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Hub product turned soccer sensation Ryan Johnson returns home to play this Saturday

Brian Wright O’Connor | 8/26/2009, 6:53 a.m.
Ryan Johnson, a forward for the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer, heads toward the goal. The striker, a product of the Boston Area Youth Soccer League, is the California squad’s leading scorer. John Todd

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Ryan Johnson, a forward for the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer, heads toward the goal. The striker, a product of the Boston Area Youth Soccer League, is the California squad’s leading scorer.

Ryan Johnson got his soccer start kicking a ball on the playgrounds of Boston. He hasn’t stopped kicking since.

The one-time forward for the Dorchester Lions now competes at the highest levels of professional soccer in the U.S. as the leading scorer for the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer (MLS). The 24-year-old scoring sensation will look to increase his goal tally against the New England Revolution on Saturday at Gillette Stadium.

“It’s always nice coming back to Boston,” said Johnson in a phone interview from his home on the West Coast. “My parents make it out to the games and I have a chance to spend time with family and friends.”

The 6-foot-1-inch striker, lean and strong at 170 pounds, shows extraordinary quickness down the flanks and pounces on balls with unrelenting intensity. Watching him compete in the MLS, coaches and teammates from Boston easily recognize the scrawny 12-year-old kid from Mattapan in the powerfully muscled forward who bursts from the goalmouth after denting the net, arms spread wide, soaring and smiling.

After a stellar career in youth, club and high school soccer, Johnson set scoring records at Oregon State University and was drafted into the MLS by Real Salt Lake in 2006, playing for both Real and the Chicago Fire during his rookie season. That same year, he debuted on the Jamaican national men’s team, collecting an international cap in a 1-1 tie against the U.S. in a warm-up for the 2006 World Cup.

Before joining San Jose in 2008, the Kingston-born forward spent a year with Osters IF in Sweden to get some seasoning in the tough European leagues.

“This is what I always wanted to do,” said Johnson. “Play soccer professionally.”

Johnson’s first experience with the game was standing on the sidelines at Franklin Field while his father, an immigrant bricklayer who played on elite teams in Jamaica before moving to Boston, kicked around with some of the local Reggae Boyz.

“My father, he’s all about soccer,” said Johnson. “That was the number one sport in my household. I developed such a love for the game growing up.”

Along with thousands of other kids, Johnson’s first exposure to organized “football” came through Dorchester Youth Soccer. One of the league’s founders, Steve Weymouth, teamed up with one of its most seasoned coaches, Radcliffe Angus, to form a traveling team, the Dorchester Lions, which was the first inner-city squad from Boston to compete in the mostly suburban Boston Area Youth Soccer League.

That inaugural team featured players from half a dozen countries, including the U.S., Jamaica, Trinidad, Ireland and the Dominican Republic. They practiced in the twilight on the scuffed pitch at Franklin Field and traveled to the leafy ’burbs to pound the competition.

The kids were hungry, athletic and well-coached, employing back passes against teams not accustomed to the soccer concept of advancing by retreating.

“Those were some of the best times in my life,” said Johnson. “Playing just for the love of it.”

Not everyone was pleased, however, by the Lions’ style of play. Coach Angus, a Jamaican native whose sons Brandon and Andrew played with the Lions, remembers several league officials coming to a game in Milton to check on complaints by opposing teams.