It's something everyone with even tangential interest in Major League Soccer knows: D.C. United needs a truly capable striker. Ben Olsen's squad also needs to make some other big moves, but any soccer team whose leading scorer(s) over an entire season managed only three goals is a soccer team that needs a goalscorer. Actually, that sort of team needs more than one goalscorer, but slow your roll for a minute. Let's do this one at a time.
It's been established that United has struggled to sign players from other leagues. We all know the reality of the situation: For every Christian Gomez or Luciano Emilio this club has brought in, there are ten guys like Marcos Sanchez, Danny Allsopp, or Lucio Filomeno. Even when the players are actual good soccer players - and I think it's fair to say that Hamdi Salihi was good at soccer - they end up being the wrong fit for the roster, or the head coach's overall plan, or both. That makes this desperate need for United a tough one to fill, because "other leagues" mean over 99.9% of the world's professional players. If we can't get this right, we're going to have problems, and recent history points to United having about a one-in-ten chance of getting this right.
So United needs a striker, and United's best bet is to find a guy already in the league. Oh, and United is flush with allocation money, draft picks, and every other mechanism a team can use to acquire things in MLS. Sounds to me like it's time for United to start pursuing some trades within the league!
All we need is a partner in this dance, and right now it looks like the Seattle Sounders are standing on the other end of the dance floor all alone. As you probably saw on the site earlier today, or elsewhere on the internet yesterday when the news broke, the Fightin' Inventors are shopping striker Eddie Johnson around. That's Eddie Johnson, USMNT regular and a guy closer to "lock" than "on the bubble" for a spot on the US World Cup roster in Brazil this coming summer (yes, it's that close).
Being a regular for the national team is always good on the resume, but let's talk numbers for a second. EJ has scored 23 goals in the last two seasons for Seattle, which in a vacuum is a merely "good" record rather than a truly impressive one. However, due to national team duty and occasionally being rotated out of the lineup to keep him fresh at the end of a congested Sounders schedule, Johnson only started 44 games in those two years. In terms of goals-per-minute, the "Grown-Ass Man" has scored roughly one goal every 167 minutes played.
Assuming he were to maintain that rate over a full 34 game schedule - big assumption, but bear with me - he'd score about 18 or 19 goals. Oh, and he's got 3 goals in 6 playoff appearances (5 starts) with Seattle, so that rate holds at crunch time. If you'd turn down that kind of production on this United team, you must be crazy, right?
It also seems fairly likely. Johnson almost came here back in 2011, and two-thirds of the United brain trust that made that offer is still in place. Maybe the move was 100% Kevin Payne's call, but that seems a bit far-fetched to me. Adding to the familiarity is the fact that Johnson was Ben Olsen's teammate on the 2006 World Cup squad.
United also has the means to make this trade happen. Seattle is probably going to have to move Johnson at below what his apparent value is because of the issues I've laid out, and it's not like every single team needs him. The market, in my opinion, is smaller than it would first appear (especially if Darren Mattocks also ends up being shipped out of Vancouver). Offering the Sounders a player probably doesn't make much sense, but allocation money? We've got plenty, and such a deal lets the Sounders plausibly save some face since the trade will be for an unknown sum. Everyone comes out looking smart, or at least not dumb.
Not so fast. Let me play Devil's Advocate for a second here.
The main issue is history, which I heard you should pay attention to if you don't want to repeat it like we just did after redoing 2010. Johnson was signed at 17 for FC Dallas back in 2001, and after being an oft-used sub for three seasons he had a breakout 2004. EJ scored 12 goals in 26 games at just 20 years old - not to mention a hat trick for the USMNT right here in DC against Panama - and was said to be the subject of a huge (possibly as high as $5 million) bid from Portuguese giants SL Benfica. That deal was rejected, because at the time it looked like Johnson would be worth even more down the road.
Long story short, it looked like Johnson had made it to the big time. Unfortunately, he appeared to believe his own hype, and his 2005 was a disappointment. He scored just 5 goals, and ran into some injury trouble to boot. Dallas traded him to Kansas City after that season, and looked pretty smart when he managed only two goals for the entire season. The hype had dried up, and Johnson was more or less written off.
Things changed in 2007. EJ came back with a vengeance, scoring 12 goals in the first 11 games of the season for the then-Wizards. The foreign bids and the calls from US Soccer came in again, with Johnson reportedly turning down Derby County's $6 million offer. And once again, the attention and the hype was soon followed by Johnson's season going downhill. He managed just 3 goals over the second half of the season while often looking disinterested.
