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Sep 5, 2008

Johnson continues to receive benefit of the doubt

As American soccer fans mull over the recent failure by MLS teams in the CONCACAF Champions League, their attention now shifts to an even bigger shock: Despite a pedestrian run of form over the past 18 months at the international level, Eddie Johnson keeps getting called up to the U.S. national team. It has left me to wonder just what U.S. coach Bob Bradley sees in Johnson. And on Thursday, as the Americans prepared for World Cup qualifying matches against Cuba as well as Trinidad and Tobago, Bradley opened a window into his thinking when it comes to his talented but misfiring forward. Johnson, you will recall, burst onto the international stage back in 2004, bagging five goals in three World Cup qualifiers. Such a start invited inevitable waves of euphoria among the U.S. fan base, along with the label of "America's Latest Striking Phenom." Injuries and some clashes with his club coaches sidetracked his career at one point, but Johnson is now almost two years removed from such trials, and fans have been left hoping he'll recapture his initial form. It hasn't happened. Johnson's recent performances at the international level have teased observers, as the unique combination of power and pace often does. But like most tantalizing attributes, if they're not complemented by at least a smidgen of guile, interest quickly morphs into exasperation. Johnson's game has remained largely unrefined, with the Cardiff City forward relying almost exclusively on his undeniable physical gifts.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Cuba
Saturday
Havana, Cuba
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic
ESPN360.com

U.S. vs. Trinidad & Tobago
Wednesday
Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2
ESPN360.com

In fact, Johnson's play has revealed a predictable line of thinking. When he gets the ball he either makes a safe pass back into midfield or he takes his man on. The thought of trying any kind of combination play rarely enters his head. This has led to calls that one of a trio of young attackers -- Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu or Kenny Cooper -- should be called in instead. During Thursday's media conference call, Bradley refused to be drawn into a discussion of why players like Altidore and Adu hadn't been selected. Yet when Johnson's name was brought up, Bradley made it clear he remains a firm supporter of the former Kansas City striker. "Eddie showed what I felt was good progress in the month that we were together," said Bradley. "That includes the England game, Spain, Argentina, and both games against Barbados." While Bradley's response could draw accusations that someone spiked his Gatorade, it's true that Johnson's performances during the spate of friendlies last spring did improve, in that he took up better positions and began playing at a quicker tempo. But the final match against Argentina also revealed his lack of confidence, as a clear look at goal in the second half of that match was squandered when he opted to pass instead of shoot. It leaves open the question of whether Johnson is simply the beneficiary of low expectations. While that may be true, what's also evident is that Bradley, like so many coaches before him, is enamored with Johnson's athletic attributes. "[Johnson's] progress ... in terms of his overall game, together with the fact that he physically gives us something different -- those are factors in terms of his selection, and those are things that we consider as we put our lineups together in these next two games," Bradley said. One suspects that the U.S. coach's faith in Johnson does have its limits, and for that reason much is riding on how Johnson's recent loan move from EPL side Fulham to Cardiff City pans out. With the offseason acquisitions by Fulham of Bobby Zamora and Andrew Johnson, the American was clearly looking at a lengthy spell on the bench. Now that looks to have been avoided, and the move is one that Bradley was clearly pleased to see come about. "I think [Johnson's] loan to Cardiff comes at a great time," Bradley said. "I keep saying this, but it's important that our players are playing, and I think the opportunity for him there will be a good one." One can only hope that Johnson's game will undergo the requisite growth needed to find sustained success at the international level. And if it does, that will be one surprise U.S. fans will be only too happy to ponder. Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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