About 15 minutes after D.C. United defeated Orlando City last Friday night, a surprise guest entered the visiting locker room below the Citrus Bowl’s south stands: Eddie Johnson was reunited with his teammates, offering hugs and high-fives in celebration of another stoppage-time triumph.
Johnson had not been on the field or on the bench. Rather, in jeans and a t-shirt, the Florida native had watched with family from a private box provided by the expansion club.
Sidelined indefinitely with a heart condition, Johnson observes from afar these days. He remains a member of MLS’s Eastern Conference leaders, owning the No. 7 jersey on the 27-man roster. However, he missed all of training camp and has not been cleared to practice. He is rarely around RFK Stadium. After countless visits to specialists nationwide in search of answers and hopeful second opinions, his career is apparently nearing the end.
No one will speak on the record about Johnson’s future — not team officials, not his agent, not Johnson himself — and the specifics of his case have been kept private. But those familiar with the situation said this week that, in order to enjoy a healthy and happy life, the 31-year-old forward is almost certainly going to have to retire.
Sources say he has come to terms with his career ending and he might end up moving back to Florida or Washington state.
Johnson’s heart condition came to light during last year’s playoffs, when he was hospitalized less than 48 hours before the home match against the New York Red Bulls. He did end up playing (as a substitute) but revealed a few days later that he had suffered from dehydration and high blood pressure, perhaps related to an enlarged heart.
Because of the complexities of his condition and his guaranteed contract, the players’ union, league office and multiple attorneys are on the case, sources said.
[UPDATE: Two sources say the league discontinued paying Johnson in the last pay cycle.]
Johnson’s retirement would mark the end of a career that began at age 16 and featured 19 goals in 63 U.S. national team appearances, 10 MLS seasons with four clubs and one of the largest transfer deals in MLS history (to Fulham in 2008). His scoring total in club competitions totaled 90, all but seven on the domestic front. Last season, his first with United after two in Seattle, he scored seven league goals in 26 appearances and two in the CONCACAF Champions League.
“That is a heck of a career,” United Coach Ben Olsen said last month when discussing Johnson’s status in very general terms. “He should appreciate those years. I know he is thinking about the next stage in his life, if it comes to that.”
Johnson’s retirement — or whatever terms MLS or United use to describe it — would have a profound financial impact on the four-time league champions. At $613,333, Johnson was the club’s highest-paid player last year. (The 2015 figures have not yet been disclosed by the union.)
With Johnson unable to play, MLS is planning to grant salary cap relief to United in the coming months, one source said. MLS rules state that, in the case of a season-ending injury, a club may replace the player on the roster while remaining responsible for the salary and its cap implications.
However, the unique nature of the ailment would apparently absolve United from applying his contract number toward the salary cap budget. It’s unclear how much of his salary Johnson would end up collecting or whether he would have to pursue legal action.
As a designated player, Johnson counted the maximum of $387,500 toward the $3.1 million cap last year (12.5 percent). The league has dragged its feet outlining the 2015 roster guidelines, but the DP impact is probably proportional to last year.
With a large chunk of the payroll cleared, United would have the flexibility to make a significant signing — or multiple smaller moves — during the summer signing period, which opens in July.
Furthermore, D.C. would receive summer spending money if former D.C. defender Andy Najar is sold by Belgium’s Anderlecht to a prominent European club.
United still has a stake in Najar because the 2013 transfer deal with Anderlecht included a sell-on clause, which is standard when young players are involved. The clause, which takes effect when a subsequent move is completed, typically ranges between 10 percent and 20 percent of the transfer fee. United would collect three-quarters of the sell-on clause, MLS the rest.
In transfer deals, MLS awards the team an undisclosed amount of allocation money, which can be applied toward player acquisitions without counting against the salary cap. Allocation money can also be used toward re-signing a player or lessening the impact of a designated player’s contract on the cap.