Seattle Sounders FC forward Eddie Johnson is not the same player he was during two seasons with Sporting Kansas City, which was known as the Wizards when he played for the club from 2006-07.
Sold by MLS for a then-record $6 million transfer fee to Fulham in the English Premier League after his breakout professional season, Johnson’s stock tanked during three unremarkable seasons overseas.
But now he’s back in form, back in MLS and back in Kansas City for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championship game, which the Sounders will try to win for a fourth consecutive season at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at Livestrong Sporting Park.
“The road maybe didn’t go as well as (Johnson) planned it to, but a lot of times guys go over there and get seasoned,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “They see maybe the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but he’s found his home in Seattle and done well.”
Johnson was at one time considered the next big thing in U.S. soccer. But he went scoreless in 19 games with Fulham during four seasons mostly spent on loan to Greece or smaller English clubs
But this season he leads the Sounders with 10 goals in 19 games, and he’s a more complete player than when he left.
“Going to Europe, my time at Fulham didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to be, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world,” he said. “Even without a lot of playing time, I still got better as a player training with the top players in the world. It helped me develop other parts of my game that I didn’t have before, so the all-around experience was a positive experience for me.”
He’s put those new skills to use effectively with Seattle, becoming one of the most dangerous strikers in MLS once again and finding a comfort level unmatched since his days in Kansas City.
“I’ve always done well for coaches who had confidence in me and patience with me, and (former Sporting KC coach) Curt Onalfo was one of those guys,” Johnson said. “I had my breakout year in Kansas City, so it’s good coming back to this place, because the fans believed in me and the organization believed in me.
“There’s a special place in my heart for Kansas City, and I’m happy to be back in the place that made my dreams to play in Europe come true.”
Of course, he’s also eager to rip out the collective heart of Kansas City soccer fans despite the nostalgic stirrings he feels for his former club.
“Walking into this stadium, if we had this in 2007, man, I don’t think I’d have probably ever went to Europe,” Johnson said. “This is as European as it gets. To watch their games on TV and see how packed the stadium is and how passionate the fans are, there’s no mystery to why they are doing so well.
“Even if one person says to me, ‘Eddie, it’s good to see you back and doing well. Welcome back to Kansas City,’ that would mean more than anything in the world.”
For what it’s worth, Johnson remains the only player in MLS history with back-to-back hat tricks, a feat he accomplished with the Wizards.