Eddie Johnson is reborn. Anyone who has been watching him play for the Seattle Sounders is not surprised by this development, as it started more than six months ago when he joined the team. But even after scoring 14 goals in league play, one each in U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League and even the game-winner against Chelsea in the MLS All-Star Game, there were still plenty of people outside of Seattle who either didn't notice or simply didn't care.
As of a week ago, Eddie Johnson was still the precocious 20-year-old with tons of talent that never quite lived up to the hype, as far as many people were concerned. His inclusion into the United States national team was just another symbol of Jurgen Klinsmann's ineptitude. That he was starting in a World Cup qualifier, at left mid no less, was cause alone for Klinsmann to be fired.
Then Friday happened.
Johnson, who hadn't made an international appearance in two years, scored a pair of goals to salvage three points for a United States team that looked woefully inept against a country whose population is roughly equivalent to Renton's. To be sure, this was not a World Cup final or even a game against one of our real CONCACAF rivals, but it was three points the United States needed and Johnson was apparently the only player on the roster capable of delivering them.
It was not a perfect performance from EJ, far from it. He was playing as a left midfielder, after all, a position he has never played with the Sounders, and predictably struggled in possession. That the game could have been played in any random park in the greater Seattle area and been almost guaranteed to be in better condition obviously didn't help either.
But EJ battled through it. While many of his far more experienced teammates struggled to find their games, EJ basically let his come to him. Both goals on wonderfully timed runs. There were no concerns about style points, only a desire to get into the box and let his far superior athletic abilities take over.
This was the EJ we had all hoped would surface back when he first burst onto the scene.
It obviously remains to be seen whether or not Johnson has earned himself a more permanent spot on Klinsmann's squad. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, he plays a position that is as competitive as any. Players like Chris Wondolowski, Terrence Boyd and Jozy Altidore were all controversially left home.
But it would be a mistake to act as if this was "only" one game. EJ is not the same player who fans condescendingly nicknamed "Grown Ass Man" early on his career. He is not the forward who wanted to do everything but fight for headers in the box. He is not the man who became better known for off-the-field incidents than for his play on it.
Ever since Johnson was cut by Puebla, he has been a changed man. Sure, he's had some skirmishes with Sounders teammates. Sure, he's made some regrettable comments on Twitter. But his work ethic has been beyond question. His production has been stellar. He has learned to adapt his game to the players around him.
He's also scoring when games hang in the balance. Whether it was the goals he scored against Antigua & Barbuda, the game-winner he netted against Chelsea or any number of the ones he's scored for the Sounders, Johnson has shown an ability to step up his game when he's needed most.
Whether or not EJ starts on Tuesday against Guatemala, whether or not he plays a significant role going forward, let's at least acknowledge that he has engineered one of the more dramatic turnarounds in U.S. Soccer history. Let's also appreciate how great it has been to watch it unfold in our own backyard. Let's also remember that EJ is 28 and he's got a lot more soccer to play.