Johnson still needs to mature

February 17, 2006
GalarcepBy Ives Galarcep
(Archive)

Here's the spin you have heard about Eddie Johnson's trade to Kansas City. FC Dallas needed to clear salary cap space, Johnson is going to miss a ton of matches this year because of U.S. national team duty and he's probably leaving MLS next season anyway, if not sooner. So Dallas parts ways with arguably one of the league's most exciting players and most valuable commodities for an allocation. You read that right, an allocation.

Johnson
WireImage / Scott WambsganssEddie Johnson: FC Dallas might have traded him due to concerns about his attitude.

What would possess a team to effectively give away one of the league's marquee players for what amounts to salary cap space? What you won't hear publicly is the tale of a kid who hasn't handled success well and has become a spoiled brat who burned his share of bridges in Dallas. This isn't one jealous person's account of Johnson, but the profile offered of him by more than a handful of soccer people who have dealt with him.

Nobody in Texas is in a hurry to tell that story, at least not publicly. Not when Hunt Sports Group owns both FC Dallas and Kansas City and not when everyone from Nike to U.S. Soccer has so much invested in the kid. You've probably read the marketing-driven stories that portray Johnson as a happy-go-lucky kid who couldn't possibly be a problem.

What you haven't read is the stories of a player who wasn't ready for the success and prosperity that fell on him like an avalanche in 2004 and early 2005, a player who started believing the press clippings and lost his way. Nobody has been willing to come forward with those stories publicly, at least not yet.

Having interviewed Johnson through the years, I've never gotten the sense that behind that playful smile was a kid with an ego problem. Sure, he started dropping third-person references after his breakout 2004 season, but you still got the impression that the kid who grew up on the rough streets of Bunnell, Fla., was still somewhere inside him. It is probably a bit unfair to not expect a player who went from 19-year-old prospect to 20-year-old national team star not to have his ego inflate just a bit. Maybe some have mistaken his brashness and cockiness for something worse.

What matters more to soccer fans than what kind of person Johnson has become is what kind of player he can still be. Is he really ready to be a star? American soccer fans can only hope that the change of scenery helps put Johnson back on track to stardom after losing nearly a year to injuries. Bruce Arena offered a telling quote about Johnson's move to Kansas City, telling the Los Angeles Times, "Having Eddie around some veteran leaders such as Josh Wolff, Kerry Zavagnin, Jimmy Conrad, specifically, I think is going to do nothing but good."

Why would a player who will be 22 when the season starts and who has been in the league for five years still need to be mentored? Does he simply have some growing up to do or does he need a full-blown attitude adjustment? Could it be that his handlers feared what might happen if Johnson were left to fend for himself in a place like New York City? If Johnson is as troublesome as some have suggested, then maybe Kansas City, with a handful of national team players and a former national team coach, is the place for him to be nurtured.

That explanation is far more palatable then one offered by The Kansas City Star. According to the Star, Johnson intimated that the cost of living in Kansas City also played a part in him preferring it to New York. Yes, Johnson, who makes more than $1 million between his salary and endorsements, decided that the money he'd save on rent and car insurance, for example, would make it worth his while to play in Kansas City. Maybe someone should have mentioned the financial value of the exposure and marketing opportunities that come with playing in the nation's biggest market. You know, the very things that make stars in every other major sport in this country dream of playing in the New York area.

What's next for Johnson now that he's found a new home? It might sound a little crazy, but missing out on the World Cup team might help his career more than making the team. Why? If he makes the team and plays some part in a good World Cup run, Johnson just might rest on his laurels and, if the stories about his inflated ego are true, he might just spiral out of control upon his return to MLS. He might decide he's too good for the league and he could rebel and morph into a problem child. Sound farfetched? The story should sound familiar, since Clint Mathis lived it just four years ago.

Now, imagine if Johnson didn't make the World Cup team. Could there be a better motivation? Johnson would see Bruce Arena's face on every defender and he would almost certainly have the hunger to match his success of 2004.

Based on Arena's comments earlier this week, Johnson isn't likely to have to endure that scenario. He will spend the next few months regaining his form and fighting to recapture his status as the hottest prospect in American soccer. He might still have some growing up to do, but Johnson will have every opportunity to make FC Dallas look foolish for letting him go too soon. His first chance comes on Sunday at where else but Pizza Hut Park in Dallas, when the U.S. national team plays Guatemala.

