Ray Hudson: ‘I was in love with America before I even came to the United States’ | Soccer

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Ray Hudson will always be a Geordie, but America claimed his heart long ago.

As a kid growing up in Tyneside, Hudson, was drawn to the pop culture of the United States, its movies and television. He loved Motown, but he also loved listening to his father, who worked for Ford Motor Company, share stories about Michigan and the Great Lakes region.

“I was in love with America before I even came to the United States,” Hudson said. “It was otherworldly. It wasn’t just a skip across the ocean like it is now. It was a different world. It was the Emerald City, where you wanted to be.”

Hudson’s maiden voyage came in 1977, when a scout approached him with an offer to join the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League on loan from his hometown Newcastle United.

“I had never heard of Fort Lauderdale,” Hudson said. “The scout says, ‘It’s just outside of Miami.’ I says, ‘OK, that’s good. I like that.’”

Arriving in the country for the first time at the age of 22, Hudson was immediately smitten by the Florida sunshine. He was also swept up in the excitement surrounding a league that had hit its apex in the late 1970s. Hudson joined a squad anchored by Gordon Banks in goal. In Hudson’s first season in Fort Lauderdale, the Strikers lost in the playoffs to a Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer-led New York Cosmos side in front of more than 77,000 fans at Giants Stadium.

The loan spell turned permanent. Hudson played another six seasons for the Strikers in the NASL, and spent the better portion of his playing career in the United States. Fort Lauderdale has been his home ever since.

“I had no desire to go back to Newcastle,” Hudson said. “It was just completely seductive here in every way – the lifestyle, the wonderful competition on the field. It was the most incredible time in my life.”

It was the start of a life steeped in soccer, with Hudson playing first-hand witness to a number of inflection points in the sport’s evolution in the US. After playing in the NASL during the peak of its popularity, Hudson later held a pair of coaching positions in what was a still-fledgling MLS, first with the now-defunct Miami Fusion and then with DC United.

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“This is a different landscape than anywhere else in the world because America has its own wonderful, massively popular games,” he said. “But every rung of the ladder in soccer is only going one way. It’s not going down.”

It was the job he took after his managerial stints that turned him into a seminal figure in the American soccer scene.

After parting ways with DC in late 2003, Hudson was approached about taking a job as a commentator for GolTV, a Florida-based broadcaster that had just acquired the U.S. broadcasting rights to La Liga. Hudson was known for his gift of gab. He dabbled in commentary for ESPN’s coverage of the 2002 World Cup, and earned a reputation for his colorful post-match interviews as a coach in Miami and DC, but few were prepared for what the self-described “verbal gymnast” brought to the broadcast booth.

A match called by Hudson is a cascade of metaphors, analogies and pop culture references, punctuated by frequent audible gasps and 10-dollar words. In Hudson’s telling, a goal is never merely “beautiful”; it is “sweeter than a mother’s kiss at bed time,” “cool as Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock,” or – the ultimate Hudson-ism – ”magisterial”.

“Where does that come from?” said Roger Bennett, the co-host of the Men in Blazers podcast. “Is it Ray, speaking in tongues, or the footballing gods speaking through him as some kind of commentating prophet?”

Hudson credits his verbal prowess not to divine intervention, but to an English teacher he had as a kid back in England. “She would always tell the class, ‘Don’t be afraid of the English language, children. It won’t break. You have to stretch it,’” he recalled.

He took that lesson to heart. As a commentator, Hudson said he is constantly expanding his “mental rolodex”, collecting phrases and descriptions to brandish on future broadcasts.

“I’ve always done this, where I think of a descriptive that would be wonderful to use in a situation that is deserving of it,” Hudson told me. “I’m always aware of anything that comes along in my day-to-day life. You can get something from the guy who cuts the lawn. You can get something from watching a cartoon, the old ‘Tom and Jerry’ or something like that.”

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Hudson’s on-air rhapsodies have inspired YouTube compilations and various online tribute pages. That style has brought him a side gig on Cameo, where he has fielded nearly 800 requests for personalized greetings to fans.

“They all want to hear me wish them a ‘magisterial birthday,’” he said.

Even Hudson himself has his own favorite Ray Hudson Moments.

There was Lionel Messi’s 92nd-minute winner against Real Madrid in 2017, which prompted a piercing shriek out of Hudson before he offered up this instant-classic: “Messi, you could drop a tarantula into his shorts and he’ll still be cool.”

Or there was Ronaldinho’s sensational overhead kick against Villarreal in 2006, which Hudson described as “electrifying as a hair dryer thrown into a hot tub”.

Hudson was with GolTV until 2012, when the upstart Qatari-funded beIN Sports obtained the rights to La Liga and hired Hudson to lead its coverage. In his more than 15 years with the two networks, Hudson emerged as the defining voice for a generation of American soccer fans, providing the soundtrack to a halcyon era in Spain’s top division headlined by Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

More than just a cult hero, Hudson’s broadcasting career has made him a sort of footballing ambassador to a country where the NFL reigns supreme.

“Few have done more to grow global football in this nation,” said Bennett.

Hudson, 67, left beIN last year after the network lost the rights to La Liga to ESPN. In September, CBS announced that it hired Hudson as lead color commentator for its broadcasts of Champions League in the US, marking the first time he’s provided match commentary for Europe’s signature club competition. Two months in, Hudson has already produced some vintage calls. After Bayern Munich’s Leroy Sané sliced through the middle of Barcelona’s defense for a dazzling run and goal in a match last month, Hudson exclaimed that the German winger was “attached to the ball like a teenager to a cell phone”.

As for the competition itself, Hudson sees three early favorites with the group stage nearly complete: Real Madrid (“Can they produce the miracle string of results that they got last year?”), Manchester City (“I’ve picked them the last two seasons and been severely disappointed, but I would put them again near the top.”) and Napoli (“They’re anybody’s box of toys, and a wonderful one at that.”)

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Hudson has called all of this season’s Champions League matches from a studio in Florida, just as he did during his time with GolTV and beIN. When he was approached by CBS Sports about the job, Hudson was flattered, but also wary of the travel commitment. The network had initially suggested that he call the matches, which are carried on Paramount+ and CBS, from its studio in New York City.

CBS eventually agreed to accommodate Hudson with its studio space in Fort Lauderdale, where he has worked alongside play-by-play announcer Andrés Cordero.

“I’ve just had enough of the traveling,” Hudson said.

Hudson doesn’t make it back to Newcastle much these days either. He said the city “doesn’t have the same pull” since his father, Wilfred, passed away five years ago. But Hudson remains loyal to his boyhood club, which signed him to a contract when he was 17. He has been delighted by Newcastle United’s start to the Premier League season – even while acknowledging the “problematic” nature of the new Saudi Arabian ownership.

“It’s my football club. These are still our black-and-white colors. You can criticize the human rights record of Saudi Arabia. That is one aspect that unfortunately cannot be separated from our love of the club. It just cannot,” Hudson said. “But what are we supposed to do? Just say, ‘Well, there goes our team’? It takes a brave man, and a morally high man, to do that. But this is our game. This is our team, our sport. We were there before we had even heard of Saudi Arabia, and we’ll be there forever after.”

Hudson shares a similar kinship with Inter Miami, which just completed its third season in MLS. He has been the club’s lead color commentator since it began play in 2020, a job that he said represents a “completion of the circle”. Since he moved there in 1977, Hudson has never lived farther than seven miles away from where he used to play for the Strikers, now the location of Inter Miami’s home ground, DRV PNK Stadium.

“This is my town,” Hudson said.

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