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Figuring out the curious case of Eddie Johnson

A World Cup year seems an inopportune time for a player to take up residency with a different club.

There are new teammates and coaches with whom to become acquainted, and there are no guarantees that any semblance of chemistry or success will be achieved. How all this might impact said player’s international prospects is an open question.

But just a few days prior to the U.S national team’s match with the Korea Republic, Eddie Johnson appeared unperturbed by such a scenario. Never mind the tumultuous end to the 2013 campaign, when Seattle shipped Johnson east to D.C. United, amid whispers that he was at the center of the Sounders’ chemistry problems. On this day, the U.S. international was all confidence, despite the abdominal pull that would ultimately limit him to 30 substitute minutes a couple of days later.

“Every time I step on the field, I feel like I’m the best, whether it’s in a training session here with the national team, or if it’s back in D.C. with my club team,” he said. “You have to be like that. Who wants to be second best to anybody? That’s my whole approach. And it takes coaches believing in you. Jurgen [Klinsmann], he’s believing in me, he’s given me call-ups, and every call-up I’ve responded well. I’m just trying to build on that trust that I’ve created with him.”

Yet in talking to Johnson, as well as several former coaches and teammates, the multiple, sometimes conflicting aspects of his personality emerge. Unbeknownst to many, Johnson has a deep well of generosity. Former teammate and current D.C. United scout Kurt Morsink recalled the time when a teammate in Kansas City who was on a developmental contract -- a deal that paid just $12,900 per year at the time -- had just suffered a death in family, and didn’t have any money with which to help out.

“Eddie just straight up gave him $400,” Morsink said. “He just said, ‘Here you go, man, I know it’s a time of need. Take it.’ He did stuff like that all the time.”

Former Kansas City teammate Jimmy Conrad tells a similar story of how Johnson showered him with gifts following the birth of Conrad’s daughter.

“These were not just any gifts, but really thoughtful things that my best friends weren’t even doing,” said Conrad. “You find out pretty quickly that Eddie has got a big heart.”

The contrast with what was coming out of Seattle around the time that Johnson was traded is striking. In some circles, Johnson is painted as the American Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a talented but temperamental striker, albeit on a smaller scale. One former teammate described Johnson as “un-coachable” and that manager Sigi Schmid was left with little choice but to trade Johnson. Otherwise he risked losing the entire team.

“There were times when Johnson was sitting in the locker room talking so that everybody could hear,” said one Seattle source who asked not to be identified. “He would say, ‘How am I supposed to score if these terrible players can’t get me the ball, if they can’t put a cross in? I’m a goal scorer. I score goals. But I can’t do it if these guys are s---. And how is this guy making so much money? He’s s---. I’m so much better than him.’ That’s a real quality individual.”

“Johnson puts up some walls,” Conrad added. “There’s a trust factor that comes into play, and it takes awhile to earn his trust. And there’s times where he can get a little emotional and probably say things he likely regrets later.”

Trust -- and at times the lack of it -- has featured prominently in Johnson’s life. One could make the argument that it’s something all players need, but Johnson’s psyche seems to be hyperaware of its absence or presence and his upbringing plays a significant factor in this.

Growing up in a crime-ridden area of Bunnell, Fla., Johnson was rarely in contact with his father, Edward, who served in the U.S. military, and is now a pastor. The U.S. international recalled how his stepfather sold drugs, so it was left to Johnson’s mother, Lewanna, to raise him and his two siblings almost completely on her own.

“It was always, Mom got off work at 5:30 and we had to be home from the gym by 6:00,” said Johnson. “She’d say, ‘Don’t let dark catch you, because if dark catches you I’m going to spank that butt.’ She was real strict, and it had to be that way.”

But Johnson benefited immensely from the bond he forged with his club coach, Bob Sawyer. Sawyer’s son, Dustin, knew Johnson from a summer camp, and the elder Sawyer later spotted him playing for the opposing team -- as a defender. Sawyer invited Johnson to play with his club as guest player and he later joined the team full time. In the process, Sawyer tried to provide a semblance of stability in Johnson’s life.

“I tried to get him out of the there as much as I could,” Sawyer said about Johnson’s neighborhood. “I used to make excuses for him to come stay with us, even if we didn’t have a game. I would say, ‘Hey Ed, we’re going to the beach today. You want to come?’ He’d always say yes. We did a lot of social things together too besides soccer.”

Sawyer was merely the first of several coaches who tried to fill the parental void. John Ellinger provided that support when Johnson attended the residency program for the U.S. U-17 national team. Brian Haynes was next during his time as an assistant coach in Dallas. Later, then-manager Curt Onalfo provided guidance after Johnson was traded to Kansas City and had endured some lean seasons.

Onalfo is perhaps the coach to get the most out of Johnson, and it is no accident that his prior relationship with the player when he was an assistant on the U.S. national team helped set the stage for the most prolific period in the player’s career, when he scored 15 goals in 25 games in 2007.

