WASHINGTON — It wasn't how anyone would've expected his 14-year professional career to conclude, but Eddie Johnson smiled nonetheless as his retirement was made official during a honorific halftime ceremony during Sunday's Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinal match between D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls.
Johnson hasn't worn a United game uniform since October 25, 2014, having been sidelined after the discovery of a heart condition during last year's postseason. His decision to retire has been expected – and widely reported – for months. But it didn't truly sink in for the 31-year-old striker until he and his children, daughter Zoe Lynn and son Elijah Amir, were welcomed back to RFK Stadium.
“Today it finally hit me,” Johnson told MLSsoccer.com after the halftime ceremony. “I'm very emotional. I want to thank D.C. United – the whole D.C. United organization -- for making this all possible, making sure I was able to share this moment not only with the amazing fans here, but my loved ones and my friends and my two kids.
“At the end of the day, if you're going to go out in any way, shape or form, you want to be able to share it with the people that you love the most.”
Johnson declined to delve into the details of his decision on Sunday. He said that much of the past year has been spent seeking additional medical advice, hoping to resume a sparkling career which has spanned from MLS to the English Premier League to the US national team. But the breakthrough Johnson hoped for did not come.
“That was the whole rollercoaster," Johnson said. "Looking and visiting and seeing different types of doctors to see if there was any hope. At one point, there was a lot of hope, everything was looking positive. But the condition that I'm going through wasn't where they wanted, where their expectations were.
“At the end of the day, my health is more important. I don't want to be running around on the field and have something bad happen to me.”
Now living in Orlando, Florida, some 90 minutes north of his hometown of Bunnell, the three-time MLS All-Star is still coming to grips with the “overwhelming” realization that his future lies in another sphere of the game. But Johnson recently found himself inspired by the chance to mold future generations of talent.
“Soccer has a lot of buzz in Orlando right now and I'm looking forward to the next chapter in my career as far as my role in soccer,” Johnson said. “It's kind of funny: During my career, I always found it tough training hard every day, then going and doing an appearance or coaching kids. So I always took the [option of] signing autographs or speaking to youth.
“But I've developed this love for coaching kids. I've got a lot of friends back in Florida who have youth clubs and academies going, and I've been able to shadow them … Being a director of coaching or coaching kids myself, it's something I'm really looking forward to.”
Johnson retires with 71 goals and 21 assists in 202 MLS regular-season appearances (162 starts) for United, Seattle, Kansas City, and Dallas. He added three goals and one assist in 14 playoff matches. He earned 63 USMNT caps and scored 19 goals for his country, and appeared in two games at the 2006 World Cup.
“Right now it's still overwhelming,” Johnson said of his retirement, “especially when you wake up every day and you feel fine, you know?
"To my fans who supported me throughout my career that whole 14 years – I wouldn't have been able to do it if it wasn't for them.”