WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2014 — There are two things to know about D.C. United’s Eddie Johnson. First he is a talented soccer player and second, he has a reputation.
There is no doubt that Johnson, 29, is one of the best players in Major League Soccer. Last season he scored 14 goals with the Seattle Sounders, earning the “Comeback Player Award,” and this season, he notched a team-high nine goals in a tumultuous year at the club.
At the same time, it is common knowledge that Johnson has had some bust ups with coaches over the years. It is interesting to note, but a player like Clint Dempsey, who has been in a number of fist fights with teammates in his career, appears to get a pass. Time is a great healer. Maybe Dempsey’s issues were long ago.
Johnson, Seattle’s second all-time goal scorer, was getting paid $156,333 last season. When Clint Dempsey arrived at the club mid-season after successful career in England, he landed a huge yearly pay check of $5 million.
Johnson thought he should be earning more for his efforts. After celebrating a game-winning goal near the end of the season he mouthed the words, “Pay me,” on the sidelines. His display was probably not the wisest in a league where beggars cannot be choosers. At the end of the season, Johnson was traded from the biggest club in MLS, to D.C. United, last year’s worst team.
Since the trade, Johnson’s reputation has been brought up by reporters in interviews. Is this fair?
Do reporters bring up Dempsey’s past? Has he been forgiven? Wasn’t it Dempsey who punched out his team captain, Joe Franchino, during a training session with the New England Revolution back in 2006. Franchino was left with a swollen eye and missed key games. Dempsey was suspended for two weeks. And this was not Dempsey’s first scuffle with a player on his club. Teammates had to break up a fight between Dempsey and Pat Noonan on the practice field back in October 2004 days before a crucial playoff game.
Dempsey’s huge pay check at Seattle is certainly deserved. He scored 50 goals in 184 games in the Premier League with Fulham, while Johnson’s overseas venture with the same club proved unproductive. He would not be the first American player to have a tough time overseas. That said, Johnson played quite well at Cardiff. Johnson returned to MLS in 2012 and redeemed himself.
Dempsey has yet to find his old form since returning to MLS this summer after scoring seven goals in 29 games with Tottenham.
As for his work on the U.S. national team, Johnson earned five goals in nine games last year, and unless he blows it, he has an excellent chance of being on the plane with his old friend Dempsey headed for the World Cup in Brazil.
Johnson was labeled by some as prima donna earlier in his MLS career.
From the beginning, he did not have it easy. He grew up with a single mom in a housing project not far from Daytona Beach, Fla. As a kid, he hung out with the wrong crowd, but soccer saved him from gangs and drugs. He was mentored by his youth and high school coach Bob Sawyer.
As a young soccer player, he had size, speed and dribbling skills. He could hold the ball up well; was a good header, and was soon spotted by the U.S. national team program. At 17, he was drafted by the Dallas Burn and over five seasons scored 24 goals in 84 games. In 2004, he was picked to join the U.S. national team and in his first four games, he scored six goals. Johnson became the first US player to score three goals as a substitute.
Due to salary cap issues, in 2006 he was traded to the Kansas City Wizards. Later in the year, at age 22, he was the youngest member of the U.S. World Cup team.
His 2006 season with Kansas City, however, was littered with spats with coaches and he managed just two goals in 19 games. He was suspended by interim coach Brian Bliss for two games and got into a shouting match with assistant coach John Cone at a practice game. He later had a better relationship with Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo. In 2007, he rebounded with help from a mental and conditioning coach and earned 15 goals.
That success later earned him a $4 million transfer to Fulham in England and the beginning of a difficult period.
Dempsey, who like Johnson had a tough childhood growing on a trailer park in of Nacogdoches, Texas, seems to have shaken off his bad boy reputation while Johnson’s reputations lingers. That said, Johnson has an opportunity to prove his detractors wrong by leading United into the playoffs this year. A fresh start is always good. Eddie has a great chance to prove a point. We wish him well.
John Haydon wrote a weekly soccer column for The Washington Times for 20 years. He has covered two World Cups and written about Major League Soccer from the league’s inception in 1996. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnahaydon or email [email protected]