Earthquakes' Johnson re-emerging as attacking threat

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Ever since he scored 11 goals the San Jose Earthquakes’ otherwise forgettable 2009 season, Ryan Johnson has seemed like the living embodiment of a blues lyric.

To quote Albert King: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”

So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that even as Johnson comes off his best back-to-back performances of the season, there’s a looming caveat: After San Jose host New England on Saturday, Johnson will head out for at least three weeks’ worth of Gold Cup duty with the Jamaican national team.

“I’ll be leaving for the Gold Cup, so it’s kind of bad timing when it comes to things meshing together and working out,” Johnson said after notching his second assist in as many matches during San Jose’s 3-0 win against Columbus on Saturday. “I’m just trying to stay healthy and just keep putting out good performances so when I come back, hopefully I’ll have a place in the squad again.”

Johnson may have led the Quakes in scoring during that 2009 campaign, but as with last year, his best performances this season have come out wide on the left wing. In 2010, Johnson tallied a career-best eight assists in his first long-term return to the left side since playing there at Oregon State.

“Guys that have watched us over the last three years [know] Ryan does well when he’s drifting wide and he’s making his own sort of chances rather than us trying to find him all the time,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop said. “He’s better at just kind of falling onto the ball rather than us [using him as a] focal point, trying to get him the ball.”

Johnson was pressed into duty as a target man for the Earthquakes with new acquisition Steven Lenhart unavailable for the first five matches due to injury and his father’s death. Lenhart’s return not only gave San Jose another big piece of the offensive puzzle in his own right, but it also freed up Johnson to play in the spot where, at this point, he seems the most effective.

It was Johnson’s cross — after a leaping, athletic trap of Brad Ring’s cross-field pass — that found an open Chris Wondolowski at the edge of the six-yard box to open the scoring against Columbus. Additionally, Johnson’s pressure created the corner kick that led to Brandon McDonald’s goal, with power provided by Lenhart’s header.

“Ryan’s had a terrific [run], especially the last two games,” Yallop said. “He had some good ones last year, but I think his last two games are probably his best two ones for us as a complete game. I thought it was excellent.”

In Johnson’s absence, Yallop will likely go back to using Bobby Convey at left midfield. Jamaica’s last group match in Gold Cup play is set for June 13, which means Johnson will miss at least three MLS matches, plus the Quakes’ US Open Cup play-in battle with the Chicago Fire next week.

“When you start to play well and do well [as a team], and [players] perform well individually, they’re going to be noticed,” Yallop said.

For his part, Johnson doesn’t quibble with where he’s stationed, so long as it’s not on the bench.

“When I get my opportunity, I try to make the best out of it," Johnson said, "because at the end of the day, if you’re not putting out your best effort, then all of a sudden you’re not playing, and you never know when your next opportunity is going to come. You’ve got to keep on working hard because at the end of the day, this is what we do. And if it’s taken away from you, it’s going to be a tough feeling.”

Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at sanjosequakes@gmail.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes