When he came to D.C. United, Eddie Johnson hoped he could continue the great form he showed for the Seattle Sounders and the US men’s national team since returning to MLS in 2012.
Safe to say, that hasn't come to pass quite yet.
Johnson hasn't scored in his first four games for D.C. and has shown little spark in his 367 minutes on the field. This has not only hurt D.C., but is also beginning to put some doubt in the minds of USMNT fans as to whether he or a forward like Chris Wondolowski should be on the plane to Brazil.
So what exactly is going on in the nation's capital? Why is this happening?
To understand what EJ's missing in D.C., let’s first go back to his time with the Sounders. His bread and butter is making runs into the box and finishing off crosses, whether that comes from a set piece or from the run of play. The players around him in Seattle were able to provide that service, and 15 of his 23 goals in Rave Green came off one of those crosses.
Mauro Rosales was the man who gave EJ the most help, assisting on 10 of Johnson’s 23 goals in Seattle. The Argentine is one of the league's top chance creators from set pieces (see below) and he completed over 38 percent of his crosses off of set pieces while Johnson was in Seattle.
|PLAYER||CHANCES CREATED FROM SET PLAYS IN 2012 and '13|
Rosales was not the only one that could serve in a quality cross for the Sounders. In 2012 and 2013 MLS players completed open play crosses at a rate of 22 percent. For the Sounders, there were eight different players that attempted at least one open play cross per game while completing them at over 25 percent in those two years.
That kind of service gave Johnson plenty of chances to put the ball in the back of the net. Those chances are also what he’s not getting while playing up top for United.
D.C. have largely relied on their fullbacks to provide crosses for EJ to finish and frankly, it is not something they are used to. On the right Sean Franklin has done admirable job, upping his attempted open play crosses per game and completing them above the league average.
However, on the left, newcomer Cristián is still adjusting to his role in D.C.’s attack. He made 94 appearances in La Liga, and in those games he took 1.5 open play crosses per game and completed just 14 percent. While with United he has taken almost five open-play crosses per game and has completed just 16 percent of them, a far cry from the service EJ was getting in Seattle.
That situation also applies to Johnson’s strike partner up top, Fabián Espíndola, who is adjusting to a new responsibility as a set-piece taker after attempting just two crosses in those situations in 107 games since 2010.
He has actually handled himself quite well with these given his relative inexperience, already attempting 12 crosses and creating three chances in the young season. In all, Espíndola has created 10 chances to lead the team after four games, and is in the top 15 among all MLS players in that category this year.
However, his compatibility alongside Johnson has been an issue. With Espíndola's propensity to pick up the ball near the touchline, it has forced EJ to play more with his back to goal. While he is certainly more than capable of this in stretches, Johnson also likes to get the ball on the wings and attack fullbacks 1-v-1.
Their touch maps from their game against New England are below. Notice how Espíndola's touches are generally out on the wings, while Johnson's are near the center of the pitch.
Johnson vs. NE
Espindola vs. NE
Of course this all does not just fall on Johnson’s teammates shoulders. His movement off the ball has not been as intelligent as it was in Seattle or with nearly as much force (see below).
Even when he has been given some chances, Johnson has not been able to finish. On Saturday, he had at least three quality chances to score his first goal of the season, including a play where he was one on one with Bobby Shuttleworth, but could not capitalize.
Some of these problems can be solved with time – new players must be given a chance to mesh – but others may not. United’s lack of a proven chance creator, an issue they might have solved with the trade for Chris Rolfe, certainly seems to have hampered Johnson’s ability to score. But Rolfe, like Espíndola, is more of a second forward rather than a midfield maestro.
It's a different look for EJ, then. And his job now is to figure out how to make it work.