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Cap casualty? Eddie Johnson may have already played his last game for Seattle

Nov 13, 2013, 10:33 PM EDT

eddie_johnson Getty Images

That Eddie Johnson is being shopped by the Seattle Sounders shouldn’t surprise anybody, but after Sports Illustrated’s reporting this morning, we have reason to believe it’s already started. The U.S. international is looking for a big raise, one that would likely make him a Designated Player, and with Mauro Rosales’s DP slot likely to be given to Osvaldo Alonso (more rumors, but good ones), Johnson’s set to be squeezed out. The team has two other forwards signed to Designated Player deals: Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.

Realizing the reality of the situation, Johnson’s unlikely to be surprised by the trade talk. As he positioned himself for a new deal this season (his “pay me” celebration along with his musings on Twitter), he must have known this was a possibility. And if it takes him moving to another team to get the compensation he deserves, so be it. With 24 goals over the last two years, Johnson has certainly out-performed the relatively modest deal that brought him back to Major League Soccer last year. (Johnson was paid $156,000 this season.)

Still, as Seattle left JELD-WEN Field last Thursday, eliminated from the playoffs at the boots of their archrivals, it wasn’t hard to notice a small rift — a philosophical disagreement, of sorts — between the striker an his boss.

“You’ve got to run off the ball for people,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid noted after the Sounders’ 3-2, second leg loss to Portland. He didn’t name names, and he was responding to a general question about the team’s problems in attack. But in a game where an emergency forward (Shalrie Joseph) started along side Eddie Johnson, the question wasn’t whether the criticism applied to Johnson; rather, if it could be reasonably be applied to anybody else.

Schmid continued, eventually praising Timber Ryan Johnson, Eddie Johnson’s equivalent with Portland:

“Sometimes running is not running for the ball yourself. It’s running to make space for your partner. We have some great individual talent, we try to get it to that. There’s sometimes where we have good sequences of knocking the ball, but at the end of the day you still have to get behind the defense.

“Portland at times their center backs will just clear the ball and it will be behind your defense, and Ryan Johnson will just hustle us there and try to put pressure on somebody … so it’s not like it’s silky play, but they get the ball behind your defense. And we need to turn the opponent’s the defense more often than we do right now.”

Johnson was asked about the issue after the match. He seemed prepared for the criticism, making an allusion to the team playing too direct, something he had also done in the wake of Seattle’s leg one loss to Portland:

We have to have guys get on the ball for our strikers to find space. If the game becomes very direct, we’re playing into [Portland’s] strengths … But if we can get … guys on the ball and play through the middle, then we can slip five or ten yard balls. Then it’s easier … to get their back four disjointed. We weren’t able to do that tonight.

Though there appears to be some disagreement, neither Schmid nor Johnson were heated about the issue. It was explanation, not confrontation. In the wake of their season-ending loss, both probably had bigger issues in mind.

source: AP

Eddie Johnson has 23 regular season goals in two years with Seattle, but with the team short on Designated Player spots, the U.S. international will likely be playing elsewhere in 2014. (Photo: AP Photo.)

It’s also important to note Johnson never expressed an unwillingness to run or even an acknowledgement that he may not have been running as much as others wanted. His explanation was more nuanced, akin to asking ‘what’s the point of running when we don’t have the ball? Or we’re not playing a style conducive to taking advantage of those types of runs?’

Even if Johnson was seeing things the same way as Schmid, he might be squeezed out of Seattle by the cap game. But these little disagreements can’t help, especially if both sides are making their case to the press. If the contract situation was different, it’d be a rift that could be overcome. This offseason, however, it will probably the last relic of Schmid’s tenure as Johnson’s coach.

The good news for Seattle: There’s no shortage of teams that could use him. He’s an all-star caliber player (made the team in 2012) and a U.S. international. There just aren’t that many better number nines in MLS. Be it at the bottom of the league (D.C. United) or top (New York), there are teams who’d be markedly improved with Eddie Johnson. This player isn’t moving because he’s bad. He’s moving because he’s outplayed his place under Seattle’s cap.

If we were a couple years in the future, where teams had bigger salary caps and potentially more Designated Player spots, Eddie Johnson probably wouldn’t be leaving Seattle. But in 2013, Johnson’s likely played his last season with the Sounders.

  1. hildezero - Nov 14, 2013 at 12:01 AM

    Is Rosales’s contract over this season?

    • talgrath - Nov 14, 2013 at 6:22 PM

      Yes . Even if they don’t lower his contract, at $225,000 this year he’s a very reasonable cap hit as a non-DP.

  2. footballer4ever - Nov 14, 2013 at 1:56 AM

    I don’t blame Johnson or anyone demanding a pay raise if the pay raise is merited. However, the way he’s going about it it’s all wrong and classless- like. Considering the Sounders gave him a chance to come to MLS when everyone considered him all washed up, it’s quite unprofessional the way he’s going about it and other football clubs should be aware of his ways before they decide to sign him up.

  3. dfstell - Nov 14, 2013 at 7:07 AM

    Let me first give the caveat that I generally don’t like Seattle and their fanbase.

    BUT….this illustrates what is so completely wrong with MLS salary cap rules. Here we have Seattle who is building something very impressive and because they exited the playoffs early and didn’t win the Open Cup, they won’t have “allocation money” AND because the rules say “only 3 DPs”, they have to get rid of a very productive member of their team.

