By Paul Kennedy
) Eddie Johnson
retired from soccer. The announcement came as no surprise -- he has been suffering for a medical condition that kept him out of action since the end of the 2014 season -- but he said it didn't
entirely sink in until the halftime ceremony that was held during Sunday's D.C. United-Red Bulls game at RFK Stadium. His daughter Zoe
and son Elijah
were with him, and he said he was thankful to share the moment with his children and loved ones and fans.
Johnson never had easy relationship with
his fans, or his teammates, for that matter. Probably the last time he was in the national news was in August 2014 when he got into a spat on Twitter with D.C. United fans
. To one fan who suggested D.C. fans rewarded hustle from players even when their
production was down, Johnson famously tweeted, "You [expletives] have no soccer brains" and "I'm not here to please your town buddy."
He apologized, like he did earlier in the 2014 season
after he tried to explain his slow start after being traded from Seattle to D.C. United by telling MLSSoccer.com
, “In Seattle -- and no disrespect to the guys
that are here -- I felt like I didn’t have to run as much because we had better guys that had more quality on the ball.”
Johnson said he was always an emotional person,
growing up in the projects in Bunnell, Florida.
"I’ve always felt like this is something I’ve got to get better at," he told Washington reporters
after getting into it with D.C. fans.
"I’ve always tried to defend myself -- growing up where I grew up with no older brother you always have to take up for yourself. It was something that was bad timing -- there’s no excuses
Johnson said he was just human. "You remember the difficult times," he said, "and the good times as well."
The difficult times? There were many in his career.
He was arguably the most talented American forward of his generation and he scored only 24 goals in his first six MLS seasons. He earned a big transfer to Fulham after scoring 15 goals in 2007, but
never scored an EPL goal in 18 games over three seasons.
I'll remember the good times. He remains the only American male player to win a Golden Boot at a FIFA world championship,
finishing as the leading scorer at the 2003 Under-20 World Cup when the USA reached the quarterfinals and was seconds away from beating Argentina. He was good enough that Clint Dempsey
and Mike Magee
both could not get off the bench. He soon graduated to the senior national team and scored seven goals in his first
six World Cup qualifiers.
We all think about the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign as being a cakewalk -- qualifying with two games to spare when the USA beat Mexico, 2-0 -- but it
wasn't as easy as that. In 2012, Johnson rescued the USA against lowly Antigua & Barbuda with the two goals that allowed it to escape with a 2-1 win in the penultimate game of the semifinal round
of qualifying when advancement to the Hexagonal was no certainty.
Johnson never won a U.S. Soccer Player of the Year award, but he was the USA's most valuable player in the 12-month
period from October 2012 to September 2013 when it won the 2013 Gold Cup and qualified for the 2014 World Cup. Johnson was brought in for the late stages of the Gold Cup, scored with his first touch
and was instrumental in the USA's fifth regional championship. Who had the gamewinner in the 2013 Dos a Cero against Mexico? Johnson.
Despite all that, he didn't even get a sniff for the
2014 U.S. World Cup team. Jurgen Klinsmann
said it was "really, really difficult," not picking him for his 30-player short list, let alone the 23-player roster
for Brazil, but no one was surprised by Klinsmann's decision. In retrospect, Klinsmann could have used Johnson, who had played on the right wing and left wing and up front for the USA, just like he
could have used Landon Donovan
Johnson followed Donovan two years later in the national youth team program, and they remain the most talented
forwards to rise through the U.S. youth system over the last quarter of a century with the possible exception of Jozy Altidore
. For all three players, living up
to expectations has been hard. Probably none harder than for Johnson.
Whether you accepted his apologies or not, he was often forthright about his weaknesses. After his Twitter spat with
D.C. fans 15 months ago, he said the lesson was that he should probably avoid social media.
But the memory I will always have of Eddie Johnson was also from social media. It was a photo
he took with his kids in Seattle. I don't remember what he wrote or whether the photo was on Twitter or Instagram, or whether it was right before or right after the 2014 World Cup roster
announcements. But he was going through a terrible slump at D.C. United. It was an off day, and he had flown to Seattle, where he was visiting his children, who live with his ex-wife.
Johnson was going through difficult times, but he made sure everyone would remember the good times as well.