WASHINGTON -- Bruce Arena's message to Eddie Johnson was simple: "Be ready."
Those were the words the U.S. National Team manager muttered to the 20-year-old striker on Saturday before the Americans defeated El Salvador 2-0 in their latest World Cup qualifying match.
When you haven't played a single minute for the national team despite being called in to several camps and traveling with the team to places like Kingston, Jamaica, those two little words by Arena mean everything. So the last thing that Johnson wanted to do was let him down should he get the call.
Johnson, known as EJ to his teammates, was simply happy to make the traveling squad of 21 players, which he did not make for the trip to Panama last month. The same sort of elation came when he made the 18-man game roster, which was also somewhat unexpected.
"It was a tough decision between he and Conor (Casey) to dress," admitted Arena on Monday afternoon, "but I think we need to see how Eddie can do in these type of games."
Only four minutes after Arena chose to see how the Dallas Burn standout would do in his first appearance for the senior national team by inserting him into the match for Brian McBride, he saw exactly how he could contribute - by scoring goals.
It's something Johnson has done at the club level, as well as for the U-17 and U-20 National Teams. And now something he can say he's done at the highest of levels after scoring the team's second and final goal of the evening in the 75th minute to drive a stake into the heart of the Azules and essentially clinch the final result.
Though his strike was one of the easiest he'll ever have since it came from just a few yards out via Landon Donovan's pass across the box after the El Salvadoran goalkeeper had committed, it was a play he still had to read and time correctly.
"He still positioned himself to be at the end of it," said Arena. "You have to give him credit for that. I thought he did a good job - a real good job."
Johnson became just the seventh player since 1986 to score a goal in his first-ever national team appearance, and one of 38 players to accomplish the feat. He is also the first player in 29 years (Boris Bandov in 1976) to do it in a World Cup qualifying game.
For U.S. fans, Johnson's continued progress is a very important development.
Few players who have ever donned a U.S. jersey have possessed the breakaway speed that Johnson has. While he may not be ready to be a starter for the U.S. for the next year or two, his game-changing speed and instincts for the goal appear to be a vital element that Arena's side is in need of off the bench.
"It cannot be overstated that his ability to get behind defenses without the ball is exceptional," said U.S. assistant coach Glenn "Mooch" Myernick, who coached Johnson with the U-23 National Team last winter. "His speed wins games, and it's a real asset for us off the bench when it's late in the game and the defenders are starting to tire."
|First-game, first-goal history|
Date Name Opponent Score 2/7/86 Bruce Murray v. Uruguay 1-1 T 6/8/87 Ted Hantak v. Egypt(at Korea)1-3 L 6/14/88 Rob Ryerson v. Costa Rica 1-0 W 3/12/91 Dante Washington v. Mexico 2-2 T 9/8/99 Chris Albright at Jamaica 2-2 T 10/25/00 Landon Donovan v. Mexico 2-0 W 10/9/04 Ed Johnson at El Salvador 2-0 W
That athleticism that Myernick speaks of has always been apparent. It was the first thing the coaching staff with the Under-17 National Team noticed before extending him an invite to join the Residency program in Bradenton, Fla., back in the spring of 2000 just before he turned 16 years old.
It's also what helped him lead the team in scoring with 33 goals and 19 assists that first season, playing on a U-17 side that included Justin Mapp, Santino Quaranta and Mike Magee.
Yet, while his name started gaining attention as he moved onto the professional level with the Dallas Burn, several coaches inside the soccer community questioned his maturity level, and wondered if Johnson was a player who would always have the word "potential" next to his name.
They wondered if he'd progress as a soccer player -- not just as a speedster up front -- and if he had the type of overall attitude and work ethic it takes to truly make it at the next level.
"He used to take criticism from his coaches very personally," said Myernick. "It took some maturing on his part to realize that we're there to help him."
Looking back, it's something that Johnson knew was a problem. He admits that there were times that he hasn't got along with his coaches and players at Dallas.
Along the way, he said there were times that he coasted through practice and did things his way, not the right way.
Part of it, he says, was how he came to a Dallas club that was closer to the bottom of the league than to the top unlike what several of the top players who left Bradenton before him have had to deal with.
"Landon has always been on a winning team," said Johnson on Monday afternoon while looking around at some of the younger players on the national team. "(DaMarcus) Beasley was on a winning team. Bobby's (Convey) team won. We haven't had a winning team since I've been here."
In his first two years in the league, Dallas got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. Last year, it failed to reach the postseason, finishing in last place in the Western Conference with the worst record in Major League Soccer.
