BY DAVE MARTINEZ
It has been a long and winding road back to the National team for Eddie Johnson.
Once considered the next great American forward, the 28-year-old striker has since seen his career come to a near halt as four nomadic years in Europe and an unsuccessful jaunt with Puebla FC of Liga MX derailed his progress. Confidence became a clear issue, and the lack of playing time only compounded his woes.
Nearly a year since his confounding stay South of the Border, Johnson finds himself amongst Major League Soccer’s top goal scorers with 14 tallies over 26 games. A change of scenery, a return home, some self improvement and a supportive Sounders staff have brought him back to the place where his career took off – the U.S. National Team.
“I’m 28 years old now,” Johnson said. “I’m a lot more mature. I’m a student of the game and you can never stop learning the game. My biggest thing, and a sports psychologist told me, ‘Eddie, you’re your own enemy.’ Sometimes I think I put too much pressure on myself and it shows in my game. (But) 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.”
“I think as you get older you get smarter as a player,” he said. “You are always learning as a soccer player. I think my time in Europe, I always told myself ‘man, the game is simple at the end of the day but sometimes you over think things and make the game harder than it really is.’”
Johnson’s road to rebuilding began after his failed attempt to sign with Puebla FC. Looking to get back to his roots, he sought the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida to physically – and mentally – prepare for his next big move; another run at MLS.
“When you are not having confidence, you don’t believe in yourself, playing at this level, it has a lot to do with self confidence, belief in your own ability, and trusting in what got you to where you are,” he said. “I lacked a lot of confidence when I went over to Europe. That’s why I was on loan spells, in and out of teams.”
The added focus has helped him get noticed at a critical time. Jurgen Klinsmann made headlines this week by not selecting red-hot AZ striker Jozy Altidore to join the team for their critical World Cup qualifying matches. With Landon Donovan and Brek Shea unavailable due to injury, Johnson suddenly becomes a focal figure for the U.S. just as he was so many years ago.
“I’ve always talked about setting goals for yourself and writing your goals down and looking over them and visualizing them and I said I just want to put myself in positions to put in goals, work hard and be hard to play against,” Johnson explained. “I talked about being consistent this year. I want to be as consistent as I can be. When you are consistent, you keep your starting spot, and your team does well, and when your team does well, everything else is a bonus.
“I think there’s always doubt at some time in your career when things aren’t going well. There are always perceptions of you that are out there from other people in the soccer world. I think the biggest thing going on in my corner is having a coach of German background,” he said with a laugh. “Sigi (Schmid) told me when I first arrived in Seattle that he had a very good relationship Jurgen and if I was doing the 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. “
Johnson held up to his side of the bargain. Most recently, that new found skill and confidence was center stage as the returning National team striker found the back of the net in an overall strong performance against the Portland Timbers.
“Just believe in yourself,” he said. “The thing is that the talent doesn’t go anywhere; it’s about the desire, the willingness to get back to the top
“When the talent is there, yo get around the right people … good things happen.”