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Jake Zivin has the Best Job in MLS

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With great anticipation for Jake Zivin's first full season as the television voice of the Portland Timbers, he and I chatted before the Timbers' preseason match against Minnesota United, I gave him my No Pity scarf, and we discussed his approach to soccer broadcasting.

Jake Zivin beams upon being scarfed immediately prior to our interview
Jake Zivin beams upon being scarfed immediately prior to our interview
Andrew Wheeler

When the legendary John Strong left his post with the Portland Timbers permanently in 2013, fans were apprehensive about who would be tapped to fill the yawning void he left. Now Jake Zivin, another young voice who has quietly climbed the Timbers broadcasting ladder over the last three years, will take on the role of calling the Timbers' action on the field.

Zivin's broadcasting career began in his native Evanston, Illinois, where, having abandoned his goalkeeping career after realizing 5'8" was his ceiling, he decided to join his high school's AV club and started broadcasting high school soccer.

He honed his skills while attending Carleton College, a small college in Minnesota, where Zivin called the action for every home men's and women's soccer game, totaling over 100 games in his four years at the school. (I also attended Carleton, though our years there did not overlap.) After graduating, he held sports broadcasting jobs in Missoula and Eugene, before joining the Timbers organization in 2014.

Prior to the Timbers' preseason match against Minnesota United at Providence Park, Zivin and I discussed his approach to play-by-play, the penalty kick shoot-out against Sporting Kansas City, the legacy of John Strong, and the simple fact that there might just be too many IPAs.

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Let's reminisce a bit. Soccer wasn't even played in the stadium at Carleton, so what was your setup like?

Yeah, they play on Bell Field, with the 'stands,' so to speak, on Bell Hill. There are no seats, but it’s just a great setting for that level of soccer -- beautiful pitch, big and wide. We’d set up a table on top of the hill. The coach’s office was the closest, so we’d just string the power and the internet out his window, and we’d call it. It was streamed, which in 2003 wasn't being done a lot, even audio-only streams. There just wasn’t a lot of that on the internet back then.

It was so important for me to hone that ability to describe the action. In any business, you know, reps, repetition, is the most important thing. The more of games you call, the more you learn and get comfortable and find your voice. I certainly had a ways to go after that, but doing that many games in college was beneficial.

You’d get cold, though. It’s Minnesota in October, November. You’re pretty exposed up there at the top of that hill.

How many people were listening?

Ha! I have no idea. I hope my parents? Maybe?

I think most of our listeners were the parents of the players, actually. We’d hear from parents a lot, and at the end of the season, there’d always be a parent or two sending us a gift basket or chocolate or cookies, which was really cool. I would guess it was in the double digits of listeners every game.

You majored in math -- is there a mathematical analysis that goes into doing play-by-play?

Yeah, people ask me that, and I’d say no, not really. One thing that’s important is not repeating phrases over and over again. Doc Emrick, who does hockey for NBC, legendary broadcaster -- I think there’s a fan that tracks the verbs he uses in every game, and it’s just a ridiculously high number. You don’t want to be repeating the same words or phrases. If you use the word "incredible" five times, people are going be like, you already said that.

How incredible could it really be if you’ve just used the word to describe four other things?

Yeah, exactly, exactly. Having the ability to describe a similar thing in a different way is important.

I never like to listen to myself. It feels narcissistic.

I’ll go back and watch or listen to myself, which is always difficult, because I never like to listen to myself. It feels narcissistic. But I have to, because I have to know what I'm doing. If you’re Fanendo Adi, you’re watching your game tape, and even if you had a great game, you can watch and you might be like, that was great, but you have to know how you did that. And then you might see something else like, eeugh, that wasn’t good, I should have done this instead.

It’s the same thing. I’ll listen to a game, like the penalty shoot-out against KC, and it was about 15 minutes long, I think, and two or three times I said "incredible drama" or something like that. I kind of cringe when I hear it the second time and think, oh man, I said that 8 minutes ago.

When a penalty shootout goes 11 rounds, you’re gonna run out of words.

He scores! It’s a PK! Yeah, how do you change how you say that? He shot the ball from 12 yards away, and he scored...

And then when Kwarasey made that last save, you had no words.

Yeah, that was definitely the right thing to do. That was our producer, John Bradford and Pat Brown, our director, those guys in the truck telling us, lay out. They deserve all the credit for that call. We were ready with it earlier, when Kevin Ellis had the chance to win it, and John Bradford said, if he makes it, lay out. Then Saad Abdul-Salaam, same thing. And Ross [Smith] and I were like, yeah, of course. If they hadn’t told us, I probably would have said something brief and simple. But saying nothing at all was the right call -- we just let the crowd tell the moment.

Speaking of the crowd, knowing that the Timbers Army is your audience, what does that do? Is that intimidating, is it helpful?

