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Dec 8, 2005

The long road back

Six months ago, when most U.S. fans dreamed of next summer's World Cup, it surely included Eddie Johnson scoring a bucket-load of goals, and taking the Yanks beyond the lofty heights they reached in 2002. How quickly times -- and dreams -- can change.

The ensuing months have been about as kind to Johnson as Terrell Owens has been to Donovan McNabb. A stress fracture in Johnson's foot, which he sustained in May, was thought to have healed by August. But a recurrence of the injury wiped out the rest of his MLS season, casting doubt on the role he will play next summer.

Adding to Johnson's woes was a series of rumors that portrayed him in a less than flattering light. First, it was alleged that the Dallas forward had injured his foot by kicking a water cooler upon being substituted in a league match. Then there were the whispers that the petulant behavior that plagued his early years in MLS had resurfaced, which in turn led Johnson to be offered as trade bait around the league, with no takers.

Rumors aside, the brutal truth is that the just-completed MLS season was the most trying of Johnson's career.

"It's been a crazy six months," Johnson says. "Just trying to come back and then getting injured again. From a mental standpoint, it got a little tough."

Back in May, such trials seemed miles away. The U.S. international was banging in goals for both club and country, and his power, speed, and nose for goal had fans dreaming of bigger things than the U.S.'s quarterfinal finish in 2002. It marked Johnson's best run of form since he turned professional in 2001.

"It was like being in the zone in any other sport, like in basketball when you're shooting a bunch of 3s and you know that no matter how you throw it up, it's going in," Johnson says. "That's where I was. Anything that I touched in the box, whether it was with the national team or FC Dallas, the ball went in."

But a tussle with then Chivas USA defender Ryan Suarez on May 22 -- and not the aforementioned water cooler -- saw the Daytona Beach, Fla., native sustain a fracture of the first metatarsal, forcing him to the sidelines. An aborted comeback attempt in late summer revealed that the fracture, which was originally on the top of the bone, had reappeared in the bottom. This was an indication that Johnson had altered his running style to compensate for the pain.

It was at this point that the decision was made to shut him down for the rest of the season. It was just as well, because Johnson's play wasn't impressing anyone, and with good reason.

"I could never hit my [top] gear," Johnson says. "If I got played a ball that was short and in close to me, I could deal with that fine. But anything like me checking and then making my runs over the top, I could never hit my top gear, and that was allowing defenders to keep up with me. It wasn't the normal me."

Off the field, things weren't much better, and the rumblings that Johnson wasn't handling his setback well began in earnest. It coincided with a horrid stretch for the club that included a 10-game winless streak, but according to Dallas head coach Colin Clarke, Johnson wasn't the only one feeling exasperated.

"It was a very frustrating time," Clarke said. "It was during a period where we weren't having the best time of it as a team. [Johnson] wanted to get back and help. But it just wasn't a good time for anybody."

While Johnson states that he wasn't fazed by the trade rumors surrounding him, he does admit that he was tested by the ongoing saga of the injury, and that assistant coach and mentor Brian Haynes helped him pull through.

"At first, [the injury] almost got to me," Johnson says. "But I would sit down and I would talk to [Haynes], and I realized all good things come to an end. They don't last forever. That was kind of how I looked at it. But it's made me more focused just in terms of getting in the gym and doing what I have to do to get ready for '06 and the World Cup."

Along those lines, it appears as though Johnson has finally turned the corner in his rehab. Following an eight-week period in which his foot was immobilized, the FC Dallas forward says he is pain free, and he has returned to running and cutting. Next week, he will don cleats for the first time since the end of his season, and he'll begin touching the ball again. The hope is that he'll be in some semblance of shape by the time the national team training camp in January rolls around.

Johnson's lack of on-field activity makes one wonder if the foot will hold up when his physical demands are increased, especially given the fickle nature of his injury. But Johnson is confident that his current training regimen, as well as new orthotics designed to compensate for his flat feet, will prevent the injury from coming back.

Of course, getting back on the field is one thing. A return to the scintillating form of last year is another, and that is what it will likely take to get on the field in Germany. To that end, Johnson acknowledges that regaining his timing and touch on the ball won't happen right away.

"I'm not going to be at my sharpest come January," Johnson says. "It's just getting repetitions. The more I go in every day and try to get myself better, the more it's going to be a plus for me."

Fortunately for Johnson, players like Brian Ching and Taylor Twellman haven't exactly set the world on fire with their recent international performances, so even if Johnson is playing at less than his best, he figures to be on the final roster that heads to Germany. But with Brian McBride enjoying an excellent spell at Fulham, and Landon Donovan finding his best form in the MLS playoffs, Johnson is far from a shoo-in to garner a starting role next summer. It's a circumstance he understands and accepts.

"Nothing is ever promised," Johnson says. "I know that come January and leading up to the World Cup, Bruce [Arena] wants guys who are in their best form. It doesn't matter what I did back in the past. It only matters what I'm doing now. That's my whole focus right now. So I'm not putting any pressure on myself because I can only control what I can control."

Given Johnson's undeniable talent, it stands to reason that Arena will give him every opportunity to regain the scoring touch he displayed in qualifying. And if that happens, then maybe U.S. soccer fans will dare to dream once again.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com