Eddie Johnson should not be one of the world ’s hottest soccer players. That’s just not the sort of thing that happens to kids from Bunnell, Fla. Part way between Daytona Beach and St. Augustine, Bunnell offers few ways for residents to escape its ghetto’s grip, and soccer isn’t one of them. Basketball or football, maybe. But not soccer.
The only thing as big and flashy as Eddie Johnson’s game right now are the diamond studs sparkling in each of the striker’s ears. The 23-year-old soccer star wears the rocks with pride, knowing they represent a message to the youth in his hometown. “As a young, inner-city kid, my role models were drug dealers who had old-school cars with rims and loud sound systems,” Eddie says. “They wore a lot of jewelry and had gold teeth; those were the things my friends and I looked up to. Now that I’m out of the inner city and I’ve made a name for myself, I can go back there to show kids that there are other ways to get these things.”
Eddie’s impact on Bunnell’s community goes well beyond lessons in bling. Through soccer clinics he gives on a field now named after him, Eddie provides life lessons based on his own experiences. “Every time I go back home, it means so much to me, because [I think about how] not a lot of people make it out,” he says. “I got into something I loved, then got good at it and had a lot of success. That’s something I try to teach the kids and their families. I tell them: ‘Find something you have a passion for and try to be the best at it. Work hard every day, and you can do great things and go places.’”
Eddie’s escape from Bunnell did not result from his admiring or desiring the lifestyle of a high profile athlete. Instead, it was a chance encounter with the guy who turned out to be Eddie’s first coach. “When I was nine years old, I was walking home from my grandma’s house, and I saw all my friends running behind a green truck,” Eddie recalls. “Inside the truck was this short white guy with a southern accent. He was wearing a pair of those black Bike softball shorts and a t-shirt with ‘Baylor Farm’ written on it; that’s the name of a recreation team in the area. The guy asked me if I wanted to play soccer.”
The man in the interesting get-up was a local youth coach who had convinced Eddie’s friends to play. “Never in my right mind did I think I’d be interested in playing soccer—especially growing up in the inner city where basketball and football are so dominant,” Eddie says. “But once I saw that all my friends signed up, I went home and asked my mother if I could, too. I caught on quickly, because I was so competitive with my friends, no matter what sport we were playing.”
Like many kids in Bunnell, Eddie was raised by an overworked, single mother. Despite being on her own and working most of the day, Lewanna Johnson taught her son how to survive life’s most painful challenges. “I’m one of three children. I have a sister who’s two years older and a brother who’s one year younger than me. We all have different fathers,” Eddie says. “My mother never once gave up on her kids. Through her actions, she taught us how to be strong and deal with a tough situation when it seems like there’s no way out; how, when you’ve tried everything, you need to work hard, stay positive and keep believing.”
Besides his strongwilled mother, Eddie had a generous father figure, outside the house, who contributed to his success. When Eddie was 10, he began playing for coach Bob Sawyer’s traveling team, the Ormond Beach Jaguars. Once he recognized Eddie’s potential and understood his difficult upbringing, Sawyer virtually took him in as a second son. He drove Eddie to and from practices and allowed the youngster to spend the night with his family after late games and tournaments.
“Bob is my father,” Eddie says without hesitation. “Not biologically. But as far as showing me how to be a man, how to be loyal to your family and how take care of your kids, he’s my father. Bob gave me a chance; he saw the talent I had at a young age and really brought me into his family as a son. It felt great to fly him out to watch me play in the 2006 World Cup, because soccer is such a big part of his life.”
Eddie began as a defender, playing sweeper for Sawyer. But once he began dribbling through and past entire teams, the speedster moved to forward. Eddie quickly became the team’s goal scorer, and at the Sun Bowl, a club tournament, he caught the attention of the Olympic Development Program [ODP]. By the time he was 15, Eddie had been involved with the ODP, represented Florida on its state team and was selected to play for the National Team. Two years later, in the third round of the 2001 SuperDraft, the Dallas Burn selected Eddie, making him the youngest player ever drafted into the MLS.
Eddie got little playing time in his first few seasons with Dallas. But after a coaching change and training realization, he came to life, scoring 12 goals in 2004—more than his previous three years combined—to tie for the league lead and become the youngest MLS player to do so. “I learned a lot when I won the scoring title,” Eddie says. “I learned that I needed to focus on maintaining my body all season long. That really helped me improve.”
