Gus Johnson makes soccer debut

Andy Lyons

Real Madrid vs. Manchester United saw Gus Johnson make his play-calling debut for Fox Soccer. It wasn't spectacular, but there's some real promise there nevertheless.

Famed announcer Gus Johnson will be calling the 2018 World Cup for FOX. But before the big adventure in Russia, he needs some commentating practice. And what better way to learn the ropes than by calling Real Madrid vs. Manchester United in the Champions League?

I'd never heard Mr. Johnson call a game before, and so I was asked to keep a running diary of how he was doing. Here we go!

Pregame: His name is pronounced 'Guss'? I was expecting 'Guus'.

0 min: He talked through kickoff!

1 min: He just asked Warren Barton for tactical input. Barton replied by talking about how Wayne Rooney needs to be brave.

2 min: I really don't care about Sami Khedira's parents. Also that's probably not how you pronounce David de Gea's first name. Picky, I know.

5 min: Mistakes Robin van Persie's hand for his elbow. I also don't care about Angel di Maria's birthday.

6 min: Fabio Coentrao hits the post! I was given to understand that Mr. Johnson would be super-loud about everything, but nothing out of the ordinary just yet.

8 min: Please talk more Mr. Johnson. Otherwise Barton says things.

10 min: It's pretty clear he has to think about things before he says them. Which isn't a bad thing, it's just... slow.

11 min: Ronaldo 'splits'? That's not a thing. Unless he's undergoing mitosis like some sort of horrible giant amoeba. He'd be Lorenzo Insigne-sized afterwards.

12 min: Pronounces Mesut Özil wrong. But everyone does.

14 min: So he's not talking about things that are actually important. Interceptions, tackles, throw-ins, key passes aren't getting much mention.

15 min: Ronaldo forced to navigate his way through a packed United area because Karim Benzema's an idiot. Gus' call was pretty good here. Dances into the box! Hesitates!

16 min: Why would you call it a football? Are there other, non-football balls in this match?

20 min: Danny Welbeck scores. Decent call but slow again. And pretty muted, considering it's a huge, huge goal.

21 min: Benzema trying to split? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT.

23 min: If I tried to close my eyes and figure out who had the ball I'd end up very confused. Real Madrid's forwards are apparently busy replicating or something.

26 min: There are different types of passes and you might consider talking about them.

27 min: Am I being overly mean? I feel like I'm being overly mean. But this isn't great.

28 min: Missed the fact that the ball was dead as Khedira shot. Tsk. Van Persie gets his head in the way of a free kick, and Mr. Johnson loses many points for not making a 'he could have been killed!' joke.

29 min: Oh hey, Ronaldo scores.The reaction, and this is paraphrased, goes something like 'Bwarp? Ronaldo!'

30 min: 'Road goal' made me wince.

31 min: Patrice Evra's expression as Ronaldo jumped clean over him was hilarious. I felt that needed mentioning.

33 min: Why is he talking about van Persie while Madrid are attacking?

34 min: 'Di Maria... make that Jose Mourinho very emotional' I really, really do not understand what happened there.

35 min: A list of people who use 'trying to free himself' in the context of football matches: Gus Johnson. This sounds like Prison Break or something.

37 min: Talking about the players isn't really an acceptable substitute for describing what they're doing.

38 min: Helpful hint for Mr. Johnson: You can differentiate between Sami Khedira and Alvaro Arbeloa because one of them has talent.

38 min continued: Özil gets away in the box, de Gea makes a great save. And Gus calls it perfectly. Hurray.

39 min: I swear it's been a full minute since he said anything.

40 min: Gets card count wrong, quickly corrects himself. No biggie.

41 min: I liked the shout when Phil Jones knocked over di Maria in the box. Denied a great 'PENALTY' yell by the referee screwing up. I wanted to hear that call. Sadface.

43 min: Ronaldo passing straight to Welbeck should probably draw more comment.


47 min: Ronaldo misses a clear chance. Johnson doesn't consider this worthy of a mention.

Halftime: That could have been worse. Bonus points for consistently pronouncing Jose Mourinho correctly. Gus will need to watch a lot more football in order to figure out when he has time for anecdotes and when he should be describing action (and needs to anticipate that action more effectively too).

