Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
From a performance standpoint, George John has enjoyed as good of a year as most of the top-rated centerbacks in MLS. There is something, however, that has kept John from receiving the same type of recognition that the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin seemingly get on a weekly basis.
That something is injuries.
John has been a rock at the back for a much-improved FC Dallas side that is a serious contender for a spot in the playoffs when he has played, but therein lies the issue for the 26-year-old defender, as he has been unable to stay healthy and keep himself on the field for the second straight season.
While many would argue that John’s inability to avoid sustaining knocks has cost him the opportunity to represent the MLS All-Star team and U.S. Men’s National Team this summer, John is not worrying himself with that, at least not publicly.
Instead, he is focused on putting these pesky injuries behind him once and for all.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” John, who returned to FC Dallas’ lineup this past weekend after dealing with a hamstring strain, told SBI. “As a centerback I pride myself in being durable and tough on the field. If I’m not able to stay on the field for the whole season without missing a game, it’s very frustrating because it’s something that I like to look at myself and say, ‘I’m a tough player. I’m a durable player.’”
Judging by the numbers this year, it is hard to make a case for that. John has missed seven of the Hoops’ 21 regular season matches due to a pair of injuries. First, he sustained a knee issue on the turf at BC Place on April 27 that forced him to miss three matches. Then, the aforementioned hamstring strain he picked up in late June cost him four more.
Without their shutdown centerback leading the way, FC Dallas have struggled mightily to secure results. They are a paltry 1-3-3 and have conceded 13 goals for a 1.85 goals against average in matches he has missed, statistics that seem to indicate that John is most valuable piece to the Dallas puzzle.
“When he’s not on the field, when he picks up an injury or we have to sub him out, it just seems like we completely lose, not only a good player, which is evident, but we lose a real leader in the back,” FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman told SBI. “(We lose) a vocal player and a player you can not only count on for winning the balls on the ground or in the air, a bit of organizing, but also like against LA (Galaxy), he scored a great goal for us to win the game.
“It’s interesting when you look at our record with George John and look at our record when he’s not on the field.”
By comparison, the Hoops are 7-2-5 with only 14 goals conceded for a 1.0 goal against average in matches that John has featured in. His combination of size, strength and experience is clearly unmatched by those behind him in FC Dallas’ depth chart, but Hyndman believes John has other traits that truly help the club cut its goals allowed total nearly in half when he plays.
“George is probably the one player in our defense that is vocal and that becomes a problem,” said Hyndman. “Zach Lloyd doesn’t say a lot, Matt Hedges doesn’t say a lot, Jair (Benitez) doesn’t say a lot, so the one guy who we can count on to kind of piece the whole defense together as far as communication wise is George. He’s a very important part in that manner.
“He’s also a player that’s been playing for us for four years, so he knows what we want out of our defense and he’s able to perform to that level and he’s getting other players to do their job as well. Those are some of the qualities that he brings just in communication and organization. Obviously, he’s 6-foot-4, he’s physical, he’s strong in the air, he’s a great man marker, he’s a good distributor of the ball, so technically and tactically, he’s solid.”
That John is even in a situation to help FC Dallas this season may be a surprise to some. John had been linked with European clubs for much of the past two years, coming close to transferring to Blackburn in August 2011 and going on a loan with West Ham United that proved unfruitful in early 2012.
Neither of those scenarios may have resulted in a permanent move abroad, but the consensus thought was that the talented John would leave FC Dallas and MLS when his contract expired at the end of last season. But things did not play out that way, as John surprisingly agreed to a new multi-year deal this past December.
“It was the right fit at the time,” said John of his decision. “It’s where I wanted to be right now in my career and when (technical director) Fernando (Clavijo) came in, he kind of straightened things up and really sold himself on me and the club. I’m happy to be here.
“Obviously, I had options but I chose to be here because I want to be in MLS and want to be in Dallas. It’s an exciting league to be a part of right now and it’s somewhere where a lot of players in the world want to be and I’m lucky enough to have a team that wants me here.”
John, who admitted to no longer having a wandering eye towards Europe, also attributes him staying in MLS to his comfort level in Dallas. He had spent the first four years of his blossoming professional career there (even making it to the MLS Cup final in 2010) and has matured more than he likely could have ever imagined.
“I feel like I’ve come into my own a little bit,” said John. “The first couple of years I was under Ugo Ihemelu and he was the leader in the back and we had a lot of veteran guys on the team but now going into this, my fifth year here, I feel much more comfortable being a leader and speaking up when things need to be said on the field and in the locker room.
“I feel I’ve grown up quite bit as a person and as a player, so it feels good.”
What did not feel as good to John was being nailed in the head by a beer bottle during a league game this year.
In one of the more bizarre scenes from the current MLS campaign, John nodded home a late winner against the Galaxy in a home game on April 13 and was subsequently struck by a bottle thrown from the stands. While John escaped serious injury that day, what made matters worse, and even stranger, was that the bottle was hurled at John by an FC Dallas fan.
“I can’t do anything but laugh about it really,” said John when asked how he looks back at the incident now. “The real disappointment was not being able to celebrate on national TV. That’s what I was pissed about. … Not to be cliche about it but it is what it is. It happened, the guy obviously was way too drunk, did something stupid, I’m sure regretted it, but it hit me in the back of the head, the scars covered up from my hair, so there’s no permanent damage and just got to move on with life.”
The next step for John to take in his career is to make it onto the international scene. A dual national who could play for either Greece or the U.S., John will not currently discuss his national team prospects but Hyndman confessed that his towering centerback wants to “catch the eye of Jurgen Klinsmann.”
John has done that in the past. He was called in by Klinsmann for the January 2012 camp but opted to skip it in order to pursue the loan to West Ham, a decision that has apparently hurt his chances of breaking onto a U.S. team that was recently in search of younger talent at centerback but has found some in Gonzalez and Besler.
That is not to say John can’t break his way into the team within the next year and make a solid case before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, because he can.
He just needs to play well and remain healthy.
“What has to happen is George has got to be able to get on the field and stay on the field,” said Hyndman. “Right now, whether it’s ankle injuries, whether it’s hamstring injuries, whether it’s concussions, international coaches are going to look at what are you doing now and how well are you doing it. … The thing you have to realize is, when you’re not playing, somebody else is and somebody else is getting the national team coach’s eye or interest.
“Right now for George, he’s got to get healthy and play the type of soccer that we all know he’s capable of playing for a longer period of time.”