Eddie’s international career started taking off, too. In 2004, he earned his first cap and scored his first international goal with the Senior U.S. National Team in a World Cup qualifier against San Salvador. In his second appearance for the team, against Panama, Eddie posted a hat trick in a span of 17 minutes. And in six World Cup-qualifying matches, he scored seven goals, propelling him to third on the U.S. all-time scoring list in WC qualifiers.
In February 2006, Eddie was traded to the Kansas City Wizards due to salary cap issues, and soon, he fell out of form. During a dismal 2006 campaign, he scored only twice, as his usually lightning-fast finishes became sluggish misses. Critics assumed the young phenom was fizzling, just when he was expected to be skyrocketing.
It wasn’t lack of talent that sidetracked the player. “Last year, I was a rock star, and it didn’t get me anywhere,” Eddie says. “This year, I have totally mellowed out. I have a beautiful baby daughter who’s 19 months. And what’s more important? Going out to the clubs and buying bottles, or spending that money on clothes, doctor bills and food for my daughter? My mother taught me that kids come first, no matter what. Besides, I can’t take out what my father put [my mom] through on my kids. At the end of the day, I know someone is relying on me. And the more successful I am, the brighter my daughter’s future will be.”
The way things have been going for Eddie, Zoë Lynn Baker-Johnson’s future looks bright. In his first 11 games of 2007, a rejuvenated Eddie scored 12 goals, while becoming the first MLS player to record back-to back hat tricks—a feat he ranks as his most memorable on-field experience.
Eddie’s renewed focus, confidence and athletic ability have helped him develop into one of the most electrifying players in the world. “I love to run by someone,” he says. “ It’s kind of like a pump fake in basketball. It’s just a quick check-back and then spin over the top. Other times, I just go at the guy with my pace; but either way, when I get the ball, I’m thinking this other guy can’t stop me. Either, he’s going to foul me, or I’m going to score.”
In those one-on-one situations, Eddie’s shots find cotton more times than not. It’s no surprise that notable international clubs have come knocking with large sums of money. But Eddie has nixed the trade deals to remain stateside. “I want to be a player who makes soccer big in America,” he says. “We don’t get a lot of credit from Americans until we go to other countries and do big things. And I want to be a consistent goal scorer, for the Wizards. And I want to take this team to the MLS Cup. And I want to win the MLS scoring title this year, and next year and the year after that.”
Eddie’s In Season
While cracking jokes with his Wizards teammates, Eddie seems to tower over the other players, and his shoulders seem twice as wide as anyone else’s. His thick thighs taper down into defined calves and slender ankles—the perfect build for speed. Without even seeing him take a single step, we already know that Eddie can fly.
Wizards fitness coach Dave Tenney, who’s been working with Eddie since 2006, confirms the impression: “I truly believe Eddie could play almost any professional sport. He’s very fast and explosive, and his agility and change of direction are world-class. He’s the top athlete in this league, and, without a doubt, the strongest and fastest player on this team.”
Eddie’s athleticism isn’t the only attribute that’s taken him this far. His skills, especially finishing, are just as deadly. “He has an ability to go by people in one-on-one situations, because he’s so fluid with the ball,” Tenney says. “We have our fair share of athletes in soccer in this country, but Eddie is rare because of his innate talent with the ball at his feet, going directly at guys and finishing inside the box. He’s at the top of the MLS scoring list because he’s so relaxed when he’s one-on-one with the goaltender.”
Eddie learned early in his pro career, during his days of bench warming, that he won’t excel simply by relying on God-given talent. “For the first three and a half years of my career, I wasn’t playing that much. So I took a step back, looked at all the veterans and [figured out] why they were so successful,” Eddie says. “It was because they were in the gym doing things to maintain their bodies. Over the course of a season, those who rely on being naturally gifted only show up half the time. I realized that no matter how good you are, you have to do those things; even the best players in the world have to. Tiger Woods doesn’t just go out and hit golf balls; he’s training to make his swing even better and hit the ball further.”
When facing a particularly tough game or workout, Eddie gets through the temporary pain with motivation from the lessons his mother provided. “When I start to fatigue or burn on that last rep, I think about myself being tired at the end of a game, with five minutes left,” he says. “I think, ‘How do I get through that pain? How do I stay positive and get through that last repetition?’ I just know that when I get through it, there will be success at the end of the day.”
