When Ryan Johnson went home to Jamaica last month to play for his national team, he was something of an afterthought on the San Jose Earthquakes roster.
He had started just once since July 3, stuck in a role as a late-game substitute – more than a bit of a comedown after scoring a personal-best 11 goals last year.
But after scoring the only goal in Jamaica’s 1-0 home friendly victory against Costa Rica on Sept. 5, and playing another 25 minutes as a substitute two nights later versus Peru in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Johnson got his groove back.
Since then he’s returned with a new sense of zeal, and the results are starting to show. Johnson’s work rate in practice earned him the start at Toronto last weekend, and he quickly responded with his best game of the season, delivering two assists to help fuel Chris Wondolowski’s hat trick.
[inline_node:317744]Johnson retained his starting spot on Wednesday and provided some dangerous possession – including a cross that found an open Wondolowski, eight yards from goal – in a 3-0 defeat to Chicago.
“I saw a difference in him the last two weeks of practice,” Quakes coach Frank Yallop told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s been very good and sharp and alive. I think he’s shown in the two games he’s played, he’s done very well.”
For Johnson, getting back into the national team rotation has been a huge step. He made his Jamaica debut in 2006, then dropped off the radar before his breakout 2009 MLS campaign – 11 goals, two assists and the title of Quakes team MVP – brought him back into prominence.
He’s played in four of the six Jamaica friendlies this year, scoring against Argentina in February and then the game-winner against Costa Rica.
“Just to score goals again, it felt great,” Johnson told MLSsoccer.com. “And to do it at home, in Jamaica, felt really good. Confidence is a big thing for a footballer. When you have the confidence, you feel like you can do anything. Coming back from that game, I felt good and was playing well, so I guess that carried over into San Jose.”
Yallop has tried several different combinations of forwards to go with 12-goal scorer Wondolowski and, now that Wondolowski has moved to the wing, designated player Geovanni. Johnson is hoping the revolving door stops on him, and that he can hold onto the spot for the Quakes’ final five regular-season matches, plus any potential playoff berths.
“That’s what I strive for,” Johnson said. “Obviously, nobody wants to be coming off the bench or playing behind somebody. Hopefully, I can solidify that for myself.”
With the emergence of Wondolowski as the team’s primary goal-scorer, Johnson has had to recast himself in the role of a facilitator. His six assists this season are not only a personal single-season best, but they also double his career total.
Prior to this year, Johnson picked up an assist, on average, once every 1,325 minutes. In 2010, that rate is one assist to every 227 minutes – nearly six times better.
“I just think I’m maturing as a footballer, when it comes to seeing things in advance and not just depending on other people to give me the ball to score goals,” Johnson said. “I’m actually looking for setting up other people as well. I think it’s just maturity and more experience that goes into it.”
The improvement in those assist numbers has helped take some of the edge off the lack of goals. Johnson hasn’t tallied since opening the scoring in a 4-0 win over 10-man New York on May 8.
“As long as I can contribute to wins, any way I can, then I’m happy with that,” Johnson said. “I’ve proven that I can score goals, and I’ve proven that I can set people up this year. I’m just trying to look at the positives this year, and that’s one of them.”
Geoff Lepper covers the Earthquakes for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. On Twitter: @sjquakes