It’s a lot of pressure, right? I grew up a fan of the Chicago Fire -- I was 12 when they joined MLS, and I was going to games at Soldier Field and all the other stadiums they played in over the years. When they started, they already had a great fanbase. "Section 8" they’re called, they were singing, they had chants, and I was totally engrossed in it. So, having kind of grown up with the league, to see it at this point, where it is now in Portland and a couple of other places, is just awesome.

To me, this is the best job in MLS.

I don’t know that, besides Portland -- and, yeah, probably Seattle -- that there’s another fanbase where they’re gonna really care about what you’re saying on TV, and if they don’t like you they’re gonna be vocal about it. Which puts a lot of pressure on a broadcaster, but -- it’s what you want to do, it’s where you want to be.

I think in any profession you want to be somewhere where you feel like what you’re doing matters, and I feel like what I’m doing here matters, because I know that this incredible fanbase is my audience. To me, this is the best job in MLS.

How do you feel about following in the footsteps of John Strong, who, if I’m not mistaken, is he actually younger than you?

He’s actually just older than me by a couple of weeks. What he’s done is amazing, and it makes me feel a little bad about myself knowing that he was doing this when he was, what, 25? He’s obviously incredibly talented and deserves to be where he is. I’ve enjoyed watching and listening to him.

I moved to Eugene in 2010, and having been an MLS fan I was really excited to be closer to an MLS team because I’d been in Montana previously. And then, first season, I was watching it, and I was absolutely shocked that John Strong was the age he was. I was like, "You’re kidding me, that is not true." Because he’s so good. I would love to be able to emulate a tenth of what he’s been able to do.

He’s a great inspiration, and he’s been very gracious with me over the past couple of years, in giving advice and being supportive. He’s someone Timbers fans are very proud of and obviously they should be.

Are going to be doing both Timbers and Timbers 2 this year?

Yeah, I’ll do as much Timbers 2 as I can. I enjoyed it last year, and I think it’s helpful for me and my career to get more reps. And it also helps being immersed in the team. I’m here at Providence Park every day, and I’m at training whenever I can be, so it just helps to just note everything.

Last year, when Taylor Peay and George Fochive were getting big minutes, I had seen them and what they had done in T2, so I had that context about their development. The ability to speak about that intelligently helped me at the end of last year, and I think it will continue to help this year.

What do you do in the offseason and preseason to prepare for the long haul?

Number one, recharge. Last season was a long season, which is great, but it’s a lot of work. You’re working Monday through Friday, and then a lot of the games are on the weekend, you’re working a lot of hours, so it’s important to recharge physically, and mentally just rest and prepare.

And then I work on being as knowledgeable as I can be, and reading as much as I can, about the Timbers and the league, and to a smaller extent world soccer.

The play-by-play guy should be the most knowledgeable person in the stadium.

There's a quote attributed to Luke Wileman, who does Canadian MLS broadcasts for TSN: the play-by-play guy should be the most knowledgeable person in the stadium about what’s going on on the field. That means knowing the all players, who they are, where they've played before; who the referee is, what's the point of emphasis for the refs this year. Stuff like that. For example, the water break rule is changing this year, so I'll have to figure all that out when it gets warmer.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here -- thanks so much for talking in such detail. Of course, you get paid to talk, so it’s helpful that it’s not something you hate doing.

Yeah (laughs), of course, as my boss Matt Smith, VP of Broadcasting, will tell me, on TV it’s more about Ross [Smith] talking. That’s something we talk about a lot. I did radio for much of the past two seasons, and it’s very different because you have to describe every touch, because the people can’t see, so you’re the eyes.

So when we do radio -- and I’m still gonna do radio when there are national broadcasts, with Ross. When we do that, I’m talking most of the time, but when we do TV, it’s the opposite -- Ross should be talking a little more. People can see what’s going on, so the TV play-by-play role is more of a facilitator of the game, stepping in when needed, like when the ball is in the final third for either team, or telling stories as the game is going on. But I also need to make room for Ross, who can tell the fans why what’s happening is happening, which he has the expertise to do.

OK, last question: besides being able to work the best job in MLS, what are your favorite things about Portland?

Portland’s a great city. I’m from Chicago, which I love, but the Pacific Northwest is closer to my sensibility. And I love the food and the beer. There’s just so much interesting stuff going on, so much to explore, and that’s not to mention the outdoor activities outside of Portland, in the Cascades, on the coast.

So, if you’re at the supermarket, you’re on your way to a party or something, what beer are you picking out right now?

Well, Bourbon is actually more my thing -- I’m more of a whiskey guy. So I should answer the beer question with Widmer Hefeweizen, because it’s the official beer of the Portland Timbers.

Oh, god.

(Laughs) I’m not a huge IPA guy, I must say that. It definitely happens here, and in Eugene, where you go to a bar, and there are like six IPAs, and then Coors Light and Bud Light. And it’s like, what if I want a wheaty beer or a red ale or something different?

If I had to name a few, I do like the Sculpin and the Grapefruit Sculpin from Ballast Point [San Diego]. But I like going to Trader Joe’s -- they’ll let you buy singles and build your own six-pack -- and I’ll just go and pick a few.

Interview has been edited and condensed.