Eddie Johnson will sign the contract he wanted, and almost surely the one he deserves. But he had to leave Seattle to get it.
The talented but temperamental U.S. national team forward was traded Tuesday to D.C. United, with which he's expected to sign a deal that rewards him with a nice raise over the $156,333 he earned last season (according to the MLS Players Union). It's unclear whether Johnson will be a Designated Player. The Sounders received a "large amount of allocation money" in return, Seattle GM Adrian Hanauer said.
Johnson, 29, spent two seasons in the Emerald City and tallied 29 goals in all competitions. He revitalized a career that appeared to have run off the rails after four unproductive years in Europe and a bizarre six-month sabbatical toward the end of 2011. A resurgent Johnson even secured a spot in U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s rotation and scored five international goals this year (including two in World Cup qualifying and a pair at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.)
Ultimately, however, Johnson’s production surpassed his compensation. His contentment evaporated. Sounders DP Obafemi Martins was making more than $1.7 million but scoring fewer goals, then Clint Dempsey arrived in August with wages more than 30 times greater than Johnson’s.
His frustration boiled over a few weeks later when he wheeled away from his teammates after scoring a goal in Columbus, rubbed his fingers together and repeatedly said “pay me.” Johnson was held out of training in late October as word of friction in the Sounders locker room spread. He also posted provocative messages on his social media accounts, such as, “Don’t let our loyalty become slavery. If they don’t appreciate what you bring to the table … let them eat alone.”
Hanauer stressed Tuesday that the trade largely was about the economics and a bit about the potential logjam up front. But the histrionics may have played a role as well.
"It was mostly focused on salary cap," the GM said during a Tuesday conference call. "I think it was certainly reported and there were some incidents, but minor incidents happen on every team … A lot of times it doesn't get reported. I know the speculation’s going to be that there were these other massive issues but really, when it came down to it this was about getting our team balanced in a way from back to front, that gives us the best chance of winning. Eddie obviously wanted to make more money, which is sort of what started this process down the path that it’s gone and you know, we’re happy for Eddie as well."
In early November, SI.com's Grant Wahl reported that the Sounders were shopping Johnson around the league, even as he remained under contract. The club was facing considerable salary cap pressure, which, in addition to Johnson, has resulted in the departures of veteran playmaker Mauro Rosales, goalkeeper Michael Gspurning and midfielder Steve Zakuani.
Without citing Johnson specifically, Hanauer added, "It wasn’t the best locker room we’ve had. The locker room thing is a combination of a lot of factors but it was something we considered and some of these moves are meant to continue to consolidate and bring the group together."
The Sounders finished the regular season on a 0-4-3 slide and were eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals by the Portland Timbers.
Once Seattle opted to fill its lone remaining available DP spot with midfield linchpin Osvaldo Alonso, Johnson’s days were numbered. The Washington Post’s Steven Goff reported over the weekend that United, the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA were in the hunt for Johnson’s services. Goff then wrote Monday that D.C. was closing in.
Certainly no club is more desperate for help than the beleaguered four-time MLS champion, which set multiple records for futility during a miserable 3-24-7 campaign. Despite those failings, head coach Ben Olsen and GM Dave Kasper kept their jobs (winning the U.S. Open Cup helped) and are aiming to add a bit of experience to the youth movement launched toward the end of the season. Defenders Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin were selected in last week’s re-entry draft and midfielder Davy Arnaud arrived via a trade with the Montreal Impact. Now D.C. has acquired Johnson, who instantly upgrades a squad that featured no player with more than three regular season goals in 2013.
“Eddie is coming off a terrific year with Seattle and the U.S. national team and we are very pleased to have acquired him,” Kasper said in a statement. “He is one of the most dangerous attacking players in MLS and we believe he will be an important contributor to our team.” The challenge for Olsen, a former U.S. teammate of Johnson’s, will be to get the best out of the mercurial attacker. While Johnson will be motivated to perform with a potential trip to next summer's World Cup at stake, he's struggled after signing big contracts in the past. He seems to be at his best when he believes there’s something to prove. Now Olsen, who hasn’t been afraid to confront or even bench big names, will have to help Johnson feel satisfied while staying hungry -- to find that elusive middle ground and flourish.