Eddie Johnson healthy again for Wizards
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Eddie Johnson's right foot is healthy enough to carry him around the field at full speed. Now, he just has to start scoring again.
He used to put the ball in the net all the time. These days, he rarely does.
"I reflect back on those goals, watch those goals and realize that's the kind of player I am," he said. "That's what I'm capable of doing. I was scoring goals like that at that age, and there's a lot more out there for me."
Johnson, who turned 23 on March 31, used to be a phenom. But since scoring eight goals in his first eight games with the U.S. national team starting in late 2004, he has just one in 16 appearances.
After scoring 12 MLS goals for Dallas in 2004, tied for most in the league, he had five in 15 games in 2005, when his season was cut short by a toe injury. He had two in 19 games last year after being traded to the Kansas City Wizards and hasn't looked sharp in national team games this year.
He once scored three goals in 25 minutes for the national team and was the youngest player to win or share a goal-scoring title in MLS. By last June, he was relegated to a reserve role with the national team at the World Cup, making two second-half appearances as the Americans were eliminated in the first round.
"I think this offseason, I had a chance to sit down and reflect on the past season," Johnson said. "There were a lot of things I went through that year, mentally, but they made me a lot stronger. It takes going through a down point in your career to recognize who you are and what you're capable of doing."
Johnson was a breakthrough American forward. He scored six times in his first four games with the national team, including those three quick goals a World Cup qualifier against Panama in October 2004. That feat made him the only American player to score a hat trick as a substitute.
"Not to take anything away from him, because I was certainly his coach in the process, but the competition we played against when he scored those goals -- it's not like we were playing against England or Brazil," said Wizards coach Curt Onalfo, who was an assistant with the national team when Johnson made his debut. "We were playing against some teams where we should definitely win. But he did very well, and he had enormous confidence, and with each game he got even more confident. You could just see him brimming with it and turning into a world-class forward."
Then Johnson hurt his right big toe in May 2005. His only international goal since was in an exhibition against Guatemala in February 2006. Expected to lead Kansas City's offense, Johnson failed to connect most of the time. He seemed to feel pressure to justify his salary, listed last year at $875,000, according to The Washington Post.
"People said, `You're overpaid, Eddie, do something,''' Johnson said.
Adding to the pressure, Johnson became a father last year. That's now another motivation for him to make a comeback, he said.
"Soccer's all I have," he said. "I have a daughter, and that's how I support her. If Daddy does well, my daughter eats well, has nice clothes, goes to a good college when she's older. If I have the ability to do well and don't do well, then I let her down from that standpoint."
And while Johnson said he never lost confidence in his abilities, so many things happening at once -- the World Cup struggles, the obligations of fatherhood, the lingering effects of his injury -- wore on his mind as well as his body.
"When your brain has got so much going on in it, you're not focused," he said. "When I am focused, I do score goals."
The Wizards will do all they can to help Johnson keep that focus.
"This is a crucial year for him," Onalfo said. "Assuming he can stay well, he's got all the characteristics, and we're going to create an environment for him where he can have a good year."
That means making Johnson, his past accomplishments aside, compete throughout the season for his starting job.
"The only way you're on the field is by performing every day in training," Onalfo said.
With forward Josh Wolff departed for Germany's 1860 Munich, Johnson's likeliest competition to be Kansas City's featured forward is Trinidad's Scott Sealy, who led the Wizards with 10 goals in 2006.
"Scotty had a strong season last year, and I know he's going to have a strong season this year," Johnson said. "That's going to help me push myself, because I know everyone's going to come with it. It's all about working hard right now."
That's the kind of focused talk Johnson's teammates like to hear.
"He's coming out with the right mind-set that he has to go out there and attack it," said defender Jimmy Conrad, also a mainstay on the national team. "He's looking for a way to make it happen, instead of hoping it's going to happen. He's being aggressive."