Hair dyed bright, blazing yellow, a lightning bolt shaved along one side of his head, USA striker Eddie Johnson is hard to miss at the moment. Even so, El Salvador’s defence lost track of him totally, and just 14 seconds after entering the pitch as a sub in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarter-final - his first game of the tournament - that shock-top of his was put to good use, slamming the ball into the top corner.
“I’ve never scored one that fast,” he told FIFA.com. It was his first touch of the tournament and it put the Americans 3-1 up with an hour gone. It was a crucial goal, and one which set the States on their way to a 5-1 victory. Making a substitution on a corner-kick is unorthodox to say the least, but US coach Jurgen Klinsmann – who recently helped revive Johnson’s career after some testing times – is a man who likes to go his own way.
“You have to take what the game gives you, and Landon Donovan put in a powerful corner right away to the back post,” Johnson said. “All I had to do was rise and head it back the other way.”
Talk turned, inevitably, to his new, and much talked-about, hairstyle. “It’s just hair, it’ll grow back,” he dismissed with a shrug. “But I’m feeling it right now; it’s definitely getting me some notoriety.” The cameras were pointed at Johnson’s head once again in the 78th minute, when he nodded on for Donovan to score in the lopsided win, one which sets up a semi-final with Honduras in Dallas, Texas on Wednesday evening.
Johnson missed out on the USA’s scorching performances of the first round. “I watched the games on TV and kept a close eye on what was going on,” the Seattle Sounders forward said, before Klinsmann brought him into the squad, along with Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Alan Gordon, on the eve of the knockout rounds. “I didn’t know he was going to call me in, but it’s an honour for me and I want to reward the faith.”
It’s not the first time Klinsmann’s call has sparked something in Johnson. Last year, after difficult club stints in England and Greece, and after being cut from the national team on the eve of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the German called him back to the national team. A free-scoring return to Major League Soccer ended speculation that Johnson’s promising career had reached a disappointing plateau and Klinsmann knew what he could offer.
“He’s given me so much confidence, bringing me back,” Johnson said of Klinsmann, who has revamped the US national team since taking over two years ago.
It’s a respect that works the other way too, with Klinsmann saying of the player: “Watch his games and his drive, the hunger that he has, the way he chases defenders and the way he creates.”
Tall, lean and fast, Johnson made his debut for the senior national team all the way back in 2004 when he was still just a teenager. Four goals in his first two games spurred talk of this phenomenon being the future of the US national team. Things didn’t always go his way, but Johnson, now 29, has matured, becoming not just a reliable goal-scorer for Klinsmann, but a leader.
“In this squad here at the Gold Cup, I’m one of the guys with the most experience,” the veteran said of the 2006 FIFA World Cup, now approaching his 55th cap. “The young guys look to me when the games get hard. I know how to deal with it, and when you show leadership, it’s contagious.”
Virtual trials for Brazil 2014
The Americans have scored 16 goals in their four games so far. Attack is clearly being stressed. Johnson is matter of fact about the goal avalanche. “Every one of the players in this team wants to make it hard for the coach when it comes time to pick his squad for the World Cup in Brazil next year,” Johnson said, who has played an important role in helping the US in topping the Brazil 2014 Hexagonal qualifying group after a poor start.
“This Gold Cup is a showcase. I know I want to score as many goals as I can, because I want to go to Brazil. We want to win something, too,” Johnson added, noting the US have not won this CONCACAF Cup of Nations since he helped lift the laurels back in 2007.
Standing between the Americans and a place in the final on 28 July in Chicago is Honduras. “They’re a good team, and if you’re not ready to play the game right, they’ll turn you over,” he said, a veteran of the side that lost to Honduras in San Pedro Sula to open USA's final round of Brazil 2014 qualifying. “Things are gelling, and clicking right now,” he said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”
Klinsmann and the rest of the US camp will be hoping Johnson can keep heading in the right direction, too.