Eddie Johnson, who came to the Sounders in a trade, has provided much-needed scoring punch.
The first time Alan Hinton, the iconic former Sounders coach and Derby County winger, met Eddie Johnson, he wrapped him in a bear hug and prophetically growled, “The fans here would love to love you.”
You see, Johnson, who came to Sounders FC in a trade with Montreal, scores goals, and for a team that seemingly every season went through a goal-scoring drought, he appeared to be the final necessary puzzle piece for an MLS Cup championship run.
He could carry the team through the dog days of July and August and then lift it up in the postseason’s swelter.
“He floats around up top, does what he has to do and whenever he gets a chance, he hits it on target,” said Jimmy Gabriel, who as an assistant on the national U-16 team, coached Johnson, 13 years ago. “He scores goals. Gather it, get it, shoot it, goal. It’s in his blood.”
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It’s hard to believe now, but in February, when the Sounders traded for Johnson, it looked like a serious gamble. They were tampering with their fragile chemistry, surrendering two fan favorites, Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle, for Johnson, who was coming off an unpleasant experience in the Premiership with Fulham.
Johnson came with baggage.
He hadn’t played in almost nine months. Could he stay healthy? Could he rekindle the goal-scoring fire he had when he played for the U.S. national team? Why was Montreal willing to part with him? And how quickly could he meld his talents with Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales?
But entering Sunday’s home match against the L.A. Galaxy, one of the most important nights in franchise history, Johnson is on fire. He is tied for sixth in MLS with nine goals and has five goals and an assist in the past six league games.
Recently he scored the game-winner against Chelsea in the MLS all-star game. He should have been named the MVP.
Johnson, 28, has resurrected his game and put the Sounders in position for a long playoff run. He has answered all the nagging questions.
“Like anyone who’s had a long injury and been out for eight or nine months, it takes time to get back,” Johnson said after a training session last week. “Everyone knows that I can score goals when I’m fit and can perform, but it takes a month or two months to get your body back used to it.
“This is a high-level league. It’s getting better every year and, I don’t care who you are, you’re not going to come back and score goals right away.”
Johnson has an uncanny, Clint Dempsey-like knack for timing his runs, anticipating passes and getting behind defenses. And when the ball is on his foot, or in the air, he can turn passes into goals.
“He has lovely feet,” Hinton said.
Johnson’s runs are the places where art intersects with athleticism.
“Because of his athleticism, sometimes he makes difficult goals look easy,” Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “But his running off the ball, his timing, his ability to connect with his teammates as the play is developing, are very, very good.”
In a league that has very few world-class finishers, Johnson might be the best. He’s as dangerous as sheet lightning. The goal he scored in the last league match against Colorado, a header off a corner kick, skying more than a foot over the defender, was magical.
Johnson was the prince of midair, and it was the type of dynamic goal that is rare in MLS.
“It’s all about repetition and training and getting on the same page with our outside guys,” said Johnson, who has scored five times off assists from Rosales. “Me and Rosales have established some type of connection, a partnership. I’m getting an understanding of when he gets the ball, what position to put my body in.”
When he is going well, there is a healthy arrogance about Johnson and his game. He is an on-field irritant, talking trash the way Gary Payton used to talk it. He oozes confidence that can be off-putting to opponents.
“I like it when your goal scorers get a little mouthy,” Hinton said. “The only time you should be concerned about goal scorers is when they get quiet.”
At a practice early in the season when the Sounders were struggling, Johnson and Montero got into a brief scuffle, the kind that happens occasionally in training in the midst of a long season.
“It was just two competitive players who love to score goals,” Johnson said. “He’s been in this position here the last three years. When you put two competitive people on the field, you both want to be heroes, but sometimes it takes some sacrifices.
“Me and Fredy have a good relationship. He’s going to score goals. He’s had opportunities to score goals. He’s just been a little unfortunate. I’m not worried about him not scoring goals.
“You’ve got to swallow your pride sometimes and do what’s best for the team. My thing is to work hard and I know if I keep working and keep running, I’m going to put myself in a position to score some goals.”
Eddie Johnson is back. Gamble? What gamble?
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com