Fox’s Gus Johnson Experiment Starts Tomorrow with Real Madrid vs Man U

GusJYou may have heard that former CBS and ESPN sportscaster Gus Johnson, who made a name for himself with his exciting calls of NCAA basketball tournament games, has been tasked by Fox to become their lead announcer for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

It’s a bold move because Johnson had never broadcast soccer before October 2011, when the plan was hatched and the March Madness maven started announcing San Jose Earthquakes games on the radio as the first steps toward getting ready for Russia 2018 and Qatar—cough cough bulls***—2022.

If you’ve never heard Johnson, here’s a best-of clip from his NCAA tournament work:

Some fans think he’s over the top, but when he’s doing a sport he knows and clearly loves, we say he works well, adding a layer of excitement and enthusiasm to the games.

To bring that buzz to soccer, well, he’s got a lot of work to do. He not only has to learn the game and all its subtleties (no mean feat) he also, we contend, has to genuinely acquire a taste for the sport. As Bootsy Collins once said, you can’t fake the funk.

Here’s Johnson doing a San Jose game this past year:

He’s not on top of it yet, but he does have five years to get up to speed. And Fox is not hesitating to throw him into the deep end. Johnson is doing Wednesday’s Champions League Round of 16 tilt between no less a pairing than Real Madrid and Manchester United (Fox Soccer 2:45 pm ET). Yikes.

The growing pains start tomorrow, but if the gamble pays off, well, maybe we’ll get calls at the 2018 and 2022 Cups that go a little something like this:

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See to it that Your DVRs Are in Working Order: Colossal Weekend Ahead

Major League Soccer kicks off its biggest weekend of the season to date with Friday’s “Soccer Night in America” on Fox Soccer Channel (10:30 EST).

The following night, ESPN2 (and Deportes) will carry the marquee New York vs Los Angeles matchup (11:00 EST), and on Sunday morning at 11:00, Fox Soccer will have the titanic Premier League clash between Manchester United and Chelsea, who are three points apart atop the table with three games to play.

There are also, of course, about 261 other interesting games—including a chance for Barcelona to clinch La Liga against Espanyol, a crucial relegation tilt for U.S. defender Jonathan Spector and West Ham, and a potential title clincher for AC Milan against Roma.

So don your agoraphobic sweater, shutter the blinds and stick some fresh batteries in the remote, it’s going to be a busy weekend.

Fox’s new “Soccer Night in America” telecast will feature a revamped set and state-of-the-art replay and graphics technology as it broadcasts Portland vs Philadelphia from the Rose City’s JELD-WEN Field.

Portland is unbeaten in three games at home this season—can Peter Nowak’s grind-it-out side, currently second in the East at 4-1-1, be the first team to get a result at JELD-WEN? We shall see, and appreciate once again the incredible atmosphere in Rip City.

Unlike last year’s two versions of the New York–Los Angeles matchup, tomorrow night’s meeting between MLS’s two biggest clubs will feature a record five designated players in the starting lineups.

Last season, an injured David Beckham missed the Aug 14 matchup (a 1-0 win for LA at Red Bull Arena) and Thierry Henry sat out the Sept 24 meeting (a 2-0 win for New York at the Home Depot Center).

Tomorrow night, both of those players are expected to start, along with New York’s Rafa Marquez and LA’s Landon Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel. (Angel, of course, played for the Red Bulls for four years before signing with Los Angeles, and is New York’s alltime leading scorer. It will be interesting to see him face his old team, which probably could have handled his exit more gracefully.)

Add the Red Bulls’ Dwayne De Rosario—one of the best attacking midfielders in league history—and young U.S. internationals Omar Gonzalez (LA), Tim Ream and Juan Agudelo (both NY), and you have a game that could really scratch your footy itch.

There is one potential absence, though, that could be huge—big enough, in fact, to tip the outcome of the game. New York holding midfielder Teemu Tainio—whom coach Hans Backe has said may be the best MLS signing of 2011—has been declared a “question mark” for the game. Tainio has become very important very quickly for New York, settling the team’s midfield and helping to impose its possession style on opponents.

The Finnish veteran of the Dutch first division and the Premier League left last week’s game against Kansas City at halftime with a groin injury, and did not train on Monday or Tuesday of this week. His replacement in the second half against Kansas City, Carl Robinson, was a parachute-drop of a step down.

