When the USA takes on Trinidad & Tobago Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Galavision) at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., all eyes will be on Eddie Johnson whether or not he takes the field. If there's one Concacaf team against which Johnson seems most capable of clearing out his funk, it's T&T. In two of the last three meetings between the nations - the Gold Cup last year and in a World Cup qualifier three years ago - Johnson has scored.
Playing the first home qualifier of the semifinal round after grinding out 1-0 wins in Guatemala City and Havana, the USA might not only win an unprecedented fifth straight qualifier, it can do so in some style if the attackers can really step up.
Signs of a Johnson breakout are negligible. He hasn't played yet in the semifinal round. His one goal in five games this year came as the U.S. routed Barbados in June.
He scored only twice in 11 games last year, though his other goal aside from that in the Gold Cup came against Argentina at the Copa America, a fact which seems to get lost in the blistering criticism he receives when his name reappears on U.S. rosters, supposedly at the expense of Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Charlie Davies, or Kenny Cooper.
Many American fans have given up hope he'll recover the magic - or even a semblance of it -- he displayed by scoring six goals in his four national team appearances, but his coaches haven't.
Despite his struggles with fame, money, and a rocky move to English soccer - a rough start with Fulham last spring has prompted a loan to Cardiff City, which tried to buy Cooper from MLS in July - Johnson can still flat-out terrorize opponents as no other U.S. player can except Landon Donovan.
Johnson's fast, he's strong, he's bold, and when his mind is in the game he can outpace tacklers or simply overpower them.
Johnson did just that 3 ½ years ago, in Port of Spain as the U.S. opened up the Hexagonal with a 2-1 victory. He stormed free down the right to center a ball Donovan re-directed to Eddie Lewis to score the second goal after he'd notched the first himself with a powerful header from a Steve Cherundolo cross.
That header marked the sixth goal of his remarkable run. The following month, he scored in a friendly against Honduras and a qualifier against Guatemala. Then in May, he injured an ankle during preparations for a friendly against England, and it's been uphill ever since despite scoring 15 goals for Kansas City in 2007 prior to his move to Fulham.
Until he left as national team coach following the 2006 World Cup, Bruce Arena deflected criticism of Johnson by citing his youth and immaturity. Since replacing Arena, Bob Bradley has dropped references to youth and gone with exemplary prowess in training sessions.
At age 24, the youth card can no longer be played but despite Johnson's recent struggles, Bradley values experience in qualifying competition, which Adu, Altidore and Cooper lack. (Adu didn't help his cause at the Olympics by taking a foolish caution in the Netherlands game that suspended him for the final match against Nigeria.)
In eight qualifiers, Johnson has scored eight goals.
If the U.S. beats T&T, qualification is practically assured and Bradley can use the final three semifinal matches to test some youngsters (Adu, Altidore, Davies, etc), review a few MLS prospects (Cooper, Kljestan, Clark, et al), and begin the process of getting ready for the Hexagonal. And maybe drop a few players as well.
The U.S. is sitting nicely atop Group 1 with six points from its first two qualifiers, and T&T - a 3-1 winner away to Cuba in its opener -- has been rocked by the departure of longtime veteran and captain Dwight Yorke, who walked out on his team after it conceded a late goal to tie Guatemala, 1-1, in Port of Spain on Saturday.
T&T defender and former Rev Avery John is suspended after picking up his second yellow card in that game.
Cherundolo is eligible to play after sitting out the Cuba game with a suspension and is likely to replace Frankie Hejduk at right back.
Another possible change is Eddie Lewis, who came on as a sub in Havana, starting either at left mid instead of DaMarcus Beasley, or playing left back in place of Heath Pearce.
Brian Ching also scored in that Gold Cup game against T&T last year, and he set up Clint Dempsey to score the only goal in Havana, so this may not be an opportunity for Johnson, who is closely watched by his coaches in training, every minute, every day. But at some point the call-ups must translate to lining up.
"Eddie is a good person and a good soccer player," says Curt Onalfo, who mentored Johnson as Kansas City head coach and U.S. assistant under Arena. "But at the end of the day it's going to be up to him."