Local soccer fans will see the future take the pitch Wednesday night at the Clink, assuming Eddie Johnson's on-the-mend hamstring doesn't seize up in warm-ups.
Johnson's likely debut, as a starter or off the bench, comes in the first leg of a home-and-home quarterfinal in the CONCACAF Champions League, featuring the best professional teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean. The opposition is Santos Laguna, a significant upgrade in Mexico's Primera División over Jaguares de Chiapas, dispatched 2-0 by Seattle last Wednesday in the final preseason match.The rematch is in Torreon, Mexico, on March 14, with the winner on aggregate goals (away goals is the tiebreaker) advancing to the the semifinals and a likely date with the L.A. Galaxy, defending Major League Soccer champions and a longtime Sounders nemesis.
Johnson, who turns 28 at the end of this month, boasts 11 years of professional experience, having signed with MLS as a 16-year-old. He brings seven MLS seasons, a history of success on the U.S. National Team, and an underachieving, unsatisfying four-year stint with clubs in the UK and Greece to the table. Johnson should be entering his prime, having arrived in Seattle last month--after a trade that sent promising forwards/fan favorites Michael Fucito and Lamar Neagle to Montreal--with something to prove.
And the Sounders got him for a song--$100,000, a bargain for a player who made $750,000 with Kansas City in his most recent MLS season and commanded a then-record $6 million transfer fee when he departed for Fulham of the English Premier League in 2008. A healthy Johnson--who has racked up 97 goals in all matches for club and country--playing the way he's capable, could team with high-scoring Fredy Montero to give the Sounders among the league's most dangerous 1-2 combinations up front, freeing Mauro Rosales to run wild as an attacking midfielder.
Don't expect to see Johnson for anywhere near the full 90 minutes, but watch his raw skills--a quick first step, strength and tenacity in the box, and uncommon ability in the air--and dream of August, when the Galaxy make their second trip to town and Johnson's had six months to partner with Montero and find his place in Sigi Schmid's offense.
Speaking of the Sounders' head coach, he had some interesting words concerning Santos Laguna's defense after practice on Sunday. "Picking and choosing your moments is important," he said, "especially against a team like Santos, which has a tendency, sometimes, to not defend honestly with their wide guys."
If that sounds like a shot across the bow of Santos left back Osmar Mares and right back Jorge Estrada, well, it is. It's also Schmid reminding his key offensive players to step up their games, given this contest's importance.
Barring a huge walk-up, the crowd at the Clink will be less half the size of the throngs who turned out to see matches against Barcelona, Chelsea, and Manchester United, but make no mistake: this is uncharted territory for the Sounders--the farthest they've advanced in two Champions League appearances--and the most significant international match in their brief history.
On the other side of the ball, if Santos striker Oribe Peralta didn't have the attention of new Seattle goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, he does now, after a feat no Sounder has ever accomplished--scoring four times in a match, in Saturday's 5-2 rout of San Luis that elevated Santos to third place in the 18-team league (they stand fourth after the weekend's action). Peralta leads Santos with five goals in nine matches this season after totaling 20, with eight assists, in 31 appearances last year.
If the Sounders focus too much on Peralta, they risk being burned by Herculez Gomez--one of a handful of Americans to play in Mexico--who scored 31 goals in six MLS seasons and earned eight caps for the U.S. National Team from 2007-10.
Gomez has a Seattle connection; on loan from L.A. in 2003, he made 17 appearances, scoring once, for the A-League Sounders.