CHICAGO -- When Eddie Johnson takes the field on Sunday for the U.S. against Panama in the Gold Cup final, he'll be trying to score his third goal in as many knockout-round games (4 p.m. ET, big FOX, Univision). And, of course, he'll be modeling the dyed-blond hair that caused FOX's Gus Johnson to label him "Demolition Man" after the old Wesley Snipes film character.
"The hair is all Maurice Edu," Johnson told me in a long, sometimes funny, sometimes moving interview at the team hotel here on Friday. "When we were in qualifiers, he was getting hernia surgery, and he sent me a random text saying he was thinking about getting his hair dyed blond. I liked it. Terrence Boyd was my roommate, so he did it in Vienna, and then I did it, and now Danny Williams did it too [in England]. We're just having some fun."
Johnson is a man who like to get his hair done right. Back when he was on loan at a Greek team in 2010, he would fly his barber in from London just to cut his hair. "In Greece," he says with a laugh, "it's hard to find a barber."
These days the 29-year-old Johnson is smiling a lot more than he was in 2011, when he was essentially unemployed, a man without a club, for six months. His four-season European sojourn from 2008 to '11 had not gone very well, his original move to Fulham followed by loans to Cardiff City, Aris and Preston North End.
Johnson admits he made some bad decisions too. He says he verbally committed to moving back to MLS and joining D.C. United in early 2011 on a contract of about $400,000 a year. But when a league official spilled the beans publicly, Johnson pulled out of the deal before officially signing the contract. "The league was mad at me for making them look bad, and that hurt my value," Johnson said. "But I've learned: Once you commit to something, you have to do it. If I hadn't said 'no,' I'd be on a lot different money now in MLS."
In a matter of months, Johnson's market value plummeted like a stock ticker on Black Monday. A move to Mexico at Puebla blew up when Johnson was collateral damage in a political battle between club officials and the technical director announced (wrongly, Johnson says) that he'd arrived out of shape. By the time Johnson joined MLS's Seattle Sounders in early 2012, he had to sign a take-it-or-leave-it contract offer of $100,000 a year, about 1/20th of what he'd been making in Europe.
And then everything changed under Seattle coach Sigi Schmid. Johnson scored 14 league goals in 2012 and was named the MLS Comeback Player of the Year. He found a daily consistency at club level that had eluded him in Europe. "With Sigi, any time you play for a coach who makes you aware from Day 1 how important you are to the organization, it's easier to relax on the pitch and play to your ability," Johnson says. "We have some of the best fans in the world, and playing in front of 40,000 every week is an amazing feeling. It's a blessing to be a part of that organization."
Johnson is also feeling a lot better personally. He says his playing struggles in Europe were due partly to an unhappy three-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, one that ended last year.
"Ever since I've been back in MLS, I like to go back and see where it all went wrong when I was in Europe," he says. "One of the biggest things for me is in order to be happy on the field, you have to be happy off the field. A lot of people didn't know I was going through a divorce last year. I was seeing a specialist and going through divorce counseling and preparing myself for how to deal with seeing your ex with someone else, how to deal with giving a percentage of my income to her. She's a good woman, and we get along better now than when we were together."
Johnson says he's thankful that his ex-wife stayed in Seattle, which allows him to see their children—Zoe, seven, and Elijah, two—nearly every day when he's not on the road for soccer. "I think it's important for a father to be there for his kids," says Johnson, who was raised by a single mother in Florida. "I want to play an important role in their lives."
His resurgence with the national team happened last fall, when coach Jurgen Klinsmann called up Johnson and used him to good effect in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. It was Johnson's two goals against Antigua and Barbuda that gave the U.S. what turned out to be a crucial three points in a tougher-than-expected group.
Johnson scored for the U.S. against Panama in front of his Seattle fans at last month's World Cup qualifier, and he has been influential again since joining the U.S. during the Gold Cup knockout rounds. If he keeps this up, Johnson is on track to be in Brazil for next year's World Cup. He still remembers the pain he felt in 2010, when he got the call in his hotel room and knew he was heading to be told he'd been one of the final cuts from the U.S. World Cup team.
"Clint Dempsey was my roommate, so when the phone rang I knew it wasn't for him," Johnson says. "I knew it was me. He's one of my best friends, and I remember him shaking my hand as I left. He told me he loved me, and I'd done a good job."
"I've been on the good end [making the '06 World Cup team] and the bad end [in 2010]," Johnson continues. "So how do I keep this spot? It starts with setting goals. The reason Clint is where he is is because of his consistency. One thing I learned in Europe is opportunities don't come that often, and you have to grab them. It's the same thing in Seattle. I don't walk into the team as if I'm a sure starter every time. In order to keep my spot on the national [team], I have to be consistent in Seattle. I just thank God Jurgen was able to see something in me that some others didn't."
Klinsmann won't be on the U.S. sideline Sunday after being suspended for the final, but Johnson says he feels the connection he has developed with his boss, a former striker himself.
"I like the guy," Johnson says. "He's very outgoing, and he has a crazy personality. He really knows the game. For me, he's starting to get the American mentality as far as how we approach games. I feel like in the beginning he was trying to get the most technical players into camps. But one thing that stuck out to me in the last game, it was like, 'We're not worried about playing good soccer. We're going to go out there and kick and fight and do whatever it takes to get us to f---in' Chicago.' That's the American mentality, never say die."
"It's not about knocking the ball around and playing sexy soccer. Saying that, we do have a lot of players like that in this camp, but first it's about pressing them every time they get the ball, getting them fatigued and then when they're tired we start knocking it around. It's an honor to play for a guy of his caliber who's played in big teams and was one of the greatest players of his time. I soak up as much as I can."
Johnson smiles. He does it a lot these days. And if everything goes right on Sunday, he'll be smiling again as he raises the Gold Cup trophy at Soldier Field.