SEATTLE — Rumors of Eddie Johnson’s departure from Sounders FC persisted for five weeks upon season’s end, so once it was made official in Tuesday’s trade to D.C. United, most of the shock factor of Seattle losing its top scorer the past two years had worn off.
Even if expected, the move still captured attention across MLS, particularly due to Johnson’s mixed legacy of unprecedented goal-scoring on the field but several incidents off it.
For the Sounders, it was just the latest in an offseason flurry and came with the return of allocation money, an undisclosed amount, per league policy. General manager Adrian Hanauer said it was large enough, though, to facilitate perhaps two major signings heading into next season. (Allocation money can essentially be used to spend in excess of a restrictive MLS salary cap)
Help will be needed to replace Johnson’s production, 29 goals overall when you include the regular season, playoffs, U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League, by far Seattle’s most the past two seasons. Fourteen league goals came in 2012, which set a franchise record and led to a revival with the U.S. national team just in time for next summer’s World Cup.
Such success led to vocal outcry for a pay raise from the 29-year-old forward, notably a controversial “Pay me!” goal celebration after scoring against the Columbus Crew on Aug. 31. The Sounders weren’t in a position to offer Johnson what he wanted, however, with a full allotment of three designated players: Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and Osvaldo Alonso.
And there are reasons to believe the breakup wasn’t all about money.
Majority owner Joe Roth’s comments weren’t veiled in an end-of-year business meeting with fans last week, when he said of lacking chemistry last season that “there were too many players thinking about themselves over and above the value of the team,” a pointed statement many took to include Johnson.
A list of other incidents over the years: being fined by the league for an inappropriate gesture to fans in Chicago, allegedly punching a San Jose player after a U.S. Open Cup game, multiple dust-ups with teammates in training, outbursts on social media, and also being held out of practice by coach Sigi Schmid before the regular-season finale in October.
So did the drama play a part in the parting of ways?
“It was mostly focused on salary cap,” Hanauer said on a conference call. “There were some minor incidents, but minor incidents happen on every team with many players. A lot of times it doesn’t get reported.”
That wasn’t the message from everyone. In fact some descriptions of Johnson were quite critical.
“It’s almost like, ‘In what way is he not a problem?’” an unnamed former teammate told ESPN.com. “From being late, disruptive, abusive, uncoachable — the list goes on. You can only take it for so long. You either lose the whole team or you lose him.”
Other ex-teammates paint a different picture, however, as players like Steve Zakuani, Lamar Neagle and DeAndre Yedlin all had public showings of support for Johnson on Twitter.
“Wishing the best to a friend and brother at his new team. One of the best I played with,” wrote Zakuani, now with the Portland Timbers.
Yedlin added that Johnson “taught me a lot and always wanted me to do well.”
Johnson is expected to get DP money from D.C. United, coming off a last-place finish with the league’s worst offense. His only comment on the trade came in a news release: “I’m excited with this move to the most storied franchise in MLS, and I look forward to getting started with my new D.C. United teammates.”
Mixed messages to cap a mixed legacy, it seems, but still a move that looks beneficial to all parties.
NOTES: Hanauer said Dempsey is “likely” to go out on loan before the start of the 2014 season but that nothing has been finalized. Reports out of England have linked Dempsey to a number of Premier League teams, notably Fulham. ... The Sounders will bring back out-of-contract goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann next year, according to Hanauer, who also indicated that deals with forwards Kenny Cooper and Tristan Bowen, whose rights were acquired in trades last week, are imminent.