As the calendar turned from 2011 to 2012, Eddie Johnson was running low on second chances.
A move to link up with former US teammate DaMarcus Beasley south of the border at Puebla had just fallen through, a bizarre turn in a career that had increasingly become defined by what wasn’t in the cards rather than by what lay ahead.
|Goals to Shots Ratio (inside box)||24.3%|
|Shooting Accuracy Inside Box||40.5%|
|Goals / Shots Ratio Headed||31.6%|
|Big Chances Scored||5|
|Big Chances Fluffed||1|
|Big Chance Conversion||83.3%|
But the talent that prompted then Fulham manager Roy Hodgson to bring Johnson to West London was still there – though tamped down by two-and-a-half years spent on loan with modest sides in Wales, Greece and Lancashire – and the Seattle Sounders sensed an opportunity. In February, they flipped two reserves for the mercurial striker, a move that paired little risk with the potential for considerable reward.
Then a funny thing happened: A more mature, measured Johnson started scoring goals again. And he hasn’t stopped, putting together his best stretch of performances since 2007, the season that precipitated his exit from Major League Soccer in the first place.
But how has Johnson done it? In short, by using his head. Literally and figuratively.
On a team with a glut of playmakers and attackers better suited to life on the flanks and in the space surrounding the box, Johnson has found a role that suits him and sidekicks happy to set him up. He holds the ball, makes strategic runs and earns his keep within the confines of the 18-yard box.
Through 18 games, Johnson has scored nine goals, an average of one every 150 minutes, a pace barely higher than the one he set in 2007 when he found net 15 times for the Kansas City Wizards. Six of those goals have come from headers, tied with San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski and Alan Gordon for tops in MLS, and all nine have come within the penalty area.
Based on the chart to the right, it’s clear he rarely considers pulling the trigger from outside the area, preferring to lurk near the net waiting for high-percentage opportunities or carry the ball into more dangerous spaces. To wit, more than 92 percent of his shots have come inside the area.
And if he puts it on frame with his head, it’s almost as good as in. Johnson is six of six in that regard and his ratio of goals to headers of 31.6 percent is more than double the league average (14.3 percent). He’s also five of six in big-chance situations, a rate of conversion (83.3 percent) tied for third-best in MLS.
Much of that success has come as a result of the particularly productive relationship Johnson’s fostered with Mauro Rosales, the man who has assisted on five of his nine goals, all headers, and runs the right flank with the American as his outlet and willing runner.
In fact, the Argentine has passed the ball to Johnson more than any other Sounders player in 2012, supplying Seattle’s leading scorer with 53 passes and 12 crosses. Johnson has returned the favor 48 times, making Rosales his second-favorite target behind strike partner Fredy Montero (55).
As you can see, much of that combination play comes in the right channel, with Rosales either releasing Johnson or the duo pairing up to create space for others (red denotes passes from Rosales, blue from Johnson).
Meanwhile, Montero hasn't had the same luck linking up with the Argentine. Despite Rosales assisting on 12 of the Colombian's 78 total attempts (15 percent), there aren't any goals to show for that partnership. Johnson, on the other hand, has combined with Rosales on 16 of his 47 attempts (34 percent), with nine of those coming via header, to the tune of five goals.
And although the former Ajax man is Johnson's primary assist man, it seems the forward once thought to be on the cusp of bust has the potential to be even more productive as the season winds down with Rosales feeding him and new signing Christian Tiffert providing yet another source of cultured service.
Even more tantalyzing, if Johnson and Montero can find a way to coexist more productively – each has assisted on just one of other's goals and just 10 attempts combined – this Seattle team could very well have the most potent midfield, forward tandem and overall attack in MLS.
Should that happen, there's no doubt EJ will be leading the way, a grown man in the realm of professional soccer who finally found the right fit after almost five years of searching.