Sunday, November 11, 2012
A man on a mission
By Richard Farley
SEATTLE -- Eddie Johnson still wasn't comfortable. He'd been in Seattle for three months, but after nine MLS games failed to produce a breakout, the former Fulham striker was still uneasy in his new surroundings. You could see it in the body language he used to address the media following Seattle's 2-0 loss at home to the Columbus Crew on May 5.
He was calm and polite, yet also cautious, still not at ease with his surroundings. His head appeared to snap, defensive ahead of each question. The press and blogs had already started writing about old attitude concerns, issues in the locker room, training ground punch-ups -- the type of soft-grounded criticisms that are recycled during a nine-month season. At any time, anyone could bring up his modest start (three goals), the price Seattle paid to get him (Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito) or the lingering perceptions from his spells in Dallas and Kansas City.
The Sounders' worst performance of the year made probes more likely. Answering questions after a goalless performance, Johnson defaulted the typical aphorisms -- cliches athletes use to mitigate disappointment: "on another day those shots go in ... at the end of the day ... it's just a matter of us putting them in the back of the net." As Crash Davis would have him say, "Sometimes football is like that" even if months later, he was finally able to admit what was really wrong.
Fast forward to a July day in Tukwila, home of Seattle's Starfire Sports Complex. The day before a friendly at CenturyLink field against Chelsea, the Sounders' practice is more open then usual.
Johnson spends the session with Osvaldo Alonso. The two take slow laps around the field -- jogging, stretching, talking -- as the rest of the team breaks off for a scrimmage. There's no evidence of attitude problems. If there was ever tension between him and Fredy Montero, they'd put it aside. In the days before the All-Star Game (which Johnson and Alonso will attend), the team is in preseason mode.
As players break off to talk to reporters, Johnson slowly walks across one of the practice fields, carrying none of the tension he had after that May loss to Columbus. He's found his form. It's his turn to carry the team.
"I'm going to beat my 15 I scored in Kansas City," Johnson says, smiling. "I feel good. Physically, mentally, spiritually ... I'm looking forward to the second half of the season."
This is one of the rare moments in which Johnson sounds like a professional athlete. Most of the time Johnson's head is down, comfortably considering questions before staring at a children's playground in the distance, using the anachronism to channel a newfound zen.
"The past is the past. In soccer, it's all about what you're doing now. Eddie Johnson four years ago? That already happened. ... One thing me and my sports psychologist [talk about] is being relevant. It's about what are you doing right now."
Philosophical and vulnerable, Johnson can be honest about his early-season mindset.
"Being a part of the team early ... I was still trying to find myself, find my form, find my way within the team, play within the team. It was a bit inconsistent in the beginning."
It's more introspection than you'd expect from somebody who was once Brian McBride's heir apparent, somebody for whom the past three and a half years read like a typical too-much, too-soon scenario.
By the time he was 24, Johnson was a World Cup veteran and a regular on the national team, accumulating 42 caps before being left off the squad for South Africa 2010. The omission coincided with a downturn in his professional career that left him splitting five seasons between England's Premier League, the Football Championship and the Greek Super League.
Now 28, Johnson is honest about what derailed his career.
"When you're young and, in my case, when you're fortunate enough to earn a good living ... you're not used to dealing with [setbacks]," Johnson explained at the high point of his comeback, his October recall to the national team. "When you're earning money like that, you start living a certain lifestyle that's really not you. ... It took me a while to grow up from that standpoint."
Johnson wasn't right on the field, either, scoring only seven goals over four seasons. "I know it wasn't a success for me going to the EPL, but I learned a lot as a player."
Those lessons almost cost Johnson his career. After the 2010-11 season at Fulham, he was free to move wherever he wanted, but when a deal with Puebla in Mexico fell through, it was unclear where Johnson could turn.
Luckily, there was a team in MLS that needed him as much as he needed them, because for all the success Seattle has had over its first three years, the team had a woeful record with No. 9s. In the team's six playoff games before Johnson arrived, Sigi Schmid partnered Montero with Nate Jaqua, Blais N'Kufo, Sammy Ochoa and Mike Fucito, a quartet with a combined 52 goals in 257 league appearances. It's an acceptable strike rate for an attacking midfielder -- not the tip of an MLS Cup contender's attack.
It was a confounding flaw for a team that had no trouble finding talent at other positions. Seattle had plucked Osvaldo Alonso out of the United Soccer Leagues, brought Kasey Keller back from Europe, lured Freddy Ljundberg from England and brought Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Fredy Montero in from Colombia. More recently, Mauro Rosales was lured from River Plate. All six have contenders for MLS Best XI spots, yet the likes of Fucito were left starting postseason elimination matches.
That history and Johnson's raw skill set -- an MLS-elite combination of size, speed and skill -- made the former Cottager a perfect fit. That two members of Seattle's staff -- technical director Chris Henderson and fitness coach Dave Tenney -- could vouch for Johnson from their Kansas City days sealed the deal.
"When [Henderson and Tenney] reached out to me this past offseason and said, 'Sigi would like to bring you to Seattle,' I knew I was going to be with a positive group," Johnson said. "People that believed in me and know what I'm capable of doing. I thank them for bringing me here."
That gratitude has been a recurring theme for Johnson.
"What's going on here in Seattle is that [I] know this team has sacrificed a lot for me," Johnson said. "My next thing was going in and trying to win over the fans, paying the coaches and the organization back for acquiring me, and just working hard ... you work hard, and positive things happen."
By the end of the season that hard work had paid off in 14 goals, a franchise record. His 16 all-competition goals were a personal high, and although he missed the first game of Seattle's conference semifinals series with Real Salt Lake, Johnson helped the Sounders to a playoff win at Rio Tinto Stadium, the first in franchise history.
"Belief in yourself," Johnson said just before the playoffs when asked to explain his amazing 2012. "Talent doesn't go anywhere. It's about the desire, the willingness to get back to the top. Elite athletes, the great players in the world -- they go through ups and downs ... when you're with the right people, good things happen."
On Sunday, Johnson and his "right people" look to continue a storybook 2012 against the defending champion L.A. Galaxy. The only thing that might top franchise records, all-star appearances and national team recalls might be an MLS Cup.
Richard Farley is a freelance writer based in the Northwest covering MLS and European soccer. You can reach him on Twitter at @richardfarley or via email at email@example.com.