Eddie Johnson says Major League Soccer has changed for the better since the first time he was in the league.
One thing that remains the same, however, is the urge of talented MLS players to test their skills in the great leagues of Europe.
The new Sounders FC forward understands because he once was one of those guys – and could be again.
“You can’t knock the European teams when they come knocking on the door for the young players,” he said. “I think as a young player here in America, once you’ve played in this league and you’ve pretty much achieved individual goals, you want to go test yourself against the big players in the world. You can’t knock the American players for doing that.”
Johnson got his professional start in Major League Soccer in 2001, left for Fulham of England’s Premier League in 2007, and returned last month.
He came back to a league dotted with several successful franchises that didn’t exist when he left – a league he said that is not only better at preparing players for the U.S. national team, but also one that is more attractive to young European players.
“There are some fascinating cities that have new teams: Vancouver, who have good fan support as well; Portland; now they’ve got Montreal,” he said. “The league has grown. And to be honest, there are a lot of guys in Fulham – I’m not gonna say no names – who I can see in the next one or two years coming over to play MLS.”
Johnson was a teen when he first joined MLS. Over five seasons in Dallas and two in Kansas City, he recorded 41 goals and 13 assists.
However, he failed to earn regular playing time at Fulham and was loaned out to Cardiff City, Aris of Greece, and Preston North End.
When he returned to MLS, his rights were held by expansion Montreal, which sent him to Seattle at the cost of two younger players: Lamar Neagle and Michael Fucito.
Johnson scored in his first appearance as a Sounder – turning a college defender in knots with a slick step-over move. But he suffered a hamstring injury in that game and missed the next two exhibition friendlies.
He is expected to make his CenturyLink Field debut tonight when the Sounders meet Santos Laguna in the first match of a home-and-away aggregate-score CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series.
“The more we can make this club world-renowned, the more players around the world it will attract,” Johnson said. “ Our expectations are high on this club. It was a great result in the exhibition game against Jaguares (a 2-0 win Feb. 29), and hopefully the boys can bring the great performance of the last game into the game (tonight). If I can contribute and come in and play whatever role I can, I’m looking forward to it.”
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid saw enough improvement to say Johnson is “definitely” ready to play tonight. However, Schmid was still weighing a lot of issues in deciding Johnson’s role.
“We don’t want to maybe overextend ourselves in game one and maybe not have him available to us in game two on the road,” Schmid said. “A player with the experiences that he’s had playing overseas and playing with the national team, being able to maybe be in the starting lineup in game two is maybe more important than being in the starting lineup in game one.”
If Johnson doesn’t start, his forward spot alongside Fredy Montero likely would be handled by David Estrada, or perhaps Sammy Ochoa.
Johnson sounded ready to support those teammates just as he believes they have supported him.
“I’ve got a good group of guys behind me, some guys that are playing good football and have been working hard this preseason,” he said. “It’s easier to come into a team that plays good football and has some experienced players on the field.”
Now 27, Johnson should be in the prime of his career. If he is able to rekindle that spark in Seattle, he says he also would love to resurrect his career with the U.S. national team. And although it isn’t his top priority now, he also can’t rule out another try in Europe.
“I can’t predict the future,” he said. “Right now I’m a Seattle Sounders player. I’m happy here. Like I said, the organization, they sacrificed two good young players. They showed their faith in me, so I want to for the life of my contract do a good job for the organization and them having faith in me.”
SANTOS LAGUNA AT SOUNDERS FC
7 p.m., CenturyLink Field
TV: Fox Soccer. RADIO: 97.3-FM.
HEAD TO HEAD: First meeting.
NOTES: This is the first of a two-game, aggregate-score CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series. Road goals will count as the first tiebreaker. The series winner will advance to the semifinals against the Los Angeles-Toronto winner. The eventual CCL winner advances to the FIFA Club World Cup, where six continental winners and the host-nation champion play for the title of best soccer club in the world. No MLS club has ever won Champions League. However, Salt Lake advanced to the final last season, where it lost to Monterrey. Santos advanced by winning its group with 13 points, the most of any team in the group stage of this competition. Along the way, it outscored the Colorado Rapids 6-1 over two legs. Santos also led the competition with 16 goals, five more than its nearest competitor. Santos is in fourth place in the Mexican Claustra at 5-2-2. Seattle begins its MLS season March 17 with a home match against Toronto. Fredy Montero is Seattle’s all-time leading scorer in CCL, with four goals and three assists. Oribe Peralta leads Santos with four goals in this tournament. Seattle defender Zach Scott is unavailable due to a yellow card suspension carrying over from the group stage. The Sounders will wear their new bright blue “Super Cyan” alternate kits. The new voice of the Sounders, Ross Fletcher, will make his radio debut tonight. Plenty of tickets remain available.
QUOTABLE: “We don’t want to give up a goal at home because away goals count double. We want to make sure that we play well defensively. We want to get as much of a cushion as we can possibly, in terms of scoring goals.” – Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.
NEXT: The series resolves at 5 p.m. March 14 in Torreon, Mexico.
Don Ruiz, staff writer