In the back corner of D.C. United’s locker room, Eddie Johnson‘s name plate remains affixed above his assigned spot.
Inside the narrow space, an RFK Stadium photo ID hangs from a hook. An Adidas shoe box (size 11s) sits on a shelf. A transparent bag stuffed with various jerseys has remained undisturbed for weeks.
Johnson’s profile is listed in print material and on United’s website, statistics frozen in time.
On his online biography, above the collection of numbers documenting his 10 previous MLS seasons sandwiched around a European adventure, “2015” is followed by a list of zeros.
His departure is not yet official: Wrangling behind the scenes — the league, the union, medical experts, attorneys, his agent — has apparently prevented a formal announcement. United has not been involved in any of those conversations for months, sources said.
The plan, though, remains the same: Johnson, 31, will retire because of a heart condition. More specifically, he is believed to have athletic heart syndrome, an enlarged heart masking a serious issue.
United executives say they can’t discuss the situation in detail. Johnson has not responded to interview requests.
“Nothing has changed,” Coach Ben Olsen said of Johnson’s status with the team. “Eddie is out with a heart condition.”
According to several sources, MLS has voided his contract, presumably because he had a preexisting condition. It remains unclear who knew the severity of Johnson’s ailment and when they knew it.
What is clear, sources say, is that United was not aware when the club acquired him from Seattle before the 2014 season. Sources also say the Sounders did not know of the potential medical danger when they signed him as a free agent in early 2012.
Even in the best of health, Johnson was a risky proposition because of his checkered career. A known heart problem would have ended any discussion about acquiring him.
Athlete’s heart syndrome is not detectable through a standard physical exam; rather, it is often discovered incidentally. That is apparently how United learned of it. Last fall, two days before a playoff match against the Red Bulls, Johnson was hospitalized for high blood pressure and dehydration.
Because Johnson is no longer on the league’s payroll — a decision made by the league, not the team — MLS will allow United to fill his roster slot and, in all likelihood, regain the sizable salary space this summer. As a designated player, Johnson counts $436,250 against the league-mandated $3.49 million budget. (Numerous exemptions allow teams to spend much more than that on salaries.) The balance of his earnings, about $200,000, is United’s responsibility and do not figure into the salary cap.
Financial flexibility could come in handy this summer, when the international transfer window reopens (July 8 through Aug. 6).
Olsen empathizes with Johnson’s situation.
“A lot of people are looking after Eddie and trying to figure out what’s the next move for him. It’s never easy. What’s next in an athlete’s life? It’s a tough thing for people to feel sorry about sometimes because athletes make money, but the reality is, when they stop playing soccer, there is a real adjustment. I was lucky [after retiring with damaged ankles] that I got thrust into something else. I didn’t have time to miss the game; I had a next purpose right away.”
In other news …
Olsen said he plans to include midfielder-defender Markus Halsti on the 18-man game-day squad for the first time Saturday night when Sporting Kansas City visits RFK Stadium. He has been inactive since spraining his right knee as preseason concluded in late February. [On the blog Friday, I will have much more on Halsti’s return and his place in the squad after a long layoff.] …
On Wednesday night, after watching the Washington Capitals playoff game on TV, Halsti sent a congratulatory message to the Caps’ two-goal scorer, Andre Burakovsky. They were in Malmo (Sweden) at the same time.
“Pretty good night, man. Two goals,” the 31-year-old Finnish soccer player said he told the 20-year-old Swedish winger. They communicate online periodically but have yet to cross paths in Washington, Halsti said. “We’re both very busy now. I hope they will crush the Rangers so I can see them play in the conference finals,” he said. …
United will decide in the next few days whether to offer a contract to rookie center back Oumar Ballo, who is wrapping up a two-week trial. Houston drafted the UMBC standout in the second round before releasing him two weeks ago. Ballo has shown well in training, but United would have to make a roster move to accommodate him. United is also close to full strength in central defense with Bobby Boswell and Kofi Opare starting and Halsti and Steve Birnbaum returning from injuries. …
Goalkeeper Travis Worra, defender Jalen Robinson and midfielder Jared Jeffrey are with the third-division Richmond Kickers (4-0-3) for Friday night’s USL match at the Charlotte Independence (1-2-2). Defender Luke Mishu remained in Washington to fill out the practice numbers and midfielder Collin Martin continues to rehabilitate a groin injury.