We are on the record, repeatedly, regarding Robinson, the 34-year-old Welsh midfielder, and if he starts against LA, well, we highly recommend that you bet big on the Galaxy on Saturday night. Backe does have other options in that spot (Mehdi Ballouchy, Jan Gunnar Solli, even youngster Matt Kassel), so it’s not  a foregone conclusion that Robinson will get the nod.

As for the Man U–Chelsea affair, we have to go with the Red Devils. Alex Ferguson rested something like seven starters in the midweek Champions League game against Schalke (and still cruised to a 4-1 aggregate victory), and his first unit should be perfectly primed for this one. Our crystal ball is showing images of Ryan Giggs factoring in big.

On the other hand, a Chelsea win would certainly inject some interest into the remaining two games. After Chelsea, Man U plays at Blackburn then home to Blackpool, while Chelsea’s final two matches are against Newcastle and at Everton.

Give us your predictions in the comments, and enjoy the games.

“Soccer Night in America” to Debut Friday

Fox Soccer will unveil its upgraded, HD coverage of Major League Soccer this Friday, when it broadcasts the Portland Timbers versus the Philadelphia Union live from Portland’s JELD-WEN Field (10:30, EST).

The new telecast’s name is lifted from “Hockey Night in Canada” (just as ABC/ ESPN borrowed it for U.S. baseball telecasts), but we’re just gonna let that slide.

The program will feature state-of-the-art graphics, a redesigned set and slow-motion camera technology. The new graphics, according to the MLS site, “incorporates Vizrt technology, which provides digital, real-time 3D and virtual graphic displays, and super slow-motion cameras in match telecasts.”

They definitely picked an excellent venue for the new program’s opener, as the atmosphere at JELD-WEN is second to none, anywhere in the world. But we’re not sure about the Timbers’ opponent for the night. The Union are one of the better teams in the league this season, results-wise, but they play a grind-it-out, defensive style that tends to produce 1–0 and 0–0, ratings-killing games.

But who knows, maybe Sebastien Le Toux’s first goal of the season last week will open the floodgates for him and spark the Union ‘O’ in general, and we’ll get a goalfest for the SNIA debut.

Read more about it here, and here.

We Don’t Want to Be Unkind, and We’re Certainly Glad She’s Back on FSC, But Michelle Lissel’s New ’Do Makes Her Look Like Garth from Wayne’s World

The talented and knowledgeable Michelle Lissel left the Fox Soccer Report in 2006 to become the Media and Public Relations Director for MLS side Toronto FC (tough gig, that: the team missed the playoffs in its first four seasons and is currently 1-3-4).

She returned to the Report late last year, and while she’s been a colossal upgrade over Lara Baldesarra, her new look (above right, next to the previous look)—well, we are by no means experts in the field, but we think it needs to go back to the drawing board.

Announcer Spotlight: Lara Baldesarra

We held our tongues for a while on this one because we assumed—as we imagine most regular viewers of the Fox Soccer Report did—that the experiment couldn’t possibly last.

Fox would never keep on an anchor who betrayed her lack of understanding of the game on literally every story and every highlight reel she presented, would they?

Apparently, they would.

Baldesarra replaced the perfectly serviceable Carlos Machado late last year, and immediately started dropping the “Totten-HAM’s” and the “Arjen Row-BENs,” and showing that she didn’t understand what she was looking at as she narrated game highlights.

We gave it two weeks, tops.

Yet here she is, almost six months later, still on the job.

She just mispronounced the Chelsea coach’s surname as “Angelotti”—literally this second as we write this—and then she just did it again before we even finished the sentence.

We don’t want to be ungentlemanly about it, but her feminine qualities fall well short of trumping her glaringly obvious lack of familiarity with the sport she covers. Helen of Troy couldn’t pull it off, if she pronounced ‘Richard Dunne’ as ‘Doone.’

And we are not alone on this one—these guys devoted an entire page to the subject, right here.

Come on, Fox Soccer—as the guys above say, we’re sure she’s a lovely human being, but your loyal viewers deserve better.

Premier-League Yanks: Weekend Preview

Headlining the Premiership weekend from a U.S. point of view is the showdown between baldheaded American keepers at Villa Park tomorrow, when Marcus Hahnemann‘s Wolverhampton travels to face Brad Friedel and Aston Villa, with (balding) U.S. backup Brad Guzan likely on the bench for the home side.

