21CF Chats: John Strong and Stu Holden on breaking preconceptions of American voices in soccer

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FOX Sports’ lead voices for the 2018 World Cup on preparation, youth and opportunity

The countdown clock for the 2018 FIFA World Cup (which beings June 14 on FOX) induces a mix of exhilaration and anxiety for FOX Sports’ lead announcer and soccer analyst. The day after calling the friendly between the U.S. and Bolivia on Memorial Day, FOX Sports play-by-play announcer John Strong woke up with a rush of energy. “Oh, my gosh. This is it. It’s a straight pathway now,” he remembers thinking.

“It’s felt like the slowest, longest burn in history,” said FOX Sports soccer analyst Stu Holden. “It’s pretty exciting to realize that this is less than a week away.”

John and Stu will be FOX Sports’ lead voices on the pitch during this year’s men’s World Cup, and there are a few reasons why this is noteworthy. I recently sat down with the on-air duo to discuss their preparation for the big tournament, the challenge of bringing prominent American voices into the soccer world, their generation’s place in the sport’s growth in America and more.

How does preparing for the World Cup compare with preparing for other league games and tournaments?
John: My normal rhythm would be doing a deep dive for one game a week, our Sunday night Major League Soccer game. For the World Cup, there’s no time between games, so you do all your prep before the tournament starts. Of the 17 teams we’ll see in the group stage, I’ve done seven so far. With so many games and so much traveling, you can’t go as deep. You have to be smart about not wasting your time, understanding that a lot of the storytelling that normally might be on me for an MLS game is already being done by our studio crew and features team. I can just focus on getting the basic things right, calling the game well, giving Stu his space to analyze it.

Stu: It’s interesting because I know the majority of players, whether it’s from the Champions League or MLS. I texted John in the middle of our preparation the other day and said, “This is sweet” when I was doing Portugal’s roster because I realized we covered 90 percent of the team in the Champions League; and for Spain, almost the entire team plays in the Champions League. So you know a lot of these players already and some of the heavy lifting has been done. It’s similar to what John said in that I’m doing the basics of each team first. I’m about done with six of the 17 teams we’re doing, so he’s got one up on me – always an overachiever.

John Strong

Is there a part of the preparation process that most people don’t know about or consider?
John: It’s the volume of time that goes into it. It’s my job to basically be an expert on 17 teams with 23 players each. Everyone knows Cristiano Ronaldo, but what about when the right-back gets injured and the backup comes onto the field? I have to have something to say about him. I can sit there and research him, but until I’ve seen him on the field, I don’t know his body shape, running gait, hair style, shoes. The fact that you’ve seen so many of these players in the other games that you’ve called or even in Russia last year for the Confederations Cup, that’s helpful. Another thing is: When we’re calling a game, I’m doing 90 percent of it with the naked eye. When you’re at these stadiums in the U.S., you’re in a big booth in a perfect location. We in Russia are what they call a tribunal, which basically means they take a bunch of seats in the stands and turn them into working desks. We might be way off center; in Kazan, we might be a mile from the field. Oftentimes your view at home is far better than my view in the stadium because of the camera position, the telephoto lens, HD and 4K.

Stu: Yeah, you actually have a better view than we do. Some people that I consider my closest friends say that I have the greatest job in the world – I get to talk about soccer three days a week. And I say, “You do realize I’m spending the majority of the other four days watching games and doing prep and research?” That was something that I learned early – my first ever game in broadcasting was with John. I learned that to be the best, you have to do the work beforehand.

John: I was told years ago by one of my mentors that you should not use 80 percent of what you bring to a game. If you’re using more than that 20 percent, either you didn’t do enough or something awful has happened and you’re filling time because there’s an injury or the lights went out or something like that. But if you prepare the right way, you should never get to the vast majority of it.

Given that this is FOX’s first Men’s World Cup, how do you hope FOX’s voice from the pitch will be distinguishable or unique? Do you think about that at all?
John: FOX Sports has existed for 25 years, and you see what it’s done for the NFL, MLB, NASCAR, UFC and now the U.S. Open. FOX has been far more involved in soccer than people realize. I remember the days of FOX Sports World on satellite TV, and FOX was the network that brought the Premier League to a bigger stage in America, FOX was the network to push the Champions League to be a bigger thing. We did a women’s World Cup and that was massive, but the men’s World Cup is such a different dynamic and different scale. So I’m excited that we can push it forward a little bit and do something new and make our mark at this tournament for the sake of FOX and soccer in America. Having American voices as the primary ones on air and behind the scenes is something that hasn’t really happened all that much.