“I think there was enormous trust between Johnson and I,” Onalfo said. “I think that was really helpful. I just spent a lot of time managing him, and giving him attention. And he thrived. He scored a lot of goals, he was dangerous, he played well. I think that trust and having that prior relationship was instrumental.”

The demands of such an approach can be wearing, however. There are typically 29 other players on a squad. Is it really worth it to invest that much time in one player at the expense of everyone else? Then there is the question of whether at age 29, Johnson should need that amount of attention.

“They call us managers for a reason, because we manage lives,” said Haynes, who most recently managed in the NASL with the Atlanta Silverbacks. “I think as Johnson has gotten older, he’s tried to do more of it on his own, but for me, he still needs that father figure in his life and it comes in the way of a coach.”

The extent to which that attention and trust was present in Seattle varied over time. After a largely barren three-year spell in Europe, Johnson was at a point in his career where he had plenty to prove, and his first year with the Sounders was successful, with the U.S. forward scoring 14 goals in 28 appearances. It was these performances that got Johnson on Klinsmann’s radar, and his two-goal performance against Antigua $amp; Barbuda in a World Cup qualifier proved vital in allowing the U.S. to claim a 2-1 win and ultimately progression into the final round Hexagonal. Later in qualifying, he scored the opener in a 2-0 win over Mexico that clinched qualification.

Yet all the while, Johnson was beginning to chafe under the $150,000 per year contract that he signed upon returning to MLS. And when the club signed Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey to Designated Player contracts last year, Johnson’s frustrations began to get the better of him. His infamous “pay me” goal celebration during an Aug. 31 match in Columbus certainly raised some eyebrows, and he was later barred from an October practice by Schmid because of insubordination. When Seattle imploded to finish the season, a lot of fingers were pointed at Johnson.

Schmid insisted that none of this was that big a deal. He praised Johnson’s play, and maintained that his departure from Seattle was largely cap related. As far as his getting kicked out of practice, Schmid related how current Seattle assistant Ezra Hendrickson used to get kicked out of practice at least once a year during his playing career, so the fact that it happened to Johnson wasn’t an issue. The problem according to Schmid was that Seattle ended up with too many players who need to get lots of touches, and that tended to kill the team’s attacking rhythm.

“The group in general, the mix wasn’t quite right,” Schmid said. “I think that held us back a little bit. But it wasn’t pinpointed onto one individual. I think a lot of people are trying to read into that with Johnson, and are making a mistake about that.”

But those close to Johnson paint a slightly different picture.

“I think it was [the money] Clint came in and made that unsettled Eddie, not because of Clint the person,” Haynes said. “That unsettled Eddie from the standpoint of, ‘OK dude, I’ve been doing the job here. Where’s my piece of the pie?’ I understand what he meant, but don’t think it was the time.”

Johnson makes no apologies for the celebration, insisting that it was “in the moment.” And it is important to also mention that Dempsey and he have been friends for years and remain that way. But eventually he admitted he was dissatisfied with his treatment by Seattle management with regards to his contract. The trust that is so vital to his existence was gone.

“When you come out publicly and say you’re going to take care of someone and it doesn’t happen, how do you expect that person to deal with that when they’ve been there for two years?” he said. “I did the business on the field at the end of the day. I just feel like there were things that were said to me that they didn’t go forward with.”

As for his critics, like his anonymous one-time teammate, Johnson is unimpressed.

“Growing up where I grew up, I’ve never been one to look for excuses,” he said. “I always put my chest out and own up to my lessons and experiences like a man. So whoever is pointing the finger at me, and looking for the easy way out, they have to look at themselves in the mirror. I did everything they asked me to do besides win MLS Cup, and one man can’t win MLS Cup.”

Now Johnson finds himself in a situation similar to his time in Kansas City. Johnson will clearly be the focal point of the attack, and can be counted on to score goals, assuming United’s reconfigured midfield will provide him with enough service. Johnson also knows United manager Ben Olsen from his time on the national team, specifically the 2006 World Cup team. And Olsen sounds like a manager willing to give Johnson a clean slate.

“Until I start seeing otherwise, I’m not interested in talking about the Eddie of the past and how I’m going to deal with it,” Olsen said. “I’ll deal with issues with players when they arise, the same way I’ve done the last three and a half years, and that’s being upfront and honest and expecting guys to do what they’re capable of doing. And I know Eddie is very capable of being one of the best players in this league.”

Indeed he can, and with the World Cup just four months away, Johnson will be as motivated as he ever has been to produce. The U.S. striker is keen to repay the faith that Klinsmann has placed in him, lauding the German’s steady stream of positive feedback. He’s eager to do the same for Olsen. If those scenarios come to pass, then without question, Johnson will receive the rewards -- both in terms of money and trust -- that he has long been seeking.