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ON SOCCER/BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Pinch John Strong: He's about to do the World Cup

COURTESY: FOX SPORTS - John Strong (right), with World Cup broadcasting partner Stu HoldenJohn Strong spent the last weeks of his junior year at Lake Oswego High pulling all-nighters.

It wasn't school projects that kept him from sleeping. It was the 2002 World Cup.

"There was no one to talk to about it because I think I was the only person in the entire school watching it," Strong says.

Now, Strong has a somewhat larger audience.

In the monthlong 2018 World Cup, which starts Thursday, he will call as many as 17 matches as the lead soccer play-by-play announcer for FOX Sports.

Strong, who will turn 33 next week, lives with wife Nicole and their two young children not far from his childhood home.

Already he has called some of the world's biggest soccer games — including last month's UEFA Champions League final. He is FOX Sports' lead announcer for its MLS broadcasts. But the World Cup is a different challenge.

"It is my Mount Everest," Strong said before flying to Russia last week for the tournament. "So I'm sort of sitting here at base camp surrounded by sherpas looking up at the thing, going, 'Can I really do this?'"

Those who have been listening to Strong since 2006, when he started calling Timbers second-division matches on the radio, and those who were introduced to him as the Timbers' television play-by-play voice in 2011 when the club joined MLS, know he will be ready.

His preparation for this moment started at Lake Oswego High, where Strong and friend Erick Olson called Lakers' football and basketball games. It continued at the University of Oregon's campus radio station, followed after graduation by radio jobs at KXL and then KXTG.

Or maybe it all started in 1994.

That's when 8-year-old John demanded his extended family interrupt their Fourth of July celebration to watch the United States take on Brazil. Later that summer, he ditched a pool party to find a TV to watch the championship match.

In 2006, while attending the U of O, he arranged to take an economics course final exam early so he could watch the United States play the Czech Republic.

In 2010, while working at KXL (95.5 FM), Strong organized World Cup viewing parties around town, including one for the final at Pioneer Courthouse Square.

In 2014, while his wife was away with friends, Strong spent the first week of the World Cup at home with 6-month-old Jacob — timing naps and feedings around group stage matches.

"It was the most fun week ever," he says. "I can sort of track the stages of my life through World Cups."

The one downside of this year's assignment is spending more than a month away from Jacob, now 4-1/2, as well as 6-month-old daughter Stella and Nicole, who played college soccer at Washington State and has coached area youth programs. 

Strong understands he is lucky to be working for the network that owns the World Cup rights. Gus Johnson was the network's original choice to lead the World Cup coverage, but the veteran announcer stepped away from calling international soccer three years ago.

"I'm well aware of how fortunate I am to have on many, many, many occasions been in the right place at the right time," Strong says.

But it's not luck that has turned a former member of the Timbers Army, when the team was playing in the A-League, to one of the leading voices of soccer in America.

Hiring the 25-year-old Strong to be the Timbers' first MLS play-by-play television announcer was an easy decision, according to Mike Golub, president of business.

"While John was young — he still is young — it was inarguable he had a gift and an enormous amount of talent and passion and knowledge," Golub says. "It's a pretty powerful combination he has of being naturally talented, extremely passionate at the time about the Timbers and MLS, and hardworking and knowledgeable."

After two seasons calling Timbers matches, Strong moved to NBC as its MLS announcer. When FOX became a broadcast partner of MLS in 2014, Strong became the lead play-by-play man.

For the World Cup, Strong is paired with analyst Stu Holden, a former U.S. national team player. The two have worked as on-air partners regularly for a couple of years and become good friends. Strong says it helps that they are close in age and young fathers. Their shared experiences help in less glamorous moments, like when waiting for flights. 

"I'm a really, really strong believer in the idea that off-air chemistry leads to on-air quality," Strong says. "If we're doing a game every other day at this World Cup, Stu and I are going to be in your living room a lot. So being able to have that easygoing conversation with the viewer at home, I think, is very important."

