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First XI: Eleven on EJ

This column is in need of a makeover, so here's a little something different. Not saying it's going this way for good, but seems to me MLSnet.com readers need a little more soccer and a little less humor.

So we're going to take First XI in a new direction this week, something we'll give a few spins around the block. Each week, we'll ask 11 questions on a subject. This week's topic: FC Dallas striker Eddie Johnson. First XI will line up in the always popular 2-6-3 formation, with U.S. national team manager Bruce Arena starting us off, Eddie on Eddie in the following slots, and U.S. international teammate Landon Donovan handling the final three questions.

11. To Bruce Arena: What do you like about Eddie Johnson?

BA: He has size, strength, the ability to take people on. He has speed and the ability to hold the ball. He's a good partner for Brian McBride. And obviously his goalscoring ability which he's displayed with six goals in four qualifying games. That's a pretty good start.

10. What's the biggest improvement you see in Eddie since last year?

BA: Confidence. I think the way we brought him in was correct. Young players with a lot of ability, you've got to bring them slowly into the team and games of this level. You've got to give him the right amount of confidence and the right number of minutes in the beginning. When they get their first experience, you want it to be positive for their confidence, so they're not fighting it in the early going. Eddie slowly got into it here over a period of six months or so. He slowly got into it and learned what international soccer is all about. He had some success in the early going, so now he's a player with a lot of confidence.

9. To Eddie Johnson: Can you compare playing for the senior national team to your experiences playing at the youth international levels?

EJ: At every level it gets harder. From the under-17s, you start scoring goals there and you gain a certain confidence. Then, stepping up to the under-20s and -23s you find that you have to prove yourself again. And then when you get to the full team, you've got to come with your 'A' game week in and week out. Being around the best players, you have to play at your best to earn their confidence and your playing time. And I know the next time I come into a camp, I've got to keep working on my weaknesses, to get better. Every camp I get a little more confident that I can play at this level.

8. Have there been any players on the national team who have shown you the ropes, or taken you under their wing?

EJ: Landon Donovan and Brian McBride. It's been going on for a few years with Landon. I remember a couple of years ago in MLS, I made one hard run and didn't get the ball and Landon told me, "That's a good run. At the next level, 99 percent of the time someone's going to get you the ball when you make a run like that." And he was right, if you make a run on this team, the guys will pick you out. Guys see things here that not every MLS player sees. It's amazing.

7. How about the training?

EJ: Like I said, you have to bring your 'A' game to every session. It's awesome being a young player on this national team. You can ask the guys anything, and just playing every day against Eddie Pope, Carlos Bocanegra, Cory Gibbs, it can't help but make you better.

6. How hard was it for you to play a high-level game like the one in Trinidad when you had not really played a game since October?

EJ: I didn't sit around. I kept my fitness level up. I went and trained with Man U, came back and took a little time off, but then I was doing a lot of work on my own and with the Dallas coaches before this camp began. I think you need to take some time off in the offseason, you need that break, but you've also got to do your best to maintain your fitness level.

5. Goals are hard to come by in qualifiers and here you are with six in four games. What's your explanation for this success so far?

EJ: People are starting to ask me what I'm going to do when I don't score. I know that's going to happen sooner or later. That's just soccer. But when you're on you're on, and when you're not you're not. The more times you put yourself in goalscoring opportunities, the better chance you're going to have to score. It's all about taking your chances when they come. Bruce told me when this camp opened, "I know you had some success in the last round, but this round is going to be tougher, don't expect to score every game, but just go out there and play the way you're capable of playing." To this point I've just taken advantage of my chances.

4. Do you also take a lot of pride in being a good strike partner? And what does that mean?

EJ: I'm still learning the game. I'm always asking Brian (McBride), Taylor Twellman, Josh Wolff, Brian Ching, all of our forwards, what advice do you have for me? Tell me where I need to be, what I need to do. It's all about dealing with situations, especially when things aren't going well. In the past, I've gotten down on myself when things weren't going my way. Now, these guys keep pushing me to get the next one. Little things like that, and Brian McBride has been great at showing me the way.

3. To Landon Donovan: Think you'll ever be a forward for the national team again?

LD: I don't think I'll be playing forward anytime soon for this team. We have so many real forwards now. To think we had guys like Eddie and Brian. And guys like Josh Wolff, Brian Ching and Taylor Twellman in reserve says a lot about how we stack up with forwards. I think Bruce likes me where I am now, behind those guys.

2. Did you know Eddie had this in him, based on what you saw of him in MLS?

LD: I wouldn't have predicted it this soon. But Eddie is a player who thrives with better players around him. He benefiting from the great players around him. He's putting himself in the right spots and he's deadly in front of the goal.

1. Does it seem like he tries to do less on his own in these games?

LD: He's encouraged to be simple and let the players in the midfield do what they do best. He knows he's got to be around the goal. That's where he's good. He's good running at people and running by people. And he's good holding the ball. His game, when simplified, is successful.

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at jbradleyespn2003@yahoo.com and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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