Carolina Challenge Cup

What: Carolina Challenge Cup

Who/When: D.C. United vs. Seattle Sounders, 5 p.m.

Charleston Battery vs. Houston Dynamo, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Blackbaud Stadium

Tickets: 971-4625

D.C. United, Seattle play for Carolina Challenge Cup title

BY ANDREW MILLER

apmiller@postandcourier.com

When D.C. United's Eddie Johnson steps onto the field at Blackbaud Stadium on Saturday night against the Seattle Sounders, it will almost feel like an intra-squad scrimmage for the veteran striker.

D.C. United will take on the Sounders at 5 p.m. in the final day of the Carolina Challenge Cup. The winner of the match will capture the week-long event. The Charleston Battery will face the Houston Dynamo at about 7:30 p.m. in the final match of the tournament.

For the past two years, Johnson was a mainstay in the Sounders' talented lineup. In two seasons with the Sounders, Johnson scored 26 goals, including two goals in three playoff games a year ago. On Saturday, he'll be facing off against many of his old teammates and friends.

Johnson, who will turn 30 at the end of March, said he'll treat it like any other preseason match leading up to next week's opening weekend in Major League Soccer.

"It's a chance for us to get better and prepare for the start of the regular season," Johnson said. "As far as playing against my old team, yeah, it's good to get out there and compete against the guys I've been working with the last two years. I know all those guys and they know me, it's like an intra-squad game for me. In the end, it's just another team for me and it's just another match."

But to say that Saturday's match against Seattle is just "another" game for Johnson would be an understatement.

Johnson resurrected a struggling career over the past two seasons with the Sounders. After struggling to find his scoring touch in Europe from 2009-11, he returned to the United States in 2012 with the Sounders.

He quickly regained his form and promptly led the Sounders in scoring in 2012 with 14 goals during the regular season and one in the MLS playoffs. He was named the 2012 MLS comeback player of the year.

He added 11 goals a year ago, but as the season wore on, he made it known that he was unhappy with his $150,000 base salary. After scoring a goal late in the season, Johnson mouthed "pay me" to the cameras during his celebration. With Clint Dempsey already in the Seattle lineup, the Sounders declined to re-sign Johnson.

Johnson understood, and has moved on.

Far from hard feelings toward Seattle, Johnson said he credits the Sounders for helping him regain his form and his confidence, and ultimately for his return to the United States national team. Johnson was cut from the U.S. team before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Since Jurgen Klinsmann took over as coach of the American team, Johnson has been a fixture in the lineup, recording seven goals in 20 appearances. Johnson scored the game-winning goal against Mexico in a World Cup qualifying match that secured the team's spot in this summer's World Cup in Brazil.

When Johnson became available after the end of the 2013 MLS season, it didn't take long for D.C. United to scoop him up.

D.C. United coach Ben Olsen was plenty familiar with the fiery Johnson. The two played together on the U.S. national team.

"I've always had a pretty good relationship with Eddie over the years," Olsen said. "I've always liked him. He's very passionate about the game and sometimes that spills over, but I'd rather have a guy that cares too much, than one that didn't. It also doesn't hurt that he's a damn good player."

Johnson will be the focal point for the D.C. United attack, which was one of the least productive in the MLS a season ago.

"Eddie's a huge piece of the puzzle for us," Olsen said. "We've been looking for a forward like Eddie for the last couple of years and thankfully he's going to be in black-and-red this season."

Two of the players that Johnson will see on the field Saturday - Seattle forward Lamar Neagle and midfielder Osvaldo Alonso - started their professional careers with the Charleston Battery.

"Lamar is a young guy with a lot of talent who really has a bright future in this league," Johnson said. "No disrespect to other (holding midfielders) in the MLS, but Ozzie is the best. He's one of the best I've ever played with. If Cuba ever releases him, he'd be a starter the U.S. team."