With the World Cup just three months away, the polarizing U.S. national team striker is starting anew with D.C. United.
The club's prized offseason acquisition was still speaking to the media, much to his restless teammates' chagrin. Johnson, naturally, didn't want to keep them waiting. For all of the goals, caps and accolades that fill his resume, he's still new to the United family.
"I'm at 13 years as a professional soccer player," Johnson told Goal USA from the Carolina Challenge Cup preseason tournament. "I know what it means to be a new player. You know first impressions are everything."
For Johnson, getting off on the right foot with his new club is critical. After spending the past year and a half resurrecting his U.S. national team career, the 29-year-old in the coming months has hopes of securing a trip to Brazil for his second World Cup — eight years after his first.
A change of scenery so soon before world soccer's showcase carries inherent risks. Four unfruitful years with English side Fulham dropped Johnson out of the national team picture, and two productive seasons with Seattle (26 goals) played him back in. So leaving the Sounders for what in 2013 was the worst attack in MLS history (0.65 goals per game) might not seem ideal.
On the plus side for Johnson, he's not United's only notable reinforcement. Veterans Fabian Espindola and Davy Arnaud figure to add further punch to United's attack, while a rebuilt back line should stabilize matters at the other end.
As Johnson said, "It's good that a lot of the new players are veteran players. They understand this league and what it takes to be successful."
The change in clubs also gives Johnson an opportunity to amend what's become a polarizing image. His desire for a raise from his $150,000 base salary — made clear with an August goal celebration in which he mouthed "pay me" for the cameras — paved the road for his Seattle exit.
A widespread debate of his character ensued. Is the talent worth the temperament? To United coach Ben Olsen, Johnson's teammate at the 2006 World Cup, it's been a non-issue.
"He takes us to another level," Olsen said. "He's a good guy, and he's fitting in. He's an emotional guy like a lot of players in this league and he's got character, and we've got a couple of those guys. But I don't mind that."
Johnson is quick to acknowledge his actions can be "misperceived." Shaped by a rough upbringing, the Bunnell, Fla., native says fiercely protecting himself and those closest to him has become a reflex. He also explains his pleas for a new contract have been fueled by a desire to take care of his two young children, Zoe and Elijah, who live with his ex-wife in Seattle.
"I grew up as one of three in the inner city where you always had to take up for yourself, defend yourself," Johnson said. "I always had to look after my older sister and my younger brother. That's how I've always been. I've always had to fight for everything in my life."
Added United and U.S. national team goalkeeper Bill Hamid: "I think there's a huge misunderstanding. But unfortunately the media and the critics will be the media and the critics. Everybody has their opinion, but I think he's a good guy. He's very passionate about his job, about his career, about providing for his family."
Should Johnson hit the ground running with United and earn that ticket to Brazil, he'll complete an unlikely arc. In 2006, he was painted as the Americans' brightest young star but ended up making just two scoreless appearances off the bench.
It turned out the underwhelming tournament was a sign of things to come. Even though a loan to Greek side Aris helped Johnson make a late push for Bob Bradley's team four years later, he ultimately had to watch from home as the USA went with the inexperienced quartet of Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle up top.
"No disrespect to the strikers that were there, but I feel like I was just as good as them," Johnson said. "At the end of the day, it doesn't mean that you're not a good player, that you don't deserve to go. It just means that you don't fit the system that the manager is trying to build — and I'm OK with that."
Although tackling a fresh start with United would be worrying to some at this point in the World Cup cycle, Johnson isn't concerned about reinventing himself. He's got that part down.
It was in October 2012 that Johnson returned to the U.S. fold for a pair of World Cup qualifiers, with a brace against Antigua and Barbuda marking his first international goals in nearly four and a half years. Under Jurgen Klinsmann, he now has seven goals in 20 appearances.
"I knew I still had another opportunity to try to put myself in a position to make the next" World Cup, Johnson said. "I got that opportunity, and I've made the most of it."
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