Boardroom speaks with the Fox Sports’ commentary duo about calling the 2022 World Cup, the USMNT, and settling the Messi vs. Ronaldo debate, and more.
From the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador on Nov. 20 straight to the World Cup final in December, Fox Sports’ John Strong and Stu Holden will be the English language voices calling the biggest moments going down in Qatar — including every US national team game, starting Monday against Gareth Bale and Wales to open Group B play.
In an October conversation in New York, the duo that’s called more USMNT matches in the last several years than any other, as well as many of its top players’ most important games in Major League Soccer, international tournaments, and qualifiers, discussed a wide-range of subjects leading into the World Cup. From staying ready and fit to call a monthlong marathon of games to possibly calling the most-watched soccer game in American television history to seeing the Messi vs. Ronaldo GOAT debate being decided in real time, Strong and Holden held forth in a lively, free-flowing talk.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SHLOMO SPRUNG: Obviously you’ll be calling all the US games at the World Cup. You two have called a lot of these players’ games in Major League Soccer. How does that factor into your guys’ preparation and what it means to the overall state of soccer in this country?
STU HOLDEN: It’s an interesting part of the preparation. When I think about what I would want to call as far as a game as part of my dream job, of course it’s a World Cup final, but it’s the United States in a World Cup. That’s also because we know these guys so well, and a little bit about what John has talked about is being able to tell these guys’ stories through the lens of an American soccer player and soccer people like us that have grown up through the game. And whether it’s the American that’s playing in Europe that doesn’t have a tie to MLS, but also the growth of MLS in regards to how it’s helped develop the US Men’s National Team. I don’t think there has been a country that has won a World Cup without a successful domestic league and what it has done for the growth of those players.
A lot of these guys have fascinating backgrounds and stories; it’s so hard for us to balance at times. There’s a balance of wanting to tell those stories without going over the top and getting away from the action that’s happening on the field. But it’s also an important opportunity to bring in new fans and tell them about how these players got to where they are. It’s an important part of the story of why something is happening on the field.
JOHN STRONG: It’s like a bucket list thing, obviously, to call a World Cup, but there was sort of an asterisk [in 2018] because the US wasn’t there. When the US men or women play in the World Cup, that’s the biggest soccer game that exists on American television. That’s the ultimate, even more so than a final without the US So to get that opportunity is quite literally a dream that we’ve had for years that we get to now have. And we’ve grown up with these guys, too. Weston McKennie’s debut in the Portugal game, Christian Pulisic’s first goal in Kansas City…
SH: Brenden Aaronson’s debut in MLS…
JS: The Walker Zimmerman game in the 2015 MLS Playoffs when it’s the first time anyone’s ever heard of this guy.
We’ve been around their whole careers between MLS, Gold Cups, everything else, so it’s very fun to get to tell those stories to people that don’t know. And there are a lot of people that are going to be watching that don’t necessarily know much about even Christian Pulisic. But as Stu said, what I have to avoid is filling the 90 minutes with story, let the game be the game and pick your moments.
But it is exciting because there are some great stories, from Matt Turner’s journey, Antonee Robinson to basically be out of the team for a year and a half and now be indispensable, it’s really cool some of the paths these guys have taken. What you hope for is that they do something special and you get that 20 seconds to tell their story as they become stars.
SH: We go into every game and we remind ourselves every single time that the game is the most important thing. The game is the game. Sometimes, US games are more challenging because these guys’ stories are so innate and it is so ingrained in us; we can recite them at a moment’s notice, and we could tell you all of their stories, and in many ways I think in the US games we have to dial it back even more and resist that urge to go over the top and tell those stories because we don’t want to fill the 90 minutes with noise. We want to let the game play through and add to that in the right way.
That’s stuff we’re always thinking about. Oh, shit, stop talking. The fans sound great, the American fans are there. Let the game be the game is always our biggest mantra.
SS: Besides the USMNT’s inclusion, will the biggest difference between Russia and Qatar beyond not having to travel as much?
SH: It’ll be less of a physical toll.
JS: The tournament is compacted by a week. There’s four games a day instead of three. So, in one sense, you’re losing opportunities to call certain games because there’s more in a given day, but you’re gaining an opportunity to call games. So in balance, I think we’re calling a couple more than we did in Russia. There’s more of the 24-hour turnaround where it’s like every single day, whereas in Russia, it was more call a game, fly overnight, maybe you get a day in between, and call the next game, so the dynamics are different.
SH: But oftentimes you were doing back-to-back days with a red eye in between.
JS: There will be fewer games at this World Cup where we haven’t slept the night before. We will be sleeping in a hotel room bed every single night this time.
