Sitting alongside Jake Zivin this year during all local Portland Timbers broadcasts (and on the radio during nationally televised matches) is the Timbers' most senior sports broadcaster, Ross Smith.
Most senior though he may be, at 35 years old, Smith is still among the youngest broadcasters in MLS. As John Strong told Chris and Jamie on Soccer Made in Portland last week, Smith should be counted as one of the young talents from this side of the Pond that the Timbers organization has put its faith in and nurtured over the years.
Originally from just outside Toronto, Smith played most of his professional career in England at Ebbsfleet United before making the move back to North America. He played the Portland Timbers' final season in USL before hanging up the boots and moving to the broadcast booth.
You started broadcasting on the radio for the Timbers during their inaugural season. Was that the first time you’d called a game?
I actually did one game back in Britain, when I was playing for Ebbsfleet United, but my first game for the Timbers was the USOC game against Chivas USA at University of Portland. I’d just gotten in that morning back to Portland, and they said, "Any chance you can get a rep, your first one?" So I went to UP, caught up with all the front office guys, and jumped into it. I can remember Jake Gleeson having a really good game, making a couple of really good saves, which was special to see because we’d trained together the previous year and were pretty close.
We did a post-game interview with Jake, and his reaction when he recognized my voice and realized it was me -- it was a good laugh. Of course, I was still figuring out the ins and outs of broadcasting, and I didn’t know if that was unprofessional, having that moment with Jake. But afterwards Mike Golub told me he thought it was a neat moment, that it showed personality.
Of course, that first game only had 5,000-some in attendance. What was your experience of the home opener?
I remember being in such awe of the atmosphere and the crowd. I’d played in front of the Timbers Army the previous year and I thought, how is this going to get any bigger, from USL to MLS, because I just thought it was enormous. But to see the level that it went up to, it was quite unbelievable.
An unforgettable night. How do you respond to that, knowing that they're your audience?
I think having been a Timbers player, there were opportunities to learn the history of the club and meet the fans and be engrossed in the community. On the broadcast side, it’s showing that huge respect that we have for the supporters and everything they do, the tifo and the songs, the community projects they do. It means so much to so many, so paying that well earned respect helps to build that trust, that relationship.
Then making sure that you’re giving a true reflection of what’s happening in the game, because I think we have a very honest group of supporters, and the broadcast has to reflect that. So I try to be true to what I believe that I’m seeing, and make sure that what I’m saying is a true reflection. Having such a big, honest audience, they’ll keep you on your toes. But when it comes down to it, if you’re honest about it, that’s how you earn that trust and that respect.
It sounds like you made a pretty quick transition from player to analyst. Kind of a shock to the system, or was it pretty seamless?
The biggest thing I remember from that first series of games is just the different perspective of seeing just how much went into games behind the scenes. Because as a player you’re in your own world, you have your own entrance, you don’t really see a lot of fans. And then you step onto the pitch and you’re worried about your own performance and the other guys on the field and you block everything else out.
To all of a sudden see everyone in the stadium and the cameras and everything and become aware that there are so many people who care about this, and to see the care that goes into it, it’s a whole different set of nerves.
What did you take from being a professional athlete and apply to broadcasting?
I think you develop two different characters as a player, between the person you are on the field and off the field. For me it was almost two entirely different people. I’m learning that as a broadcaster too, when I come away from a game and realize that, jeez that broadcast just went out to how ever many thousands of people with the big audience that the Timbers have, I look and say, I can’t believe that just happened. But then when I step into it I become this different person, you’re like, well, this is my job, it’s what I do.
As a player there were some games where I hadn’t played well and I stewed over it and didn’t sleep that night. It eats away at you. Then the other way around, when I’ve played well I still don’t sleep because I’m thinking about it, I just want to go over and over it. As a broadcaster it’s the same thing; I don’t sleep well the night after a broadcast, because I’m replaying all the things that went well and stewing over the things I didn’t like.
And of course the nerves in terms of performance -- the nerves are never the same from one game to the next. As a player you step on the pitch and there’s always something that’s slightly different, the feelings are never exactly the same building up to games. And you’re always going over, do my legs feel all right, was my preparation correct, did I eat the right things? As a broadcaster, it’s, do I know the ins and outs of this game, do I know the numbers I want to talk about, have I linked up with my partner to make sure we’re on the same page?
How do you make sure you're on the same page with your broadcast partner?
It's all about building a strong relationship. I remember the first TV broadcast I did in 2011. Robbie Earle couldn't do a game, so they asked me if I could step in and team with John Strong. Obviously he was born to do this job, his talent is incredible, and that was just brilliant to be able work with him and build that relationship.
