Sometimes, when he's not busy scoring goals at an astonishing rate, Eddie Johnson closes his eyes and recalls the day 13 years ago when soccer came to the projects. Tapping his mental hard drive, he sees a white man driving a green pickup on Bacher Street in Bunnell, Fla., a trail of black kids smiling and running toward the truck. And then he sees himself, at age nine, signing up to learn the game that would change his life. "It's like going to the mall with no intention of meeting your future wife, and then you meet this beautiful girl," Johnson says. "The only sports I played in the projects were basketball and football. I'd never even talked about soccer."
Funny, because these days the soccer world is talking about him. Since his national-team debut last fall, the 21-year-old Johnson has scored eight goals in eight appearances heading into this Saturday's friendly against England and next month's World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Panama. No American player has ever been so prolific so early in his career: Johnson needs only three more goals to become the U.S.'s alltime leader in World Cup qualifying. The planet's top clubs have taken notice. Johnson trained with Manchester United last December, and in March, Major League Soccer revealed that it had rejected a $4 million transfer offer for the FC Dallas forward by the Portuguese power Benfica.
With the speed and strength of a defensive back, the hops of a high-flying hoopster and the ball skills to beat defenders one-on-one, the 6-foot, 180-pound Johnson may be on his way to redefining the striker position in American soccer. You could see it when he rose to convert a crashing header against Trinidad and Tobago, or when he burned Jamaica's back line and buried a low bender far post, or when he bagged a hat trick in 18 minutes against Panama. "At the international level you need to be very athletic besides being a good soccer player, and he has all those qualities," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "He's been a proven finisher to date; now the challenge is consistency. He's young and getting better, but he's not even close to being the finished product."
Suddenly Johnson is hearing compliments from veteran teammates he grew up idolizing, whether it's forward Brian McBride ("You're something we've never had in U.S. soccer") or midfielder Claudio Reyna ("My coach [at England's Manchester City] talks about you all the time, but you're too pricey"). Adds 23-year-old U.S. captain Landon Donovan, "One of Eddie's best attributes is that he wants to get better and learn. He has every talent and skill available to him, and if he makes smart decisions, he's going to be phenomenal."
Just as significant as Johnson's rise is what he represents: the latest in a growing number of top-tier African-American soccer players. Of the 16 black players in the 70-member U.S. pool, six are either regular or occasional starters. "Kids see that, and it's part of what motivates them to play a sport and get better," Arena says. "They can make a living playing soccer, and they couldn't do that 10 years ago." In fact, Arena says, he could put an all-black U.S. lineup on the field (chart, page 64), a "considerable difference," he says, from when he took over in 1998.
"When there's a lot of black players on the national team," Johnson says, "we get more black inner-city people to pay attention to the game." Several U.S. stars are keen on introducing the sport to African-Americans at the grassroots level. Veteran defender Eddie Pope (from High Point, N.C.) has a foundation that helps provide equipment and playing opportunities to minorities. Midfield phenom Freddy Adu, a naturalized American who was born in Ghana and lives in Bethesda, Md., has brought soccer new fans from all backgrounds and is a spokesman for a Nike program that promotes physical activities for at-risk kids. Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (of Fort Wayne, Ind.) wants to increase his ambassador's role since becoming the first Yank to play in the European Champions League semifinals last month.
But Johnson's story alone may be an inspiration for many: He rose from poverty to become a charismatic, highlight-grabbing goal scorer. His mother, Lewanna, was a single parent who worked at as a child-care specialist, supporting her three children by three different men. Eddie, the middle child, hated the crime-infested housing project in Bunnell, a city of 2,200 an hour south of Jacksonville, and found his escape in the Flagler County recreational soccer league. He loved the challenges of juggling the ball, of beating three defenders at full speed, of making the goalkeeper dive the wrong way.
At 10, Johnson made the cut for an area travel team coached by Bob Sawyer. The Sawyers covered the costs of Eddie's travel expenses and welcomed him into their home. He started spending most of his free time there and became close friends with the Sawyers' son, Dustin. "Tears come down my face when I watch him play now," says Bob, a dean of students at Flagler Palm Coast High. "He's like a second son to me."
Johnson was selected for the Olympic Development Program as a 13-year-old, and two years later he earned a scholarship to the U.S. Soccer Federation's under-17 residency program at the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Johnson dominated on the U-17 team, scoring 23 times in 25 international games, and at 17 he was selected by Dallas in the second round of the 2001 MLS draft. Then his career screeched to a halt.
Stuck behind two MLS All-Star forwards, Johnson averaged only five starts and two goals over his first three seasons in Dallas. Worse, he gained a reputation as a pouter and a malcontent. He punted balls in anger across the road adjacent to the team's training field. He threw stacks of orange cones. He screamed at coach Mike Jeffries. "I didn't even want to play anymore," Johnson says. "I wanted a trade, but they wouldn't trade me. What are these people doing to me? But now I see it as, What was I doing to myself? It wasn't them. It was me."
Nobody has had a greater influence on Johnson's pro career than assistant coach Brian Haynes, who invited Eddie to live with him after his arrival in Dallas. From the day the 17-year-old confided that a friend of his had been shot in Florida, Haynes has straddled the duties of cajoling coach and fatherly counsel, with an emphasis on the latter. A former player for Dallas and Trinidad and Tobago, Haynes takes Johnson to breakfast with the rest of the family (wife Jeanne and children Jordan, 8, and Jonah, 5) on weekends and to the Fellowship of Frisco church on Sundays. In turn, Johnson respects the house rules, pays a small rent and pitches in for groceries.
