By Ridge Mahoney
Eddie Johnson must have known there would be backlash when he rubbed his fingers together and mouthed "Pay me" after scoring only goal of Seattle’s 1-0 defeat of Columbus last weekend, right?
Or maybe he didn’t realize it. Just as possible is the likelihood he didn’t care. His track record shows he occasionally lapses into his own world, and a year and a half in MLS after several lost seasons overseas seems the right time to remind the world how immature you are. If there’s one team that has been more than willing to pay, and sometimes overpay, its top talent, it’s Seattle. But it does so in its own manner.
Johnson obviously isn’t a student of history. Long before signing Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey as Designated Players, the Sounders acquired former Arsenal star and Swedish international Freddie Ljungberg for their inaugural MLS season in 2009. (They had tried to talk up a deal for Thierry Henry but nobody bought the notion that he’d agree to play his home games on artificial turf.)
Ljungberg contributed a solid first season, and raved about the crowds at was then Qwest Field, but fairly early in his second campaign began dropping hints he’d like to negotiate and sign a new contract. Sounders’ management demurred, stating its preference to wait until the end of the season. Frictions escalated fairly quickly and in midseason of 2010 Seattle traded Ljungberg to Chicago, and not long after that he returned to Europe.
It’s not likely the Sounders will trade Johnson, though bumping him up into Designated Player class will take some maneuvering, since the team is already full up on DPs with three. Now that teams can use “retention funds” to pay players a DP salary without classifying them as such, and allocation money could be available in case Seattle wants to go that route, he could be negotiating a new deal soon enough.
The Sounders have played down Johnson’s gesture, mindful that they took him on last year when nobody else would, in the wake of a failed move to Mexican club Puebla upon the recommendation of DaMarcus Beasley that lasted just a few days. Seattle invited him to preseason camp in Florida and the impression he made on Sigi Schmid and team management prompted an opportunity for him to revive his skidding career. He was paid a base salary of $100,000 last year and is earning $150,000 in 2013, much less than he bagged during several years of struggle at Fulham and while out on loan.
Which brings up the question: What happened to all the money he earned before he came back to MLS? While a modest club by Premier League standards, Fulham paid him well, and before he left MLS he signed a contract worth a base salary of $750,000 per season. (Officially, this was before the adoption of the Designated Player rule, so the contracts of Johnson and Landon Donovan and others were “grandfathered” for their duration.) If he’s not in desperate need, why be so brazen and publicly embarrass your employer?
Obviously, Johnson is piggybacking on the huge contracts recently signed by USA teammates Donovan and Clint Dempsey, but he should remember their careers have progressed dramatically since Johnson’s entry onto the national team in 2004. His stagnated for several years and was basically dormant until the Sounders reached out to him. He went more than four years between scoring goals for the national team, from June 2008 to October 2012.
He should also take note of the fact he failed in England. Dempsey and Donovan (on loan to Everton) didn’t. While MLS has certainly rewarded players returning to MLS after flopping overseas -- that’s you, Freddy Adu -- it does so selectively. And there have been antics in the past: last year he triggered a melee in a U.S. Open Cup match by taunting San Jose players and coaches on the bench as he and the Sounders celebrated the winning goal.
So is Johnson just crying out for attention, to bring his crusade for a new contract public? Probably. The shelf life of a professional athlete is relatively short and the prime age for most soccer players is about where he is now, at 29. His next contract could well be his last major deal.
Yet that was a very childish 29-year-old on display in Columbus, and it can’t have helped his bargaining position with Seattle management. However, it’s probably not harmed it much either, since Johnson has done what he’s paid to do -- score goals -- since re-starting his career in Seattle. He’s netted 25 in 57 games, and is already second on the team’s all-time MLS goalscoring list. His national team career is back on track, too.
Scoring goals is something his teammates, coaches and fans can count on. But the player who once described himself as a "Grown-Ass Man" really isn't.