Eddie Johnson plays soccer for love, and he plays soccer for money.
But deep inside the Seattle Sounders FC forward, there also is a part that plays soccer to quiet those who dislike or doubt him.
“That’s exactly what I do,” Johnson said. “I feed off of it. I love that. If you’re going to hate me, hate me. I’ll show you.”
Johnson shouldn’t have any problem finding haters and doubters Thursday. That’s when he and the Sounders will play for their playoff lives in the
most hostile environment they’re likely to find in MLS: Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, home of their arch rival Timbers.
If Seattle doesn’t overcome its one-goal deficit in the aggregate-score series, that will be the final game of the season for the Sounders and Johnson. Like the team as a whole, he would look back at a year of ups and downs.
The ups scream from his stat sheet, since Johnson leads Seattle with nine goals and 27 shots on target, and he is second with 51 shots. He also contributed a pair of assists.
The downs have come mostly off the pitch. In the final week of the regular season, coach Sigi Schmid told Johnson to stay away from practice because of an undisclosed disciplinary matter. A few weeks earlier, even a game-winning goal became controversial when Johnson celebrated by running to the touchline and mouthing the words, “Pay me.”
Schmid and Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer agreed that Johnson deserves more than his current $150,000 salary. And Johnson later apologized for making the issue so public.
However, Johnson acknowledges that he grew up in tough circumstances and that he sees his professional career as his chance to improve his own life and those of the people he loves.
“My No. 1 as far as what motivates me is my two kids,” he said. “I grew up one of three with a single mom in Bunnell, Fla. And one of my things is, whatever it was — going to school and getting an education, or in sports — if I ever had an opportunity to do something and get paid to do it, I wanted to not take it for granted and use that opportunity to give back to the people that helped me along the way — and that’s my mom and my kids. So, I think that’s what drives me to keep doing well.”
Like so many other kids in the South, Johnson grew up playing football and basketball. He says he was a tough defender in basketball, but not a pro prospect. Football was different. He says he was good, and he remains intrigued about how far he might have gone if he had stuck with it.
He did not because when he was 9, he signed up for a new sport: soccer.
Johnson became a breathtakingly quick success story: selected for an Olympic development program at 13, a Parade All-American by the time he was a junior in high school, making the U-17 national team and becoming one of the youngest players in MLS history when he signed with Dallas at 17.
“This was my way out of the inner city, to play soccer,” Johnson said. “This was my hidden talent that I was blessed. I was an average student in school; school wasn’t really my thing.”
The rocket launch of his career was followed by a few crashes and burns. After five seasons in Dallas and two in Kansas City, he took his game to Europe, where he admits “things didn’t go well.”
That began changing when he returned to the States last season. He was named MLS comeback player of the year while scoring a club-record 14 goals for Seattle. Along the way he re-established himself as a starter and an important weapon on the World Cup-bound U.S. national team.
Whether the Sounders’ season ends Thursday in Oregon or Dec. 7 at MLS Cup, one of the club’s top offseason decisions will be figuring out how to keep Johnson in rave green.
For his part, Johnson said he hopes it happens. He said he has nothing to prove in Europe. And at age 29, he may be in position to sign the kind of contract that will allow him to help his loved ones while also playing in a city where he is once again enjoying the game he discovered two decades ago.
“I’m happy here,” he said. “These last two years are the happiest in a very long time: playing soccer and enjoying my soccer. It’s them fans that are here that believe in me, that are rooting for the team week in and week out. This is where I want to be.”
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 firstname.lastname@example.org @donruiztnt