WASHINGTON - Thirty-one minutes into D.C. United’s 2-1 triumph over the Chicago Fire on Saturday evening, United midfielder Nick Deleon collected the ball near midfield. Taking a couple of touches forward, he played the ball out wide, to the right side to a streaking Eddie Johnson.
Johnson has been known throughout his career as an in-the-box kind of guy, the type of player that uses his physicality and size to out-jump and overpower defenders. But on this night, at this moment, he was out on the wing, and he swung a picture-perfect cross to the far post, where Chris Pontius headed home for United’s first goal of the match.
Ironically, despite the great cross, the fans' celebration after the goal, and the conference-title clinched by the win, D.C. head coach Ben Olsen was, er, unpleased about Johnson's positioning.
"I told him not to be out there,” Olsen told reporters after the match, laughing. “He absolutely disobeyed me. I told him I want him in the box between the center backs.”
Olsen wouldn’t have to wait long to get his wish. Early in the second half, Johnson found himself in that very spot, right between the Fire’s central defenders, when Fire center back Patrick Ianni mis-hit a back-pass. EJ pounced on the opportunity, stepping over the ball before smashing a shot into the upper corner at the far post to seal United’s victory.
“The way he holds the ball up and occupies center backs is still as good as it gets,” said Olsen, "and for him to explode by Jeff [Larentowicz] like that and finish one is something I think we all have been waiting to see all year long."
Johnson -- who only recently reclaimed his starting spot after an in-form Luis Silva went down with a hamstring injury during United’s match at Houston a week ago -- has had an eventful year. He struggled early on to find his scoring touch and had difficultly establishing his role when partnered with Fabian Espindola up top. His lackluster form contributed to his missing out on the World Cup with the US national team. And a series of mishaps on social media drew attention for the wrong reasons.
And yet, quietly, Johnson has provided an important contribution to United's historic turnaround. His seven goals in league play are third most on the team, and just two shy of his total during his celebrated 2013 campaign with the Seattle Sounders. He has also been an important contributor to United’s run in CONCACAF Champions League, notching a pair of goals in three games as United advanced to the quarterfinals.
On Saturday, Olsen expressed his pleasure with his designated player’s performance and improved combination with Espindola.
"You could tell that Fabi and him have not gotten a lot of minutes,” Olsen said. “But I'll say this, it was much better than (last week against) Houston the way they were moving off of each other. So that's going to build every game, and you'll see it. The rhythm between those two is going to continually get better and hopefully when the playoffs hit, they're flying.”
“Those two are dangerous,” Pontius added. "When they’re clicking, I wouldn’t want to be on the other end of that. The ball [Eddie] played to me was perfect -- I think my eyes got pretty wide when I saw it.”
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Johnson seems to be rounding into form at the right time, and United need him to: Silva likely won’t return before the second round of the playoffs, and D.C. have few viable alternative options up top -- Chris Rolfe remains sidelined with a broken arm, while Pontius seems more suited to a midfield role than one at forward.
On Saturday, after what some would argue was his best performance of the season, Johnson was unavailable for comment, perhaps choosing to remain free of distraction and turn his eyes towards United’s next task at hand: Taking care of the Montreal Impact next weekend, and making a deep run in the AT&T MLS Cup Playoffs.