SS: So it’s likely that the conditions will be more comfortable for you guys in Qatar than they were four years ago in Russia?
SH: From that perspective? 100%. I think it excites me because I love that they give me the ability to do games and then also analyze from the studio, and to think about being on the morning pregame and then driving out to the stadium that night and calling a game gets me excited. In-studio, you can tell a different story about the game and break it down in a different way using tape. When we’re at the game, it’s about the game and the 90 minutes that we’re on as opposed to the stuff going on around it. Qatar is really going to open up our entire team at Fox Sports to be multifaceted in the way in which we’re using talent and getting different viewpoints around each other and creating different discourse.
And what we are going to call the show after the show, which John and ourselves are going to have to pace ourselves, is at the hotel bar. That’s when you’re going to have this melting pot of information and digesting the day over a cocktail. It’s where new ideas are going to be fostered. That’s an area I’m looking forward to, hopefully not staying up until three in the morning.
JS: It’ll be fun because we’ll get to see the other announce teams, which we never did in Russia. Having all the announcers on-site and being able to have an end-of-the-night chat with Jacqui Oatley, Ian Darke, JP Dellacamera is fun.
SS: I hope they let you have cocktails.
SH: Yeah, they will. At almost every hotel you’re able to. In my last two experiences, they’ve made it clear that that’s the case.
SS: Who else do you call in the group stage that you’re looking forward to?
JS: It’s about every day but one. We’ll see Brazil, Spain, Germany, all those big games. I think it’s 17 different teams we’ll see in the group stage, which is good because it helps you in the knockout stage. The trick is, though, not to overdo it so much because you have to remember that everything is more important at the end. The emphasis right now is on the group stage and you can kind of go crazy, but making sure we’re peaking towards the end and not running out of gas because there’s such a physical and mental toll. I’ve got to be careful.
SH: What I’ve learned from the first World Cup that I went to is I’d never experienced that amount of games in that period of time. John and I are now close to calling 300 games together as a pairing, which is crazy to think about and how our relationship has grown and how we balance each other out in different ways.
I’ll never forget in 2018, it was the fourth day in a row we did a game and we went to grab a drink at the bar before heading to the airport. And John started whispering to me and I was making fun of him for whispering quietly. I said “why are you doing that?” He said he’s voice-resting because we have another game tomorrow and one the day after. I was like “oh, you’re crazy.” Five days later, I started to feel a little croak in my throat and I started thinking, “shit, my voice box is my tool.” I have to balance that and make sure we get sleep.
JS: The lozenges and that sort of thing.
SH: Having that experience under my belt now, I feel much better.
JS: You’re a much better pro than you were four years ago.
SS: What are the other things you try to remember to do in order to avoid burning out?
SH: One of my things, and I know John’s too, is working out. Making sure we go to the gym and at least sweat for 20, 30 minutes to reset our bodies. Eating is important. We both like to eat well. There’s moments where we just load up on coffee and push through and we push each other through and drag each other through. And in Kazan we were both standing looking at the field thinking, “I don’t even know what players we’re looking at right now.” But it’s all part of understanding that this is a month-long slog and it’s a different physical toll than you’ve ever really experienced before — and also making sure that by the end of that tournament, as John said, when you’re calling a World Cup final, that’s the game that maybe people haven’t tuned in before and they’re going to hear your voice.
Our biggest job is to match the biggest moments and give them the payoff that they deserve. And that’s where we earn our keep. And your voice ultimately is associated with some of the iconic moments in a World Cup for history. And you don’t want to blow it.
SS: What are you two looking forward to the most?
JS: Having the US there. If the US can win that first game, that’s the most fun thing. And getting people excited about American men’s soccer again will be really fun. That US-England game has an opportunity to be the most-watched men’s soccer game in US television history. I genuinely don’t get overly caught up in ratings because you don’t control it, but it is an occasion and it’s a fun occasion. And just the opportunity, having grown up watching World Cups and watching the US in the World Cup. To get to do that now is in the most literal sense a dream come true.
SH: As a fan of soccer, a nerd about soccer, I think about the fact that we’ll be a part of and there for Messi and Ronaldo’s probably last World Cups. The US one is something I’m 100% excited about, but to think about and be talking about the fact that in real time, you’re watching the greatest players this game has ever seen, and also an opportunity to cement their legacies and essentially finish conversations in real time about their places in the history of the game compared with Pele and Maradona. None of these guys will win the amount of World Cups Pele and Maradona did, but the game has changed so much. And judging the current context, if Messi can win the World Cup, it’s not even a question. That’s the greatest player that we’ve ever seen.
So, to see that in real time and maybe the thought that they could potentially face each other at some point, it gets us all excited.
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