Clint Dempsey's multi-million dollar move to the Seattle Sounders came to light on Aug. 2. Since then, his good friend and teammate Eddie Johnson -- whose annual salary is about three percent of Dempsey's -- has scored three goals in four MLS games (including two game-winners) and one for the U.S. national team.
Nothing stokes the competitive fires like a little righteous indignation.
If that wasn't obvious on Saturday night as Johnson attacked Mauro Rosales' free kick, soared above the Columbus Crew defense and delivered his seventh league goal of the season, it certainly was immediately afterward. Rosales approached Johnson to celebrate but abruptly was waived away. The striker was focused on his bank account, not his captain or the scoreboard. He rubbed his fingers together, looked skyward and repeatedly said, "Pay me."
For more than a year, and as recently as July's CONCACAF Gold Cup, Johnson rarely missed an opportunity to thank the Sounders -- first for acquiring him in February 2012 and then for giving him the support he needed to resurrect a floundering career. But since Dempsey signed, Johnson has been less gracious. He hinted for weeks on Twitter that he was angling for an increase from the $156,333.33 he's making this season, preferring to take his frustration public rather than keep it behind closed doors. He then let it all hang out in Columbus, thus ensuring that the three points taken by the surging Sounders were overshadowed by Johnson's financial woes.
Sure enough, the 29-year-old forward spent about two hours later that night defending himself on Twitter. Although there was support and condemnation in almost equal proportion, Johnson focused primarily on the negativity.
"No I in team sports, celebrate with Teammates and Coach next time," wrote one Sounders fan.
"I celebrate however how I feel," Johnson replied.
"Disgusting. That's what most of the fans watching tonights game thought of your selfish celebration. Sounders saved you," said another.
Johnson wrote back: "I'm here to do a job. Score goals not to please everyone else. Think what u want and I'm a continue scoring."
On it went, and Johnson never budged.
"Da weakest peeps have this ability 2 criticize wut da best does," he wrote. "U can continue to lie but remember 1 thing. Ur making us stronger N stronger!"
There might be something to that. In fact, it explains quite a bit of Johnson's up-and-down career. When doubted, he's come through. When rewarded, he's struggled. In 2005, a year after scoring 12 MLS goals for FC Dallas, he inked a deal that made him the third-highest paid player in the league at $875,000 per season. He finished the '05 campaign with five goals, was traded to Sporting Kansas City and then scored only twice in 2006.
With criticism mounting, Johnson struck 15 times in 2007 and then left for Fulham, which paid millions for his rights. He failed to handle the pressure or adapt, however, and bounced around on loan to several other clubs. He didn't score a single goal in England's top flight. When Johnson moved to Seattle, his career was in tatters. He hadn't played competitively for nine months and later said, "Did my reputation mess me up financially? Yes. Big time. For sure."
Johnson was back at square one making a base salary of just $100,000. And with something to prove, he flourished, scoring 17 goals in all competitions and winning the league's 2012 comeback player of the year award. He earned his way back on to the U.S. national team and received a 50 percent raise over the winter as Seattle exercised its option.
Johnson had been reborn. The swagger was back.
Then like clockwork, his production slipped. He tallied four goals in his first 12 MLS games and when Dempsey put pen to paper, Johnson hadn't scored for Seattle in 2.5 months.
Then, predictably, he blew up. The Sounders have won five of their past six games and Johnson has been the team's best player over the past month. He's now is on the verge of reaching double digits in consecutive seasons for the first time in his 13-year professional career.
That lack of consistency is part of the reason Johnson's doesn't earn as much as his U.S. teammates. When Chris Wondolowski signed his $600,000-per-year deal with the San Jose Earthquakes over the winter, he was coming off 19, 16 and 27-goal MLS campaigns. Dempsey arrived as U.S. national team captain and the all-time leading American marksman in the EPL. Landon Donovan's new deal, thought to be worth around $4.5 million per year, comes on the heels of two straight MLS Cup titles and an impressive streak of 10 consecutive seasons in which he tallied at least 10 goals or 10 assists.
