Johnson's MLS resurgence yields return to U.S. national team
Eddie Johnson was picked for the U.S. team this week for the first time since 2010
Johnson, first in MLS at 17, had a forgettable term in Europe before coming back
Johnson embraces fans, especially on Twitter, where he follows 3,000 accounts
SEATTLE -- Sure, Eddie Johnson had doubts he'd ever make it back on the U.S. national team. "I'd by lying if I said no," he said. But, in his return to MLS, Johnson made his case on the field to U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann when it came time to select the 24-man roster for World Cup qualifying matches Friday (at Antigua and Barbuda) and Tuesday (against Guatemala in Kansas City).
Johnson's resurgence in Seattle earned the forward a spot on the national team for the first time since 2010. If his trajectory continues on the arc it has this season for the Sounders, the 28-year-old may wear the U.S. uniform for some time heading forward.
This isn't Johnson's first time riding high on success. He was a part of the U.S. 2006 World Cup team, but his career took a dip after that. One of the youngest players to join the MLS -- he debuted in 2001 as a 17-year-old -- Johnson signed a contract with English Premier League's Fulham in 2008 but spent more time on loan to Cardiff City, Greece's Aris and a smaller English squad, Preston, over the subsequent three years. While struggling in Europe, Johnson also slipped out of favor with the national team under then-coach Bob Bradley. After flirting with joining a Mexican squad, Johnson got his second chance at soccer life by signing with MLS in February 2012. Seattle traded to bring in the former scoring threat.
"Credit goes all to Sigi (Schmid)," Johnson said of his Seattle coach. "When he sat me down when I first arrived, he said, 'It's all about trust -- trusting in me, me trusting in you, and us all believing in our one goal as an organization, which is to win the MLS Cup from the beginning of the year.'"
Even with Schmid on board, the Sounders' rabid fans were skeptical of Johnson replacing favorites Michael Fucito and hometown boy Lamar Neagle, the two players given up in the trade, forcing the newcomer to earn the favor of the screaming spectators.
"It was tough in the beginning," Johnson said. "I think people felt my best years were behind me, and I wound up getting injured a couple times, and that only added to the frustration. The fans were frustrated and I was frustrated, too."
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Johnson knew that to connect to the fan base -- one he respects because they care so much -- he needed to open up. So he took to Twitter. He followed those following and supporting him (Johnson, @eddie_johnson7, has nearly 10,000 followers and follows more than 3,000 accounts). "As I finally got fit and started to produce, more people began following me and seeing the human side, not just the player," he said. "I just believe that hard work pays off. I've been working very hard in Seattle. My teammates, they push me week in and week out. Playing in front of 45,000 fans week in and week out, that pushed me to be better as a player and be a consistent player because we know if you're not doing well in Seattle you'll get abused."
Instead, Johnson has abused opponents so far this year, scoring 14 goals -- nine off his head. He is tied for fifth among all MLS scorers.
While Johnson isn't likely to make a start for the German-born coach on Friday in Antigua, the home side is expected to pack in a defense that may allow Johnson's aerial attack to figure into the mix at some point. "We wanted to bring in Eddie and (San Jose Earthquakes forward) Alan (Gordon) because both are really strong in the air," Klinsmann said.
But that wasn't the only thing Klinsmann had seen in Johnson. "I know Jurgen had him on his mind, and I thought it probably wasn't going to happen until the next qualifying round," said Schmid. "But circumstances obviously dictated different, and he decided to bring him in now. Hopefully it goes well for Eddie, but certainly it's a chance he deserves based on his performance in league play."
"I spoke many times over the last couple months with Sigi, and I think Sigi has done a tremendous job with him," Klinsmann said. "I think Eddie is back into that position because he worked very hard for it. Watch his games, and you see his drive and hunger that he has, the way he chases defenders, the way he creates chances for himself and his striking partners and the way he also finishes things off."
And while Johnson joked that he wouldn't be in Antigua right now if it wasn't for the fact that both his coaches are German natives who spend time chatting about soccer, it was really his ability to put a lackluster European career behind him while he renewed himself in MLS that has afforded him his latest stint with the national squad.
"For me, these are your better years, these are when you become wiser as a player, and I just wanted to use my experiences -- good and bad -- in Europe to help motivate me and push me to still be a consistent player and be able to play at the highest level," he said. "Bouncing around is frustrating, but it makes you mentally strong over there because you're over there by yourself. It's not like you have family close to you. You have to deal with real situations like a man and overcome that adversity."
Klinsmann credited Schmid with helping Johnson get past those European struggles and preparing him for new opportunities. "I think this camp opened the door for him and now we're curious to see him in the middle of his old buddies," Klinsmann said. "I think he really deserved that call."
While the Premier League experience didn't prove a success, Johnson said it allowed him to learn as a player, grow his game and mature as a person, including how to deal with an influx of finances and living a lifestyle more suitable to playing soccer.
"I learned how to relax more and control what I can control and not let others' emotions affect or dictate my play in the game," he said. "I'm always looking for ways to add to my game to make me a better player and a more consistent player. I've done a lot of growing up and it shows."
As Johnson won over the Sounders' faithful by finding the back of the net off his head (and tweeting about it), there was always that return to the national team floating through his mind.
"I think there's always doubt at some time in your career when things aren't going well," said Johnson, whom many U.S. fans thought deserved more playing time from Bruce Arena at the 2006 World Cup after scoring seven goals in qualifying. "Sigi told me when I first arrived in Seattle that he had a good relationship with Jurgen and if I was doing my business and I was believing in everything they were trying to accomplish in Seattle, and the team was winning and I was scoring goals and my behavior was good and stuff, that Jurgen would give me a chance."
This chance feels good, especially after the hurdles, the long road and adversity. Perhaps it was most fitting that in his final game before joining the national team Johnson scored Seattle's third and final goal in a blowout against Portland on Oct. 7 in front of 66,452 at CenturyLink Field. After taking a bending cross off a half-bounce and directing it into the net, he jogged to the corner and blew a kiss to the adoring neon-clad fans.
Eddie Johnson has found himself in Seattle.
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.
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