The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After 27 seasons, Dave Johnson’s wild run on D.C. United broadcasts is ending

Dave Johnson, left, with color commentator Devon McTavish. (Courtesy Dave Johnson)

The nuttiest travel adventure of Dave Johnson’s 27 seasons as D.C. United’s first — and only — TV play-by-play announcer probably came in 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic began.

Johnson is also the Washington Wizards’ radio voice, and when the MLS and NBA seasons overlap, schedules can test even the most nimble traveler.

The Wizards were starting a four-game western swing on a Friday night in Salt Lake City. United was opening the season at home Saturday afternoon.

After the Wizards’ game, Johnson scrambled to catch a red-eye to Boston because there were no other late-night flights heading east. He connected to Reagan National Airport, where broadcast partner Devon McTavish was waiting to drive him to Audi Field.

After United’s match, he hustled back to the airport for a flight to San Francisco for the Wizards’ game the next day against the Golden State Warriors.

“I never wanted to miss a game,” Johnson, 58, said this week. “The emotion behind soccer is so strong and so unique — it’s why I do it. Believe me, if I had to take a ship and ride a bike as well, I’d get to the game.”

That chapter of Johnson’s life with United — demented travel days and all — is coming to a close. Local broadcasts in MLS are ending after this season. That means an end for Johnson and United, which wraps up its season at home Sunday afternoon. Starting next season, every match will appear on Apple TV as part of a 10-year deal reportedly worth $2.5 billion.

Apple and MLS have not finalized broadcast plans yet, but according to people familiar with the discussions, officials are considering 12 to 15 announcing teams handling matches on location, like in the NFL.

With local productions winding down, announcers around the league have begun bidding farewell during broadcasts. Several have been on the job for many years, but no one has done it longer with one club than Johnson — first with Home Team Sports, then NewsChannel 8, Comcast SportsNet, WJLA 24/7 News, FloSports and NBC Sports Washington.

In a statement, United said it has “every intention to have him continue with the club in a role that provides him a platform to continue to connect with our fanbase, and we look forward to curating this in partnership [with] him.”

At the moment, though, Johnson said he isn’t sure what the future holds.

“You knew this was coming, but you are focused on the games each week. Now all of a sudden you don’t know what’s next — it’s jarring,” he said a day after returning from Tokyo with the Wizards. “You’re preparing for the last game, but it’s not just the last game — it’s the last game.”

Johnson has called most of United’s 800-plus regular season matches and described most of the team’s 1,200-plus goals using his signature cry: “It’s in the net!”

That call did not start with United; he began using it on radio broadcasts of Baltimore Blast indoor games in the late 1980s. Those were the days Johnson was converting his love of the sport — he is from Anne Arundel County and followed the Washington Diplomats — into a play-by-play career.

A few years after the North American Soccer League’s demise, Johnson called games for the Maryland Bays, a small-scale outfit based in Columbia. Before a 1988 playoff game in South Florida, Johnson struck a deal with owner John Liparini: If Johnson paid for the airtime, Liparini would pay his travel expenses. Johnson got two hours for $250 on a station in Towson.

Two hours is usually all you need in soccer, but then “the skies turn charcoal black,” Johnson recalled. “The lightning starts. We’re in a delay. I can’t throw it back to the station. I bought the time, and they didn’t plan for anything. It’s just me and my equipment, and I am literally talking for an hour and 15 minutes and pulling people from the press box to fill time.”

The station didn’t charge him for the additional time.

MLS’s launch opened fresh opportunities. His first broadcast partner was Gordon Bradley, the former coach of the Diplomats, New York Cosmos and George Mason University. Over the years, Johnson worked alongside Thomas Rongen, John Harkes and Santino Quaranta, among others.

For the past seven seasons, McTavish has handled color commentary.

“Dave is the patriarch of the D.C. United community,” said McTavish, a former United player. “His passion is real. He’s been doing it for 27 seasons because he loves the sport and he loves the club. He’s gone through the highs and the lows and keeps coming back — and coming back with a smile.”

A broadcasting novice, McTavish learned from his partner.

“Before the first broadcast, he said, ‘Just pretend we’re two guys at the bar,’ ” McTavish said. “It’s easy to say that but another thing to feel that way. Dave makes you that comfortable.”

No matter what happens with MLS, Johnson will have plenty on his plate. He’s beginning his 26th season with the Wizards and has handled WTOP Radio’s morning sports report since 1995.

He is also managing to live with multiple sclerosis, which he was diagnosed with in 2019. “Life is tougher, but it’s my new normal,” he said. Last month, shirts featuring “It’s in the Net!” and Johnson’s face were created to help raise funds for the National MS Society.

Johnson’s mother died in 1979 of complications from MS. One of her last good days, he said, was attending a Diplomats game at RFK Stadium.

“The Diplomats gave me an outlet during a very difficult time that next year without her,” Johnson said. “I always vowed, if I had a chance to get involved in the sport, I would do it. I’ve been able to do that for more than half my life.”