Something went wrong. Once an ebullient, positive force of energy, he is now a shell of himself on most plays. This is yet another team for him, the eighth team he's been on in 14 years.
Few Major League Soccer teams will have him, this former wunderkind of U.S. Soccer who once could score goals whenever he wanted thanks to a wicked combination of speed and technical wizardry, like a soccer sorcerer who cast spells in muggy Panama, scenic Costa Rica and dry South Africa.
Eddie Johnson, a player once a smiling terror on any soccer field on Earth is now biding his time at D.C. United, taking his frustrations out by issuing heavy challenges on players--like the nasty ones he levied on Real Salt Lake players on Saturday, Aug. 9 during RSL's 3-0 win.
By halftime, Johnson's night to forget in Salt Lake City, amid an 85-degree cloudless sky, was over. Even the perfect weather had no clue what Johnson was all about on Saturday night--most of all RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who exchanged jerseys with Johnson in the tunnel at halftime thinking this legend's night was over.
To summarize how strange Saturday night's game was, Johnson not only exchanged jerseys with Beckerman after halftime, Johnson stayed on the field for D.C. afterwards, halfheartedly receiving a ball right out of the locker room--which he dribbled right into an RSL midfielder. Johnson's compatriot on many World Cup teams, Landon Donovan, just announced his impending retirement this week--and perhaps Johnson's isn't far behind, either.
In a way, it's sad to see a player go in that direction. When Johnson lost his focus early in the second half, his love for the game--which he had for so many years--seemed like it was gone. Yet Johnson stayed on the field. Nobody knew why. He chased the ball, he chased RSL players around the attacking third and then took a breather after they blew past him.
Maybe Fabian Espindola, the great former Real Salt Lake goal poacher knew how to help--he entered early in the second half to provide support up top to Johnson. Espindola looks much different than he did in Salt Lake. In fact, if you saw him at the mall you probably wouldn't even recognize him with his short haircut--considering the Argentine sniper once wore his hair long and unruly in conservative Utah.
Times change. Just as Johnson is no longer the immovable force of nature he was in Bruce Arena's heyday with the US soccer team, so too is Espindola to a lesser degree. Both players are still dangerous and capable of striking for a goal at any given moment--Espindola has seven goals for D.C. this year--but that fighting spirit that made them who they were is somewhat gone, a remnant of a bygone era in MLS.
Even Espindola, long considered a bit of a maverick, was happy to be back in the place he considered his home. “It feels great. It's good to be back here. I always liked the people here, so it's great to be back," Espindola said post-game.
At times on Saturday night, you saw the old Espindola resurface. A poorly played pass into the Argentine early in the second half resulted in Espindola making a face at a D.C. United teammate who just tried to show him up with a ball that was a bit too cheeky for his liking.
Neither Johnson nor Espindola would want to be a footnote--but they were on Saturday night, and they are. It's just that footnotes often make great stories. The beginning of the end is always hard for people to comprehend--especially if the night belonged to someone else.
Your wife has cancer and she's told she has only weeks to live. Or, your mother is losing her memory and you have to consider sending her to a nursing home. These are the decisions you are sometimes forced to make.
Soccer is a beautiful game. It has a way of turning grown men into little kids every time they get that twinkle in their eye, that boyish grin they had when they were wearing that cheap but ever-important imitation jersey of their hero as they attempted to do what their hero, and only their hero, could do.
Espindola still has that grin, that impish, clever look. Johnson's lost his, somewhere between Fulham in the English Premier League where he was cast off like a has-been even if he was in his prime, or at his other stops in the chilly fog of England and Wales.
Johnson's career is kind of like the ball was on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium, being ping ponged at will between areas on grass until the 70th minute when Johnson got that ball, finally, by himself on the left flank in RSL's end. RSL got those early three goals--then sat back to protect Nick Rimando's record setting shutout attempt. This counterattacking chance by D.C. was a by-product of that.
Johnson saw the ball squirt into the open space just shy of the left corner of RSL's penalty box and went. He blasted effortlessly past RSL defender Carlos Salcedo as the ball bounced once, further bobbling into RSL's box. In no time flat, Johnson hurled his foot forward, launching a rocketing half-volley attempt towards RSL's near post.
Rimando--who had to be tired of hearing about not getting said shutout by now--leapt to his right post, diving to do anything to prevent Johnson's world-class shot from going in. As a goalkeeper, your body counts as much as your fists and hands and Rimando used it all, letting Johnson's powerful strike bounce right off his torso.
If you want to look at this game another way, RSL was more than willing to use bodies as shields to prevent DC United from scoring--and D.C. wasn't. RSL moved the ball around and over D.C.'s bodies for a Joao Plata header to open the scoring, and even moved the ball between D.C.'s legs, allowing RSL defender Chris Schuler to have the game of his life with a brace in the first 25 minutes.
Time passed, and hands were placed on chests as D.C. United players shoved out of frustration. About the only thing RSL didn't do Saturday night to the petulant D.C. United players was give them a finger wag like Pep Guardiola gave to MLS All-Stars coach Caleb Porter. Almost every D.C. United challenge was harsh. Plata and Javier Morales both limped off sometime in the second half, victims of D.C.'s physicality.
Espindola got one last good chance on a free kick outside RSL's 18 yard box, chipping it around RSL's wall and directly into--not away from--Rimando, who scooped up the sophomoric attempt easily. The referee was in a good mood, giving this game just two minutes of stoppage time.
The ball bounced around a few times more and the whistle blew. Rimando--who didn't want to say anything about the record before--smiled impishly and raised his fists into the air pumping them twice, then put them down just as quickly taking a deep, cleansing breath. He made just two saves on this night, snaring one shot apiece from Johnson and Espindola.Yet Rimando got his record-breaking, 113th shutout in Major League Soccer.
“First of all, I don’t think that any shutout is just for myself. I might have my name on the shutout but it’s a committed effort from the team. This is not only my record. My name is on it but there are a lot of guys that should be getting credit for this too. Nat Borchers, Eddie Pope, Ryan Nelson, Chris Schuler, Tony Beltran, there are a lot of players. Man, I’ve been around a long time. But there are a lot of people that need to get credit for the record that I achieved tonight," Rimando said post-game.
Johnson and Espindola walked back into the tunnel after wishing their opponents and a handful of fans a good game, again footnotes on a night that rightfully belonged to Rimando and Real Salt Lake--though you'll never forget the day that two former greats may have walked into your stadium for the last time.