Tenney, with the assistance of his motivated student, has accomplished the goals he scripted for Eddie. “When you work with someone like Eddie, you aren’t trying to make him faster,” Tenney says. “Instead, we set out to get his arms and shoulders stronger so he can hold guys off. It’s not easy for strikers in this league; they have guys kicking at them and defenders grabbing them all the time. You’ve got to be strong. Eddie is.”
Much of Eddie’s strength comes from Tenney’s weight room philosophy of maintaining lean muscle mass while preventing fatigue throughout the season. “My biggest priority is that Eddie performs in the games,” Tenney says. “I’m not looking for strength gains, but more for strength maintenance during the season. The MLS has such a long season, and Eddie’s not just playing MLS games. He’s also training at National Team camps, playing National Team tournaments and traveling around the world. So managing him physically, in terms of maintaining strength and lean muscle mass and watching his fatigue, is extremely important.”
Tenney schedules two lifts per week in-season to maintain strength and limit fatigue. “Our typical in-season workout includes two push exercises, two pull exercises and about three core movements,” he says. “We keep most of the reps around six to eight, because we get them in the weight room after practice, when they’re already fatigued. And we don’t need to work strength endurance in the weight room, because that takes place on the field.”
- Lie on back on bench, holding bar with grip slightly wider than shoulder width
- Keeping elbows tight to sides, lower bar with control until it touches chest
- Drive bar toward ceiling until arms are straight; repeat for specified reps
Sets/Reps: 1×12, 1×8, 2×6
Benefits: Upper body strength
Tenney: The Bench Press is very important, because it’s efficient in utilizing many upper body muscle groups. Since we do only two push and two pull exercises, this helps us get the most out of them.
Free Motion Row
- Assume athletic stance in front of Free Motion or cable crossover machine, with both handles set at low position
- Hold handles in front with straight arms, so there is tension in cables
- Without rocking or changing position of torso, pull handles to chest by driving elbows back and squeezing shoulder blades together
- Return handles to start position with control; repeat for specified reps
Sets/Reps: 1×12, 2×8
Benefits: Isolated upper back and core strength
Tenney: Using the Free Motion helps us isolate each side. These guys are so one-side-dominant that I like to make sure they work each side separately. Keep your core tight to activate the core stabilizers.
- Lie with back on incline bench, holding dumbbells near front of shoulders
- Drive dumbbells toward ceiling until arms are straight
- Lower dumbbells with control; repeat for specified reps
Benefits: Isolated upper body strength
Tenney: The dumbbells work each side separately. I make sure they bring the dumbbells to the inside part of their shoulders, not outside of them.
Adapted Dumbbell Lateral Raises
- Assume athletic stance, holding dumbbells at sides with slightly bent arms
- Without rocking upper body, raise dumbbells to shoulders with bent arms
- Lower with control; repeat for specified reps
Benefits: Shoulder strength
Tenney: This is Eddie’s favorite exercise. We did them in the preseason, and Eddie really picked up on it. He feels it is very specific to his position. For his game, it really helps him hold people off. He has adapted the exercises to a motion that he thinks is most beneficial to his game.
- Lie on side with elbow underneath body
- Keeping body straight, raise onto elbow and outside edge of foot; hold for specified time
- Repeat on opposite side
Reps/Duration: 1×60 seconds each side
Benefits: Core stabilization strength
Tenney: Both plank exercises work all the stabilizer muscles in the core. Eddie always has people pushing on him, so his core stabilizer muscles are so important.
- Lie on stomach with elbows underneath body
- Keeping body straight, raise onto elbows and toes; hold for specified time
Reps/Duration: 1×60 seconds
Benefits: Core stabilization strength
Free Motion Crunch on Bosu Ball
- Lie with lower back on Bosu, holding Free Motion handles near shoulders so there is tension in cables
- Crunch up against resistance
- Lower with control; repeat for specified reps
Benefits: Core flexion strength
Tenney: These allow us to load the flexor muscles better than regular crunches. Eddie likes that, because he gets more of a burn and workout; it makes him feel good.
- With Free Motion machine to right and handle attached at low position, assume athletic stance, holding handle just outside right leg with both hands
- Explosively rotate and drive handle left and upward until it’s above and outside left shoulder
- Return to start position with control; repeat for specified reps
- Perform on opposite side
Sets/Reps: 2×12 each side
Benefits: Core rotational strength
Tenney: Rotational exercises are so important for soccer players. Everything you do with kicking power or strength is tied into your ability to rotate with power. This is not an arm movement or leg movement; only use the rotator muscles of the core.