Eddie Johnson and his FC Dallas teammates enter their Los Angeles hotel, a mass of small guys with blue shirts and navy sweatpants. But Johnson stands out. Maybe it's the way his collar is defiantly flipped up, stylish and confident. Maybe it's his size, the way he seems to tower over everyone else. Maybe it's the wrap-around shades or the diamond studs in his ears.
Whatever it is that sets him apart, Johnson is arguably the hottest American soccer player right now. Last season, EJ tied Brian Ching as the leading scorer in MLS, and during his first four matches with the U.S. MNT, Johnson banged in six goals-including three against Panama, a FIFA record for a player making his World Cup qualifying debut. Through his first five games with Dallas this season, Johnson had played every minute and was leading the team with 3 goals. It's easy to see that Eddie's future looks great, but to get the full picture, you have to look at his past…
"I come from a small city called Bunnell, FL, which isn't even known for soccer. Soccer turned out to be just one of those hidden, god-given talents that I happened to find within myself. I grew up in the inner-city, and know a lot of inner-city guys who can kick a soccer ball around for an hour and start juggling it and pick the game up really quick. Growing up in the inner-city, you're always active. You're either playing basketball or racing in the street to see who's fastest, or you're playing tackle football in the back of the projects. You're always getting into something, trying to stay out of trouble. I think I made it out simply because I had an opportunity.
My friends played soccer before I did. One season I decided to play, and I asked my Mom if I could sign up. She signed me up and I loved it. When you're young, you're always competitive with your friends, and everyone wants to be the best in your clique. My friends had already been playing for a year, and when I started at the age of 9, I just picked up on it. At some practices, the coach called the other players together and said, This is this guy's first year and look what he can do. I tended to catch on to things really well.
I first played organized soccer when I was 10, on this team called the Ormond Beach Jaguars. When I was there, my coach was Bob Sawyer. My mom was single at the time and trying to raise three kids, and my coach kind of took me in like a second son. He and his wife, they took me as family from when I was about 10 until I was 15, when I left for Brandenton and the U.S. Soccer residency program.
I didn't realize I was improving until I started playing competitive soccer where there were players better than me. As I played and practiced with them week in and week out, I started getting better. I was a defender-sweeper-at first, and in practice I would just dribble through everybody. So Bob turned me into a forward. I started playing forward and I started scoring goals. I loved scoring goals, man.
We had a big club tournament called the Sun Bowl, and my team, the Jaguars, were in it. During the tournament there were ODP [Olympic Development Program] scouts and regional team scouts and National Team Scouts. An ODP scout watched me, and then I got involved with ODP, and then I made the state team for Florida. I represented Florida, and then I made the regional team and went to San Diego and played against the rest of the regions. Then I made the National Team, which I've been on since I was 15. When I went on my first international trip to France with the National Team, I realized, Man, this is awesome. Me being from the inner-city, it didn't matter how many pictures I took, I could never explain to my friends what it was like; you had to be there. I was taking pictures of all kinds of crazy things.
I joined MLS when I had just turned 17. Coming from an environment where you're the star on the team to an environment where there are other big fish out there, you have to start from scratch all over again. It took me a while to realize that. I was young. When things weren't going my way, I'd tend to pout, want to get traded, thought it would be better somewhere else. The thing is, now I realize that if you get traded, you always have to start over. I wish I could have had this whole mindset two years ago. Two summers ago was when I started to really grow up. I had a really good Under-20 World Cup, and that got my confidence back. When I got back, our coach with Dallas, Colin Clarke, sat me down and told me, 'I want you to be the guy scoring goals for this team.' Whenever your coach gives you confidence like that, it makes things easier.
At the end of the day, everything's about timing. In soccer, our careers aren't as long as they are in other sports-basketball, baseball, golf. In soccer, if you're young and you have the potential, you want to go to Europe at the youngest age possible. But if this success started happening for me at the age of 28, I'd still be happy. If you're hot, everything's going to to fall into place. I'm a big believer in timing, and right now, it's just the right time.
When I first started playing competitive soccer, my coach told me to watch the World Cup, and I felt funny because I never even knew anything about a World Cup. So I watched the U.S. beat Colombia when they scored the own goal, and a lot of soccer fans probably went crazy, but to me it was like, okay, the U.S. won 2-1. But the thing that caught my attention in the World Cup was the Brazilian players, how much different they were than any other country in the World Cup, how skillful they were. I remember my favorite player in that World Cup was Romario. I'd go back to practice and talk about Romario like I'd been watching soccer all my life. But it did grow on me. In Bradenton we had Fox Soccer Channel, ESPN Europe, tapes of games. That's when I decided, Hey, this is something I really want to do.
My favorite players to watch now are Ronaldo, Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho and Christiano Ronaldo. All those guys have something about them that I see myself being in a couple of years-how happy they are on the field. They never worry about who their opponent is. Their biggest challenge is themselves. Every American wants to play in Europe one day, but I'm happy here right now. I'm a loyal person and I'm loyal to MLS. It's made me into the player I am today, playing week in and week out last season for the first time.
It's habits, man. All of the things that got you to where you are, you just keep doing them and doing them and doing them. The goals I score, I work on those runs in practice and do them over and over and over. Little things like that mean a lot to me. These are the things I work on. Habits, it's all about habits. It's like, keep doing it over and over and over again. Now that I've had this success, I don't worry about the past. I just don't forget about how I got to where I am.
I think about the 2006 World Cup, for sure. That's why I keep pushing myself. You know, coming from a family where you don't have a lot, you push yourself. I always tell my mom, One day you're not going to have to work anymore. I tell her that because she's given so much to me, and I just want to be able to give it back to her. Every day that I'm on the field, it's for her. I'm working for her and my family. Like I said, not having anything, when you get out there, it's do or die, man, do or die. I'm the same person with this success. I try not to look forward; I'm always thinking about what got me here and what I need to keep doing. I think, I'm here now, what do I need to do to get there? I never wished that one day I could be one of the best players in the world. But the happier you are, that's when you become better. You don't pressure yourself. And that's when people realize, Hey, this guy's legit.
It was a crazy path to get where I am today, but now I appreciate everything so much. And because I know where I was then, now I know how not to go back there. I know which road to take."
Striker Magazine is America's Ultimate Soccer Magazine. It is published quarterly by Harris Publications.