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Underrated Sounders: The enigmatic Eddie Johnson

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He wasn’t the easiest teammate, but he was undeniably productive.

Chivas USA v Seattle Sounders Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

During the first few installments of this series we looked at players who largely occupied uncomplicated places in our heart. Whether or not we felt like they were properly appreciated, no one really hated these players when they were here.

Eddie Johnson probably elicits much stronger emotions. Johnson spent two years with the Sounders and was probably far better than any of us realistically expected him to be when he was acquired in a trade shortly before the start of 2012. Despite that, Johnson was a polarizing figure both within the team and the fanbase. When he was traded away at the end of 2013, few seemed to miss him. But that’s also what makes him a great candidate for this series.

History

When Eddie Johnson joined the Sounders at the start of 2012, his career was very much at a crossroads. Five years earlier, he’d been a rising USMNT star who made a big money move to the English Premier League. Still just 27, Johnson hadn’t played a competitive match in nearly a year and hadn’t scored a club goal in five years.

But Chris Henderson — a former teammate of Johnson’s — thought there was something there. The Sounders agreed to trade two fan favorites — Lamar Neagle and Mike Fucito — to the Montreal Impact, who had picked Johnson in the allocation process. Johnson joined the Sounders about a week before a Concacaf Champions League match against Santos Laguna.

Johnson made a brief appearance in the match, but then got injured in the second leg. He made his first Sounders start on April 14 and scored his first goal in his next start. Johnson scored again in the following game — against the LA Galaxy — and would finish the season with a team-record 14 goals.

Johnson followed that up with another strong campaign, scoring 13 goals across all competitions and leading the USMNT with five goals during World Cup qualifying.

Playing style

When people say “if only our best athletes played soccer”, they’re probably thinking of someone like Eddie Johnson. Unlike most soccer players, Johnson simply looks like a professional athlete. Standing 6 feet tall and weighing about 180 pounds, he was built more like a corner back or a center fielder than a classic MLS No. 9. Unsurprisingly, Johnson was particularly good in the air and he and Mauro Rosales proved to be a particularly potent combo. Johnson also had world-class speed and was a constant threat to get in behind defenses.

The more underrated parts of Johnson’s game were his feet and tactical understanding. Although he could sometimes over-dribble, he was very good in possession and was probably the best hold-up player the Sounders had ever had at that point.

Trophies and highlights

Like Michael Gspurning, Johnson’s time in Seattle were the only two years the Sounders didn’t win a major trophy or advance to a MLS Cup final. The Sounders did qualify for the U.S. Open Cup final and advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2012, but came up short both times. It was also his missed penalty that gave Sporting KC the shootout win in the 2012 USOC final.

Among his highlights were the goal against UANL Tigres that put the Sounders into the Concacaf Champions League semifinals and allowed them to become the first MLS side to eliminate a Liga MX opponent from the competition.

The goal he may be most remembered for, though, is a header against the Columbus Crew that came after the Sounders were down a man. Following the goal, Johnson did his now infamous “pay me” celebration.

In many ways, the goal came to symbolize his time with the Sounders. It was undeniably well taken, a perfectly executed header off some wonderful service. But instead of celebrating with his teammates, Johnson mouthed the words “pay me” while rubbing his fingers together. To hear Johnson tell it, he was understandably frustrated that negotiations weren’t moving along. At the same time, it’s not hard to see why the Sounders were reluctant to invest in him despite his production.

Why he’s underrated

For better or worse, Johnson was not a player who allowed you to simply appreciate what he was doing. As someone who was a beat writer covering the team, I was constantly amazed at how insightful and self aware he could be one day and how difficult he could be the next. I’ve talked to enough of his former teammates to feel comfortable saying that he was very much the same way behind closed doors.

Brad Evans recently relayed a story about how Johnson gave a heartfelt talk to his teammates about how he only yells at them in an effort to see improvement. The same day at training, Marcus Hahnemann made a comment to Johnson about needing to track back. Johnson and Hahnemann soon found themselves engaged in a heated exchange.

But, as Johnson has pointed out, personalities like his aren’t exactly rare in the world of professional sports. Ego, after all, is what makes great players great and he’s hardly the first to use “it’s me against the world” as his primary form of motivation.

Whatever people may think of Johnson as a teammate, he was undeniably productive during his time with the Sounders. In the regular season, he scored at a clip of .54 per 90 minutes. The only players with better marks in club history are Raúl Ruidíaz (.64) and Obafemi Martins (.61). He also seemed to play his best in big games, scoring three playoff goals, two CCL goals and notching nine goals in 14 career starts against the Timbers and Galaxy, the Sounders’ two biggest rivals at that point.

The biggest shame is that Johnson’s career was cut far shorter than it deserved to be. Johnson only ended up playing one more season after leaving the Sounders, being forced to retire due to an enlarged heart. He has, however, enjoyed a bit of a second career as a coach where he’s had such notable pupils as Christian Pulisic.