While Johnson showed flashes of brilliance and scored some highlight-reel goals during those first three years, injuries have slowed him down, at times, and he hasn't had a regular spot in the starting lineup.
That's all changed this year, though. Not only has Johnson been given the nod as a starter and has come through with 11 goals in 25 matches, but he's also gone through a metamorphosis as a person. It started back in February when Burn assistant coach Brian Haynes asked Johnson to move in with he and his family.
"Once I was hired by Colin (Clarke), I called him about it because I thought it would be good for him," said Haynes, who played for the Burn for four years before joining the coaching staff. "The one thing I felt that was really important with Eddie was how when he surrounds himself with negative people, things don't seem to go well for him. He needs to be in an environment where he has positive influences."
Johnson agreed to this, and moved in with Haynes, his wife and their seven-year-old daughter, Jordan, and four-year-old son, Jonah, once he returned from Olympic qualifying with the U-23s. Since then, Johnson has become a big brother to Haynes' kids, and has even become a regular at church with the family on Sundays.
While Johnson credits Burn teammate Jason Kreis for having a positive influence on him since he's arrived in Dallas, Haynes has now become a driving force in his life, and is the person he gives credit for helping change the ways he views his career and his life as a whole.
"Brian is sort of like a father figure to me," said Johnson. "He's told me when things haven't been going well that things could be a lot worse because there are a lot of guys out there that don't have what I have."
That includes dealing with criticism and the up-and-down fortunes of the Burn.
"I've learned that, on a day-to-day basis, that you get what you put into it," he said. "In Dallas, it's been a hard past couple of years for me. But I know now that I have to look at myself at the end of the day and ask myself what I'm doing to make myself a better player. Am I trying to get better? Am I trying to be the guy on the team that's supposed to score the goals?
"That's something I did on the U-20s. I took that responsibility to be that guy."
That, of course, worked out quite well, as Johnson led the Thomas Rongen-coached side with four goals in five games as the U.S. reached the quarterfinals of the World Youth Championships last December. In the process, he became the first U.S. men's player at any FIFA World Championship to win the Golden Shoe, awarded to the leading scorer of the tournament.
In talking about that accomplishment, Johnson sounds like someone far from impressed with what he did.
"I could have scored more," he said, in more of a joking around voice than an arrogant one. "We should have gone further than what we did."
Even so, it was a showing that got him called up to the U-23s a month later for the side's ill-fated attempt at qualifying for the Olympics, as well as a look by Arena.
"I know him from watching him with the U-20s and from Thomas Rongen's feelings that he's a player with a lot of potential," he said. "My observation of watching him in the league is that he's gotten better. Obviously, last year I think was a tough year for him in MLS. This year, it's been a very good year, and he's among the leading goal scorers in the league. He's matured and he's moving forward as a player. He's not only a big, strong athlete, but he's a good soccer player. He's got good feet, and I think he's got a bright future."
Myernick agrees, saying that he's been a different player in 2004.
"Each MLS season he's gotten better," said Myernick. "We have a deep pool of forwards, so it says a lot that he saw time the other night. It's not a case where we are throwing him a bone. It's too important for us to do that. He earned it."
For Johnson, the challenge has been given for him to work on being more of a factor over 90 minutes of a game, and not to fade-in and fade-out. It's not something the U.S. staff is worried about as much anymore since they have seen improvement in this area. After all, it's something they once saw in Donovan's game, as well, and that's worked out nicely for them over time.
Whether or not Johnson gets another shot to play against Panama on Wednesday when the teams meet at RFK Stadium, Arena and his staff will certainly be watching the 6-foot-2 striker to see how he fares this weekend for Dallas when the Burn close out their regular season needing a win to get into the playoffs. Johnson noted how inconsistent his side has been, but hopes his experience the past two weeks with the national team will pay off.
"I figure if I work hard here with the national team, it's only going to prepare me more for my club team," he said. "If I'm playing well and focused for the national team this week, then I'll be prepared for this weekend to try and help us get a result and get into the playoffs."
Should he find the back of the net, he could find himself with the Golden Boot at the end of the season as the league's highest goal-scorer. With 11 goals, Johnson is tied with Brian Ching, Pat Noonan, Damani Ralph and Carlos Ruiz. It's part of the message that Haynes said to him when Johnson called him as soon as the team's plane touched down from El Salvador on Sunday morning.
"He called me at six-thirty in the morning to tell me he scored," said Haynes. "I said, 'Great, Eddie, but now I challenge you to score two for us this weekend so we move to the playoffs, for one, and you win the scoring title.' He said, 'Sounds like a good idea to me.'
"But you know what? Even if he does score in both games, this is just a scrape of what he'll accomplish in his career."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com