When a confident, 22-year-old Eddie Johnson first stepped onto the field in Germany in 2006, few could have guessed that it would be his final shot at playing in the World Cup.
But that idea became a striking reality on Monday, when US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann surprisingly left the D.C. United forward and resurgent USMNT star off the team's preliminary 30-man roster for the World Cup in Brazil.
There were other snubs as well – Brek Shea, Sacha Kljestan and even Tim Ream made their cases to be included in this week’s camp at Stanford University – but no name loomed larger than the 30-year-old Johnson, who enjoyed a career year with the USMNT in 2013.
He scored five goals in 17 appearances with the team last year and provided valuable goals in World Cup qualifying matches against Panama and Mexico. He earned Klinsmann’s praise for his athleticism and durability.
And after his career was nearly derailed in 2011 following a few sour stints with European clubs, he had somehow salvaged it all by returning to MLS and thriving under Klinsmann on the international level, emerging alongside Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Clint Demspey as likely locks for Klinsmann’s final roster to Brazil.
But his production has plummeted since being traded from the Seattle Sounders to D.C. United in December, making him suddenly vulnerable to being overlooked in favor of Altidore and five other forwards selected on Monday.
“The way I want to build the puzzle for the 23-man roster, I see those players competing ahead of the curve,” Klinsmann told reporters on a teleconference call. “But I always recognize Eddie’s value and strengths overall. Not only by scoring very important goals and getting us to Brazil, but he’s a player who can make a difference within a second of being on the field …
“It was a very difficult decision based on what he’s done with me the whole time, and now not getting that chance at the last moment, it’s a tough one on him.”
Klinsmann defended Johnson, however, when it came to questions about the forward’s recent disparaging comments about his new teammates since being dealt from Seattle in December.
“His comments had nothing to do with the decision,” Klinsmann said.
Johnson took to his personal Twitter account after the roster decision to convey his thoughts.
Klinsmann said he spoke on the phone with Johnson at length about the cut, which all but ends his chances of appearing in another World Cup.
A rising star in MLS as a teenager a decade ago, Johnson leveraged his abilities as a lethal striker into a spot on head coach Bruce Arena’s 2006 World Cup team in Germany, where he appeared in two matches. Despite some struggles at the club level in Europe after his World Cup debut, Johnson was called into Bob Bradley’s camp in 2010, but he failed to make the roster for South Africa.
By the time 2018 rolls around, Johnson will be 34 years old, making it highly unlikely he’ll play a role if the team qualifies for the World Cup in Russia.
“In Eddie’s case, it’s really, really difficult,” Klinsmann said. “He’s a player who brings so much to the table and has done so well with us over the last two years, and scored very, very important goals. And he can also play as a left wing or a right wing.
"But at the end of the day you have to put them together make your ranking [of the forwards], and that’s just where you don’t see Eddie in this roster right now.”
Klinsmann said he opted to put Landon Donovan in the group of six forwards – which also includes San Jose Earthquakes star Chris Wondolowski – and that he expects to see the LA Galaxy and USMNT regular as a forward in Brazil, making it even tougher for Johnson to make the cut among the group’s top scoring threats.
Altidore, Dempsey, Donovan and Wondolowski are joined by Aron Johannsson and Terrence Boyd.
“Making those phone calls and telling players they’re not part of the roster now was unpleasant,” Klinsmann said. “You’re giving them a message they don’t want to hear. And it hurts you, because you know it hurts the player in that moment.”