Late last week, a day after his apparent go-ahead goal against Mexico was wrongly nullified by an offside flag, U.S. national team forward Eddie Johnson received a text message from teammate Jozy Altidore in England.
“You were onside,” wrote Altidore, who was not available for the friendly in Phoenix. “Good touch, set yourself up, clinical finish. That’s why I looked up to you when I was a young player.”
Johnson, D.C. United’s marquee winter acquisition, welcomed the support from afar. Even when he finds the net, he is not recording goals — a vexing circumstance for a player needing to round into form soon. Altidore knows how he feels: The Sunderland striker has not scored a Premier League goal since December.
An ocean apart but in the same boat: World Cup is fast approaching, and both are in ruts.
United (1-2-1) has found its footing after a wobbly start, but its highest-paid player has a cold foot: scoreless in four starts. Last week he squandered two prime opportunities in the second half against New England.
“If I hadn’t been getting chances, I would probably be more frustrated,” he said in the build-up to Saturday night’s match against the New York Red Bulls (0-1-4) at RFK Stadium. “It’s a matter of time before the goals start going in. My teammates have bailed me out the last two games. Now I have an opportunity to make it right and put those chances away.”
Coach Ben Olsen is not concerned about Johnson’s drought.
“He gets his chances. It would be nice if he finished them,” he said. “I look at the fact he’s getting into these spots and getting good looks at the goal as a positive. Now the last step is to put up the numbers, some serious offensive numbers.”
United (22 goals in 34 matches in 2013) acquired Johnson for that sole purpose. He had posted 23 goals over two seasons with Seattle and five with the national team last year.
Although his finishing touch is off, Johnson has forged a partnership with Fabian Espindola, another offseason acquisition. Disconnected in the first two matches, the frontline duo has shown a stronger understanding and, in turn, become increasingly dangerous.
“It’s getting better,” said Espindola, who scored in United’s 2-2 draw with Chicago two weeks ago. “We’re going to be good. We’ve been connecting more often. We just need games and confidence.”
In a lineup with seven new starters, Johnson and Espindola anticipated a transitional period for themselves and the unit at large. Futhermore, Johnson’s U.S. duty during the first stage of D.C. training camp cut into the bonding period.
With time, they have begun to harmonize. “We are able to find and combine a lot more, which is ending in scoring opportunities,” Johnson said. “We knew it was going to be a process. We’re not there yet, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
They are hoping to hit their stride before Johnson departs to World Cup training camp in mid-May. Depending on how deep the Americans advance, Johnson will not return until late June or early July — a span of at least seven league matches.
Johnson does not believe his mini-slump or Altidore’s prolonged skid will impact U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s roster decisions.
“It’s been a 31 / 2 year process, and if I am the coach, I am pretty sure which players I want to take to the World Cup,” Johnson said. He is probably right: The core of Klinsmann’s 23-man roster is set; he is down to filling the final few slots, a process that will continue with probably 25-28 players invited to camp at Stanford.
While Johnson aims to regain form with United, he believes Altidore will come around as well.
“He’ll get it right. Everyone goes through it. He has always overcome adversity. I know he’ll come out of it.”
United notes: Goalkeeper Bill Hamid is expected to return after missing one match with a sore foot. . . . Midfielder Lewis Neal is serving a one-game suspension, levied by MLS’s disciplinary committee for a rash tackle against New England.