The Art of the Call

If you’ve watched a Minnesota United match on My29 or listened to one on MNUFC Radio on 1500 ESPN, you’ve heard the mellifluous voice of play-by-play commentator Callum Williams. You’ve heard his lilting British accent rise to a caterwaul of exultation as the play builds then breaks into a goal for MNUFC. Along with color commentator Kyndra de St. Aubin and sideline reporter Jamie Watson, Williams has brought the game to life for viewers and listeners, new and old, of MNUFC matches for the team’s first MLS season. He might be new to us, but he’s been at this for quite a while.

“I started in this industry when I was 16,” he says. “I suspect there isn't any proper or right way of getting into broadcasting, but I started working in local radio in my hometown of Birmingham. My Saturday during football season would involve me getting up early and coaching at the local park in the morning. I would earn 10 pounds — about $15 — and I would then rush home, get ready and then use that money to get a taxi, quickly, into the studio in downtown Birmingham and I would do things like answer the phone, assist the producer, do a lot of tape cutting — that was the days when tape was still a thing in radio.”

After a few years of working at the station, he finally got his shot to get on the air. “I did my first commentary when I had just turned 18. I was calling a seventh-tier game, I remember it, it was Alfreton Town against AFC Telford United. For me, it was the chance of a lifetime. I didn't get paid, but this was my way in.”

A program for aspiring broadcasters led him to the BBC, where he received invaluable tutelage in the craft. A series of connections led to a gig with Sporting Kansas City, where he got the chance to call both a U.S. Open and MLS Cup Final, before returning to his native England for a few years to call MLS matches for SkySports. When MNUFC came calling on a rainy November day in 2016, he was ready.

His style in the booth owes a debt to Martin Tyler, and you can hear echoes of Tyler’s legendary call of the Sergio Aguero goal that won Manchester City the Premier League title in 2011-12 in the way Williams rides a striker’s name to a crescendo as the player buries it in the back of the net.

“You know that's a historic moment for the club,” he says, recalling Christian Ramirez’s goal against Portland in the season opener, the club’s first MLS goal. “You know that your voice is going to be there forever. But not for a second did I have anything planned or scripted.”

Not that there isn’t plenty of preparation that goes into being ready for that moment.

“Whatever level you work at in sports broadcasting, there's never a normal day,” he laughs. “The world of 9-to-5 is about as far away from my world as possible. I'll try and do a day and a half, two days prep. I do stats for teams, and I have a singular board where I get all that sort of information.” He pulls out a manila folder that he opens to reveal small address labels arrayed as if in formation on the pitch — his board from the club’s last match against FC Dallas. “A lot of commentators have different colors for different things. I know for example that red — I have to get that in. If it's blue, it's significant, but it's not necessary. I'm a handwritten guy, I'm old-fashioned in that sense.”

When it comes to what he sees when he’s watching, he needs to always be aware of who has the ball and where and what the score is. But beyond the guy with the ball, there’s a lot to follow. Some of it comes from speaking with players and coaches on a regular basis to get an understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish within a given matchup. But a lot of it evolves organically on the pitch as he’s calling the match.

“The thing for me is movement and body shape from players and that means taking your eye off the ball,” he says. “My head will be consistently moving around, my eyes will often wander, just to see if there's anything else I can pick up on that's going to add something to the broadcast. A lot of it is player movement because you can tell when someone drops the shoulder or when somebody decides to come deep or come short and look for the ball, that can have a significant impact on the shape of the team.”

And yet in spite of a wealth of experience and an inclination toward exacting self-criticism, Williams feels there’s always more to understand about the game, especially when it comes to working with the MNUFC coaching staff.

“I would always say that if you have the chance to pick a footballing brain as large as [Adrian Heath’s], you have to,” Williams says. “People like him make you think of the game differently. In every sport, we all like to think we know it all, don't we? But it's not the case. When you spend time with people who are in and around whatever the sport is for that amount of time, it's another level. I always feel like I'm learning.”