Phil Schoen Interview [Part 1]

One of America's most authorative voices on soccer, Phil Schoen was the original play-by-play voice of Major League Soccer. (Courtesy NASR)

 By Kevin Koczwara

Part of why I love the game of soccer, besides waking at sunrise to watch European matches, is the announcers. You can hear it in their voices, they love this game. They breathe and live this game. Even though they’re in the booth, at times it feels as though they are on the field, connecting with the game, breathing in the smell of the damp grass and living on every touch of the ball, every break. They aren’t fans of teams or clubs when they’re in the booth. They’re fans of the game. And the best announcers are believers in the game.

One of my favorite announcers is Phil Schoen of GolTv. Schoen and his legendary partner Ray Hudson make the perfect duo. Schoen and Hudson love the game. They know the game. They spend hours working and researching the game. And they are the perfect pairing in the booth.

Hudson is over the top. He has a magical way with words and for describing a moment in a game in a surreal way. I had a writing teacher in college who is a published poet, and he said Hudson was his favorite poet. I can’t disagree.

Schoen grounds Hudson. He is the play-by-play man who controls the game. He doesn’t talk too much. He doesn’t describe every move, but rather goes with the flow of the game and knows when a moment of silence, or a topic of discussion is needed. He is the kind of announcer who lets the game speak for itself.

Schoen is the original voice of MLS. He was the league’s first play-by-play man. When the league launched in 1996, Schoen was the one who introduced the world to American soccer. He worked at ABC as the voice of MLS until 2000,  he was replaced by Jack Edwards.

Schoen moved on and kept working in soccer broadcasting. When GolTv started up in 2003 in southern Florida, where Schoen lives, he got on board and has been a fixture since.

I got a chance a few weeks ago to talk with Schoen over the phone. He is one of America’s most important soccer voices, and I wanted his take on everything from MLS, the U.S. Men’s National Team, to the European game and Women’s Soccer. I decided to break this interview up into parts because I didn’t want to cut and chop anything out and we talked for a long time.

Soccer Guys: What does the media in the U.S. do well when covering soccer? What does it do poorly?

Phil Schoen: That’s interesting because in many ways it could be two totally different answers as to what would be better for MLS as a league and the other would be for media coverage.

In my mind, from a league perspective, they need to invest in their youth. They need to try and get the academies going and get a pipeline going and bring in relatively young, cheap talent and make it into talent that they can use by transferring or by playing themselves and building around it. However, and admittedly looking at Brek Shea, a relative homegrown guy from MLS who is outstanding and has a buzz in the soccer world, but he’s not going to get you into Madison Avenue or multi-million dollar deals with networks. For that, you need to open up the wallets a little bit and try and find those big star players to hang the hook on, like an Henry, like a Beckham, or after the next World Cup, maybe a Ronaldhino.

I think the simple answer is a mix of the two and that the devil is the details of how you mix it together.

SG: What do you think the media covering soccer in America does well and what needs to improve?

Schoen: I think it depends on what media you’re in.

From my heart, I think radio has been under utilized from a league stand point and can provide a rather intimate way to hook up with potential fans and to strengthen the relationship with existing fans. But that’s mainly from two perspectives — one being play-by-play on the radio, which I think forces you to make a commitment to be a more active participant rather than TV where you sit around and veg out and watch. And I think it would be nice if there could be a way — and it’s not that far away — to get more and more talk shows where fans can get together with supposed experts and real experts to talk about some of the controversies and some of the things that have happened as of late.

Those are some things that could be done from a league perspective. I do think there are people out there that could handle that.

In regards to television, I think what we’ve seen from a soccer perspective over the last couple of years is a maturation of the audience. And what we saw following the Champions League Final at Fox and them trying to dumb it down 1970’s style as to the difference between the sports and what the game had to offer for the casual sports fan, and the reaction is as I thought it would be.

Going back to my days on ESPN and even beyond, I’ve always tried to appeal to not so much the hardcore fan, but the knowledgeable fan. I think that two things happen then: You earn the respect of those particular fans and in effect you also turn them into apostles who can go out and spread the word. Opposed to if you talk down, there is a very good chance that you are not going to hook the casual fan because you’re basically throwing Pablum at them and you’re going to annoy the fans you already have.

I think you build from your base. And I think we’ve seen that over the past couple of seasons from an ESPN perspective, from a Fox perspective. Hopefully we can continue on that track. I hope that when NBC and Versus steps in to Major League Soccer and when Fox really takes that next step towards their new World Cup Rights — again, the more the merrier — I hope they realize there is already a base to build on and they don’t have to start putting a new foundation down.

From a print media perspective it varies. To give you an idea, here in South Florida I know there are a few bashers here and there, but I think for the most part here and around America if someone tosses that typical soccer bashing column out there then they’re more than likely the ones who get ridiculed rather than the sport. I think what we’ve seen with the growth of [soccer] as a participation sport, all of those pee-wee players, all of those under-8, under-9 players have now grown up and are either reporters themselves or editors or sales people or management, and I think there is acceptance of the sport if not an outright love. Even for the people who don’t accept it themselves, they realize it’s big enough it shouldn’t be made fun of.

I think the old soccer basher is a dinosaur that occasionally rears its head every so often. I think the bigger concern is the people that are just punching the clock. There are certain people that will make the commitment no matter what they do. And I think we’ve seen more and more of that. Take for example ESPN with Pardon the Interruption where they have the writers on from a [Michael] Wilbon to a [Dan] Le Batard, etc., and these are guys who would be general sports fans and general sports media, but when they do step in and cover soccer themselves from a personality standpoint or an event standpoint, they have the personality and the drive to focus in on the job at hand and do a good job covering soccer.

I think what we need now are more events, whether it be from a Beckham experiment or a Manchester United event or something like that. MLS needs to do more of that in this day and age of newspapers being gutted. More and more of the fringe sports, basically anything outside baseball, football, basketball and sometimes hockey, that pay the price, even in the major markets.That’s something from a league perspective. If they can give the editors and publishers to cover it, in my mind there are plenty of people out here working in newsrooms across America and North America that would be more willing to do the job. I think we need a little bit more to cover. In the absence of the NBA over the last couple of months I think we’ve seen that, even in major markets.

SG: How has the league changed since you stared broadcasting?

Schoen: I will say MLS has been a lot better than it’s been given credit for those opening two or three years. I think the work that Doug Logan did at the outset with Sunil Gulati and the Tim Hankinson and all those people who were scouting and scouring to find the right Americans, to try and find the right internationals, they did a great job. I think MLS was very good at the outset, especially considering the fact that it was basically just thrown out there.

Now, I’d say after that first generation started to fade away — either moving along or retiring — from about year five for maybe a four or five year span some other people stepped up, but I think on a whole the league kind of started to fade just a little bit. And I think that’s when the owners stepped up with the Designated Player Rule. For all of the complaints that might be from a playing perspective, and up until this year it was legitimately so for David Beckham, that first day the announcement was made MLS was in every single paper around the globe. And you can’t… well, I guess you can buy it but it costs about $25-$50million if you want. It took insight. It took commitment. And they got it done.

From what we’ve seen this year, maybe it’s a Prince Fielder contract season type of situation, he has contributed on the field as well as off of it. There are other designated players who really haven’t. I think there are some, like a Thierry Henry, who may be a little more on the good side than the bad, and then there may be a few who go the other way and who don’t get the job done. In my mind, as long as Major League Soccer continues to make a significant commitment to the academies and the youth level, as long as they also go out and try and fill in some of the gaps with talented players from around the globe while at the same time not forcing out talented United States players, which is a little bit of a concern considering the pipeline that started to follow towards Scandinavia and Europe of players that never even stepped foot in MLS. I think that is something they need to address.

I think one of the hooks has got to be spending the big bucks enough times and the right times. You’re not going to get a bulls-eye on every single one. Beckham might be the only one out there who can give you the complete package, but there are some others out there like an Henry, like a Ronaldhino that can come pretty close. And I think if it weren’t for the injury problems, Ronaldo might have been one. Who knows, maybe the other Ronaldo and Messi in a few years time.

But I think Major League Soccer started strong, started to fade but was smart enough and committed enough to recognize it and get the participation of the sponsors to step up and show their commitment that I think what we’ve seen over the last two or three years, especially with the emergence of these expansion markets, which is firm, concrete proof that soccer is here to stay and on the right track.

Take a look at the television ratings and the attendance. It’s catching up to college basketball and the NBA, NHL, at least through the regular season. And I think we now have just as we did in the NASL generation that turned into the ‘90-’94 World Cup team and the start of MLS, I think we are now in our second MLS generation and that [the league] is going to build on itself. I think things are headed in the right direction and as long as there is good leadership and committed leadership, and the ability and willingness to take risks, and spend money smartly, the sky is the limit.

Part II to come soon…

Kevin Koczwara can be reached at kkoczwar@gmail.com.

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