Eddie Johnson got himself a full thirty-five minutes this weekend in Fulham's 0-0 draw with Everton at Craven Cottage. Brought on for Zoltan Gera, Johnson's appearance was his third in the league and fourth overall this season.
Johnson, for Johnson, played relatively well. His first touch was spotty, but passable on most occasions. He made safe choices, generally playing the ball negatively after receiving it in the attacking third. He was far from good, but he didn't embarrass himself either. His worst moment came when he attempted to head a cross back across the face of goal rather than put it on target.
And that's where things are with Eddie Johnson. After his loan stint with Greek side Aris last season, it was uncertain if Fulham was open to keeping the American striker on their books. With a changeover at manager, Johnson's Fulham future hinged on proving to Mark Hughes that he could contribute to a Premier League campaign. With league rosters restricted to 25 this season, Eddie's inclusion in the squad was somewhat surprising. That Johnson has managed to get on the field a few times six weeks into the English season is a mild shock.
Most obvious in Johnson's play is a lack of confidence. This isn't the Eddie Johnson of old, step-overing his way past MLS defenses and using his quickness to score goal after goal. This isn't the Eddie Johnson that Fulham purchased for a reported $6 million. That Eddie Johnson was full of swagger and bravado, so supremely sure of himself and his abilities that he came off as cocky and overconfident. Move to Fulham or not, surely Eddie wasn't as good as he thought he was; the intervening years, which including unspectacular loans to Cardiff and Greece seemed to prove it. EJ hit the wall, and the lack of goals and regular playing time sapped him of whatever confidence he had left.
A new manager giving Johnson a shot, and the unfortunate injury suffered by Bobby Zamora, may be Johnson's last life line before a return to MLS becomes necessary. But if Johnson is going to stick with Fulham and make the roster post-January, he'll need to be the old Eddie. What Johnson did on Saturday makes him one of a million, a player doing nothing but the minimum to get by; Eddie Johnson's strengths, which may not be good enough for the Premier League but need to be brought out nonetheless, are in taking people on, using his speed to his advantage, and leveraging his athleticism to his benefit. The passive Eddie Johnson might not embarrass himself, but neither will he do enough to take the next step and justify Fulham's investment in him.
Somebody at Fulham thought Eddie Johnson potentially good enough to play in the Premier League two and half years ago when they paid the then-record price for an MLS player. Mark Hughes obviously thinks highly enough of him among Fulham's (admittedly thin) options to give him a chance. At 26 and with a year left on his contract, it's now or never for Eddie Johnson. But only if he starts playing like the "grown ass man" he famously claimed to be.
Johnson hasn't earned a thing yet during his time with Fulham (aside from a place on the bench, an improvement over his previous standing), and he will do well to work within Mark Hughes' system in an effort to keep his place. But if he doesn't distinguish himself in some manner, he won't be keeping that place no matter how good a soldier he happens to be.
All Johnson really need do is look over at Fulham's other American, the one that has established himself as an important part of the club's success in recent years, Clint Dempsey. Whether engaged in the game, playing out of his mind or missing in action, Dempsey always plays with the same heart and bravado. That's what Johnson is missing, and he'll need it if his Fulham career is going to go anywhere but the scrap heap.