45 min: Missed this kickoff too. Probably FOX's fault.

46 min: Lots of shouting. That was fun.

47 min: I don't know how anyone failed to see that Jones free header coming.

48 min: Gus misses a golden opportunity to say 'clever ball' on a Khedira pass to Ronaldo. I said it out loud to make up for him.

49 min: The few seconds after a change in possession are the most important moments of any given play. We should probably be told when a fast break is developing.

51 min: Someone taught Gus about the overlapping fullback run at halftime!

52 min: What we need when Angel di Maria is shooting on goal is an anecdote about an injured goalkeeper.

53 min: A tactical comment from Gus that's more right than wrong. Well done.

54 min: Ok that would have been a potential red card offence had Raphael Varane been called for that foul on Evra there. Making a bigger deal out of that sort of moment is the key element that he needs to shore up in his play by play.

55 min: When United get a free kick viewers might like hearing about it maybe.

57 min: Managed not to laugh as Shinji Kagawa tries to defend against Ronaldo, proving that he's much better at this than I'd be.

58 min: Mentioned a clearance from di Maria. Good. Fails to talk about Özil's lack of control ruining a clear goalscoring opportunity. Bad.

60 min: Pipita sighting! A thought: Instead of pointless anecdotes about the players, how about talking about City's game here? That would be good.

61 min: THE SIX! SLIDE! WHAT A SAVE BY DE GEA! That was cool. And a great save.

62 min: 'Real Madrid haven't drawn against an English team since 2000.' They drew 1-1 at the Etihad like three months ago, a game that I'd be shocked if Gus didn't watch preparing for this gig.

64 min: I don't understand much about what he just said about Ryan Giggs, but I think he just called him the 'most decorated English player'. I really hope I misheard that.

67 min: The real, big issue with Gus' calling is that he doesn't seem able to anticipate what players are looking to do. So he's not really prepared to talk about it.

69 min: 'Crossing over' for 'dribbles past someone' isn't a thing that will happen. Please don't try to make it happen.

71 min: Gus is talking about how good de Gea's positioning has been. i don't understand how he'd possibly know one way or the other.

72 min: Van Persie hits the crossbar and has a terribly mis-hit shot cleared off the line by Xabi Alonso. The crossbar isn't mentioned at all and Gus confuses Alonso for Sergio Ramos.

75 min: Luka Modric on. I have to admit that if Gus says nice things about Luka I'll love him no matter his failings. Shut up, Warren.

79 min: 'Antonio Valencia and Fabio Coentrao tied up' sounds like a deeply-held fantasy for at least one of the SB Nation Soccer writers.

80 min: Considering how tense this is I'd expect a little more emotion behind the call of de Gea's save on Khedira.

81 min: United just had a chance to win it after a bad slip by Varane, with Giggs... doing something weird. There should probably have been more shouting.

85 min: Ronaldo free kick that juuuust misses over with de Gea stationary. Gus silent. Should have been freaking out.

87 min: It's weird hearing 'Man U' so often. I don't know if other commentators do it and I just don't notice, but it's stood out today.

89 min: Mats Hummels apparently just did an awesome in the other match. Kind of wish Gus was calling that, because it would have been a fun call.

90 min: This has been a really awful half for Real Madrid. Carrick robs Khedira and then is fouled by Arbeloa. Gus describes this sequence of play as 'Carrick'.

92 min: That Ronaldo-Higuain chance should probably have ended up more shouty?

93 min: Diego Lopez saves well from van Persie in the final minute of the match. That would have been a last-minute United winner at the Santiago Bernabeu. Scream about that!


All in all, not a bad debut per se. The major issue was that Gus' calling of the match was fundamentally unintuitive -- football is a sport in which you have to be thinking about what the players are trying to do at all times. If you don't, it's difficult to call live, and for Gus the whole match seemed more or less like a constant, fun, surprise. That'll change with practice, and if I had to bet, I'd guess he'll be very good by 2018.

Fewer anecdotes would be good too.

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For more on the Red Devils, check out Manchester United blog The Busby Babe. For more on Los Merengues, head over to Real Madrid blog Managing Madrid.

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