Nevertheless, EJ moved to Europe with Fulham and struggled mightily for most of his four years across the Atlantic. He never scored a competitive goal for the Cottagers and found himself loaned out three times. Now, there's no shame in failing to succeed in the Premier League, but there is a bit of a problem when an MLS striker of some renown can't score goals in the English Championship, and that happened to EJ twice (2 goals in 49 appearances at Cardiff City and Preston North End).
Other than a brief burst of form during a loan spell at Greek side Aris Thessaloniki, Johnson looked like a complete and total bust. It only got worse after that: He was alleged to have signed in Mexico with Puebla, but it turned out to be more of a trial. Rock bottom came when that trial was abruptly ended, with the club publicly claiming that Johnson was simply not fit enough (an allegation the player has strongly, and in my opinion convincingly, denied).
By now, you're sensing a pattern. At low ebb, Johnson took a low-ball deal with Seattle and has resurrected his career as spelled out by Adam earlier today and earlier in this post as well. He's now well-liked by USMNT boss Juergen Klinsmann for his ability to play two roles in Klinsi's system and is in his longest stretch of quality play. He's being praised - Sounders fans certainly don't want him to leave - and as I've said, seems like a sure thing to play in the World Cup. His public "pay me" celebration, if this trade rumor is 100% correct, appears to have worked like a charm.
Every time Johnson appears close to true stardom, he takes his foot off the accelerator. Every time he's written off, he shows his best stuff.
In other words, it's precisely where the wheels have come off twice before for GAM. The hype is there, the money is assured, next summer's business trip to Brazil is penciled in on the schedule...so there's nothing left to work at, right? Job's done. Or, to put it another way: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, you can't get fooled again. More noteworthy writers than myself have noticed the same thing. Every time Johnson appears close to true stardom, he takes his foot off the accelerator. Every time he's written off, he shows his best stuff. United would be trading for a guy who could be about to hit a valley again rather than a peak.
There are also more practical concerns here. If Johnson makes the World Cup roster, he'll be gone for somewhere between six and eight weeks (roughly late May through early July, barring a miracle run to the final). Over that period this season, United played eleven games (eight in MLS, three in the US Open Cup). It seems safe to assume that the league will thin the schedule out during the World Cup, an out-and-out break from play seems doubtful.
Even if United only plays two or three league games during that span, what about the Open Cup, a tournament that this club was at the forefront of taking seriously? Or how about the stretch run? If Johnson comes here and starts during the spring, then spends a month and a half in the most serious and demanding soccer environment he's seen in his entire life, is he going to have anything left in the tank come October?
I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Johnson to DC is definitely going to fail. He's been consistently good for two years running and his USMNT success wouldn't be happening if Klinsmann had questions about his character. In terms of his profile as a player, the skill, athleticism, and work rate are all there to make him look like the right kind of forward for this United team.
However, this proposed trade is loaded with enough risk that I'm not sure we should put all of our eggs in the EJ basket. Every signing is a risk, and United's inability to sign a dominant striker since nailing it in 2007 is worrisome. Part of me wants to look at the reasons for signing Johnson and get excited, but another part of me is worried that United would be catching Johnson on another downswing, and that would mean - at best - a longer trip back to being a respectable soccer club that actually wins games and leaves the laughingstock status to the teams that deserve it (sorry TFC and Chivas, but when grouped with United, the one that isn't like the others wears black).
Plus, United has spent plenty of time scouting elsewhere. Olsen just spent time with Borussia Moenchengladbach, and while he was there trying to learn best practices from their coach Lucien Favre, there's no way he left evaluating players and making contacts for another trip. Dave Kasper and Kurt Morsink flew to Serbia earlier this year to watch a Red Star Belgrade - or Crvena Zvezda, if you want to use their actual name - match in person. With prep for 2014 starting once this season went off the rails, the list of potential #9s damn well better be lengthy, and we should probably already be having quiet preliminary talks with more than one name on that list.
If Johnson is better than anyone we've come up with and the deal can be made, that's fine. There's no arguing that United will be improved starting Johnson over anyone currently on the team. However, "better than 2013" for United is a low bar, and there's probably a solution out there for United that involves less risk. The issue is whether we can find that solution. Given his past, a move for Johnson is high risk/high reward, and United has been rolling snake eyes over and over again recently.
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