"Brian and I were meant to be brought into each other's lives," says Johnson, who while growing up didn't have a relationship with his biological father. (He's a member of the military and is serving in Iraq.) "[Haynes] is a big-time Christian guy, and I was a kid who had a lot of talent that he didn't want to see go to waste. No coach had ever pulled me aside and said, 'Eddie, you have the potential to do this, but you have to be patient and wait for your time to come.' He taught me how to deal with situations when they aren't going right--and when they are."
"We've cried together developing that trust," says Haynes, 43. "And I've been brutally honest about things. I said, 'Eddie, you've got to prove yourself in the pros. So shut your mouth in training, work your tail off and get better.' When [the other coaches] saw how hard he was working, how he was fitter than every other player, no one could say a [bad] word to him."
In 2003, Johnson won the Golden Boot with four goals at the World Youth Championship, and the city of Bunnell renamed the field on which he first kicked a ball the Edward Johnson Soccer Field. New Dallas coach Colin Clarke made him a starter in '04; Johnson banged in 12 goals to tie for the MLS lead last season, and his national-team breakthrough soon followed. Yet those aren't the only changes that have taken place over the past two years. Besides cutting out references to himself in the third person, Johnson now uses such Anglicisms as literally, at the end of the day and bum (the result of his 10 days with Manchester United). Likewise, he has traded in what he calls his "Dirty South look" (gold chains, baggy clothes and gold caps for his teeth) for Diesel jeans, vintage T-shirts, Prada sunglasses and a Louis Vuitton man purse. "Ladies like tight jeans so their bum can look nice, and I like clothes that make my body look good," he says. "It's very Euro."
When and whether Johnson will take his Continental look to the source remains uncertain. MLS turned down a $3 million bid from Spain's Real Mallorca last winter in addition to the $4 million offer from Benfica. More-lucrative proposals may roll in during this summer's transfer window (July 1 to Aug. 31), but Arena prefers that Johnson remain in Dallas through next year's World Cup. "If he gets drawn into a new environment and has to get acclimated to Europe, then he's wasting an important year when he should play on a continual basis," the U.S. coach says. "Where he is right now is perfect."
Fully aware that he won't have enough national-team appearances to qualify for a U.K. work permit (and a spot in the English Premier League) until after the World Cup, Johnson is inclined to agree. "I look at the World Cup like it's going to make me or break me," he says. "I want to win a championship in MLS this year, and hopefully I'll keep doing well and get sold [to a European team] after the World Cup or a year after that. I don't mind being in America the next two years."
At week's end Johnson was negotiating an increase in his $110,000-a-year MLS contract, which expires in 2006. After the recent signing of Donovan to a guaranteed five-year, $4.5 million deal, MLS commissioner Don Garber acknowledges that the league is willing to compete with European clubs for a select group of young American stars. "We want kids to dream of playing for FC Dallas and being like Eddie," Garber says. "Our future is going to have us looking to these special players as the foundations for the sport, and we need to find ways to provide salaries that are competitive with other parts of the world. More important than that, we need them to believe in the league and their role in building the sport."
MLS's big decision may come after the World Cup, when there could be an eight-figure transfer bid for Johnson. But if the league is willing to cough up the cash, Johnson is willing to listen. "We tend to go overseas to make the good money," he says, "but if you can get it here, why not stay?"
He finishes his lunch at an eatery in Frisco, a sprawling suburb north of Dallas, and drives off in a gray 2004 Chevy Impala, its only extravagance a set of 20-inch rims. ("That's my first car, so I didn't want to get anything big," he says. "I'm not there yet.") Life is good these days. His mother traveled to Alabama to watch him play as a pro for the first time, in the U.S.'s 2--0 win over Guatemala in March, and he scored a goal for her. "He always used to keep kicking a cup from the kitchen around the house, but I never knew it would end up like this," says Lewanna, who now lives in a three-bedroom house in Palm Coast, Fla. "Now he says, 'See where that cup got me?'"
Johnson had five goals in nine games for FC Dallas through Sunday, and he soon plans on leaving the Haynes house. He's 21, after all. "It's time," Johnson says. "I'll still come around, but it'll be nice to have my freedom, and I can walk around my house buck naked if I want to."
And so Eddie Johnson's unlikely odyssey continues. He doesn't know the name of the man in the green pickup who introduced soccer to a kid from the projects 13 years ago. But Johnson does know this: He can do the same thing a thousand times over. ‚ñ†
Changing Face of U.S. Soccer
National coach Bruce Arena says he could field an all-African-American lineup, something he couldn't have done when he took over the team in 1998. Using players from the 2005 national-team pool, here's how that starting 11 (with their current clubs) might look. --G.W.
*TIM HOWARD, 26
Manchester United, England
*CORY GIBBS, 25
Feyenoord Rotterdam, the Netherlands
*EDDIE POPE, 31
Real Salt Lake, MLS
*OGUCHI ONYEWU, 23
Standard de Li√®ge, Belgium
TONY SANNEH, 33
Chicago Fire, MLS
COBI JONES, 34
Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS
CLYDE SIMMS, 22
D.C. United, MLS
FREDDY ADU, 15
D.C. United, MLS
*DAMARCUS BEASLEY, 23
PSV Eindhoven, the Netherlands
*EDDIE JOHNSON, 21
FC Dallas, MLS
EDSON BUDDLE, 24
Columbus Crew, MLS
*Frequent national-team starter