DC United star Eddie Johnson eyes career balance during formative year

In anticipation of opening weekend in Major League Soccer, MLSsoccer.com will profile five of the biggest names in the league heading into the 2014 season. Continuing the series is senior editor Nick Firchau, who spoke with D.C. United and US national team striker Eddie Johnson during the team's preseason preparation in Charleston, S.C.

After leaving Seattle via a high-profile trade during the offseason, Johnson opens the new season on Saturday against the Columbus Crew (7 pm ET, MLS Live).

FIRCHAU: I know it’s been an extremely busy offseason for you since the move to D.C. United, especially from a media standpoint. Have you noticed a serious shift in attention since the move?

JOHNSON: Good press, bad press, there’s always attention [laughs]. That’s professional sports, you know? The two years I had in Seattle were productive and I got myself back onto the national team, and there’s always going to be attention when a national team player gets traded. Everyone wants to know all about the ins and outs and this and that, and why I got traded. But I’m used to the attention. It just comes with the life of being a professional soccer player.

FIRCHAU: Do you feel like you’ve gotten some bad press lately?

JOHNSON: No, I think we just live in a life of perception. There are always perceptions out there about athletes, and my case, I think I’m one of the ones who always gets misperceived.

FIRCHAU: You did an interview with ExtraTime Radio last month during the week of the Super Bowl, and we talked about your relationship with [Seattle Seahawks running back] Marshawn Lynch, who wasn’t really speaking with the media at the time. How did you become friends with him?

Eddie Johnson with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (right). Johnson says some of the Seahawks players are "who I click or vibe with more, and they understand me."

(Photo courtesy of Eddie Johnson)

JOHNSON: [Seahawks linebacker] Bobby Wagner and [quarterback] Russell Wilson, I knew those guys because I was working out down at IMG in Bradenton at their combine when I was a free agent and didn’t have a team, so I had a chance to meet those guys. Then, coincidentally, all three of us ended up in Seattle in 2012.

Before Russell became Russell Wilson, like, big time [laughs], I’d get him tickets to Sounders games and I’d get Bobby tickets to Sounders games, and then Marshawn Lynch, [wide receiver] Golden Tate and [strong safety] Kam Chancellor would all come to Sounders games. I just started interacting with those guys and hanging out with Marshawn, and I thought he was one of the coolest guys in the world. Over the last year-and-a-half, I’ve gotten to know him really well, and he’s a guy I have a lot of respect for and someone I look up to.

FIRCHAU: He has a similar background to you, coming from a rough part of Oakland and growing up without his father around. Do you feel like you have a bond with him or some of the other NFL players you mentioned that you don’t have with players in Major League Soccer?

JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely. Let’s be honest: In America, soccer is not an inner-city sport. The average kid that plays this sport lives in the suburbs and their parents are well off. Sometimes when I come through these challenging situations in my life and dealing with being a professional athlete, [the Seahawks players] are the guys who I click or vibe with more, and they understand me. I have similarities to those guys. Those are the guys that I seek knowledge or information from.

Guys like Marshawn, who grew up in the inner city and had a tough upbringing, I like to listen to him share his experiences with me, because it helps me better myself or helps me deal with certain situations a little better. It’s a blessing to be able to meet someone outside of soccer who I can vibe with or who I can a have phone conversation with during a difficult time.

FIRCHAU: MLS is still largely a suburban league when it comes to its players, and even the national team reflects that, to some extent. These are mostly guys who have a very different background to the one you’ve had. Has it been hard to find other guys in MLS – inner-city guys who are white, black, Hispanic – to connect with?

Johnson says one of his closest friends in MLS is Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey (right), who "had to defend himself and he had to fight for himself and he didn’t come from much, so that’s why we’re so close."

(USA Today Sports)

JOHNSON: Everyone knows the one I click with the most is Clint Dempsey. He doesn’t come from the hood or anything, but he comes from a challenging upbringing, and he affiliated with a lot of hood kids. He had to defend himself and he had to fight for himself and he didn’t come from much, so that’s why we’re so close. We have a lot of things in common. But I’m trying to think of who else…

FIRCHAU: There aren’t many guys like you…

JOHNSON: No. I think that the guys who had the same upbringing as I had, we’ve been taught a certain way how to defend ourselves because of the neighborhood we grew up in. And sometimes our emotions on the field get misperceived or our behavior has been misperceived, and it becomes an issue. But in other sports, being a winner and being emotional, it doesn’t get misinterpreted. But in soccer, you have guys like me who come from the inner city, and that’s something that’s new to a suburban sport. People aren’t so sure, or they don’t want to take a chance on a person.

