The redemption narrative is so common in sports that it's something we take for granted, a cliché. But every once in a while you'll see a comeback story that transcends most of the others. We're starting to get to that point with Eddie Johnson, the U.S. forward (or is it winger now?) who was the most dangerous player on the field in the U.S.' 3-1 win against Guatemala on Tuesday that sent Jurgen Klinsmann's team into the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for World Cup 2014.
Four days after Johnson ended his two-year international hiatus with two goals in the win at Antigua and Barbuda, he followed it up with another gem here, exuding confidence and taking on defenders in an unfamiliar position out wide. Johnson was a 90-minute threat, drawing Guatemalans wherever he went, but his impact was most evident on the decisive goal, in which he bolted past the Guatemalan defense down the right wing (off an incisive release pass from Steve Cherundolo) and whipped a laser cross to Clint Dempsey for a 2-1 lead.
Consider, for a second, that the 28-year-old Johnson was out of soccer altogether for seven months in the past year as he tried to resurrect a career that had fizzled out in Europe. His last national team appearance had come in May 2010, but now even his club future was in serious doubt.
"Not having a club for about seven or eight months, you do start to wonder: Is my time up?" Johnson said after the Guatemala win. "Do I have the drive to get back where I want to be, scoring goals at a high level and getting back with the national team? Those were all my goals. But I knew at my age it had to be the right opportunity."
Johnson has revived his career with the Seattle Sounders, scoring 14 goals as a striker this season, and his overflowing confidence has carried over to the national team. After not being called up during Klinsmann's 14-month tenure, Johnson could not have asked for a better two-game return, playing all 180 minutes and delivering two goals and an assist in important matches.
That Johnson has done so in a new spot on the wing has made it even more impressive. "People were probably saying, 'Why is he playing on the left?'" Johnson said on Tuesday, and he was right. During a practice before the game in Antigua, he noticed he was having to defend a lot and started doubting whether he was cut out for the role. But Johnson had played out wide right during his time with Preston North End last year, so it wasn't entirely unfamiliar. "If coach is putting you out there, obviously he has a lot of confidence in you," Johnson said. "Pace is one of my strengths with my movement off the ball ... I could only be confident going out there."
Johnson is one of several players who have become surprise impact performers with the national team this year. Who would have predicted in April that Johnson, Graham Zusi and Hérculez Gómez would become key starters for the U.S. during 2012?
"Eddie was definitely a big plus," said Klinsmann. "For us coaches it was wonderful to see his qualities in our group. I spoke a lot with [Sounders coach] Sigi [Schmid] the last couple months about his path. He went through ups and downs through his career, but he understands the moment. I told him when he came in, 'Eddie if you give us everything you have and adjust to what we're doing here, don't worry, you'll be fine. He felt comfortable and confident, and he had a wonderful performance tonight."
No player on the U.S. team is closer to Johnson than Dempsey. They were teammates together at Fulham, but their families also spent time together during meals and playdates in London. (They even shared the same haircut guy, whom Johnson would fly out to Greece to give him just the right look when he was on loan there.) There's a connection between Johnson and Dempsey that carries over to the field -- the goal they combined on in Tuesday's game was one of the better-looking goals the U.S. has scored in a long time.
"It's difficult when you go to Europe," Dempsey says of Johnson's time there. "Being able to come back to MLS and gain his confidence, he's at the level he was at before. He's full of confidence. You see him taking people on and creating chances ... He's being asked to play a position that isn't his favorite position, but he's sacrificed for the team and he's still able to be effective. I'm proud of him, man."
For a team that had serious questions about wide players in recent months, Johnson's successful audition should give the U.S. some useful options out wide when the full complement of wide players is back with him, Landon Donovan, Brek Shea and Zusi. Then again, Johnson could also move up top, as he did in the latter stages of the game against Guatemala. So far this year he appears to have handled his success extremely well, something he attributed in part to his coaches and in part to his mental conditioning coach, Trevor Moawad, who has asked him to write down positive affirmations of what he envisions himself doing before every game.
"I couldn't be any happier with the way I'm playing and the support system I have around me," Johnson said. "I know things didn't go the way I wanted it to go in Europe, but I learned a lot as a soccer player. I got a second chance, and I'm not going to take it for granted."