The list of influencers who have inspired and aided Strong is long. First to inspire him was Bill Schonely, who sings with Strong's mother in their church choir. Legendary sportscasters Keith Jackson, Al Michaels and Joe Buck have influenced Strong's style.

Those who have had a more personal impact include Rich Burk, Jay Allen, Brian Wheeler and Mike Barrett. As an intern in 2006, Strong called Portland Beavers baseball games into a tape recorder and Burk — an ex-Beavers broadcaster who is now a voice of the Hillsboro Hops and a Pac-12 Network play-by-play man — would listen and critique his work.

Strong is proud to be one of the most recognized voices for soccer in America. But his passion for sports is wide-ranging. In high school, he was a junior varsity soccer goalkeeper (he played part of one varsity game) and played tennis. Growing up, basketball might have been his best sport.

"I'm still a fan of everything," he says. "I have all these influences around me and for whatever reason soccer was the thing that, when I was in junior high school, grabbed me more than any other one."

Strong recently called the Timbers' home match against Los Angeles FC for FOX. He took that opportunity to thank Golub and Timbers president Merritt Paulson for the opportunity they provided.

Had the Timbers not joined MLS and provided an avenue in soccer, hockey might have been Strong's path.

"I loved hockey," he says. "I have a lot of baseball in how I call games. I have a lot of hockey in how I call games."

Strong considers himself a low-profile narrator and says his approach is based on Jackson's description of a play-by-play announcer's job: "Keith Jackson would say his role as an announcer is to amplify, clarify and punctuate ... and outside of that, stay out of the way and let the viewer at home make up their own mind."

Strong's ability to recall moments and statistics and put them in perspective is one of his strengths.

"The honest truth is, I can reel off of the top of my head so many esoteric stats and anecdotes and everything else about soccer players from around the world, and I can't tell you the name of people I went to high school with," he says. "It's not that I'm a jerk. It's just that my brain is really weird.

"I joke with Nicole, but I'm serious: This is the only job I can do. This is the only skill set I have — to shout out dudes' last names on television."  

Strong has avoided developing a signature call when a goal is scored.

"There are certain things I will lean on. Elongating the last syllable of a player's last name, particularly if it's a vowel sound, is something I like to do," he says.

Strong does have a signature phrase. He closes each first half with "Forty-five down, FORTY-FIVE to go," emphasizing the second forty-five. He doesn't remember when he started using the line.

During one of the UEFA Champions League games this season, Strong ran out of time to deliver that line. Rob Stone, the studio host, got on him, saying, "You're John Strong. You need to give me 45 down, 45 to go."

Over the next 31 days, Strong will have as many as 17 chances to use the line. The busy schedule means no time for the usual debriefing and critiquing that goes on after most broadcasts.

"Every single day until the second semifinal, we're either on an airplane or calling a game, or both," he says.

The crazy schedule means sleep will be a priority. And Strong has asked colleagues to tell him if they hear any bad habits slip into his delivery.

Among those along for the ride will be Olson. Now a teacher at Umatilla High and the radio voice of Hermiston High sports, Olson has spent his summers joining Strong at major soccer tournaments to assist with statistics and notes of interest during broadcasts.

It also helps that Strong has worked for years with soccer producer Shaw Brown.

"It really makes it work a lot better when you have those types of people around you who will push you to make you better but also catch you when you feel like you're falling a little bit and you've made a mistake or maybe the pressure is getting to you," Strong says.

Detail is important to Strong, both in storytelling and delivery. He enjoys the journalism part of the job — starting his preparation with a blank slate and researching the teams, players and coaches.

What has taken longer is letting go of mistakes or parts of a broadcast that disappoint him.

"I think I overprepared for previous tournaments, in part because of my own insecurity and trying to feel like I have to show off that, yes, I'm American, yes, I'm young, but I know this stuff," Strong says.

He also knows not to take this experience for granted. His plan is to enjoy the entire experience — maybe even see some sights.

"As much as I hope to get to do a couple of these (World Cups), there are no guarantees," he says. "So I want to make sure I enjoy it and it's not this source of stress for 31 consecutive days."

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