Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By JOSE M. ROMERO
TORONTO — After just two seasons in Major League Soccer, George John is playing for a league championship.
Not bad for a 23-year-old, late first-round Superdraft pick who has battled — and beaten — hamstring injuries over those two years.
John, a central defender for FC Dallas, will be one of those on center stage Sunday night in the MLS Cup final against Colorado. Not just because he's 6-foot-3, but because he'll be marking another imposing player, Rapids star forward Conor Casey.
That John is on the field is a small victory in itself. He's dealt with injuries to both hamstrings throughout the past two seasons. The most recent one, which happened after John started all of the team's first 22 games of the regular season, knocked him out of the next five games.
FC Dallas got John back in time for the postseason, and he has been a force in back ever since.
"I'm feeling good for the final," John said.
John has been enjoying the past few days in Toronto though he said the FC Dallas coaches have kept the players focused. The native of Shoreline, Wash. (north of Seattle) will have his family in the stands at BMO Field. Blood is thicker than rave green; John's parents are Sounders season-ticket holders but root for Dallas when their son is playing the hometown team.
"It's a very unique experience for someone my age," John said. "I'm taking it in stride. I'm very lucky to have this experience."
Like many of his teammates, John took a lot of confidence from the way FC Dallas finished the 2009 regular season, winning five of its last seven games but falling just short of the playoffs. He was able to start the last eight games of the season and played the most minutes of any FC Dallas player in preseason games this year.
"I came in stronger and I was leaner," he said. More importantly, John came into 2010 healthy, and while defenders don't get a lot of attention and appreciation for what they do, FCD goalkeeper Kevin Hartman praises those like John who are right in front of him.
"Obviously they're going to be putting their heads into situations and diving to make blocks on stuff," Hartman said. "They're very, very competitive. It's a lot of work to make sure you're prepared ahead of time so there's a lot of movement and analyzing the field that goes on.
"The people that really understand the game recognize very solid defenders, and I've been very fortunate this year to play with a group of eight to 10 defenders that have been unbelievable," Hartman added.
John was a two-time, first-team all-Pac 10 in college at Washington. He has proven himself in MLS and is still very young. Is a place on the U.S. national team the next goal to fulfill, with or without an MLS Cup victory Sunday?
"It's more of a question of if I'm on their radar," he said of U.S. Soccer. But he'd love the opportunity if called upon.
"Who wouldn't want to play for their country?" he said. "It's always in the back of your mind. I was never highly touted out of high school. It was more of step by step. It's a building process."