The script read like it could have come out of an ancient Greek tragedy, had Sophocles only known what soccer was back in 400 BC.
It was MLS Cup 2010 in Toronto. FC Dallas central defender George John, arguably the best young player on the field in that championship match against the Colorado Rapids, was about to get sucked into a bizarre sequence that decided the game.
The final was tied in extra time when the Rapids’ Macoumba Kandji lunged to toe poke a ball in the Dallas penalty area. While Kandji’s knee ligaments buckled on the play, the pain was perhaps greater for John, who watched the ball deflect off his leg for the fateful final touch and the title-winning goal for Colorado.
“They say when your kid hurts, the parent hurts twice as bad,” said Seattle bank attorney John John, the FCD defender's father. “But I don’t think I hurt twice as bad as George. I knew him and how much that would be devastating to him. He does not take things lightly, and I was so worried about him.”
“It was like a nightmare is the best way to put it,” George John told MLSsoccer.com. “One of those things that happened so fast that I didn’t know what happened. I want to say I’m over it, but I don’t know I’ll be completely over it until I do win an MLS Cup.”
Goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, who was the victim of a pass that was virtually equivalent to an own goal during MLS Cup 1999, had these words for his teammate later that night: “Don’t let this play define you.”
It certainly didn’t define him in 2010. Not by a long shot. His sophomore season in the league classified as a bona fide breakout year, and although it may have flown under the radar of mainstream soccer media, it did not escape the attention of US men’s national team manager Bob Bradley.
“Bob did contact us and wanted George and Ugo [Ihemelu] in [to the January 2011 camp],” FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman said. “George was so absolutely humbled and excited to get that invite. It was the complete opposite of the own-goal in the championship game. From a complete low to a complete high.”
But few people know that John played through pain in 2010 because of a bone spur in his ankle. There was no choice but to get it cleaned out during the offseason, so he was to call Bradley personally to tell him he had to pull out.
Detractors will point to the ankle and use it to build their case against John. First the knee in college. Then the hamstrings as a rookie. Now the ankle. Soft and brittle, some have whispered.
They just don’t know the full story.
Putting It On The Line
With only five games remaining in his senior season in college at the University of Washington, John tore his meniscus after suffering a hard tackle from behind. It’s an injury that typically takes three months of recovery and rehab. The timing couldn’t have been worse, with the 2009 MLS Combine around the corner.
Although he had trained with the Seattle Sounders on several occasions and Sounders assistant Brian Schmetzer was his former club coach growing up, John had no guarantee the MLS expansion team was going to select him. There was even talk that the Sounders weren’t totally convinced in John’s abilities. And no other teams came knocking.
There was only way for him to get back on the map. A month-and-a-half of rehab had to suffice.
“You could see him limping around at the Combine and it was obvious he was not at 100 percent, but he was still fighting for balls and making tackles,” said Hyndman, who in 2005 saw his No. 5 ranked SMU squad dismantled by John and the Huskies.
“I was just a naïve kid in college who nobody really knew about,” John said. “My mentality was that I was going to play regardless and get noticed. I guess I didn’t have very good guidance at that point.”
John’s efforts earned him a high-profile No. 14 overall draft selection by Hyndman, who was managing his very first draft in 2009. But it came at a price.
The Seattle native had come back too early from that meniscus tear and he missed his first preseason in order to recover. Then after pushing himself to come back early, hamstring injuries cropped up on both legs.
His mechanics were completely thrown off and the hamstring issues were connected to the meniscus tear. He missed half his rookie season before his coming out party in 2010.
The reputation among those who know John is that he’s always been a no-nonsense, humble, hardcore soccer player. He’ll play hurt. He’ll play with abandon. He’ll play anywhere. When none of his fellow midfielders wanted to play at center back during the Combine, he volunteered.
It’s the attitude of a player who only realized as a junior in college that he could become a pro. And he takes nothing for granted.
The characteristics are a reflection of values formed during his upbringing inside a close-knit Seattle family, woven together by Greek culture and the Greek Orthodox religion.
Although you wouldn’t suspect it from his name, John is a proud member of the Greek-American community. His grandfather had his original Greek surname dropped at Ellis Island in New York when he immigrated back in 1909. The family may have lost its name, but the roots of its heritage would grow deep in the American Northwest.
He may not speak the language, but John is steeped in Greek lifestyle and culture and proud of it.
“We wanted to give them whatever we could of what we valued so much in the culture,” said John’s father, a former Sounders season-ticket holder when the team played at old Memorial Stadium. “For some reason, Greek culture really connected with him. He loves everything about it. And the Greek community loves him. He’s one of them.”
[inline_node:331145] George John grew up attending Greek camps and later serving as camp counselor. He volunteered with a Greek youth group called Sons of Pericles and also fundraises for the Hellenic Studies Department at the University of Washington.
His fans have repaid the favors, naming him Greek-American Athlete of the Year, an award he picked up in Washington, D.C., last year. And nearly 400 members of the Greek community in Seattle cheer him on when FC Dallas visit Qwest Field. He has received the same reception in Dallas.
“He’s taken us to a few Greek restaurants,” FCD teammate Ihemelu said. “The owner comes out and checks in with George. And they ask him to sign autographs. He has his Greek people out here. He’s really part of the Greek community in Dallas. He loves it and it’s great. And he’s always talks about Greek dancing.”
Yes, the Greek dancing. After his love for Horiatiki (Greek salad) and Pasticcio (Greek lasagna), it’s one of the most passionate parts of being Greek for John. In fact, he is the only MLS player ever to be a Greek dancing national champion.
“Once in a while we’ll hear the hoopla on the iPod with the Greek dance and he’ll get out there and dance a little bit and the guys have a little fun,” Hyndman said. “He’s a very proud man about his culture and his heritage.”
During spring season in college, John would ask to be excused to participate in Greek dancing competitions. He even taught Greek dancing in PE class during high school. And sometimes Greek dancing took precedence to soccer.
“I loved doing it,” John said. “I remember one time I missed the State Cup game in high school to go to Greek dance competition, as ridiculous as it sounds.”
With all this, it should come as little surprise that his representative is also Greek-American. John says that while he was getting big-timed by other soccer agents, Ted Philipakos was the only one who stuck by him in the aftermath of his torn meniscus before the 2009 Combine.
According to Philipakos, they’ve taken notice of John in Greece, where they compare him to a more refined version of Liverpool central defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos.
Although John has two years left in his MLS contract and there are early discussions about potentially extending his deal, the expectation is that international clubs, including from Greece, will also be making their advances at some point.
“Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream get a lot of press, but those two guys play in bigger markets and on a national stage more often,” Philipakos said. “George has been flying under the radar in a relative sense. But he’s right up there in the conversation when you talk about best and brightest center backs in American soccer.”
And if you don’t believe it, John is determined to prove you wrong. That’s what he’s been doing all along. From no-name player to first-round draft choice. From the MLS Cup final and now the cusp of the US national team, which he calls his biggest dream. All before turning 24 years old.
The higher the hurdle, John keeps finding ways to rise to the occasion.
“Growing up my dad would always say that he was never the smartest or brightest but he worked the hardest and that’s why he did the best,” John said. “That work ethic was instilled in me and I pride myself on working hard. I don’t take shortcuts.
“I was never a kid that got called into youth select teams and regional coaches never called me in. I’m the kid that worked hard to get where I’m at and I'm one of the few still standing.”