THESSALONIKI, Greece -- Like most Greek cities, Thessaloniki has always welcomed strangers with open arms. The locals have thrived on the constant flow of goods and information from east to west and back again, taking advantage of their ability to adapt to changing environments and integrate foreign influences. It all gives Greece's second city a unique cosmopolitanism far removed from the brutal sprawl of Athens.
So there's the good news for
The bad news is the whole soccer thing, and the difficulties Johnson will face trying to resurrect his career in the Greek Super League.
Contrary to popular opinion, this is not a league where many foreigners have honed their skills or made their names. The Greek league sports a rugged schedule of games played in front of sparse crowds, unless you're playing for one of the big three Athens clubs: Olympiakos, Panathinaikos or AEK. If you're not, you might as well play a video game, because that's the only chance you've got of winning any titles.
Then again, Johnson isn't coming here to win trophies, is he? He's coming here to play, with the freely admitted hope of earning one of those up-for-grabs striker spots on
It's hard to think of a more perfectly named soccer club than Aris. Founded in 1914, it was named for the Greek god of war, more commonly spelled "Ares." The heroic moniker has helped some, as Aris is one of only three teams outside of Athens to be crowned domestic champions. (One of the Athenian triumvirate has won all but six of the national championships since 1928.)
But Aris has won nothing since 1946. (Well, they did win the Greek Cup in 1970, but that doesn't really count for much in my book.) Worse, it's not even king of its own domain, playing second
But the club recently made an interesting strategic decision. Much like the city it represents, it has taken on a decidedly international flavor. Argentine coach
This globalist approach, in conjunction with the tough league, could be Johnson's salvo. The side, currently in sixth place, is struggling to find the net; its top scorer,
EJ has always had the tools to be devastating -- speed, size, strength and technique. He hasn't always put it together correctly, too often running with the ball when he should pass and move or vice versa, but he did score a ton of goals in MLS. Aris' willingness to play football means a striker like Johnson could clean up running onto through balls or attacking spaces.
But more important, I hope Johnson's arrival in Thessaloniki, this little city with an outsized history, will reignite his attitude. I still remember his absurd penchant for crediting his sports psychologist for the goals he scored in Kansas City.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for psychoanalysis and therapy, but come on! Successful athletes possess something no shrink can unpack: an inner fire. It's like porn: You know it when you see it. It's in the crazed lunge to get to that cross before the defender, the brave slide to reach a loose ball before the goalkeeper, the desperate hounding of a center back going toward his own goal. Johnson might still have some of this, but I haven't seen it recently.
The Americans who have succeeded in Europe have all carried a massive chip on their shoulders:
An unfortunate twist of timing means I won't be able to ask him that question yet. But on Tuesday night, I'll be in a café near Aristotelous Square, watching the Atromitos-Aris match with some fans here in the city, wondering if Johnson's visit to Thessaloniki will bear as much fruit as it has for others.