Ryan Johnson's incredible journey from Portland to Seoul
Europe is the dream destination for most U.S.-based soccer players looking to make their fortune. Not for Ryan Johnson, though.
After playing for five MLS teams, most recently with the Portland Timbers in 2013, plus Osters IF in Sweden, Johnson played in the Chinese Super League in 2014 with Henan Jianye and has just joined Seoul E-Land FC in South Korea. He will be performing under former Vancouver Whitecaps coach Martin Rennie at the club. Seoul E-Land, sponsored by a franchising company in the capital city, will be making its debut in the second division K-League Challenge.
"I'm someone who likes to take a risk and likes to see the world," Johnson told ESPN FC recently from his home in Boston. "I enjoyed Asia and I always wanted to go [there].
"I don't know if I would encourage more guys to do it but I'm just somebody who kind of moves to my own beat. I don't really follow what other people do, I like experiencing new things. I pursued this opportunity and I'm happy with that experience."
Johnson earned about $300,000, double his MLS salary (listed at $144,000 by the MLS Players Union in 2013), when he moved from the Timbers to China last year, helping newly promoted club Henan Jianye, based in the city of Zhengzhou, remain in the first division. Avoiding relegation on the final day of the season, the club finished just a point above the two clubs that suffered the drop. Johnson decided to take a slight pay cut to accept a two-year contract in South Korea, but will still earn significantly more than his MLS salary, according to agent Patrick McCabe.
Johnson explained that his decision to play in South Korea was inspired by a training camp trip to the country with his CSL club.
"We trained in [South Korea] and I loved my time there, it was calm and nicely organized there," Johnson said recently. "We were in Ulsan and Busan and I said I would enjoy coming back some time in the future. And then the opportunity presented itself. It's a place where you say to yourself you would love to play here someday, and fortunately, it happened."
Johnson might be opening doors for other U.S.-based players as few previously have made the move to Asia. Jeffrey Yu played in South Korea for Ulsan Hyundai FC in 2000-01 while Lyle Martin played in China for three clubs (Shaanxi Chan-Ba, Hubei Greenery and Beijing Baxy) in 2010-11.
"At some points, it's very similar to playing in the States," Johnson said of the Chinese Super League. "You fly to every game. There's no driving, depending on what region you're in."
While the travel might be comparable to his time in MLS, Johnson says that the level of competition in the CSL isn't as physically grueling as the North American top flight.
"The playing level, the majority of players aren't as athletic as players in America," he said. "It's a little easier, not as physically demanding, but there are a couple players on every team you have to deal with.
"I enjoyed it. We really fought to stay up. I feel like if I was put into a [top] team like Guangzhou or Beijing I would have scored more goals (Johnson totaled four goals in 28 games)."
In MLS, Johnson never dealt with a relegation battle but in China, he experienced the pressure of keeping a team up.
"The way it came down to the last game, the last point, all the battles we went through during the season -- every situation you can think of happened," Johnson recalled. "The team was able to stay up because everyone really fought for every point. We beat the top four teams at some point[s] in the season, and that just shows there was a lot going on."
Off the field, Johnson felt like a stranger in a foreign land. From dining to his social experience, the forward had to adjust.
"People were fascinated seeing me and my family in China," Johnson said. "In Beijing they are used to foreigners but where I lived, in Henan, they were not used to it.
"The native food is pretty difficult for someone to get used to. You can find markets that sell American products but they definitely inflate the prices. There are Western hotels and they have really great food there. You figure out ways of surviving. I found one Western bar-restaurant where the English teachers go, but it took me six months before I found it. Those places exist, you just have to search for them."
Still, getting used to new cultures is something that Johnson has done throughout his life. His journeying started when he was a 2-year-old, his family moving from Kingston, Jamaica, to Boston, where his father, David, worked in construction and played on local amateur soccer teams.
Johnson learned from his father to use size and strength in combination with a soft touch, enabling him to excel as a winger or hold-up striker. Johnson never received a call-up from the U.S. national team and decided to play for his native Jamaica, converting a goal in his international debut, a 2-1 loss to the Diego Maradona-coached Argentina in 2010.
So the next stop is Seoul, which represents a new experience for Johnson.
"Seoul has even more international business going on, there will always be a lot of foreigners there and people are used to foreigners, compared to how it was in China," Johnson said. "But it's the same if you get traded in MLS -- you go to a city, you don't know anybody. But you get to know people and you get used to it.
"I take things a year at a time, two years at a time and, before I know it, it might be time to retire in four or five years. I'm fortunate I haven't had serious injuries, so I want to keep continuing my journey."