Friday March 11th, 2005

Major League Soccer has turned down a $4 million offer from Portuguese giant Benfica to purchase the transfer of red-hot FC Dallas striker Eddie Johnson, MLS commissioner Don Garber told SI.com Friday.

The deal would have been among the most lucrative transfers in MLS history, rivaling the $4.1 million Manchester United paid for goalkeeper Tim Howard in 2003 and the reported $3 to 4 million Nottingham Forest paid for forward Stern John in 1999.

"The timing and the offer didn't work, so we turned it down," Garber said, explaining the league's rationale for holding onto the 20-year-old Johnson, whose contract runs through the end of 2006. The fifth-year MLS forward has been on a tear over the past year, scoring six goals in his first five U.S. games (all but one of them World Cup qualifiers) and striking 12 times for FC Dallas to share the 2004 MLS goal-scoring crown.

Efforts to reach Benfica officials were unsuccessful, but Garber said with incentives, the transfer package could have netted MLS as much as $5 million. By comparison, Holland's PSV Eindhoven paid MLS a reported $2.5 million last year for DaMarcus Beasley, who scored a goal in PSV's Champions League win over Monaco on Tuesday.

Johnson, who would have received a cut of the transfer fee and a significant salary increase, met with MLS officials after Benfica made its offer near the end of the January transfer window and pronounced himself satisfied with their decision.

"MLS has made me into the player I am today, and I have a lot of loyalty to the league," Johnson said from the national team's training camp in Colorado Springs on Thursday. "We're all competing for a spot on the World Cup team, and here I can play week in and week out in front of [U.S. coach] Bruce Arena. I'd like to spend a couple more years in MLS and grow as a player, but at the same time, Europe is every young American's dream. I think it's definitely in my future."

MLS' decision to hold onto Johnson comes at a time when the league has lost several young U.S. national-team players to Europe during the past 14 months, including Beasley, Landon Donovan (Germany's Bayer Leverkusen), Carlos Bocanegra (England's Fulham), Cory Gibbs (Holland's Feyenoord) and Bobby Convey (England's Reading).

The Johnson move shows that MLS is willing to exercise some restraint and retain players whom the league feels are important to its growth as it enters its 10th season. On the other hand, even Johnson admitted that turning down $4 million is a roll of the dice, considering his goal-scoring run for the U.S. is bound to slow down.

Still, it's in Garber's interest to signal to MLS fans that not every young Yank will be leaving MLS, and to get the word out to potential European suitors that when the time comes, Johnson's price tag will be steep.

Garber said there was little back-and-forth between MLS and Benfica in the wake of its initial offer. "We sat down and had some long discussions internally and with Eddie, but we didn't make any counter-offers," he said. "Eddie is very committed to MLS, and to FC Dallas and its new stadium."

Johnson also won the Golden Boot at the 2003 World Youth Championship with four goals (three scored on penalty kicks).

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