It was a busy week in American soccer circles. Here is a look at some of the other top stories:

U.S. manhandles Japan: Aside from knowing that the U.S. national team could hold its own in a B-team World Cup, what else have we learned from the recent friendlies? We learned that Taylor Twellman probably has a future in either the Norwegian First Division or Japan's J-League if he ever wants one. We learned that Eddie Pope isn't actually going to have to pay his own way to Germany just yet. We also learned that Johnson has recovered from his toe injury well enough to run away from the goal.

Twellman's recent success has surely increased his stock and moved him closer to a spot on Arena's roster, but it remains to be seen whether Twellman can excel against top-flight competition. He has certainly earned his chance to keep getting long looks in the coming months, but those clamoring for him to be a starter need to calm down.

I'm not a Twellman hater, just a bit of a cynic when it comes to his recent success and what it means to the World Cup roster. If anything, Twellman's rapid ascension on the list of potential forwards is just as much an indictment of the lack of depth the U.S. national team has at forward as it is proof of Twellman's talent.

If Arena is truly a believer, he will give Twellman a start against either Poland or Germany next month. If Twellman enjoys some success against a European A team, then I might consider asking Eric Wynalda for a seat on the Twellman bandwagon. For now, I'm still convinced that we will wind up seeing a McBride-Donovan forward tandem at the World Cup unless Johnson fully returns to form or injuries force Arena to move Donovan into the midfield.

Johnson should have his chance to show how much closer he is to being completely healthy when the U.S. team faces Guatemala on Sunday.

Guevara and Lalas reconcile: Amado Guevara and Alexi Lalas finally squashed their offseason war of words last week after Guevara finally reported to MetroStars training camp. Was the reconciliation genuine? Don't bet on it. If anything, the two finally realized that they weren't helping themselves by continuing the soap opera.

The problem now is the Metros may be out of options to trade Guevara. FC Dallas dealt Johnson to Kansas City (after the Metros balked at picking up a portion of Guevara's salary in a Johnson swap) and the only other team seriously interested, Chivas USA, doesn't have much it can offer aside from allocation money, which the Metros already have enough of. Never mind that Lalas must surely dread the idea of helping old buddy Bob Bradley build a powerhouse.

So what now? Guevara stays put and remains the team's playmaker, allowing French star Youri Djorkaeff to remain at forward. The Metros are still searching for a forward and are probably more desperate now than ever to acquire Edson Buddle from Columbus. The only problem with that is Buddle has enjoyed a stellar preseason and Crew coach Sigi Schmid is in no hurry to deal him. "The MetroStars really like him but we like him too," a coy Schmid said in Florida last week.

Landing Buddle appears even less likely now that the Metros are in talks with the Galaxy about a potential Eddie Gaven for Todd Dunivant swap. That move smells like a change in strategy from Mo Johnston, who may have no other choice but to find a forward on the foreign market after losing out on Johnson and probably Buddle.

Houston 1836 is nixed: MLS and the club formerly known as the Earthquakes finally acknowledged the error in their ways. The Houston franchise is reportedly ready to discard the proposed new name of Houston 1836 and replace it with Lone Stars.

What took them so long exactly? It was clear from day one that Houston 1836 was going to be a problem for a large section of the Latino community and we still had to endure weeks of foot dragging until officials finally caved under the deserved criticism.

The mix-up has served to remind us just how out of touch with Latino soccer fans MLS continues to be. Spare me the hokey marketing ploys (Futbolito anybody?) and failed attempts to sign high-profile Latino players. Where is the substance? Where is the organized effort to make Latino fans truly connect with this league? Please don't mention Chivas USA because the arrival of the Goats had more to do with wanting Jorge Vergara's money than it did with wanting to appeal to Latinos.

What is even sadder is that MLS, under its marketing arm SUM, does a better job of marketing the Interliga tournament and Mexican national team matches in the United States to U.S.-based Latino soccer fans than it does marketing MLS to those same fans. Does anyone else find that ridiculous?

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.