Johnson impresses in trip to England
in which he scored 58 goals in 80 games -- by scoring one of the USA's three goals in the 2001 FIFA Under-17 World Championship. At the time, Johnson said, he preferred to stay near his family and play in MLS.
Three years later, Johnson has established himself as a talented pro with ample amounts of the three things every coach looks for in a striker: strength, speed and finishing ability. After training with United's reserve team for a fortnight, Johnson said he can envision a day when he will play in the Premier League.
The young forward said he talked on the phone with FC Dallas teammate Cory Gibbs, who was in Germany while Johnson was in England. He said both the atmosphere of training and his ability to shine in training sessions with reserves led him to believe he could make the grade abroad, if not at United then at a smaller club.
At the same time, he said he wouldn't go to Europe if it meant playing only with a reserve team, mainly because he feels he can get better by playing games every week in MLS.
"I told (Gibbs), 'Man, that's me. The EPL. That's me. That's where it is,'" Johnson said. "I was going in there with no pressure on my back ... seeing where I stand with the guys abroad. There were some days where I could pretty much do what I want. There were some days where I was just the same as everybody over there.
"Being around all those players who love, eat, breathe and sleep soccer, I kind of regret not going when they wanted me to come over when I was 17," he joked.
The United coaches seemed to agree with Johnson's assessment of his performance. Johnson said the reserve team coaches told him his effort was "top-class." He also said they told him they would like to see him in more international games, so they can get a better idea of his ability.
If Johnson does get more time with the U.S. national team, a move to Europe could be imminent. With United, the main issue Johnson has to worry about is appearing in enough national team games to earn a work permit from the English government.
Johnson might also end up eventually joining fellow U.S. national team star and former Chicago Fire standout DaMarcus Beasley at Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. Johnson was scheduled to train with PSV immediately after his stint at United, but decided to come home and rest in advance of January's national team camp. With MLS and international competitions, Johnson hadn't taken a break prior to the 2003 MLS season.
"(United) had a lot of good things to say," he said. "They told me the only issue right now is my work permit, and hopefully I can get a work permit by the end of this year or next year.
"PSV liked what they saw (at the U.S.'s Nov. 17 game vs. Jamaica) in Columbus," he added. "That's another reason why I didn't have to go. It wasn't really important."
For the time being, Johnson isn't worried about any potential future transfers. Right now, he is focused on continuing to improve his play, both with FC Dallas and the U.S. team.
"I'm with Dallas and I'm going to stay with Dallas until anything happens in the future," he said. "I can tell myself right now that MLS has done a great job of getting me to where I am right now. I'm just glad to be a part of it."
Johnson had a breakout year in 2004, tying for the MLS lead in goals with 12 and scoring five goals in his first three U.S. national team appearances, and he hopes to do even better in 2005.
In addition to his efforts to lead FC Dallas back to the playoffs, Johnson said U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena has implied he will be used in the CONCACAF Gold Cup next summer. The final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is also coming up.
If he ever does decide to test the waters in Europe, Johnson is confident that he won't be out of his depth. He praised the hospitality of the United players, particularly fellow American Jonathan Spector, who chauffeured Johnson to and from training sessions and let Johnson use his home phone to call family and friends. He also noted that there is really no difference between soccer players in Europe and soccer players in the States.
"It's just straight soccer. What you put into it is what you get out of it," Johnson said. "We all pump the same blood. That's what I realized when I was in England. Those guys are no different than we are. I was telling Cory, 'Man, I watch Ruud van Nistelrooy and Rio Ferdinand ... they're no different.'"
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.