If Johnson wants Donovan or Dempsey type money, he's dreaming. If he believes he deserves something closer to what Wondolowski earns, there's a stronger case.
Since the start of the 2012 season, when Johnson signed with Seattle, seven MLS players have scored at least 20 regular season goals, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Johnson, who has 21, is by far the lowest paid. He's looking up at Kenny Cooper, who ranks sixth on the list in annual compensation at $342,500. Thierry Henry has 22 goals, just one more than Johnson, and will make $4.35 million this year.
When considering only this season's statistics, however, Johnson isn't doing too badly. He's tied for 19th place in the golden boot race and is far from the biggest MLS bargain in terms of dollars per goal. Nine players ahead of him on the scoring chart earn less per goal than Johnson, including Vancouver Whitecaps forward Camilo Sanvezzo and Chicago Fire talisman Mike Magee, who are tied for second in MLS with 14 apiece. Magee earns only $13,690.48 per goal compared to Johnson's $22,333.33. If the latter has cause to brush off both his captain and accepted celebration convention, then Magee has cause to burn down Toyota Park.
All things considered, Johnson isn't egregiously underpaid. He's somewhat underpaid. He's been an asset to the Sounders, a solid professional and a good ambassador for the league. Johnson is as friendly and as easygoing a player as there is. He's respectful and accessible to both the media and fans, even those who give him a hard time on Twitter. And he can score goals.
But based on his history and compared to his peers (maybe they're all underpaid, but that's a different column), it's hard to figure out why he's so agitated. Johnson always was going to have to start from scratch after a difficult few years in Europe. If he puts together two good seasons and is still making $150,000, then yes, he has a right to feel aggrieved. At this rate, he deserves a nice raise in 2014. But there's not much about his current salary, considering the market and his career trajectory, that should be considered so offensive.
Moreover, Johnson took a risk on Saturday. A celebration like that can backfire. It's not hard to imagine teammates taking offense, especially Rosales, or management wondering whether their player has his game-day priorities in order.
Ask Dwayne De Rosario how his check-signing celebration went three years ago in Toronto. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO Tom Anselmi called it "stupid", The Globe and Mail criticized the player's "selfishness" and declared him a "poor leader" and the hometown hero was forced onto the local apology circuit. He was traded the following spring. De Rosario eventually signed his designated player contract, of course, but it was in D.C., not Toronto.
Johnson lucked out. He has no such issues in Seattle. On Monday, Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer and coach Sigi Schmid continued to offer their support.
"Eddie is underpaid at this point, and we'll address that behind closed doors," Hanauer told reporters. "For me, as long as those sorts of things aren't getting in the way of us winning a championship, I [couldn't] care less. When it becomes a distraction to the team, then it's an issue with me. But for now, we picked up a great win, Eddie was a huge part of it, he was great with his teammates, so for me it's not an issue."
Said Schmid, "Every player finds different motivations that are there and everybody plays with something motivating them. Sometimes it's their pride, it's their ego, it's a chip on their shoulder, to produce for their family, they want to score because they're happy with the team and the situation they're in. ... As long as he keeps playing well, that's the most important thing. So whatever drives him I'm okay with, because right now he's a pretty motivated, driven player."
The contrast between the Sounders' reaction and the firestorm that followed De Rosario's antics in Toronto might explain why Seattle is on its way to a fifth straight playoff berth and why TFC still is waiting for its first. Hanauer and Schmid understand their player and the bigger picture. They'll also have to consider Johnson's history, his motivation and the realities of the MLS salary structure. The Sounders won't, and shouldn't, break the bank to keep him. There's a figure somewhere between $150,000 and $1 million that will acknowledge Johnson's critical contributions but not burden him with expectation. There's a number that will make him feel wanted, but still a bit anxious and unsatisfied. For Johnson, the latter seems as vital as the former.