Mo Johnston (left) with Alexi Lalas at the 2006 MLS SuperDraft. (Andy Mead/YCJPhoto)
This is a repost of a story that was written in April 2006, when Mo Johnston coached the MetroStars and the Red Bulls.
By Michael Lewis
Mo Johnston rarely has met a challenge he didn’t like or felt he couldn’t overcome.
Realizing his career was on the downside in Europe after disappointing stints with Everton, Hearts of Midlothian and Falkirk, he decided to take a leap across the Atlantic Ocean.
Given the circumstances, some people might have called it a leap of faith.
Major League Soccer was just taking its first steps as a professional soccer league in 1996 and the league had signed a number of high profile players — including but not limited to Carlos Valderrama, Jorge Campos and Roberto Donadoni.
After leaving Rangers in 1991, Johnston’s effectiveness, production and playing time had taken a precipitous drop., scoring only 16 times in 79 appearances with those three clubs.
But a new world and a new league beckoned several thousand miles to the west.
Johnston already was familiar with the United States and American soccer.
“I had a house for 10 years in Orlando,” Johnston said in an interview during training camp in Orlando in February. “Every year I came over and did my pre-season here for eight weeks of the year.
“I was reading up a bit on MLS. I looked at certain things and it was like fancy that. I spoke to my agent.”
Johnston said he agent told it that he wouldn’t be able to get out of his contract.
“I said that I would buy my contract. No problem. So, I wanted to go to Tampa. I spoke to (coach) Thomas Rongen. He had no money in the salary cap.
The league kicked off on April 6, 1996, when D.C. United took on the San Jose Clash, and Johnston still had no contract.
“I told my agent: Go see if there’s another team, if they’re looking for someone. [Coach] Ron Newman calls and asks if i can be on a flight on a Sunday. He said i could only come on trial. I went to the club and spoke to the president and we bought a contract. I jumped on a plane and that was it.”
Johnston had a week’s tryout with the Kansas City Wiz.
“When I put my mind to something, I am doing it. my mind was made up I’m coming over here. I knew I could make some roster. So, it wasn’t a problem to me.”
Johnston admitted he had no expectations of the league.
“I had none,” he said. “It was a game (between) 11 and 11 in a stadium. It had media and TV and it was professional. I know Americans. I’ve known them for the last 17 years. Really. It was fairly easy for me. Obviously, watching them in the 1990 World Cup, knowing that they had good players then. It was never a problem to me. It was packing my bags and going back. But I’ve done that all through my career.”
By the time Johnston had finished his first 90 minutes as an MLS player, both parties were sold on one another.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Johnston wound up playing in one of the most amazing games in the league’s 11-year history. The Wizards outlasted the Columbus Crew, 6-4, on May 2, 1996. Johnston scored twice and he was convinced that he and the league had a future together.
By the time he had called it quits after the 2001 season, Johnston had accumulated 31 goals and 28 assists in 149 games for the Wizards.
But Johnston will be the first to tell you that those numbers paled in comparison what the Wizards had accomplished in 2000. They captured MLS Cup with a 1-0 triumph over the Chicago Fire.
After two good seasons, the Wizards went south in 1999, due to injuries and some bad luck.
“Then all of a sudden, we were struggling,” Johnston said. “We couldn’t win many games. The coach gets fired, which was always not very nice. Then all of a sudden Bob [Gansler] comes in and does a wonderful job. Comes in and structures everything, gets rid of a lot of people. The rest is history.”
The Wizards went from worst to first in 2000, going from n 8-24 record in 1999 to the Western Conference crown at 16-7-9 and tying the Chicago Fire for the most points (57).
“It was never surprising,” Johnston said. “There were certain games we won the year before. We should have won more. At the end of the day for me, we were just short in every department. But the following year, Bob picked up good players in the draft. He brought in good foreigners. All of a sudden, things take shape and you’ve got a whole different outlook.”
After the 2001 season, MoJo decided it was the right time to call it a career.
“It was easy for me,” he said. “There were times in the morning I couldn’t get up out of bed because of my neck. I had taken a blown in Chicago. I missed the flight of the ball and it shot right down my back and i had blown three disks and to this day, i still need the surgery. And the cold weather hurts me certain times when i’m sitting.
“It was time for me. I couldn’t hit the ball no more. Was I sad? no? because I had a great career.
“I won many things. I met many people. I went on many journeys. I’ve been all over the world.
“I’m not stopping now. I’m not stopping here.”
Johnston took a year off in 2002, doing some charity work for the Kansas City Chiefs’ Ambassadors program when Johnston received a call in August from his American-based agent, Ron Waxman. Richard Williams (no relation to current assistant coach Richie Williams) had just left as MetroStars assistant coach and there was an opening.
The offer was tempting, but . . .
‘Why take a two-month contract?” Johnston said.
Johnston’s patience was rewarded several months later when Bob Bradley hired the Scottish international as his assistant in the fall of 2002.
Johnston said he learned from Bradley, including, he said, “how to organize and how demanding you need to make it to the players. helping a player, looking at tapes, breaking the opposition down, the organization of running training and scheduling.
“That there was a major key because I don’t think there was many better than Bob at that.”
Bradley and Johnston worked hand in hand for 2 3/4 seasons before club president and general manager Alexi Lalas gave Bradley the boot in October, 2005.
Johnston took the firing personally.
“It was very hard,” he said. “The hardest part sometimes comes when you were sitting around and you always had someone to talk to and that person wasn’t there. We always had a lot of good conversations on setting up and organizing things and see ‘If you can make this thing better.’ It was hard. But trying to lift the squad — that was a difficult part. It was the most difficult time in terms of Bob moving on and everything that was said and written in the newspapers when I know he’s one of the hardest working coaches in the league. At the end of the day, his heart was truly there. Some people hit certain areas in which they were totally, totally wrong.”
Johnston was offered the interim job and took it, guiding the club into the playoffs before it was eliminated by the New England Revolution in the opening round.
“I went to the stadium and Bob was there,” Johnston said. “That was hard because it was partly what we were doing for 2 2/4 years was over and we hadn’t won anything. If he failed, I failed. I don’t take anything when someone is fired. I really felt bad. I had to pick myself up and go on with the job.”
Now, the job is Johnston’s — as a fulltime coach. He’ll find out what the hot seat is all about.