Sounders banking on Johnson

  • By John Boyle Herald Writer
  • Thursday, March 15, 2012 11:25pm
  • SportsSports

For three years, the Sounders have started Fredy Montero at one forward spot. And for three years, the team has searched for a permanent solution at the other.

Like the Mariners and their seemingly endless search for a left fielder, or the Seahawks and their revolving door at left guard since 2006, the Sounders have tried countless options up front along with Montero, but through three seasons, and for a variety of reasons, nothing has stuck.

As Seattle prepares to open its 2012 Major League Soccer season Saturday, it is banking on Eddie Johnson finally changing all of that. Johnson, a 27-year-old forward with significant U.S. National Team experience on his resume, was acquired in a trade last month that sent two fan favorites, Michael Fucito and Lamar Neagle, to Montreal.

This wasn’t a let’s-bring-the-guy-in-and-see-how-it-works-out kind of move. No, it was a big, risky trade that the Sounders’ bosses are counting on helping get the team over the hump.

And if Seattle is finally going to take the next step, which would be to make a run in the playoffs after three straight first-round exits, a lot of its success almost certainly will be the result of the play of Montero and Johnson up front. Seattle already was the highest scoring MLS squad in 2011, but if the team has finally found a long-term partner for Montero, the Sounders should be downright lethal on the offensive end.

“I think we can present some pretty good problems to opponents,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said following last month’s trade. “… The defense has to spread itself out a little bit. You can’t concentrate on Eddie Johnson, because Montero’s going to bring it.

“If you (focus on) Montero, then Eddie’s going to bring it. If you concentrate on Mauro (Rosales), then those two are going to hurt you, if you concentrate on the two forwards, then our two wide guys are going to hurt you. … Eddie helps us in that diversification and makes us a more dangerous team.”

In all likelihood, Johnson won’t be able to make his mark in Saturday’s opener because of injuries. He already was slowed in the preseason by a hamstring injury, then in Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League game, he suffered a hip flexor injury after playing as a second-half sub.

Eventually, however, Johnson will be a fixture up front for Seattle, and how well that trade works out for the Sounders won’t just depend on Johnson’s play alone, but rather how he and Montero coexist as an attacking duo.

Not every forward is the same, and they don’t always work well together. Blaise Nkufo, a Swiss star who was signed in 2010, was a very good player when he came to Seattle, but he and Montero didn’t compliment each other well, and Nkufo lasted less than one full season. Seattle has tried a number of options up front, and some have had varying levels of success, but in Johnson the team is expecting another double-digit goal scorer.

Johnson and Montero believe they can flourish playing together, though both realize there is a lot of room to grow, particularly with Johnson missing a lot of preseason training with the hamstring injury.

“We haven’t had time to play a lot together, but what I see from him, he’s a very smart player, very fast player, and that’s all you have to know,” said Montero, whose 43 career goals in all competitions and 34 in league play are both franchise bests.

“When you’re playing with a smart player, it’s going to be easy to play together. The key here is what we can do for the team. He can run and I can use the space he leaves for me, and vice versa. That’s going to be important to have good movement up front.”

In the time he has spent watching training, Johnson has studied his new teammates, and believes that he and Montero — as well as the rest of the attacking players — can thrive together.

“I’ve been really trying to understand the players around me and learning how they play, where they like to play the ball and where they like the ball, and I think it’s going well,” Johnson said. “Fredy is a player who likes to come back and drift wide and come back deep and get the ball, and that helps me out a lot, because I’m a forward who likes to stay high in between the two center backs and make runs between the center backs.

“But it is going to take some time playing together. He’s a great player, a wonderful player and it’s easy to play with a guy with a great football philosophy like Fredy. I think the way he plays and the way I play is going to create a lot of problems.”

And even though forwards are defined by the goals they score, both Johnson and Montero agree that there will be plenty of goals to go around to keep both happy.

“In this attacking six, pretty much everyone can score goals,” Johnson said. “This team will create goal-scoring opportunities, there will always be chances, so that’s something we’re not worried about.”

Johnson certainly will be motivated to make this partnership work. A few years ago, he was a rising star in American soccer. At the age of 20, he already had his first goal for the national team. By the time he was 22, Johnson was playing in the World Cup, and after a successful seven-year MLS career, he was off to England to play for Fulham at 24.

However, Johnson’s career trajectory stopped climbing when he went oversees. He struggled to find a role with Fulham and bounced around looking for a home, playing on loan for two second-tier English teams as well as a team in Greece. He then explored playing in Mexico last winter, but that didn’t pan out either. In that time he also missed the cut for the America’s 2010 World Cup squad.

Now Johnson, who calls himself his own worst critic, is back in MLS and ready to prove to himself and everyone else that his best days are still ahead of him. For starters, that will mean helping Sounders FC reach new highs, but he also hopes it means another shot at representing his country.

“I’m 27 years old,” he said. “If I said I didn’t want to get back to the national team level again, I’d be lying. I was fortunate to play in a World Cup, and I just missed out on the last one, and if you ask me, there will be more. My body feels just as good, I’m just as fast, and I’m still learning. So I feel like I have a lot more good years in me.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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