Entering 11th English season, ex-Crew striker hoping to rise again
With all due respect to legendary crooner Andy Williams, August is the most wonderful time of the year. Lazy days on the beach, roadside stands bursting with fresh corn, and most importantly, the kickoff of the English soccer season.
While the 2009-10 English Premier League season doesn't begin until Aug. 15, this week the lower tiers swing into action. And on Saturday, Aug. 8, a former MLS scoring champion will embark on his 11th English campaign, this time at Selhurst Park for his new team, Crystal Palace -- ex-Columbus Crew striker Stern John.
Last week, the Trinidad and Tobago star signed with the Eagles after rejecting a new contract offer from his previous team, Southampton. His move caused some consternation on the south coast, where Southampton boss Alan Pardew was uncharacteristically critical of John's last-minute change of heart. But the Saints were relegated from The Championship last season, and Palace offers John an outside shot at reaching EPL nirvana.
The Championship ought to be renamed the EPL (the English Purgatory League). Every team prays to get out of it in order to gain eternal access (hopefully) to the massive television money available in the "big show." Palace is trying to hang onto their two young striking prodigies, Victor Moses and Sean Scannell, but John is an insurance policy that could pay dividends even if neither of them leaves in the next couple of weeks. Another reason Palace's shrewd manager, Neil Warnock, signed John is because he has a history of helping teams gain promotion to the top flight. Most famously, his last-minute goal at Millwall put Birmingham City into the 2002 playoff final. Subsequently, he scored in the penalty-kick shootout against Norwich to help clinch EPL promotion for the Blues. More recently, he helped Sunderland gain EPL upward mobility in 2007.
The new campaign not only offers John a chance at shooting for the EPL, but also a chance at reestablishing his reputation as a prolific goal scorer. Last season was a nightmare for John. Playing briefly for Southampton and then on loan at Bristol City, he scored only three goals in 36 games. In his MLS days, he was better known for scoring three goals per game. It was his reputation as a hat-trick man which gained the Soca Warrior the attention of European scouts. In his two seasons with Columbus, John bagged six hat tricks, one of them coming in a 5-1 playoff game win over D.C. United in 1999.
The T&T international has deep roots in U.S. soccer. He played varsity ball at Mercer County Community College in Monmouth, N.J., and in 1997 was noticed by MLS scouts when he scored 16 goals in 26 games for the A-League's New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers. Columbus took a gamble on the young striker after John's cousin (and then Crew defender) Ansil Elcock recommended him to the team. It was one of the best signings in MLS history.
In his rookie season, John led the league with 26 goals, and won the 1998 MLS scoring crown with 57 points. In his sophomore year, his 18 goals tied him with Jason Kreis for the 1999 MLS Golden Boot. After recording a two-season haul of 44 goals in 55 regular season games, former two-time European Cup winners Nottingham Forest landed John's service in one of MLS's first major transfer deals.
At the City Ground, John found his goal-scoring groove quickly. And with a succession of clubs in England, the now veteran striker established his reputation as a reliable goal scorer, although mainly at the Championship level. Crystal Palace is betting that he can find his old form again and help them challenge for a promotion place.
John, who will turn 33 in October, has signed a one-year deal with Palace and knows he has a lot to prove. But never count out a natural born goal scorer, particularly one who four years ago helped his country become the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup Finals. It seems unlikely that John and Trinidad will repeat their extraordinary World Cup qualifying exploits this time around, but he might just spark life into the Palace young guard this season. The man known as "Bravo" shoots to kickoff one more bravura goal-scoring season on Saturday. Crew fans, for sure, will be wishing him well.