Looking over D.C. United's roster thus far, there haven't been many players that really leave one with a complicated decision. That's what happens after a good season in which the parts mostly fit together. You keep the guys that contributed, you keep the young guys that may one day contribute, and you keep the guys that haven't yet had a chance to fully settle in and make a real case for themselves. It's all been pretty simple so far.
Well, not any more. Eddie Johnson joined United this offseason as Seattle ran out of Designated Player slots, and the Black-and-Red sent a good bit of money their way to make the deal happen. United parted with more money to give EJ the contract he wanted, and the pressure was instantly on. After all, no United fan is under the impression that DP contracts are just going to be handed out. Even with EJ getting six figures rather than seven, this isn't a club that can really afford to miss on a big signing.
While no one can realistically claim that Johnson was outright bad to start the season, you don't pay three-quarters of a million dollars in MLS for a striker who goes 736 minutes before scoring his first goal. It took EJ another 405 minutes to score again, despite Ben Olsen keeping the faith and giving him fourteen starts over United's first seventeen matches. United was winning games, and the "Grown Ass Man" was contributing in a lot of ways, but it was safe to say that the team and the fanbase had the right to feel like expectations weren't being met.
It wasn't just the lack of goals, either. Fans saw Johnson taking plays off, failing to make runs on attacking moves that probably needed one more player on the move. EJ could be seen gesticulating at teammates or muttering to himself when service or off-the-ball runs weren't perfect. People don't like that behavior from just about any player; even guys like Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry are subject to complaints from MLS observers, and unlike those two no one was talking up EJ as an MVP candidate.
First impressions go a long way in life, and in sports they tend to be unbreakable unless championships are won. It doesn't help that, just as Johnson's form started to pick up, he decided to tell complaining fans that they didn't know the game and that he wasn't playing for the District. Regardless of the fact that fans were going after EJ as if he single-handedly caused the back-to-back losses to Houston and RSL that preceded his outburst, the fact is that people aren't inclined to like being called dumb or to be informed of the mercenary nature of professional sports.
Still, looking at EJ's season requires going beyond those early impressions and looking at the entire body of work. From the moment Fabian Espindola was substituted against the Montreal Impact with what turned out to be a significant MCL sprain, Johnson was very good for United. Remember how uncertain the days after that game were? United had gone on the road and scored four goals in a half, and yet it felt like the injury to Espindola had the potential to derail the entire season. The feeling was especially acute given that United' principle strengths were defensive; this was not a team with attacking invention to spare, and Espindola at that time had a better MVP resume than Lee Nguyen.
Instead of the season going off the rails we saw several players step their game up, and at the forefront of that group was Johnson. After Espindola's injury, no DC player scored more goals than EJ across all competions (he and Silva finished tied with eight). One of those was a game-winner against Waterhouse in the CCL; another served to bury any hopes Tauro had of recovering from going behind at RFK. Johnson scored similar goals to that last one against the Red Bulls and Houston, icing two more conference wins. He had two game-winners down the stretch (against TFC and Chicago, where EJ also had an assist in a 2-1 road win).
Johnson produced 6 goals and 2 assists in MLS play in fourteen appearances from the time of Espindola's injury, which is roughly in line with his goalscoring returns in Seattle (23 goals in 49 appearances). It's not quite the 1 goal every two games rate that has long been used as an off-the-cuff measurement to judge a striker's productivity, but it's pretty close. Stretched over a full season, that's the kind of form that would produce somewhere in the 14-16 goal range, and I don't know anyone that would brush that off.
Within United's roster, EJ's role is clear. No one on the roster is even close to him in terms of hold-up ability, and his experience at levels higher than MLS is also something we don't talk about much. As much as Espindola and Luis Silva are the best forward duo on the roster, Johnson playing at his very best is probably the most effective (if not quite as technically skilled). When he plays decisively, no defender in MLS wants anything to do with him.
There's also the fact that the old saw that he's a locker room cancer didn't really amount to much here. Sure, his clumsy explanation of his early struggles appeared to be a public statement that his teammates just weren't that good, but that never became a long-term issue. His teammates continued to celebrate goals with him, and in fact it was noted more than once that he was mentoring younger players. This wasn't just a mentorship for attacking players, either: An early November piece on Taylor Kemp in Eight by Eight had a quote from Bobby Boswell noting that EJ had helped keep United's young left back confident. That doesn't sound like the behavior of a bad teammate.
On the other hand, EJ will enter this coming preseason facing an uphill battle for a starting job. The Espindola-Silva combo has an unusually high understanding, and the unconventional - for MLS, anyway - nature of their play tends to baffle opposing defenses. A further strike against Johnson is that the 2014 version of United didn't fire in a ton of crosses, which means his aerial prowess isn't used as much as it would be elsewhere. In fact, before the arrival of Samuel Inkoom you could argue that Johnson was either the best or second-best crosser of the ball on the team. That's not ideal for someone who plays the game EJ does.
United's in a tough spot. Teams in United's class when it comes to finances can't afford to have a DP on the bench, because it could well be that potential stars aren't being pursued to the fullest extent. However, if Johnson's adjustment - both to United's style of play and living across the country from his kids - is indeed complete, the player we saw in the second half of 2014 may well be worth the cost. Let's not forget that both Espindola and Silva have shown a tendency to be streaky. If United moves Johnson along and also sees one or both presumptive starters go cold, it's hard to imagine where goals will come from.
And now I'll put what is likely the trickiest decision United has this offseason to you: