“My career path was, I’ll be the Timbers radio voice in my 20s.”
John Strong always knew what he wanted to do.
“In my 30s, I’ll maybe transition to being to Timbers TV voice. Maybe in my 40s, I can make the leap to national broadcasting, because that’s normally a more typical career path.”
Nothing about his broadcasting career has been normal, though. From broadcasting Lake Oswego High School games while he was still attending that school to the improvised internet broadcasts of Portland Timbers’ A-League games, before the medium had fully matured, Strong always made sure his career was ahead of schedule.
Now, the 32-year-old is in Russia, sitting at the pinnacle of his profession, about to be FOX Soccer’s lead play-by-play voice for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Even half-a-world away, though, his Rose City identity shines through.
“I can think back to 2010, when I was working at (Portland radio station 102.9 FM/750 AM) The Game,” Strong remembered, speaking to Timbers.com a week before he left for Russia. “We did all these viewing parties around Portland for games at the Word Cup, and we hosted the viewing party for the final at Pioneer Square Courthouse. And it was packed. You couldn’t have packed more people in there. It was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ It was great that there were so many people there to watch the final on a big outdoor screen.”
Two World Cups later, Strong is on the ground, preparing to call the world’s biggest sporting event. But his rise to this crest is actually steeper than two World Cup cycles. It was only in 2011, barely removed from the University of Oregon, that the Portland native was calling his first Major League Soccer games as the voice of the Timbers. The next season, he was beginning the transition to a national role with NBC Sports, becoming their lead voice for MLS coverage before an eventual move to FOX.
“Watching the last World Cup on NBC knowing there was a decent shot that I could be involved in this one, but still just being a fan and living it, you try to keep it was normal as possible,” Strong says, reflecting on his rise. “You try to say, ‘OK, it’s just preparing for a game. I’ve done this before.’”
As he travels across Russia over these next five weeks, Strong will be Portland’s greatest ambassador at the World Cup. Timbers players David Guzmán and Andy Polo will be there, with Costa Rica and Peru (respectively), but Strong’s links to Bridge City go beyond those of a recent arrival.
His old Portland Trail Blazers’ folder, in which he keeps all his game notes. The Thorns FC hat and shirt he bought for the trip, so he’d have that connection to home. The U. of O. gear, reflecting his alma mater. The kitschy PDX carpet socks will be with him, too, as will a childhood friend, Erick Olson, who has traditionally been his stats and research assistant during the summers. As much as Strong has become a national figure, he remains the same person whose soccer journey started when he sat as a fan in Civic Stadium 20 years ago.
John Strong interviews Portland's Ryan Pore, circa 2010 | Photo: Timbers.com
“My first game in the North End and my first pro soccer game I ever watched as the Spring of 1998,” Strong remembers. “It was a Tuesday or a Wednesday night. There was a friendly at Civic Stadium between Chivas de Guadalajara and the San Jose Clash. And how in the hell that ended up existing, who knows.”
By 2001, Strong was using allowance money and the small wages he garnered from refereeing soccer matches to buy his own Timbers tickets. Come 2002, he’d scraped together enough money to purchase his first season ticket package. In 2003, while still in high school, he and a friend did their maiden trip to Seattle, standing with the Timbers Army for the first time, and integrating himself a little more when the teams played again the next day in Portland.
“And from that next night, in Aug. 2003 until `06, when I was able to worm my way into a gig in the broadcast booth, that was my life,” Strong says. “It was Timbers Army. It was going to every possible home game that I could, given (when he was) going down to college (in Eugene) and my time there. Going to Seattle and Vancouver.”
That decade before calling MLS games – from his first exposure to the North End; to calling games on local radio; to improvising internet broadcasts; to covering the 2009 U.S. Open Cup match against Seattle; to becoming a fixture in Timbers’ culture – is foundational to what Strong’s become, he believes. The idea he had soccer, within reach. The era of access in which he grew up. The coincidence of his growth along with the growth of Portland’s broader soccer culture, as well as MLS itseld.
“I think it’s really important,” Strong says. “As much as we can celebrate the way that television and the way that the internet can make the world small, and you can be a fan of a club halfway around the world, and maybe you find some comradery going to the bar early on a Saturday morning to watch with fellow fans, there is nothing that replicates or replaces being there in person.
“It’s not just that I have a team, but the fact that it was in Portland, and what Portland represents, and there was such a great culture about it. It all felt big time. And I was able to join, as a fan, those important markers in what has created that: the Timbers Army, specifically, but just the larger, Timbers’ culture that exists in Portland.”
On a national stage, now, Strong is aware his background can cut both ways. He is a trained journalist from his days in Eugene, and through his rise with NBC and FOX Sports, he’s had to thin the links between the professional commentator he’s become and the kid who grew up in the culture.
But he can’t severe those links, entirely. After all, it’s that passion that’s helped distinguish him from the pack, paved his way to Providence Park’s press box and the studios of Los Angeles, and eventually got him on a plane to Russia. Could a 32 year old be the U.S.’ voice of the World Cup without the passion to pursue it?
“I’m a broadcaster, I’m a journalist, and I have to be careful of the ways in which I talk about these things …,” he concedes. “I would never want to do anything that damages my credibility as a broadcaster. But by the same token, would you rather your soccer announcer doing games in America not have been a supporter? Not have been a season-ticket holder for his local club? Not have been growing up in that culture back when it as incredibly unglamorous? In the A-League days?”
John Strong at then-PGE Park, circa 2010 | Photo: Timbers.com
Of course not. As much the 2018 John Strong represents something that’s evolved from the high school fan The Oregonian photographers were capturing beneath the wooden roofs of Civic Stadium, he still carries his old selves with him. At one level, he will always be the teenager who convinced his principal to let him broadcast Lake Oswego’s football and soccer games. He will always be the person who began his professional career beside Andy McNamara, a dozen years ago.
All of those John Strongs will be in Russia this month. And when, during an Argentina-Croatia match on June 21 in Nizhny Novgorod, Strong turns 33, he’ll do so while pulling notes from his Trail Blazers folder, perhaps wearing his PDX carpet socks, likely hours removed from working out in his Thorns FC t-shirt.
“I have benefitted immensely from coming from a city where soccer is a big deal. I’ve grown up with the idea that soccer is a big deal, where I’ve learned, even on the radio, to shut up and stay out of the way and let the crowd fill the airways …”
“In those moments that I’m on the other side of the globe, (those Portland mementos) will keep in mind the city that I’m from …,” he says, with a poignancy that demands some humor. “I think the biggest trick is just don’t embarrass the city I’m from.”