Strong rises from ob­scu­rity to call World Cup fi­nal

Woonsocket Call - - SPORTS - By STEVEN GOFF

MOSCOW — When John Strong mea­sures the lengths he has come to call Sunday’s World Cup fi­nal for Fox Sports, he re­mem­bers two in­stances from high school in Ore­gon in 2002 that cap­tured his early pas­sion for soc­cer.

It was May 4, and he needed to take the SATs. But it also was the last day of the French sea­son, and as a ran­dom Olympique Ly­on­nais fan, he set the home VCR to record a match that would clinch what be­came the first of seven con­sec­u­tive Ligue 1 cham­pi­onships. Wear­ing a team jersey, he rushed through the test and raced home to watch the game.

A few weeks later, with the World Cup opener tak­ing place in Seoul, he stayed up through the wee hours to watch Sene­gal - to which he is par­tial be­cause of his fam­ily’s church ties to hu­man­i­tar­ian causes there - up­set de­fend­ing cham­pion France. Buzzing with ex­cite­ment, he bounced into school wear­ing the jersey of star for­ward El Hadji Diouf.

“And I don’t have any­one to talk to,” he re­called this week. “Crick­ets.”

Four World Cup cy­cles later, Strong is talk­ing to mil­lions about soc­cer. He is Fox’s lead play-by-play an­nouncer here in Rus­sia and, by work­ing the cham­pi­onship match between France and Croatia, he’ll be­come the first Amer­i­can voice on the U.S. English-lan­guage broad­cast of the fi­nal since 2006.

Barely 33 years old, he will also be among the youngest pri­mary an­nounc­ers in the rows and rows of TV teams seated high up at Luzh­niki Sta­dium.

“I was just this soc­cer nerd by my­self fol­low­ing this stuff,” he said of his lonely start fol­low­ing soc­cer. “That’s been the fun part: think­ing back to some of those mo­ments of how I got here. Man, I’m ac­tu­ally do­ing this stuff now.”

For each of the pre­vi­ous two tour­na­ments, ESPN bor­rowed revered Bri­tish an­nounc­ers Martin Tyler and Ian Darke. Pre­vi­ously, ESPN used U.S. com­men­ta­tors who ex­celled in other sports (Jack Ed­wards and Dave O’Brien). ESPN’s Bob Ley (1998) was the last Amer­i­can play-by-play guy on the English broad­cast to show deep in­sight into soc­cer.

Strong has had to bat­tle per­cep­tions that U.S.-born an­nounc- ers couldn’t pos­si­bly have a feel for the sport and that only a Bri­tish ac­cent lends au­then­tic­ity to in­ter­na­tional cov­er­age.

Early in his ca­reer, Strong was self-con­scious about it.

“I had an un­cer­tainty,” he ad­mit­ted. “It was at a time when a lot of Bri­tish voices were in MLS. One-hun­dred per­cent, I was in­se­cure and I was try­ing so hard to prove how much I thought I knew.”

Sen­si­tiv­ity to crit­i­cism he re­ceived on Twit­ter prompted him to step away from the so­cial-me­dia plat­form in Fe­bru­ary.

“I don’t have Alexi Lalas’ al­li­ga­tor skin to­ward that. I just don’t,” he said of the Fox Sports stu­dio an­a­lyst, a for­mer World Cup player and big per­son­al­ity who in­ter­acts reg­u­larly on Twit­ter with even his nas­ti­est crit­ics.

“It doesn’t bug me the same way it does John,” said Strong’s broad­cast part­ner, Stu Holden, a for­mer U.S. World Cup mid­fielder. “It’s not easy. He de­cided, ‘I don’t need this in my life.’ He put a lot of pres­sure on him­self be­cause of that.”

The ac­cent is­sue did not bother Strong as much as the choice of an­nounc­ers over the years, whether for the World Cup or other com­pe­ti­tions, who didn’t care about the sport.

“It wasn’t their pas­sion,” he said. “For those of us who live this, that is what was dis­ap­point­ing, more so than the ac­cent. There is a gen­er­a­tion coming into this who have lived it our whole lives, and how much more this means to us than to other peo­ple that have come in and said, ‘Okay, I’ll call the soc­cer, what­ever.’ “

In Strong, Fox chose some­one with a great pas­sion for the sport and a knowl­edge of the game.

“He grew up with soc­cer. He wanted to be a soc­cer broad­caster,” Holden said. “I look at him some­times dur­ing a broad­cast and won­der, ‘Where is that coming from? How do you have that in your brain?’ He’s a soc­cer junkie.”

Be­yond the pas­sion and com­mand, Strong has built a solid port­fo­lio: TV and ra­dio voice for MLS’s Port­land Tim­bers, MLS work on NBC and Fox, MLS Cups, U.S. na­tional team matches, World Cup qual­i­fiers, Women’s World Cup, UEFA Cham­pi­ons League and FIFA Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup. He was on site for the 2017 Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal in Cardiff, Wales.

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