They say good things come to those who wait. In that case, Eddie Johnson can expect some good times ahead.
After years of playing hide and seek with some well-known European clubs, the 23-year-old striker signed a three-and-a-half-year contract with Fulham last week to become the latest U.S. installment at Craven Cottage.
He can hardly believe it himself.
“It still hasn’t hit me that I’m playing in the Premier League,” Johnson said in a telephone interview from his native Florida yesterday, hours before he was due to return to the U.K. “It probably will when I’m getting games and work my way into the starting lineup.”
The former Kansas City Wizard left a national team camp in California last month to spend a week training in west London with new — or is that old? — teammates. He encountered familiar faces in fellow Americans Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride and Kasey Keller and South Korean Seol-Ki Hyeon, whom he once trained with at Reading. Johnson, despite it being the MLS offseason, felt he acquitted himself well and was able to keep up with players that were in the middle of their campaign.
Though it wasn’t, he likened the experience to a trial because he was unsure whether the requisite, and much hallowed, work permit would follow. Foreigners must have played in 75 percent of senior internationals the previous two years, and the figure stood at an agonizing 72 percent for Johnson. A nervous interval ensued.
Chivas US keeper Brad Guzan’s move to Aston Villa collapsed this week due to the rule.
“It was like, you’re almost there but you’re not quite there,” Johnson said. “So once the hearing was done and I qualified I was excited because playing in Europe and the Premier League was one of my dreams, and I’m finally living my dream and playing overseas.”
Which brings us back to the wait. (There was more to it than just sweating over the work permit.)
Johnson turned down a switch to Derby County, currently last in the Premier League with no realistic hope of staying up, in the summer because the timing wasn’t right.
Three years ago, MLS officials prevented a move to Benfica, arguably Portugal’s most prestigious team, and a year later, the Wizards stopped him from joining another Iberian outfit, Spain’s Real Sociedad, then in the highest division, on loan. Johnson had been linked with Celtic, Manchester City and Middlesbrough, too, among others.
“In my young soccer career, I’ve been through some good times and I’ve been through some adversity,” said Johnson, who suffered a loss of form in 2006, scoring only twice in MLS play. “Overcoming that adversity made me realize who I am, not only as a player, but as a person. Not going to Derby, I thought it really hurt my chances of going to the Premier League. But I thought if I stayed in the MLS last year and really worked hard, other opportunities would come. And out of that, a good opportunity came. So not only am I in Europe, I’m there with fellow Americans that I know really well.”
In signing Johnson, Fulham inherits a striker with pace, something it clearly lacks. He netted 15 times in 24 games with Kansas City last season and became the first player to collect back-to-back hat tricks.
Dempsey, an attacking midfielder, leads the way with six league goals, while McBride, Fulham’s top scorer in 2006-2007, remains sidelined with a knee injury sustained in August, though he’s back in training.
“I think this is a great opportunity for me, considering up top we’re looking for other guys that can help Clint out, the only one who’s really been scoring goals in the first part of the season,” Johnson said. “Hopefully I can come in and take some of that pressure off him and McBride, too.”
And the Cottagers, second to last in the league and four points from safety, need offense. (Holding on to leads would also help.) Their 23 goals is tied for third-worst and they haven’t hit the back of the net in three straight games, one of which was an F.A. Cup replay at lower-division Bristol Rovers that embarrassingly ended in a penalty-shootout loss.
“Eddie has the presence that will complement the other forwards within our squad, and he has the ability to offer us another dimension to our attacking play,” Fulham coach Roy Hodgson, previously Finland’s coach, said last week.
Johnson might make his inaugural appearance against Aston Villa at home Sunday and was already conjuring up an idyllic outcome. His girlfriend and young daughter will be joining him in England soon.
“Hopefully I can come in there and get a goal on my debut,” he said. “Once you get one, they all start flying.”