The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Strong was once an American ‘soccer nerd by myself.’ Now he’s calling the World Cup final.

John Strong, right, with broadcast partner Stuart Holden at a U.S. soccer friendly before the World Cup. (Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

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.

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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 announcers 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’s 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.

Here in Russia, Strong called nine matches in group play and will end up doing eight in the knockout stage. He and Holden will have worked in seven cities (eight venues).

It’s a long way from calling University of Oregon women’s soccer, softball and lacrosse for the campus radio station.

“There is a scale and magnitude to the World Cup,” he said. “Even [Wednesday] night, there was a moment where I drifted off for a second and thought, ‘This is a World Cup semifinal, this is a big deal.’ I think I’ve benefited from years and years of preparation with the Champions League and other opportunities.

“With Stu and I, we hope the passion and enthusiasm comes through. That is something I can feel proud about — we care deeply about this.”

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