Soccer Insider is wary of D.C. United’s acquisition of Eddie Johnson

December 17, 2013

D.C. United has acquired Eddie Johnson. This should be unequivocal good news; he’s better than any striker United has. But I declare this news equivocal … equivocal, I say! I hope this signing is the second coming of Luciano Emilio (the first one), but I worry it might be the second coming of Luciano Emilio (the second one).

The good news is Johnson was acquired for allocation money (essentially extra cap space), and United has allocation money like the Duggars have kids. United gets allocation money from the Andy Najar sale, the Alain Rochat sale, for qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League, and for not qualifying for the MLS playoffs (it was just the right amount of terrible!). Because MLS rules and transactions are a shrouded cave of mystery, we don’t know exactly how much allocation money United has, but Black and Red United’s back-of-the-napkin estimate puts it at about $1.5 million before the trade. That’s crazy money, at least in the nickel-slots world of MLS.

If the MLS salary cap is $3.1 million in 2014 (and it will be right around there), United’s actual cap before the trade was about $4.6 million. Not counting Johnson — but counting Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin, who were acquired last week — I estimate United’s current salary commitments at about $2.7 million. That figure even includes a 20 percent raise for most players, and Ari Gold and the ghost of Otto Von Bismarck probably couldn’t negotiate 20 percent pay hikes after last season. But let’s start at $2.7 million. When EJ becomes a designated player (and that seems to be United’s intention), his salary will count about $390,000 against the cap. That puts the team at $3.09 million. Add another designated player (Maurice Edu?), and United is at $3.48. Add Heath Pearce (I would not be surprised if he’s picked in the sinister-sounding Phase Two of the reentry draft tomorrow) at $250,000, that’s $3.73. Sign the No. 1 draft pick for $150,000, that’s $3.88 million. The salary cap should not be a problem.

The problem is that, in my opinion, Eddie Johnson is not that good at soccer. He’s good, he’s just not that good. He’s not as good as the player I was hoping we would sign. With Thierry Henry, Obafemi Martins and Robbie Keane in the league and Jermaine Defoe and Samuel Eto’o maybe on the way, the definition of “top-notch striker” in MLS has changed. I understand that signing Rafael, Marcos Sanchez and Raphael Augusto have scared United off foreign signings the way dating Charles Manson, Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway in succession might cause you to take down your Match.com profile for a while. But I hope United hasn’t ditched foreign scouting altogether. There are players better than EJ out there; it just needs to find them.

This video is a good snapshot of Eddie Johnson as a player. He’s very good in the air. He’s fast, he gets behind defenses and he puts himself in a position to score. And that’s about it. He’s not a great passer. His holdup play is mediocre. He dribbles himself into trouble too often. He’s an offside machine. He doesn’t take free kicks. I just don’t think he’s dynamic enough to be a top-tier player in this league. I’ve gone so far as to call him the “American Chicharito” because he only ever scores headers and tap-ins. He’s a striker who depends on service, and United’s service has recently been about as good as the service at Waffle House. When EJ goes four games without receiving a decent cross, he’ll get as agitated as I get when I go 20 minutes without a coffee refill.

And that’s the other problem with EJ (and me): temperament. He’s persona-non-grata in Seattle for a reason. The “pay me” incident surely greased the skids for his departure. He was a notorious sulker in Dallas. I don’t think his reputation screams “deal-breaker” or “locker room cancer,” but it’s a point against him. How will he react when things go wrong? We need to know, because “Things Go Wrong” has been such a huge part of D.C. United’s recent history that it should consider putting it on its  crest.

To me, Eddie Johnson represents a definite upgrade but also a lack of ambition. United is getting a proven-good MLS player but seem to be punting on getting a possibly great MLS player. Even if Drogba or Berbatov aren’t on the way — and as long as the stadium situation is in limbo I highly doubt that they will be –  finding an Alvaro Saborio (quality player from a lesser-known league) or a Marco Di Vaio (aging star who still has something left) is what scouts are paid to do. With Johnson taking up a designated player spot, it’s unlikely that another striker is on the way. Maybe I’m wrong, and if United ends up adding a quality midfielder and a front-end striker then I stand corrected. And maybe I’m wrong about EJ; if he heads and taps his way to 20 goals then I’ll be thrilled. Last season, United’s top scorer had three goals, so yes, this is better. But how much better is yet to be seen.

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Steven Goff | December 17, 2013