Voice of American soccer excited for MLS Western Conference Final
John Strong has spent countless hours at Providence Park and seen all kinds of drama.
The man who will be on the mic Saturday for the FS1 telecast of the 2021 MLS Western Conference Final is excited about the drama that will unfold when the Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake battle for a spot in the MLS Cup final. The Lake Oswego native is pleased that his father and his son will be in the stadium, sitting across from his broadcast position, and that he can drive to work for Saturday's 3:30 p.m. match.
Heck, he's thrilled just to be at a live venue — particularly one that should be a cauldron of noise for a few hours.
"It's a rare treat to call a game live, so I'm really looking forward to it," Strong said.
The lead soccer play-by-play voice for the FOX networks, Strong has done most of his work remotely since the pandemic began. This season, Strong and broadcast partner Stu Holden have been on site for a few events — the MLS All-Star Game and a Los Angeles FC-LA Galaxy match, for example — but have largely called games from afar. This week, Strong and Holden were in a FOX broadcast booth in Los Angeles to call the match between New England and New York City FC.
Strong got his start doing soccer play-by-play as the Timbers' first MLS-era announcer. Of course, he knows what it would mean for the Portland fans to win Saturday and be the home team for the MLS Cup final Dec. 11. But, more than eight years removed from working for the Timbers, Strong's rooting interest is only for a great story.
As a storyteller, Strong is excited about the potential drama on Saturday.
Like fans in both markets, Strong wonders if, with Sebastian Blanco likely sidelined, Diego Valeri can have one more moment of magic in front of the Portland faithful. Or, maybe the Utah club without an owner, one that was seconds away from missing the playoffs, will add to its list of dramatic, stoppage-time goals.
He anticipates RSL having more of the ball, noting that Portland had less possession than every other MLS team this season. The formula that has made Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese so successful in knockout matches is built upon denying opponents' preferred attacking options, dictating where on the field the game is played, and pouncing when counterattack chances arise. It's not the most artistic approach, but Strong said there are few teams as exciting to watch in transition as the Timbers.
Strong is intrigued to see how RSL captain Albert Rusnak impacts the match. The club's midfield playmaker is expected to play after missing the first two playoff games because he tested positive for COVID-19. And, Strong wonders how RSL interim coach Pablo Mastroeni will respond if Portland takes over the game the way it did in the second half on Thanksgiving Day at Colorado.
What Strong is certain about is this will be a loud, tense and special event.
"It will be a great occasion," Strong said. "This thing is going to be goofy one way or another."
Strong isn't surprised to be calling his last MLS match of 2021 from Providence Park, even though he and Holden had the call when the Timbers hit rock bottom on Aug. 15 in a 6-2 loss to the Seattle Sounders.
"This is kind of what this Timbers team does," Strong said. He noted that over four seasons under Savarese, Portland has had ugly performances or stretches that cause doubts about the team's pedigree, yet consistently rises to the occasion when playoff time comes around.
Reflecting back to 2018, when the Timbers made a surprise run to the MLS Cup final in Savarese's first season, Strong noted that Portland has an "ability to have these crisis moments and to move beyond them. This team has been very good at digging deep."
The same can be said for an RSL club that made the playoffs with a stoppage-time goal, won at Seattle without attempting a shot (Strong noted that Rusnak's positive COVID-19 test played into Salt Lake's conservative approach at Seattle) and advanced to the conference final in comeback fashion at Sporting Kansas City.
Sure, the Western Conference representative for the MLS Cup final won't have the sizzle of a Los Angeles team, but whether it's Portland or Real Salt Lake, Strong said that either team will provide compelling theater.
The backstories are one reason Strong sees Saturday's clash as especially meaningful for both clubs, given the challenges they've overcome to get this far. Strong predicts the Western Conference will become tougher to win as the Los Angeles clubs regain their swagger and Nashville FC, which finished second in the Eastern Conference this season, shifts to the West. So, this is an opportunity neither club wants to waste.
"It's going to be an awfully emotional match," Strong said. "And it will be a gut-punch for whoever loses."
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