Every four years there are players around the world that are shockingly left off of their respective national team rosters for the World Cup, and every four years we wonder why talented stars such as Samir Nasri (France/Manchester City), Carlos Tevez (Argentina/Juventus), and Jermaine Defoe (England/Toronto FC) won’t be representing their countries on soccer’s greatest stage. Perhaps it’s a sign of the evolution of the sport in this country that the United States has a legitimate snub story, in leaving Eddie Johnson off the roster (above left; Photo: Tony Quinn), to discuss in 2014.
DC United’s newly acquired forward Eddie Johnson, a regular fixture during World Cup qualifying, was left off the provisional 30 man roster of the US National Team, which must be trimmed to 23 players by June 2 to comply with FIFA regulations on official rosters. While it could certainly be argued that Johnson was a stretch to lock down a starting role for the USA, he’s probably the most dangerous player the team has available to bring off the bench, and his versatility would have afforded national team manager Jürgen Klinsmann multiple tactical options for substitutions and injuries.
Leaving EJ off the World Cup team is the biggest mistake since Steve Sampson left Roy Lassiter at home in preference to Roy Wegerle. As a fan of both Roy’s I can almost appreciate the difficulty in picking one over the other, but the sheer absurdity of that choice was cause to dismiss Sampson before the team left for France in 1998. Johnson’s omission isn’t a Sampsonesque disaster, but it’s positively a head scratcher when you consider that players like Terrance Boyd, Chris Wondolowski, Joe Corona, Brad Davis, Maurice Edu, and Kyle Beckerman, who while fine players in their respective leagues, have no business taking the field in a World Cup match. Yes, all of those players are good, and many of them have helped the USA to qualify for Brazil 2014, but none more so that Johnson, and not one of them has proven that they can consistently compete on the international stage. In stark contrast EJ has proved that he can do exactly that, and not only does it ring with the unjust sting of a punch in the stomach, it’s a huge mistake to leave him behind.
Eddie Johnson scores clutch goals. Be it for club or country, if you need a goal late in a game, EJ is you man. But he’s not a selfish poacher, or a one dimension speed demon. He’s arguably the most versatile player on the roster, able to play as a pure striker, a target man, setup man, or as a withdrawn forward. He’s also adept on either side of the wing midfield, contributing to a possession game while making slashing penetrating runs. He’s good with his feet, whether shooting or passing, one of a handful of US players that can actually beat a defender off the dribble, and he’s better than anyone on the roster in the aerial game. On top of all of that, he’s pretty damn fast to boot.
The knock on Johnson allegedly has been his slow start/poor form in MLS. This is hogwash. It’s nitwittery espoused by the mindless stat-crazed fools playing fantasy soccer. Anyone paying attention to Eddie Johnson’s play with DC United this year would have seen him integrating effectively with new teammates, at least six of whom are new to the team themselves. Judging EJ of his lack of goal scoring through seven games with a new team, and that being one that lacks a play making midfielder, is just silly. It’s also ignoring the blossoming forward partnership that he’s forged with fellow newcomer Fabian Espindola. It’s discounting the fact that Johnson wins every head ball that comes his way. It’s ignoring the tireless off the ball runs he’s making while not getting proper service out of the midfield. Additionally claims that Eddie is in a scoring slump ignore the fact that he’s had goals for both DC United and the United States wrongly disallowed by poor officiating. The fact is that Eddie Johnson is as close to top form as any player in the USA player pool.
The poor from rationale doesn’t hold water. Aside from the fact that the label is inaccurate, it’s not consistently applied to the selection of the other players on the team. Jozy Altidore is coming off a wretched year in the English Premier League with Sunderland, a club he was counseled not to sign with in the first place. Yes, you can make excuse that Sunderland is a trash heap club, but he chose to go there, and by the end of the season he was not only not starting, but mired on the bench behind a cast of donkeys. Even so, Altidore made the provisional World Cup roster in spite of a much more arguable case of poor present form. He’ll be going to Brazil because he’s the best forward we have. And good for Jozy, he’s earned it. But so has Eddie.
The suggestions that Eddie Johnson is a bad influence in the locker room, or that he pouts and sulks when things down go his way, are a lot of after the fact rumor and speculation drummed out to rationalize his exclusion. Maybe there really is something to all of that, but there’s just a general absence of honesty to this angle. Meanwhile Eddie’s reaction to the snub was pure class:
— Eddie Johnson (@eddie_johnson7) May 12, 2014
That’s not the reaction of player that fits the negative stereotype labels applied to EJ, or of a bad locker room influence, or of a sulking child. That’s the reaction to heartbreaking news from a ‘Grown Man’ as my friend Andrew Dixon would say.
The most frustrating part of this is the conventional understanding that Johnson was probably beaten out by Wondolowski. Wondo is a great MLS player, and a goal poacher of the highest order – in MLS. The World Cup however, is clearly beyond his reach, and there will be no goals to poach against Ghana, or Portugal, or Germany. Scoring goals against these teams is going to require the ability to play at the international game speed. Eddie Johnson can do that, and Chris Wondolowski cannot. Now maybe Wondo gets trimmed from the final roster in two weeks and makes this 1v1 comparison moot, but it also holds to the likes of Boyd, Corona, Edu, Davis, and Beckerman just as well.
At some point you have to allow a manager to select his player pool, his starters, and his tactics, accepting that he’s trying to assemble best “team” rather than a collection of the best players. That’s fair enough, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow when asked to accept that there’s no place on the US team for EJ’s level of skill, athleticism, and consistent production on the international stage.
To put a positive spin on this the USA’s loss is DC United’s gain. Eddie will now not miss United games while the US team is in pre-tournament training, or games while the team is away in Brazil for the World Cup. He’ll have more time to settle in with his new club, where he can set about being a part of restoring this team to its winning ways, and we will be treated to his clutch play, passion for the game, and professionalism.
Take us home tonight, Eddie. We love you!