Hans Gillhaus is the manager of scouting for PSV Eindhoven, the Dutch soccer powerhouse that launched the careers of superstars Ronaldo, Rom�rio and Ruud van Nistelrooy. More and more, though, Gillhaus is taking advantage of a new talent source: the U.S. In July, PSV paid Major League Soccer $2.5 million for 22-year-old U.S. winger DaMarcus Beasley, and on Nov. 17 Gillhaus was in Columbus, Ohio, to check on the astonishing progress of 20-year-old FC Dallas striker Eddie Johnson.
During a 1--1 U.S. World Cup qualifying tie against Jamaica--a formality for the Yanks, who had already clinched a final-round spot, but a game that knocked the Reggae Boyz out of Germany 2006-- Johnson ensured that Gillhaus's trip was worth the trouble. Making his first start for the national team, Johnson burst past the Jamaican defense on a well-timed 15th-minute run, met a gorgeous through-ball from midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and snaked a leftfooted blast past goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts. It was Johnson's fifth goal in three games for the U.S., leaving him with a remarkable average of 3.36 strikes per 90 minutes of play.
Never before had an American scored in his first three World Cup qualifiers, and yet Johnson's show was just the capstone of a breakout 12-month period. As the leading goal scorer at the 2003 Under-20 World Cup and in the 2004 MLS season (he tied San Jose's Brian Ching with 12), Johnson now has as many Golden Boots on his mantel as he does on his audaciously shod feet. "Eddie did well at the Under-20 World Cup, but [against Jamaica] I saw improvement in his technical ability and his first touch," says Gillhaus. "We intend to continue following him."
Small wonder that EJ, as he's known, left last Saturday for two weeks of training with Manchester United and, if talks pan out, another two weeks with PSV. "He's pretty damn good," said U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the Jamaica game. "Eddie has these physical qualities"--blazing speed and a muscular 6-foot, 180-pound frame--"that could make him excel at the international level. We often have guys who are athletic but not very good soccer players, or they're good soccer players but not very athletic. It looks like he has all those qualities. If he keeps his head, he's got a great future."
A former standout in the U.S. under-17 residency program, Johnson struggled after joining Dallas at age 17, averaging two goals and five starts over his first three seasons. Worse, he gained a reputation as a spoiled malcontent. "A lot of people thought I was a prima donna and a head case when I wasn't playing much," he says. "At times my way of handling things was to get mad and do stupid things on the field. My teammates were hard on me, but it was all about me gaining respect. It took me 21/2 years to realize they were just trying to help."
Nobody in Dallas has had a greater impact on Johnson than assistant coach Brian Haynes, who let EJ move into his house three years ago and, after a year apart, demanded that Johnson move back in. "I didn't ask him, I told him," says Haynes. "Eddie had lost his focus and needed to get it back." Haynes treats Johnson like a second son, taking him out to family breakfasts on weekends and to church on Sundays with his wife, Jeanne, and children Jordan, 7, and Jonah, 5.
Haynes says he looks forward to having Johnson board again next year, and while that's the most likely scenario, a move to Europe in January isn't out of the question. Johnson has two years remaining on his MLS contract (which will pay him a little more than $100,000 next season), and a transfer would likely fetch between $2 million and $3 million. For now Johnson just hopes to play a significant role for the U.S. next year in the final round of World Cup regional qualifying. "I'm certainly not putting him back in the closet," Arena cracks.
At the rate Johnson is scoring, they may have to add new soccer fields to go with the one that's already named after him in his hometown of Bunnell, Fla. "This year the field got lights," his mother, Lewanna, says proudly. "There are a lot of people supporting it." The same could be said for its namesake.