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From underdogs to legends

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Eddie Johnson and Mauro Rosales went from unheralded signings to stars in Seattle.

It turns out, Eddie Johnson just wants to be loved.
It turns out, Eddie Johnson just wants to be loved.

Not all underdogs are created equal. Sure, there are those who are beating the odds at every step only to succeed at the highest levels. But there are also players who start out strong, fade a bit and then shine again. Today, we look at two of those ones.

The Seattle Sounders have made a practice of signing players as “reclamation projects,” taking a chance on players who might need a change of scenery or a fresh start to flourish and reach their potential. Enter two of the best examples of that approach, Mauro Rosales and Eddie Johnson.

Rosales had played at a U-20 World Cup, the Olympics, earned a move to Ajax at the age of 23, and had appeared in World Cup Qualifiers and a Copa America for Argentina. Johnson was one of the youngest signings in MLS history when he joined FC Dallas (then the Dallas Burn) at the age of 17 in 2001, and after turning down a then-record-setting offer of $5 million from Benfica in 2005, he eventually moved to Fulham FC in the Premier League in 2008, having scored 41 goals and adding 13 assists in 127 appearances over seven seasons in MLS.

In spite of the brightness of their two rising stars, both players had been without a club for more than six months before they eventually joined the Sounders. They were, by most measures, underdogs the day they stepped onto the field in preseason with the Sounders.

By the end of January, the Sounders offseason should come into focus for players like Mauro Rosales.
By the end of January, the Sounders offseason should come into focus for players like Mauro Rosales.
Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE

Rosales, who had moved to Ajax after a strong start to his career with Newell’s Old Boys, had an eventful summer of 2004 where he earned his first caps with the full Argentine national team including a few World Cup Qualifiers, Copa América, and a trip to the Olympics. That was his last summer with the Argentine national team, though, and while he made 91 appearances across all competitions while in Amsterdam, he contributed a fairly pedestrian 12 goals and 15 assists in the two and a half seasons he spent with Ajax. In February of 2007 Ajax sold Rosales to River Plate for about two-thirds of what they had initially spent to sign him in 2004.

Rosales’ return to Argentina saw him used even less by River Plate than he had been with Ajax, and his production suffered as well, as he only managed 5 goals and 12 assists in 78 appearances from Feb. 1, 2007 to July 1, 2010. With no club after leaving River Plate that Summer, Rosales eventually seemed set to join Liga MX club Querétaro FC in January of 2011, but the deal fell through due to an alleged failed physical.

Seemingly damaged goods, Rosales rolled into preseason as an unnamed trialist with the Sounders that February. By the middle of March, Rosales had impressed enough to earn a contract, and went on to be a key contributor as he notched 5 goals and 10 assists in 26 MLS appearances, although he did miss the US Open Cup Final due to a knee injury, and he didn’t appear in the playoffs that season.

Johnson’s career seemed to hit hurdle after hurdle once he made his move to the Premier League to join Fulham. Following the transfer in January 2008, Johnson only made a handful of appearances with the USMNT, and only two of those came in any meaningful competition. On the club side, Johnson’s struggle continued as he was loaned out to team after team, appearing on the books for four clubs during his three and a half years across the Atlantic.

Between stints with Championship sides Cardiff City and Preston North End, a brief sojourn to Greece to play with Aris Thessaloniki, and a handful of run-outs with Fulham, Johnson managed to make 98 appearances in all competitions. In that time he picked up 11 goals and 9 assists, but three of those goals came in six appearances with the Fulham reserves. After leaving Fulham in July of 2011, Johnson too had appeared set to sign with a Liga MX club that December. He trained a couple of times with Puebla, but was released from camp having never officially signed a contract.

Johnson returned to his home state of Florida, where he ended up training with the Seattle Sounders during their preseason. Actually joining the club officially required use of the Allocation Order and a trade with the Montreal Impact that saw the Sounders send Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle to the Impact in exchange for Johnson.

Eddie Johnson reacts to his game-winning goal in the Seattle Sounders 2-1 victory over Chivas USA on Saturday.
Eddie Johnson reacts to his game-winning goal in the Seattle Sounders 2-1 victory over Chivas USA on Saturday.

Johnson hit the ground running almost as soon as he hit the field for Seattle, scoring in his third MLS appearance, and never really looked back. During 2012 Johnson scored 14 goals and added 3 assists in 28 MLS regular season appearances. To make that tally even sweeter, Rosales appeared in 27 MLS regular season games and had 3 goals and 11 assists, with six goals involving a Rosales assist on a Johnson goal.

Both players had relatively short tenures in Seattle — Johnson and Rosales both left in the same off-season following the 2013 season, having spent two and three seasons with the team, respectively — but in their brief time wearing the Rave Green, they put their names firmly in the team’s record books.

Johnson ranks 7th in goals scored, both in league play and overall, with 23 and 29. His 14 regular season goals in 2012 stood as the highest single season total for a Sounder until both Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins surpassed the mark in 2014. Johnson’s 3 post-season goals actually stands as the 5th most in team history, although three of the four players ahead of him are current players and Will Bruin sits just behind him with 2.

Rosales, in his three seasons in Seattle, provided 34 assists, which is good enough for third on the all-time leaders list. The biggest mark against Rosales is that he didn’t really show up in other tournaments, managing zero goals or assists in the playoffs, and a lone assist in the US Open Cup Final that the Sounders eventually lost to Sporting Kansas City.

Rosales and Johnson joined Seattle with a lot to prove, having arrived with multiple marks against them. They were, undeniably, underdogs, but by the time they moved on they had proven themselves worthy. They left their marks in the team’s record books, and in the case of Eddie Johnson, he even played his way into relevancy with the USMNT. Their rise from the position of failed Liga MX signings is the sort of thing that Patches O’Houlihan would surely be proud of.