Do you think there’s a challenge for bringing the American voice or perspective into the soccer world?
Stu: American voices have done the World Cup in the past. The difference this time is the lead voices will be American. Perhaps people who grew up with the game heard British voices early on and thought that sounded natural and authentic. FOX is saying that we have good American voices now, too. And it’s not about American voices versus British voices – it’s about good voices and being confident enough to put them on air. In this case, they happen to be American. As an American, I love that FOX has backed us, making John and me the lead team on this. It’s something I don’t take for granted, and I realize it comes with a responsibility for us to not try to be someone else. Hopefully in 20 years, the American voice doesn’t sound as unnatural to people as it does for some now.

John: There has been a perception that someone with an English accent understands the game better because there was a time when perhaps that was the case. You didn’t have as many American announcers calling soccer who had really grown up with the game as opposed to trying to learn it as an adult. But I think that perception is very outdated. Without being too egotistical about it, hopefully at this tournament, we can show that we can get past a very outdated perception. But it is also credit to [Executive Producer, FIFA World Cup on FOX Sports] David Neal, [President, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Producer, FOX Sports] Eric Shanks, [executive producer of soccer for FOX Sports] Jonty Whitehead – they could easily have done those same things and been safe and old-fashioned, and they weren’t. That’s something that FOX has always been very good about – being willing to break out of the old way of doing things.

Stu Holden

You’re both pretty young, especially compared with play-by-play announcers and analysts in other major sports.
John: We’re violating any number of strictures of sports broadcasting in America, yes.

How do you view your place and your generation’s place in the maturity of the sport in America?
Stu: I feel like I should still be playing, to be honest. I’m 32 and unfortunately my career was taken from me, but it’s presented this amazing opportunity. I also realize that being a fresh face out of the game benefits me. My World Cup was 2010, and I’ll be at the World Cup calling guys I’ve played on the same team with or against. To have that feel and know that part of the game is an advantage. I would be lying if I said John and I haven’t talked about the fact that we’re both the same age and both younger, and to be the lead team at this age is something exciting. But we also realize that this is a partnership that we could have for any number of years together. Imagine if we were calling games together for the next 20 years, what that partnership would be like.

John: The audience for soccer in America is a young audience, generally, and it is that younger generation in their 30s or younger that has driven it forward. I think it’s fun that we’re representative of that generation and had the ’94 World Cup, MLS, the FIFA video games, and more and more soccer on TV at a formative age. Youth tends to work against you in this field, but I think it fits perfectly with what this World Cup represents.

What kinds of challenges or opportunities does the USMNT’s absence from the tournament present for you both?
John: We’re all bitterly disappointed – we’re fans. We know the challenges it presents, but I think it’s also a fun opportunity. It is easy sometimes to be thought of just wrapping yourself in the flag. We’re saying now we’re going to present a true World Cup with an American voice and show that we know who these teams and players are, just as well as anyone from any other part of the world.

Stu: I agree. It’s an opportunity to present different storylines. Without the U.S., you might lose some viewers who would have tuned in to see that team, but how can we as broadcasters and storytellers sell you those stories that you’re going to get invested in? How can we let viewers into that experience? I think that is something that we’ve all taken upon ourselves going into this. I’m confident that people will be pleasantly surprised.

Do you have any expectations for your experience in Russia?
John: We were in Russia last year for the Confederations Cup. Even though we’re going to some cities we weren’t in last year, it’s a huge boost that we’re familiar with what to expect. I understand that the safest order in a coffee shop is cappuccino because it sounds the same in Russian as it does in English. You understand there’s going to be traffic, you understand what the airport experience is, you understand what the hotel experience is – those types of things. There are a few restaurants I’m excited to go back to.

Stu: He’s already picked them out.

John: There isn’t that first week or two when you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m in Russia now.” You can just get on with your work. So I’m very thankful we had that opportunity last year.

Stu: Yeah, I can’t stress that enough. As a player, I knew how to manage my body to get the best out of it, and it’s very similar to that – knowing how much sleep I need to get during the day, to preparing myself to get up to do my work and then do a game that night and save your voice. Going from a sense of the unknown last year heading into the Confederations Cup and hearing and expecting things based on other people’s experiences, and now having experienced it myself, there’s going to be a familiarity that will be extremely beneficial for both of us.

In case you missed it, here’s our conversation with Alexi Lalas, FOX Sports’ lead soccer analyst, about the life-changing power of the World Cup.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup begins June 14, 2018, and ends with the final in Moscow on July 15, 2018. All games will be live on FOX, FS1 and FOX Sports GO.