragged into a 0-0 snoozefest along the lines of the USA-Canada friendly from a couple of weeks ago? Will he have enough soccer savvy to overcome the dearth of exciting plays and legitimate chances? Will his ability to make a stoppage-time equalizer or game-winner into something spectacular overshadow how he handles the regular slow periods and motions of a match?
Regardless of the answers to those questions, in the bigger picture and over time, Johnson will appeal to those who might not necessarily tune in even if it were the iconic Martin Tyler calling the match. While that may be blasphemy in soccer circles, Johnson going behind the mic for Fox Soccer isn't about putting the best soccer voice in the world in the booth. It is about venturing into a new spectrum for soccer on American TV and maximizing mainstream interest for potential viewers while taking a serious risk in the event that things don't pan out.
"I'm looking forward to the total experience," Johnson told Fox Soccer Report Monday night. "It's the beginning of a great adventure, and I'm looking forward to seeing this thing out."
So should American soccer fans. Will it be a success? Only time will tell, starting with 90 high-profile minutes in Madrid on Wednesday. The announcer who brings fans to the edge of their seats with his ability to elevate a moment with his passion is going to be calling the beautiful game, though, and that alone is something to be excited about.
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