COLUMBUS, Ohio – Eddie Johnson had big shoes to fill.
With red-hot striker Jozy Altidore suspended for the US national team's World Cup qualifier against Mexico on Tuesday, coach Jurgen Klinsmann called on the Seattle Sounders star to take up the target man role and lead the line in the Yanks' biggest game of the year.
And like the rest of his team, Johnson didn't enjoy an ideal start to the match. Touches on the ball – much less clear scoring chances – were elusive in the first half, with El Tri seizing the early initiative as Johnson cut a lonely figure up top.
But that appearance only told part of the story, as Johnson explained after the match.
“It's a derby game,” he told reporters after the match, the last USMNT player to depart a festive locker room and continue the party on the team bus in the wake of the Yanks' 2-0 victory. “We knew in the first 15 minutes it was going to be fast, it was going to be ugly, and the game dies down and you pick your moments.
“The coach wanted me to stay up high, he wanted me to play within the 18-yard box and not make my runs in the channel. It was a tactical decision to start me tonight, because I'm good in the box and we've got some guys that can cross balls like Landon [Donovan] and Alejandro Bedoya. And it's all about letting the game come to you.”
A US corner kick just past the half-hour mark offered up a promising look at goal, with a spry goal-line save required from Mexico goalkeeper Jesus Corona to deny Johnson's towering header, providing a hint of what he and his teammates would exploit to full effect just four minutes after halftime.
“Of course, with our big guys – and picks – we knew we had an advantage over them,” noted US midfielder Alejandro Bedoya in reference to the swirling sea of tall bodies the Yanks created on nearly every restart near Mexico's penalty box.
Donovan's precise set-piece delivery and Johnson's unmatched leaping ability connected again on another corner kick in the 49th minute. And this time Corona came nowhere near saving the downward header, having rashly left his line in a vain attempt to reach the ball before it thumped off Johnson's forehead and into the net, landing what turned out to be a back-breaking blow for the psychologically fragile Mexicans.
“I saw the opportunity to get inside my man,” recalled Johnson. “I think Clint [Dempsey] made a good run to the near post, Clarence [Goodson] took his guy away and Landon put the ball in a spot for us to attack it. We've got some great height in the box, and this time I wanted to keep it down and on frame. I was very fortunate that it went in.”
Johnson emphasized a team-first mindset in his brief remarks to the media, but there was no hiding the confidence engendered by his surging output for both Seattle and the USA. Tuesday's striker was his 12th career World Cup qualifying goal, the second-most in US history behind Donovan and Dempsey, and it ran his 2013 statline to five goals, an assist and a team-leading 15 appearances.
“I'm happy for the team, happy that we've put ourselves in a good position. Now that we've qualified, we can relax now,” he said. “I've got a good run of form going for club and country, and right now you just want to ride that rhythm.”