By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 1, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Naturally, last week’s MLS All-Star Game was all about the big names, as Chelsea’s European champions challenged David Beckham, Landon Donovan, and the rest of the North America-based blue-chippers to show their best in front of an international audience.
As World Cup veterans and integral cogs for their Major League Soccer clubs, Jay DeMerit and Eddie Johnson had already earned the “star” tag before stepping on the field last Wednesday night at PPL Park. Both players still grabbed a chunk of the spotlight as two of the game's top performers. DeMerit for anchoring the All-Stars’ determined defensive display and Johnson popping up to notch the game-winning goal in injury time.
DeMerit has spent this season hustling to lift the Vancouver Whitecaps out of their expansion doldrums. In the process, he's reminding people that he’s still the gutsy talisman who undergirded the National Team’s delirious achievements of 2009 and 2010.
“I feel like I shouldn’t have to prove myself, because I’ve been the same player I have throughout my whole career,” the 32-year-old told me when I asked him about his international prospects after the showcase in Chester. “But all I can do is control what I can control, and that’s to have performances like tonight, and do the same thing for my club.
“Last year I wasn’t fit enough during the year. I was injured quite a bit, and as a defender, it’s a process to learn movements, it’s a process to make sure your sharpness is there. And as a leader to organize and do your job, you have to be at your best athletically and physically, and I wasn’t at my best last year because of certain circumstances. And it’s nice to finally be back this year and doing the things I’ve always done.”
Philadelphia coach John Hackworth did not hesitate to polish DeMerit's credentials, underlining his reassuring influence in an All-Star scenario where defensive coherence is inherently jerry-rigged.
“Look, I was with the National Team when Jay was there, so I’m probably a little biased,” said the Union’s interim boss, “but I’m a huge Jay DeMerit fan in every way. The first tackle that he made in the game, that’s Jay – he lives for those moments, you know? And you need a center back that’s hard like that, and just plays with the intensity that he does. For me, yeah, I think he’s deserving (of a National Team call-up) and I hope he gets that chance.”
Johnson faced a different task when he touched down in Seattle in February. To bring Johnson in, Seattle had to move popular youngsters Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle. Why had Sounders coach Sigi Schmid taken a risk, especially since he had little to no prior history with Johnson?
With nine goals and two assists already in 2012, Johnson has provided a compelling answer to that question.
“Eddie’s had to bounce back from certain things that were going wrong, and it takes a certain character to do that,” said DeMerit last week. “To see him perform the way he has over this season and to see him really be back to the Eddie Johnson that he was is a credit to him, and hopefully that can continue. He’s always a hard guy to play against – he’s always a horse when he puts in that kind of effort.”
Johnson’s own postgame remarks at PPL Park were fascinating to watch. Slipping into a seat next to All-Stars coach Ben Olsen and official Man of the Match Chris Pontius in mid-press conference, he sat quietly, a placid smile on his face as he waited for the queries to turn in his direction.
He talked about the League, its growth and improvement. He talked about Olsen, about David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan, and Dwayne De Rosario. He thanked the entire Philadelphia region for their hospitality and passion. Then the question was asked. Was his All-Star Game performance a statement to all those who doubted him. As it turns out, his most haunting skeptic was much closer to home.
“I’m not really trying to prove anything to doubters,” Johnson began. “I just want to prove to myself. You know, I had a chance to work with a sports psychologist in the offseason, and some of the questions he asked me were: Do you still have that drive? I think talented players don’t lose their talent, it’s the drive. That’s one of the things this year, I just want to challenge myself, and just try to be as consistent as I can.
“I look back in my career – I haven’t been really consistent. Goals will come here, and then I’ll go in a bit of a slump. But right now I just want to be as consistent as I can. Being consistent with hard work, just working hard and putting yourself in good spots on the pitch, and you know, when you get your chances, take your chances.”
It’s a simple fact of international soccer: Players push their way into their respective national teams, and players float back out, for a variety of reasons usually related to age, form, fitness, and familiarity (or lack of it) with the coach. American soccer has spent a good deal of time and money on player development to produce depth all over the field at full National Team level.
So it’s a source of comfort that the player pool has expanded enough to offer us a selection debate or two nearly every time the senior squad gathers. In the past year alone, fans have backed Bradley, hollered for Herculez, and solicited for Sacha. Now, two more resurgent alumni have certainly given fans, and perhaps even coaches, cause for further consideration before the next roster announcement rolls around.
More from Charles Boehm: