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Zenit sign Bart Simpson

The Toe Poke 14 hours ago
Read
Apr 17, 2008

Johnson finds a home with the M.K. Dons

California-born Hull City keeper Bo Myhill ended all speculation about his international future last month by playing for Wales in a friendly. Jemal Johnson, a speedy striker with the M.K. Dons (aka Wimbledon reincarnated), didn't think twice about which country he'd like to represent at senior level if given the chance.

Johnson was born in Paterson, N.J., moved to England when he was 5, and can also compete for Jamaica, given his mother's background.

"I'd love to play for America," the 22-year-old said without hesitation. "I consider myself American."

Johnson, who spent a month in New Jersey last summer during the English offseason, hasn't suited up for the U.S. at any age group, which might come as a surprise considering he was in the youth system at Manchester United, contested a smattering of Premier League games with Blackburn and has spent time at two of the biggest clubs outside the top division, Wolves and Leeds.

Johnson claims he was in the mix to earn a spot on the U.S. team at the 2005 U-20 World Championships in the Netherlands but forfeited the opportunity when he failed to show up for a training camp. He says he was advised by Mark Hughes, then his manager at Blackburn, not to go because he was hovering around the first team.

He ended up making six appearances for Rovers in the 2004-05 season -- memorably scoring in his first start against Colchester in the F.A. Cup -- and four more the following campaign before joining Wolves of the Championship.

A spokesman for U.S. Soccer said Johnson's name "isn't unknown," particularly since he spent time with former U.S. international Brad Friedel at Blackburn.

"It wasn't because I didn't want to play for America, it's just the fact that if your manager is telling you to do something at that age, you're going to tend to listen to what he says because you want to be involved in the setup," Johnson said. "I just did what he told me to do. Looking back on it now, I probably would have made a different decision, because it would have been a great opportunity for me."

First things first, though. Johnson still has to obtain a U.S. passport. A baby daughter and the busy fixture list have left him with less time than needed.

It's not unusual for prospects to drop down divisions to get playing time, though Johnson's trail is particularly interesting. Having also been on loan at Preston and Darlington, he's appeared with six teams in the past four years -- Steve Claridge numbers. (Claridge lined up for almost two dozen clubs in a 20-plus-year career.)

Moving around that much is bound to raise a few eyebrows, yet Johnson insists the reason is simple.

"It's very difficult in football to find somewhere where you can call home, and that's what I've been trying to do," he said. "I'm just trying to get settled somewhere. I've been in and around first-team football since I was 18. I don't think it's anything to talk about. I think it's just basically someone trying to find somewhere they can call home and be settled at."

Johnson signed with M.K. Dons of League 2, the lowest tier in the Football League, on the last day of the summer transfer window last August. He jumped at the opportunity to play under ex-England captain Paul Ince -- whom he just missed at both United and Wolves -- at a state-of-the-art stadium that wouldn't look out of place in the Premier League. Milton Keynes is a stone's throw north of London.

"It wasn't really a step back for me, to be fair, especially with the manager," Johnson said. "The people around me were talking about all the right things."

He's scored five goals in 35 league appearances (including 15 starts), and notched the winner as the Dons downed Lincoln 2-1 on Friday to edge closer to automatic promotion. In fact, barring a catastrophe, the Dons will be plying their trade in League 1 next season. A visit to the new Wembley stadium beckoned earlier this month, too, as Ince's squad beat Grimsby to capture the Football League Trophy in front of more than 55,000 fans.

Johnson vows he isn't going anywhere this summer.

"I'm happy and really like the club, have my own place, and doing really well," he said.

Now for a roundup of U.S. players in the Premier League.

After West Brom, Portsmouth and West Ham did it in the three previous seasons, could Fulham be the next club to pull off an unlikely escape from relegation?

The Cottagers closed to within four points of safety with a 2-0 win at Reading on Saturday. Striker and captain Brian McBride scored the opener and drew special praise from numerous pundits, Kasey Keller collected the shutout and midfielder Clint Dempsey played the opening 85 minutes before being replaced by international teammate Carlos Bocanegra. Striker Eddie Johnson didn't make the bench for the second straight game. He's recovering from illness.

Reading's Seattle keeper, Marcus Hahnemann, denied McBride a second goal when he pushed a fierce left-footed volley onto the crossbar. Bobby Convey, back to full fitness following a serious knee injury, didn't make the squad. Reading is still in the relegation mix.

Tim Howard and Everton slipped farther behind in the chase for the fourth and final Champions League spot, tying relegation-threatened Birmingham 1-1 away. Howard had no chance on Mauro Zarate's free-kick equalizer in the 83rd minute, though he made a splendid double save to deny former Toffee James McFadden and Radhi Jaidi earlier in the second half.

The season can't end soon enough for last-place Derby. The Rams were thumped 6-0 at home by Aston Villa, with Eddie Lewis contesting all 90 minutes of the rout. Fellow midfielder Benny Feilhaber continues to be an outcast under manager Paul Jewell -- he was an unused sub for the third straight game.

Defender Jonathan Spector made his third straight start for midtable West Ham, which fell at third-last Bolton 1-0 for a third straight loss. Friedel and Blackburn lost 3-1 at Liverpool on Sunday, with all three goals emanating from defensive mistakes in the second half.

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.