photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
BRADENTON, Fla. — As the U.S. Under-23 men's national team played an intra-squad scrimmage on Thursday afternoon, Eddie Johnson sat in the stands at IMG Soccer Academy making observations, smiling and cracking jokes with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and Montreal Impact head coach Jesse Marsch.
Johnson was in a good mood, and for good reason.
It was only a few hours earlier that Mexican club Puebla announced the signing of Johnson, a move which officially ended his extended time as a free agent, an eight-month spell of inactivity.
Johnson, 27, last played in a competitive match in late April for Preston North End, and while three quarters of a year seems like a long time to go without playing soccer, Johnson was not frustrated.
At least not in the beginning.
"I came home in the off-season as a free agent. The day as I actually was flying, my cousin passed away who was really close to me, my younger cousin," said Johnson. "Considering how close we were, mentally it was a hard time for me and my family as well.
"It took me time to heal and get over that, and about three months after my cousin passed away that's when I started missing soccer again. It was one of those situations where I knew I had to do what was best for me and my family."
Johnson began to explore his options. He wanted regular playing time and thought of returning to MLS. After negotiating with MLS, Johnson verbally agreed to a deal with the league in mid-August. MLS executive Vice President Todd Durbin made it public shortly thereafter, but before Johnson could make it official, the World Cup veteran had second thoughts and backed out of the deal.
"I think every individual, every person has their own self goals, and one of my goals was as clear as it can be: Find a club where I know I'm going to play at a decent level where I was going to still be able to get to where I want as a professional soccer player," said Johnson. "You go back to square one, you go back to a league where you understand it, you know it's changed a lot, you know it's a lot better than when I was coming through and you know a lot of familiar faces. You know about the league.
"Then at the last minute, I decided, 'You know what, I'm still 27 years old, there's a lot more soccer in me. I still want to prove this to myself that I can make it abroad'," Johnson said. "It's one of those things where I backed out at the last minute. My mind at that time was 'Yeah I'm going to come back, get games and play so I can get myself back scoring goals and to the national team.'"
Having stayed in shape by training at IMG in Bradenton for the last month, Johnson will get his chance to rebound with a Puebla side that finished 12th in the table in Mexico's Apertura campaign. He will be coached by a man who is no stranger to American players in former Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio.
Osorio signed with Puebla in November, but Johnson doesn't think his move to Mexico boils down to just his new coach. Instead, Johnson believes the deal is a result of a compatriot opening the door for him, and other Americans, with his stellar play this past season.
"DaMarcus Beasley has been there and he's done well," said Johnson. "So I think it's one of those situations where an American player has gone over to a league and done well, so it gives them that much confidence in bringing other American players over.
"Given my situation, and my experience playing in MLS and going over in Europe, I think it was a situation where it was something where I wasn't going to cost the club any money. I guess I was the type of striker that they were looking for, that fits the system that they're looking to play."
Johnson also thinks that his experience playing for Greek side Aris Thessaloniki will pay dividends as he transitions to the style of play in Mexico. Johnson says the number of Latino players plying their trade in Greece makes the league there similar to Mexico, with more of the teams emphasizing technical ability and quick passes.
Johnson is hoping that his familiarity with the style of play leads to a strong showing with Puebla, which in turn leads to his return to the U.S. national team.
"I've got many friends that are still in the national team, young and middle-aged. I think I fall in that middle-age category (at) 27," said Johnson with a laugh before his tone turned more serious. "But I miss it. Whenever you've played for your country in a World Cup, and I was a little unlucky in making the last World Cup, I was in the mix but didn't make the final roster, but whenever you play for your country and you represent your country, and you know what that means and feels like when you put on the U.S. jersey, I miss that."
The last time Johnson played for the U.S. team was in October 2010 in a friendly against Colombia. Much has changed for the United States since then, including the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as the team's head coach.
Johnson admits he doesn't watch national team games nowadays. His rationale being that he is young enough to get back into the picture. He does, however, have an admiration for Klinsmann and admits to watching a lot of his highlights as a player.
"We've got the type of coach that the (United States) has never had," said Johnson. "That can add that American mentality with the playing philosophy that Jurgen Klinsmann grew up knowing as a soccer player."
With Puebla's pre-season for the Clausura campaign about to begin, Johnson is scheduled to depart to Mexico on Monday. It will be the latest adventure for a player who is in search of his goal-scoring touch, the same goal-scoring touch that earned him so much recognition early on in his career.
"I got the hunger again and I'm just as fast and stronger and as good of a player as I've ever been," Johnson said. "Now I think this opportunity that has come up has been a great opportunity for me and I'm going to make the most of it."
Johnson's long wait for a new club is over. All that is left for him to do now is deliver.