Sometimes, when he's not busy scoring goals at an astonishing rate, Eddie Johnson closes his eyes and recalls the day 13 years ago when soccer came to the projects. Tapping his mental hard drive, he sees a white man driving a green pickup on Bacher Street in Bunnell, Fla., a trail of black kids smiling and running toward the truck. And then he sees himself, at age nine, signing up to learn the game that would change his life. "It's like going to the mall with no intention of meeting your future wife, and then you meet this beautiful girl," Johnson says. "The only sports I played in the projects were basketball and football. I'd never even talked about soccer."
Funny, because these days the soccer world is talking about him. Since his national-team debut last fall, the 21-year-old Johnson has scored eight goals in eight appearances heading into this Saturday's friendly against England and next month's World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Panama. No American player has ever been so prolific so early in his career: Johnson needs only three more goals to become the U.S.'s alltime leader in World Cup qualifying. The planet's top clubs have taken notice. Johnson trained with Manchester United last December, and in March, Major League Soccer revealed that it had rejected a $4 million transfer offer for the FC Dallas forward by the Portuguese power Benfica.
With the speed and strength of a defensive back, the hops of a high-flying hoopster and the ball skills to beat defenders one-on-one, the 6-foot, 180-pound Johnson may be on his way to redefining the striker position in American soccer. You could see it when he rose to convert a crashing header against Trinidad and Tobago, or when he burned Jamaica's back line and buried a low bender far post, or when he bagged a hat trick in 18 minutes against Panama. "At the international level you need to be very athletic besides being a good soccer player, and he has all those qualities," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "He's been a proven finisher to date; now the challenge is consistency. He's young and getting better, but he's not even close to being the finished product."
Suddenly Johnson is hearing compliments from veteran teammates he grew up idolizing, whether it's forward Brian McBride ("You're something we've never had in U.S. soccer") or midfielder Claudio Reyna ("My coach [at England's Manchester City] talks about you all the time, but you're too pricey"). Adds 23-year-old U.S. captain Landon Donovan, "One of Eddie's best attributes is that he wants to get better and learn. He has every talent and skill available to him, and if he makes smart decisions, he's going to be phenomenal."
Just as significant as Johnson's rise is what he represents: the latest in a growing number of top-tier African-American soccer players. Of the 16 black players in the 70-member U.S. pool, six are either regular or occasional starters. "Kids see that, and it's part of what motivates them to play a sport and get better," Arena says. "They can make a living playing soccer, and they couldn't do that 10 years ago." In fact, Arena says, he could put an all-black U.S. lineup on the field (chart, page 64), a "considerable difference," he says, from when he took over in 1998.
"When there's a lot of black players on the national team," Johnson says, "we get more black inner-city people to pay attention to the game." Several U.S. stars are keen on introducing the sport to African-Americans at the grassroots level. Veteran defender Eddie Pope (from High Point, N.C.) has a foundation that helps provide equipment and playing opportunities to minorities. Midfield phenom Freddy Adu, a naturalized American who was born in Ghana and lives in Bethesda, Md., has brought soccer new fans from all backgrounds and is a spokesman for a Nike program that promotes physical activities for at-risk kids. Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (of Fort Wayne, Ind.) wants to increase his ambassador's role since becoming the first Yank to play in the European Champions League semifinals last month.
But Johnson's story alone may be an inspiration for many: He rose from poverty to become a charismatic, highlight-grabbing goal scorer. His mother, Lewanna, was a single parent who worked at as a child-care specialist, supporting her three children by three different men. Eddie, the middle child, hated the crime-infested housing project in Bunnell, a city of 2,200 an hour south of Jacksonville, and found his escape in the Flagler County recreational soccer league. He loved the challenges of juggling the ball, of beating three defenders at full speed, of making the goalkeeper dive the wrong way.
At 10, Johnson made the cut for an area travel team coached by Bob Sawyer. The Sawyers covered the costs of Eddie's travel expenses and welcomed him into their home. He started spending most of his free time there and became close friends with the Sawyers' son, Dustin. "Tears come down my face when I watch him play now," says Bob, a dean of students at Flagler Palm Coast High. "He's like a second son to me."
Johnson was selected for the Olympic Development Program as a 13-year-old, and two years later he earned a scholarship to the U.S. Soccer Federation's under-17 residency program at the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Johnson dominated on the U-17 team, scoring 23 times in 25 international games, and at 17 he was selected by Dallas in the second round of the 2001 MLS draft. Then his career screeched to a halt.
Stuck behind two MLS All-Star forwards, Johnson averaged only five starts and two goals over his first three seasons in Dallas. Worse, he gained a reputation as a pouter and a malcontent. He punted balls in anger across the road adjacent to the team's training field. He threw stacks of orange cones. He screamed at coach Mike Jeffries. "I didn't even want to play anymore," Johnson says. "I wanted a trade, but they wouldn't trade me. What are these people doing to me? But now I see it as, What was I doing to myself? It wasn't them. It was me."