There have been reports that Villa is interested in signing Manchester United’s 27-year-old backup keeper Tomasz Kuszczak. Hmm. In other news, a heavy shipment of coal is on its way to Newcastle.

Wolverhampton is in desperate need of points as it sits just three above Burnley and the relegation zone.

The Everton–Bolton game on the docket tomorrow might have included an interesting clash of  Yank midfielders Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden—in fact, they might have marked each other—but Holden is 0ut with a leg fracture and Donovan is back in Los Angeles, having concluded his 10-week loan deal with the Toffees as planned, though there was talk of an extension down to the last day. 

U.S. defender Jonathan Spector and West Ham visit the Emirates tomorrow to take on Arsenal—another tough test just one week after the Hammers were shellacked 4-1 by Chelsea. West Ham is tied with Wolves in the spot just above Burnley and the drop.

Hull City and their American striker Jozy Altidore, who are in the relegation zone with 24 points, need to pick up three tomorrow against bottom club Portsmouth—which was docked nine points on Tuesday for going into bankruptcy administration and is now certain go down, having only 10 points for the season.

On Sunday, Europa League hero Clint Dempsey and Fulham host sixth-place Manchester City, which is just two points out of fourth and the final Champions League berth.

The marquee game of the weekend is first-place Man U against fifth-place Liverpool.

Here is the full U.S. TV schedule (all times EST):

Saturday:

Aston Villa v Wolves, ESPN2, 8:30 a.m

Everton v Bolton, Fox Soccer Channel (FSC), 11:00 a.m.

Stoke City v Tottenham, Fox Soccer Plus, 11:00 a.m.

Arsenal v West Ham, FSC, 1:30 p.m.

Sunderland v Birmingham City, Fox Soccer Plus, (delay) 5:00 p.m.

Wigan v Burnley, Fox Soccer Plus, (delay) 7:00 p.m.

Portsmouth v Hull City, FSC, 8:30 p.m.

Sunday:

Manchester United v Liverpool, Fox Soccer Plus, 9:25 a.m.

Fulham v Manchester City, Fox Soccer Plus, (delay) 11:30 a.m.

Blackburn v Chelsea, FSC, 12:00 p.m.

Enjoy the games.

Yanks in England: Weekend Preview

There’s another big weekend on tap for Americans in the Premier League as Clint Dempsey is set to return to EPL action for the first time since injuring his knee in late January, and Landon Donovan is likely to wrap up his loan spell with Everton. Also: Jozy Altidore and Hull City host third-place Arsenal, Jonathan Spector and West Ham travel to second-place Chelsea—and all but one of the games involving Yanks are on the tube.

Gentlemen, start your DVRs….

Dempsey played 30 minutes of Fulham’s 3-1 loss to Juventus in the Europa League yesterday, and came through unscathed, so he should see some time on Sunday, when the Cottagers travel to Old Trafford to take on mighty Man U. If you get Fox Soccer Plus, you can watch that one, at 9:30 a.m. EST.

Donovan, Tim Howard and Everton play Saturday at Birmingham City, which sits two points above the Toffees in the table. Fox Soccer Channel (FSC) has the game, which should be hard-fought one, at 10:00 a.m. EST.

Marcus Hahnemann and Wolves travel to Burnley for a crucial relegation battle, while Brad Friedel, Brad Guzan and Aston Villa are away at Stoke City.

Injured U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden will sit out Bolton Wanderers home game against Wigan, a battle between two sides hovering above the drop zone.

Here is the U.S. TV schedule, all times EST:

Saturday:

Tottenham v Blackburn, 7:30 a.m., ESPN2

Chelsea v West Ham United, 9:45 a.m., Fox Soccer Plus

Birmingham v Everton, 10:00 a.m., FSC

Hull City v Arenal, 12:30 p.m., FSC

Stoke City v Aston Villa, 2:00 p.m. (delayed), Fox Soccer Plus

Burnley v Wolverhampton, 4:00 p.m. (delayed), Fox Soccer Plus

Bolton v Wigan , 5:00 p.m. (delayed), FSC

Sunday

Manchester United v Fulham, 9:30 a.m., Fox Soccer Plus

Sunderland v Manchester City, 12:00 p.m., FSC