Major League Soccer has been a launching pad for many an overseas career for United States national team players, from Tim Howard, to Clint Dempsey, right on up to recent émigré Geoff Cameron. Sometimes though, the league can serve a different purpose, as a landing spot for a player in need of a career boost. New York Red Bull striker Kenny Cooper is one who has benefitted from returning to MLS after his foreign adventure failed to pan out. U.S. World Cup veteran Benny Feilhaber, of the New England Revolution, is another who turned to MLS when he needed a career regroup in 2011.
This season has been no different, with Eddie Johnson and Feilhaber’s teammate Lee Nguyen two players who have benefitted from a move back home. Neither are in the national team picture at the moment, nor are Cooper and Feilhaber for that matter. Still, the comforts of home have had a palliative effect on these two players whose careers had become nomadic.
When the Revolution announced that attacking midfielder Nguyen, pronounced Win, was cutting his season short to undergo shoulder surgery, it was an unfortunate end to a fine first season in New England. It was also in an odd way, a positive sign for Nguyen’s career. Normally surgery is not a positive thing for an athlete’s career, but with the Revolution out of the playoffs, the team elected to push Nguyen’s surgery forward so that he would be ready for the start of next season.
This move said that the Revolution regarded Nguyen as an important player for their future, and that Nguyen’s decision to return to Major League Soccer had been a good one. Texas born and raised, the son of Vietnamese parents, Nguyen was an American soccer phenom, who won the 2004-2005 Gatorade Boy Soccer Player of the Year and represented the U.S. at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship. No less a soccer mind than Guus Hiddink was impressed, and with just one year at Indiana University under his belt, Nguyen signed with PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Nguyen would make just one appearance for PSV, before moving on to Denmark to play for Randers, interestingly the club where Charlie Davies is now continuing his own career odyssey. Nguyen earned the only three U.S. senior caps of his career, so far, in a 2007 friendly versus China, and in two Gold Cup matches. Then Nguyen fell off the map for most observers, re-appearing more as a curiosity than anything else, when his soccer travels took him to Vietnam.
Nguyen was a big deal in his ancestral homeland, and he spent two years there, before making his way, finally to MLS. Nguyen had never played in the league, having initially turned down an offer from the league, before heading to Indiana, and then on to the Netherlands.
While Nguyen remained off the radar of the American soccer public, Eddie Johnson had no such luxury. Johnson had burst onto the scene with a goal in his first full national team match. Johnson scored in his debut against El Salvador, in a World Cup qualifier in October 2004. When Johnson followed up with a hat trick against Panama just a few days later, U.S. soccer had their latest savior. EJ tallied seven goals in his first six national team qualifiers. Sure the opposition wasn’t great, but these were World Cup qualifiers, not friendlies, and the dial on the hype machine was cranked to high.
Then some untimely injuries slowed Johnson, as reports of attitude problems began to circulate. Dallas shipped Johnson to Kansas City, where he was a bust in his first year, scoring just two goals. But Johnson bounced back in a big way in 2007, scoring 15 goals in just 24 games. Johnson’s natural gifts were plain for all to see, with his blazing speed making him almost unmarkable. Back to back hat tricks highlighted Johnson’s season, and to no one’s surprise, that January he was off to Fulham.
Thus began the Eddie Johnson travelling show. Fulham loaned EJ to Cardiff in the English Championship, where he played a lot, 30 games, but scored little, just two goals. Johnson came back to Fulham, didn’t play much, didn’t score at all, and was sent out on loan again. He relocated the net during his stay at Aris, in Greece, striking five goals in only 14 games, but back in England, nothing. Another look from Fulham, and yet another loan to a Championship side, this time Preston North End, produced zero goals from the one time prolific goal poacher.
Not surprisingly, that prolonged dry spell cost Johnson his spot on the national team in the run up to the 2010 World Cup. All the while Johnson endured a steady drumbeat of abuse from the same people that had once embraced him as the future of American soccer. The internet was an especially cruel place for the erstwhile goal scorer, where he was regularly derided as lazy, uncaring, and full of himself.
There was little Johnson could say, as a striker goals tell the story, and there just weren’t enough of them. When his Fulham contract expired after the 2011 season, it seemed like it was time for Johnson to come home. But it wouldn’t be easy. A first attempt to re-join MLS failed to come to completion, and then a move to Puebla in the Mexican League was agreed, until it wasn’t. Puebla called off the signing, saying Johnson had failed his physical, which Johnson would eventually deny.
Still it was enough to put Johnson in the crosshairs of his critics once again. The old charges popped up again, lazy greedy, etc. Eventually Johnson landed in Seattle, on a team that thought enough of him to send two popular players, Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle, to Montreal to acquire him.
The deal has proved to be a boon for Seattle and Johnson both. After a period of adjustment, Johnson and Seattle’s talented young Colombian striker Fredy Montero, have become dangerous propositions for any MLS back line. Johnson leads the club with 13 goals, while his fellow MLS All-Star Montero has netted 12 times to date, with six assists thrown in.
Unlike Nguyen, the final chapter on Johnson’s season has yet to be written, as he heads into the playoffs with the Sounders. What the 25-year-old Nguyen, and Johnson, still just 28, have in common is that they have plenty of good soccer left in them. Both have re-energized once promising careers at home after sojourns abroad that weren’t all they had hoped. Both have been mooted as possible call-ups to the national team in the coming months, with Johnson getting the most hype. It may never happen, but both players have shown by their successful returns that, Thomas Wolfe be damned, sometimes you can go home again.