People who know me know I’m the most down-to-earth guy in the world. I’m the first person to pick up the tab when we go out in a group of eight, or if we’re going out, I want to see my friends happy. So that’s why I say sometimes it’s nice to talk to guys like [the Seahawks players] because some of them have been in worse situations than me with DUIs or being arrested and yet, they’re still accepted in an organization where the coach knows what they do on the field at the end of the day, and they’re not being judged by any of the other stuff.

Johnson says his much-publicized "pay me" celebration in 2013 was overblown by the media and he was never disciplined by the team for it. "Everything inside the Sounders locker room and in that organization," he says, "I thought they had my back."

(USA Today Sports)

FIRCHAU: I keep thinking about your “pay me” celebration last year, and how that was received in MLS. I don’t think that would have been a big deal in the NFL or the NBA, but did you feel like people lashed out at you in MLS?

JOHNSON: Yeah. For me, it was something I didn’t even plan to do. That game was delayed by weather and guys were frustrated sitting around in the locker room, and we wanted to cancel it. We went out there and we were down a man, and I was frustrated because it was a difficult run for us, and we weren’t getting results.

After my first productive season in MLS, I felt like I had to come back to prove myself, and I continued to prove that I could do it. When I scored in that game we were a man down against a good Columbus team at home, so for me, I was like, “[expletive] yeah! This is what I can do!” I was caught up in my emotions, but I’ll tell you what. [Head coach Sigi Schmid] came up to me later because we had meetings once a month just to talk about life and family and soccer, and I’m saying, “I’m sorry coach, I shouldn’t have done that.” And he said, “No, no, I’m just proud of you, the way you were able to step up when were a man down and get us a good result.”

Then the press makes a big deal about the whole situation. And as a coach you start to read the papers, and Sigi called me into his office. It wasn’t even anything where I was fined or punished, it was just a conversation with the coach. And [part-owner and GM Adrian Hanauer] even came out in the paper and stood up for me. But like I said, we live in a world of perception and all those media whispers. It was totally out of control, but everything inside the Sounders locker room and in that organization, I thought they had my back.

FIRCHAU: Freddy Adu is a close friend of yours and you said in January he helped bring you back to soccer two years ago (video above), and he’s had so much written about him since he was a teenager. After all these years, do you care about what people write or say about you?

JOHNSON: I don’t care about the media thinks of me. It affects me, but I’d rather stand up for what I believe in than be something I’m not. That’s how I was always taught. When I’m being something I’m not, I’m not being Eddie Johnson. Even from my childhood, playing any sport, I used to talk crap. That motivates me. I’m hyping myself up and trying to get any kind of advantage, and let him know he’s going to be in for a long night. I’ve always had that mentality, and it’s gotten me to where I am.

But then when people try to change me, then I’m not doing what I’m good at. As I get older I’m trying to find that balance, and I’m still learning to find that balance, because that part of me gets misperceived. And that hurts me. But at the end of the day I gotta stay true to myself and what’s gotten me here.

Johnson will make his debut on Saturday with D.C. United, the fourth MLS team of his career. "At the end of the day," he says,"I gotta stay true to myself and what’s gotten me here."

(USA Today Sports)

FIRCHAU: You’re talking about finding that balance and staying true to yourself, but you know you have to play the game a little bit and work and get along with coaches and players who want to work with you. With a new team in D.C. this year and with the World Cup this summer, how close are you to finding that balance?

JOHNSON: At the end of the day, you gotta play the cards you’re dealt with. If I feel like I’m doing my job – with any team, Seattle, Dallas, the national team – and I feel like I’m not being treated a certain way, then I’m going to speak up for myself. Someone I look up to a lot is Jay-Z, who said, “A closed mouth don’t get fed.” So if I feel like I’m not being treated a certain way and I see things happening around me where someone else is looking out for their best interests and not mine, then I’m going to say something.

Don’t tell me something, and then talk behind my back. That’s going to eat me up inside and I’m not going to be able to live with that on my conscience. That’s everyday life growing up in the hood. If I got a group of friends and I trust you and we’re rocking with each other, but you’re talking about me to other people, I’m gonna confront you. That’s how I grew up.

In soccer, they’re not used to dealing with these kinds of athletes. So that’s why I gotta find that balance, and that’s what kills me. I’m being true to myself, but it kills me publicly with other coaches and teams. But at the end of the day, I’d rather be myself and have someone not like me than be someone I’m not.