Johnson still finding his feet
As much as the fortunes of the U.S. World Cup team rest on the hamstring of Claudio Reyna and every one of John O'Brien's leg muscles, there may be no player who could swing the team's success in Germany more than Eddie Johnson.
Johnson looked the part on Sunday but didn't exactly play the part. For every promising gallop, there was a botched scoring chance. For every attempt at beating Latvia's offside trap, there was a linesman with a flag to punish the young striker for being just a bit lazy.
This has become the routine for the frustrated masses waiting for Johnson to regain his golden touch. Every scoring chance draws deep breaths and cheers, followed by the groans that come with another mishit shot and poorly timed run.
The crowd in East Hartford seemed to understand the importance of Johnson regaining his lost scoring touch, raising their voices every time it seemed like he might snap his scoring drought. Their moans of disappointment grew louder with every missed opportunity and at one point you could see the frustration on Johnson's face and in his body language.
To Johnson's credit, he kept pushing on and kept trying. He kept making runs and showed some flashes of the skill that had European clubs sizing him up just a year ago. It was those moments, when he sprinted effortlessly through midfield and when he moved toward the penalty area with purpose, that would tease the crowd into thinking something special would happen.
If anything, the crowd's overreaction to some of Johnson's successful moves, a dummy on one sequence and a couple of well-placed lateral passes, served as a reminder of how long its been since he has done anything of real impact. All at once, the crowd at Rentschler Field sounded like a concerned parent trying to will Johnson into scoring a goal.
Johnson's performance on Sunday was still enough to draw praise from U.S. coach Bruce Arena for the second straight match. As Arena credited Johnson with being effective, save for the lack of a goal, you had to wonder how much of Arena's praise was an attempt to lift the spirits of a young forward who confessed earlier this week that he is still trying to build up his confidence.
Arena realizes what is at stake. A confident and motivated Johnson could wreak havoc on a Czech Republic defense that is more vulnerable than some critics realize. Johnson's physical attributes could also test Italy's technically astounding defenders, who will almost always be in the right position, but are still vulnerable to the inspired play of an athlete like Johnson. This is all assuming Johnson can regain his scoring touch, a big assumption based on his recent struggles to find the net.
There are options other than Johnson, but none are quite as appealing or practical for the U.S. lineup. There is no other player on the American roster with Johnson's combination of speed and aerial prowess, a combination that makes him a dream partner for Brian McBride.
Donovan is also a very attractive option alongside McBride, but his role in the lineup hinges on other factors. Donovan didn't play a single minute at forward during the tour, but that was due in large part to the shaky health status of Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien during the week.
Donovan has shown in MLS that he can still work his magic up front, but it remains to be seen whether Arena will need him in midfield. If Reyna and O'Brien are healthy, Arena could afford to play Donovan at forward. There may be no bigger IF in U.S. Soccer.
And the team's other forwards? As impressive as Brian Ching was this week, he is too similar to Brian McBride to be considered a potential strike partner with him. Josh Wolff has struggled to find the net almost as much as Johnson has, and Arena might be considering using him in midfield in order to capitalize on his speed and underrated passing ability.
This leaves the onus on Johnson to take advantage of his World Cup opportunity much the same way DaMarcus Beasley and Donovan did in South Korea four years ago. The stage is set for him to become the star he appeared destined to become when he was scoring goals in bunches just 15 months ago.
If Johnson shines, the U.S. national team's World Cup will last beyond the group stage. If Johnson's World Cup consists of missed chances and an eventual spot on the bench, the Group of Death will feel just a little more deadly, and the chances of the U.S. team surviving will be just a little less likely.
What else did we learn during the U.S. team's three-match tour? Brian McBride is still reliable, John O'Brien is still a deadly accurate passer, Oguchi Onyewu is still a beast and Bobby Convey really has made the jump into the national team's elite level of attacking players.
There were more bright spots than disappointments this week, but there are certainly causes for concern. O'Brien and Reyna both suffered slight injuries, reminding us that their presence on the field is no guarantee come June. Their injuries also reminded us that without them, the U.S. team's technical level drops considerably.
One development that drew less attention than it should have is the loss of Cory Gibbs. His injury will impact the roster far beyond the mere loss of one of the team's most athletic defenders. Gibbs was the one player on the roster capable of being an above average option as a left back in a 3-5-2 formation. Eddie Lewis and Carlos Bocanegra are the team's top left back options, but both are better suited in a 4-4-2, making a three-man back line less likely once the tournament begins.
No player on the roster made as good an impression this week than Convey. His ability to pressure defenses from the left flank, both on the dribble and with his pinpoint crossing, make Convey the new front-runner to start on the left flank. His rise into starter status was probably helped by the fact that Beasley looks to be the team's best option on the right flank, especially against the Czech Republic.
The U.S. team needs a right-winger who can go at the Czechs as well as deal with Pavel Nedved on the defensive side. While Beasley's attacking game appears a bit rusty, he is still lightning fast and tenacious enough to torment Nedved.
Clint Dempsey made a good case for consideration as a right midfielder, but after this week he looks more like a solid second-half option. He still lacks the defensive discipline to be relied on against the likes of the Czechs and Italians, but he could be called upon against Italy if the Americans head into the Italy match off a loss to the Czechs.
Brian Ching was also impressive but the chances of seeing him alongside McBride in the starting lineup are slim. At least, that is how it sounded when Ching was asked about the potential partnership.
The race for the backup goalkeeper job appears to have been settled even though Arena hasn't made an official announcement. Tim Howard looks to have gotten the nod over Marcus Hahnemann despite seeing limited action for Manchester United last season. Howard's memorable save against Venezuela provided a reminder of why he is regarded as Keller's heir apparent.
Pablo Mastroeni was stellar during the week as well, stating his case for a starting role when June 12th arrives. Will he be the odd man out if Reyna and O'Brien are both healthy? Don't bet on it. Arena needs Mastroeni's physical presence in central midfield against the Czechs and Mastroeni is just the player to help contain the masterful playmaking abilities of recent Arsenal signing Tomas Rosicky.
What will the starting lineup look like come June 12th against the Czech Republic? Here's one man's guess:
Kasey Keller, Eddie Lewis, Oguchi Onyewu, Eddie Pope, Steve Cherundolo, Bobby Convey, Claudio Reyna, Pablo Mastroeni, DaMarcus Beasley, Brian McBride and Landon Donovan.
What could change? If Johnson shows enough in the next two weeks, he will force his way into the lineup, pushing Donovan to midfield and either Convey or Beasley to the bench.
Ives Galarcep covers soccer for ESPNsoccernet and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.