Twenty-one years after leaving the Columbus Crew, former Trinidad and Tobago international Stern John is still rated among the best scorers of all-time in Major League Soccer (MLS) and one of the most prolific goal scorers to ever play in the league.
The data says it all.
John had two memorable seasons in the MLS before moving to England where he spent well over a decade. The T&T forward spent the 1998 and 1999 seasons as a member of the Columbus Crew and gave opponents a near-impossible task trying to stop him.
Those two memorable MLS seasons saw John rated as the fourth most efficient striker in MLS history, according to a recent MLS survey. With a 47.83 per cent conversion rate, he converted almost one in every two scoring chances. Leading the list are Josef Martinez (55.80), Jozy Altidore (51.08), Nigerian Obafemi Martins (50.00) then Stern John (47.83).
In his first season John, 21, was crowned the MLS scoring champion, leading the league with 26 goals, and was named both Golden Boot and Scoring Champion and selected to the MLS’s Best XI. He followed up in 1999 with another 18 goals before being lured to England to join Nottingham Forest. John scored 44 goals in just 55 matches in his short MLS career. Trinidad and Tobago’s all-time leading scorer, John had a successful 13-year career in England where he played with Premiership club Birmingham City, as well as Sunderland and Coventry City.
Stern joined the Crew on the recommendation of his cousin, T&T defender/midfielder Ancil Elcock. Columbus signed 21-year-old John from the second-division New Orleans Riverboat Gambler, where he had scored 16 goals in 26 appearances in 1997.
In his first season, John scored three hat-tricks and five braces while netting 16 goals in 12 matches in the second half of the season. By then, he was the only player in Crew SC history to hit the 20-goal mark.
“I’ve never had a streak like that in my life,” John told writer Steve Sirk of Columbus Crew.com in a past interview, “At that time I was in a zone. I didn’t know how many goals I was scoring,” he said.
“I just wanted to score and to do well, and we were climbing the table toward the playoffs. I just wanted to score goals for the Crew and I think a lot of the credit goes to the guys who were around me. The service I had, it was because those guys played for the strikers.”
Brian Dunseth, then of the New England Revolution, had the unenviable task of trying to mark John in those days. It didn’t go well. John’s signature move was the “Stern Turn”, whereby he would play with his back to goal, then whip around on a defender and fire off an accurate shot.
“It was difficult,” Dunseth said. “All he would do is put his butt in my face and then wrap his arm around me and spin me like a top. Then he’d usually score when he shot the ball. I just tried to physically hit him as hard as I could. I always remember the Stern Turn as him in a white Crew uniform with yellow stripes, and he was wearing those bright-a** red adidas cleats. I was usually on the ground after he turned me. That’s what I remember.”
Five years ago, John stood in the hallway at the Sheraton on Capitol Square, ready to be introduced to Crew SC fans at the meet and greet. As emcee Neil Sika rattled off the 44 goals in 55 games stat, Alejandro Moreno, who scored 52 goals in 272 MLS games, calmly declared, “That’s a lot.”
John’s numbers were so impressive that Crew SC fans voted his 26-goal Golden Boot campaign as the 15th-best moment in Black & Gold history, despite some of them never even seeing it happen.
Rosemary Cox, who became a Crew SC fan in the 2008-2009 time-frame, was delighted to meet the man who had only existed in the legendary stories told by earlier fans of the club. “It was terrific,” she said. “We’d always heard about Stern John, but he was before our time. To meet him face to face was awesome.”
The man himself was all smiles after the event. “I met a few people at the autograph event today that were like, ‘Yeah, I heard about you, but I’ve never seen you play.’” John said.
“It feels nice to have people recognise what you’ve done in your career. The fans have been brilliant for me since day one when I signed here. They supported me. Even the ones who have never seen me play, they know my stuff. I’m just happy to be back and be part of it,” he added.