NEW YORK (AP) — Fox plans to go all-American with its top broadcast crew for next year's World Cup, pairing play-by-play man John Strong in the booth with former U.S. national team players Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden.
"Soccer in our country is at a point now where I think we're ready to do that, and we have announcers and talent that are capable of bringing educated options," Holden said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I think it's time. I think it's time that we embrace the American voices."
They will broadcast Thursday night's World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Trinidad and Tobago in Colorado. Strong and Holden will call Sunday's qualifier at Mexico and will be the primary announce team for the Confederations Cup in Russia starting June 17. Donovan will skip the Confederations Cup while awaiting the birth of a child.
"They're American voices, diverse American voices," said David Neal, executive producer of Fox's World Cup coverage. "Soccer is truly becoming a mainstream sport. I think it's in the top four already. I think it's supplanted the NHL."
Fox announced its Confederations Cup coverage Wednesday, and Neal said the three-man booth with Strong, Donovan and Holden was likely to be the network's top World Cup team.
"At this moment, that's where we're looking. Obviously, we've got 13 months before have to lock it in," he said. "Stu is effervescent, and Landon is probably a little more laconic. It really is a perfect pair of personalities that can help each other."
ESPN broadcast the World Cup in the U.S. from 1994 through 2014, and at the last two tournaments it relied heavily on British play-by-play men led by Martin Tyler, Ian Darke and Jon Champion. Fox experimented in 2013-14 with using Gus Johnson, best known for his calls of college basketball and the NFL, as its lead soccer announcer.
Strong, 31, started broadcasting matches of Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers. He called MLS for NBC in 2013-14, then switched to Fox when it reacquired the league's rights in 2015.
"You have this generation of people in their 30s and younger that is really driving the growth of the sport in this country," Strong said, citing the 1994 World Cup in the U.S., the launch of MLS two years later and international coverage on Fox Soccer Channel as "formative building blocks of what the American soccer culture is now."
"Soccer became a part of your life at a much younger age than previous generations of Americans," he said. "I have as an announcer influences that absolutely come from the American sports announcers I grew up on, guys like Al Michaels and Keith Jackson and Pat Summerall. But also, too, the influences of the English soccer announcers, John Motson on the FIFA video games, Martin Tyler calling games that I would watch on Fox Sports World, as well as the influence of Andres Cantor and the style of announcing you would hear on Univision or Telemundo."
Fox's other two broadcast teams for the Confederations Cup will call matches from the network's studio in Los Angeles: JP Dellacamera and Brad Friedel, and Jorge Perez-Navarro and Cobi Jones.
Kate Abdo hosts studio coverage from Russia, where Fox will be based in St. Petersburg, and analysts include Lothar Matthaeus, Guus Hiddink and Eric Wynalda.
Rob Stone anchors the Los Angeles studio, where Alexi Lalas, Arne Friedrich, Fernando Fiore, Aly Wagner and Mariano Trujillo are the analysts.
Donovan, 35, starred for the U.S. at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cup and set the American record for international goals with 57. He was controversially cut by coach Jurgen Klinsmann from the 2014 roster.
Holden, 31, was born in Scotland and grew up in Texas. He had a breakout season with Bolton in 2010-11 and scored three goals in 25 appearances for the U.S. national team. But he was unable to recover from injuries that started when his right leg was broken by Nigel de Jong's tackle during the Americans' exhibition game at the Netherlands in March 2010. His left knee was injured by Manchester United defender Jonny Evans in March 2011, and Holden never was the same player.
"We had a quick, probably 10-second exchange on the phone after it was announced on TV how long I was going to be out for. He just reached out briefly, said was a really bad tackle by him, he was really sorry and good luck. It was like a one-word thank you from me," Holden recalled this week. "I wasn't in a good place at that time. I was very frustrated because my career was kind of hitting peak.
"I don't harbor many hard feels towards that. It is what it is now. I will say when I do see him play in the Premier League on Saturday mornings, I'm not always rooting for his team."