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Originally published May 1, 2012 at 8:04 PM | Page modified May 2, 2012 at 7:03 PM

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Best could still be to come for new Sounder Eddie Johnson

Eddie Johnson's professional and personal lives have been filled with ups and downs. But the 28-year-old forward is motivated to play the best soccer of his career.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Wednesday

L.A. Galaxy @ Sounders FC, 7 p.m., KONG

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"Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it." — Lou Holtz (@Sports_Greats tweet retweeted by Eddie Johnson)

Eddie Johnson never thought much about his age until a sunny April practice in Washington, D.C.

Sounders FC players had divided into an old-versus-young scrimmage the day before a game against D.C. United. Johnson looked around and saw he was grouped with veteran defenders Jeff Parke, 30, and Zach Scott, 31.

"I realized then that I'm getting up there," said the 28-year-old forward. "I looked over to the other team and I saw all those 21- and 22-year-olds, and I said to myself, 'Soccer really does fly by.' "

The awareness didn't come with defeatist undertones, just honesty.

When your career has gone through the dramatic ups and downs that Johnson's has, and your struggles have been in plain view, there's little use trying to sugarcoat reality. But despite devastating lows the past couple years — personally and professionally — Johnson still has a lot to give before he's done.

And is his world-class potential still in reach?

"Oh yeah, definitely," said coach Sigi Schmid. "He's at a great age. He's at an age where his best soccer is there for him."

Johnson, who routinely retweets motivational sports quotes, thinks so, too.

"I believe the best is yet to come from me," he said. "I'm a lot older, wiser. I've been around the game for 11 years now and I know what it takes to perform at the highest level."

"You have to believe in yourself when no one else does — that makes you a winner right there." — Venus Williams (@Sports_Greats tweet retweeted by Eddie Johnson)

Johnson grew up in Bunnell, Fla., population 2,200.

"I come from a humbling background," Johnson said. "I never knew soccer would be my way out."

Johnson, a talented, multi-tooled athlete, took to the beautiful game at a young age. His rise was astounding.

He signed a professional contract with MLS at 16 years old. He made the U.S. national team and played in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. He was featured in Sports Illustrated twice in two years and MLS received multimillion dollar offers for him from European teams.

Johnson eventually transferred to Fulham of the English Premier League in January 2008, but the success didn't carry over. He went on loan to a handful of teams until his contract expired quietly in 2011.

As if he wasn't knocked down enough on the professional scene, it was at that time a close cousin unexpectedly went into a coma and died.

Soccer became the furthest thing from his mind. And his future in the sport had never been more uncertain.

Desperate for guidance, Johnson reconnected last year with IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He had established a relationship there while in the U.S. Soccer residency program. An ex-teammate, Freddy Adu — who has experienced similar ups and downs — got him back in touch with IMG's director of performance Trevor Moawad, who has worked with Johnson since he was 15.

"I said, 'Just get over to Bradenton. Just get over here and we'll work on getting you back on track together,' " Moawad said. "At that point, we just basically started rebuilding Eddie."

Moawad specializes in mental conditioning and put a plan in place to restore Johnson's confidence, fitness and form. He got Johnson into training sessions with the local academy teams and put together motivational DVDs, which included highlights of Johnson at his best.

Moawad made Johnson ask himself the following questions: When have I been successful? Why have I been successful? What do I have to do to sustain that type of success?

Moawad stressed the importance of eating, sleeping and training habits, and encouraged Johnson to stay focused on what he can control.

And where is Johnson now?

"He's a motivated player, I can tell you that," said Moawad. "And when Eddie's motivated, opposing defenses need to watch out."

"Sometimes the biggest problem is in your head. You've got to believe." — Jack Nicklaus. (@Sports_Greats tweet retweeted by Eddie Johnson)

One word Johnson uses to describe himself is "misunderstood."

Maybe that's partly due to a reputation that has stuck from when he was, at times, a disgruntled and immature teenager playing professionally. You can sometimes see why it might take time to understand him.

On one side, Johnson has fit in with the Sounders extremely well and impressed coaches with his attitude and work rate. He's personable, thoughtful and open with the media. He's very encouraging and gracious to teammates, and has often repeated regret that Seattle had to trade away two likable and promising players, Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle, to acquire him. He's engaging on Twitter.

On the other side, he was fined Tuesday for making an inappropriate gesture to Chicago fans after Saturday's game (he apologized immediately through a team-issued statement). He's had confrontations with fans in other games, too, and also ruffled feathers on Twitter.

When it comes to Johnson's personality, one word others often use to describe him is "emotional."

"He's a great guy with a good heart, and we need to make sure we support him off the field and on the field," said technical director Chris Henderson, who has known Johnson since 2007.

Problem athlete? A concern in the locker room?

Not in Seattle.

"He's been great in the locker room," said Schmid. "He's very genuine. ... He's very professional — in there on time, takes care of his work. He's one of the first guys in and one of the last guys out."

"There may be people that have more talent than you, but there's no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do." — Derek Jeter (@Sports_Greats tweet retweeted by Eddie Johnson)

Proof that Johnson still has potential to play at a high level came Saturday, when he scored his first goal with the Sounders and helped set up another in a hard-fought 2-1 win in Chicago.

Johnson's fitness, timing and sharpness are only going to get better, according to Schmid, who estimated that mid-May is "when we're going to see Eddie at his best." A stable franchise in Seattle will help foster that growth.

"It could not have been a better situation for him in Seattle," said Moawad. "I think coach Schmid clearly has had a track record of being able to coach players with personalities and a lot the characteristics that make a forward great is that personality, that confidence."

With self belief restored and the backing of his club, the path to fulfilling his potential is back in front of Johnson.

But now as an older guy on the team, he's also eager to help others reach their goals while he pursues his own — say, perhaps, a return to the U.S. national team?

"I'll never forget where I come from and I know I was very lucky," Johnson said. "If there's any advice I can give to the younger people that have dreams in soccer — or whatever profession it is — I always try to share some of my experiences."

And also offer a motivational tweet.

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or jmayers@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @joshuamayers.

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