    The whole MLS model is whack. They need TV money to grow. To get TV money you need big teams and stars. You get big teams by letting Seattle, LA, NY, etc. grow into global brands where the best players in the world might consider playing for them. Then you spread the TV money around to the other MLS clubs so they can grow a little bit too.

    This enforced mediocrity works fine for the NFL because the NFL doesn’t have superior football leagues from around the world beamed onto our iPads all week. It might be a recipe for “stability” for MLS, but it isn’t a recipe for excellence.

    • renhoekk2 - Nov 14, 2013 at 12:05 PM

      In other countries soccer is religion. In the US it is not. While I agree with your point that the current setup is dooming the league to mediocrity, I don’t believe soccer is popular enough in the US to survive in a league where the same two or three teams win the the league championship every year. That works for Spain, France, Germany etc but fans would not turn out to fill stadiums in other US cities when the championship is more or less predetermined before the season starts. Especially when soccer is competing with MLB, NHL, NBA and the NFL for people’s entertainment dollars. I’m not sure what the solution is to grow the MLS product, but having a 2 or 3 team dominated league I don’t believe is the answer. The world’s best players will still choose to play in Europe until the end of their careers. I don’t see MLS competing for top flight players in their prime even if they had no salary cap.

    • konmtu - Nov 14, 2013 at 2:40 PM

      If you want to see what competitive imbalance will do to a league that isn’t a religion like soccer everywhere but the US or football in the US, take a look at the NBA. At the beginning of the season there are realistically only three to four teams with a real shot at winning. The rest of the teams in the league are selling very few tickets and some can even be had on StubHub for one to two dollars.

    • talgrath - Nov 14, 2013 at 6:41 PM

      MLS and the NBA have declining American viewership and popularity because their is no real competition, you call it enforced mediocrity I call it making the game interesting. A salary cap makes the game more about doing well in picking competent players at the right price and putting the right coaching staff behind them instead of the game being about being backed by enough money. Most of the time in the leagues like EPL, the big money teams are the only ones with a chance to take home the cup and every year they’re in the running for it at the very least; compare that to the current standings in MLS inwhich the big money teams are all out of the running and it is down to well-managed but very lean teams. Do you really want oil sheikhs buying MLS teams and then pumping them full of money and winning trophies because of it? Do you really want to clubs like Seattle, LA and New York be the only ones to have a real shot at the trophy?

  4. swansuite - Nov 14, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    dfstell: you most definitely have a good point, one I happen to agree with completely. But the problem in this case is the fact that EJ isn’t going to be leaving Seattle because he’s going to cost too much (although that’s certainly a nice diplomatic excuse). EJ is leaving because the club has had enough of his chemistry gutting presence in their locker room and his clueless jabs at teammates. EJ is most definitely the player he was before he left for Europe, but his emotional growth is still that of a petulant teenager who is constantly comparing his lot with his peers and has no idea what the heck the “grown-ups” are talking about.

    • turneresq - Nov 14, 2013 at 3:07 PM

      To your point: The Sounders *could* pay EJ right now. They have (or will have) an open DP slot. Rosales contract is up in December, so they have the slot to fit him in there, *if* his demands would make him a DP and *if* they were so inclined to meet his demands.

      Of course, that would have other consequences (Rosales gone, or back at non-DP, not being able to use the DP slot elsewhere, among other things), but they could do it if they want to.

    • talgrath - Nov 14, 2013 at 6:28 PM

      You don’t quite get the MLS cap rules, I see. Seattle was able to squeak by under cap because they had allocation money for doing well in the Open Cup last year and for playing the CCL, they are doing neither for the coming season and don’t get that cap money. Mauro Rosales will come back as a non-DP, of that I am confident. But if the Sounders don’t offer Alonso DP style money, he could move elsewhere, and that would be very, very bad. EJ also wants DP style money, but unless they ditch Obafemi Martins (they won’t) they can’t give him that DP slot.

  5. lavatomy - Nov 14, 2013 at 2:08 PM

    Do we know how much $ Johnson is looking for? He has played better than his current salary but I wouldn’t pay him more than Wondo. Great MLS forward but couldn’t hack it in lower European leagues.

    • talgrath - Nov 14, 2013 at 6:32 PM

      Hard numbers are generally not thrown around in MLS, but I’d guess he wants about $1 million a year, my guess is he’ll get somewhere around what Wondolowski gets, but the Sounders don’t have a spare DP slot for him.

  6. mkbryant3 - Nov 14, 2013 at 5:35 PM

    EJ is “the confident”. EJ is a “GAM”. EJ is not a DP. Come on.

  7. talgrath - Nov 14, 2013 at 6:49 PM

    If EJ wants designated player style money, he won’t get it from the Sounders. If he’s willing to get a small raise, say to about $250k a year, the Sounders will keep him on. That said, if EJ goes it isn’t the end of the world, if Neagle keeps in the form he is in he is a fine (and as an early article pointed out, very cheap) replacement for Johnson. Neagle and Martins won games for the Sounders earlier in the season before Martins injury troubles, the duo up top with Dempsey as an attacking mid could still be a nasty combo. I think the Sounders priority will be to lock down Osvaldo Alonso though, they’ve seen how poor the team does without him.

  8. soccerkickin - Nov 15, 2013 at 2:09 PM

    I could see how they would choose Alonso over Johnson if it came down to it, but why should it? They should ship out Martins and keep the far more productive EJ.

    Perhaps though this is a ruse and they are using the ‘no-DP slots’ left argument to rid themselves of a player who’s act they’re tired of.

    Either way it would be foolish to rid themselves of him.

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