I’m very fortunate that the Timbers organization has done such a great job not only hiring talented guys, but also good characters as well. Jake Zivin and Keith Bleyer are both very good at what they do, and their personalities match that talent. Off the cameras they’re such good guys to hang out with.
And the fact that we travel together, and all the time we spend together, that’s where that chemistry develops. So for them to be the great guys that they are, no egos whatsoever, makes it easier. Easier to get to know their tendencies, their nuances, what their strengths, are and how I can fit in with that.
The travel part must be huge both as a player and a broadcaster.
You know, looking back on it now, the travel is what I miss the most about playing -- but obviously it's a big part of being a broadcaster, too. Sometimes the travel can wear on you, but that’s where you develop the jokes, the banter, the understanding of each other, and that makes a big difference. Going out to games and coming back on almost no sleep, and the two of you together might be a little groggy, you’re going to see every side of your partner’s personality. And I think you share a lot of stuff, not just job-related stuff, but they become part of your personal life too.
That goes for players too. When you form a close partnership and friendship, it shows up on the pitch. Like what Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell are like right now, it shows that they have a great respect for each other.
You’ve done either radio or TV for most of the games during the entire MLS era. What’s been your favorite game?
Without a doubt the Sporting Kansas City playoff game. For me it was an especially big occasion because the Root Sports feed was picked up by TSN and broadcast across Canada, so my family and friends outside of Toronto were able to watch me call a game live for the first time. But obviously the game and what went into it, it’s going to go down as one of the greatest in MLS history. It’ll be shown time and again for years and years to come. And we got to call it.
You know, as a player, you want to be part of the big games. You want to be on the pitch. You want to play when the stadium’s packed, and you want to showcase what you’ve been working on in training. It’s the same as a broadcaster. The fact that I get to do every game is brilliant, but for the big games there are a few more eyes on it, a bigger audience, and that’s where I want to be. I want to showcase the training and the preparations I’ve put in.
During that all important 15 minutes, I’m imagining you and Jake in the booth, just looking at each other with your jaws on the floor just going, "What is happening?"
It was incredible. So surreal. And Jake and I sat down in the week running up to the game and talked about, if this game goes to penalties, what is it going to look like? Because I had never done a game that went to penalties before. So we looked back at Sporting Kansas City, with their history of going to penalties, and we looked at, like, where does Matt Besler tend to put it? Same with all their guys. So when the game went to penalties, all of a sudden we thought, this is great! We prepared for this!
And of course, why they got to penalties -- Maximiliano Urruti’s goal. As a soccer neutral it was a great goal anyway, but it’s even more exciting because of the fan reaction, and because we’d interviewed the players and built that relationship with them and want them to do well, so it was just a special thing to see. It was just such a buzz, and, as excited as we were about it, we had to kind of bottle it up to keep going.
It's pretty evident that you're a fan of the club. How do you, as you say, bottle that up?
I had the perfect mentor, in Robbie Earle. The way he delivered his broadcast was very neutral, and the excitement level when the away team scored, compared to the home team, it stayed the same. It’s part of having that different character that you step into when you walk into the booth. I think Robbie epitomized and perfected that. I hope that I carry that over, to be as objective as possible.
It helps that I can always step away after the game and go back to being a fan and say, "Ah jeez, let me see that Urruti goal again!" [Sadly, I can't find a video of Urruti's goal with Jake & Ross' commentary, but here's a link to a video with the SKC broadcast team.]
What are your favorite things about living in the Portland area?
I love how it’s a 1-hour city. You’ve got the city life, then you’ve got the mountains an hour or so away. I’d never snowboarded or skied in my life, and I’ve just started taking some snowboarding lessons. It’s sensational, and it’s just right on your doorstep. And then the other way you’ve got the coast, and all of that to enjoy. I love to try to take in as much of that as possible.
And then of course, like Jake mentioned, the food and the drink -- all these different amazing places, and every place has its own personality about it, its own speciality. You feel like you could be going out three meals a day and try something different every time, and you’d still have just scratched the surface.
Anything good you've tried recently?
I just popped into a breakfast place for the first time this morning to meet a couple of friends -- the Screen Door. Have you been there?
I haven’t -- I’ve tried to go numerous times, but every time there's a line around the block. I'm always too hungry to wait.
The only reason we got in was, I went down as soon as it opened, put in my name, and then went back home and did some work. That’s the only way, otherwise you’re standing in line for hours. It’s worth it, though.
Interview has been edited and condensed.