Click-bait headlines make me cringe, particularly when associated with potential MLS signings from abroad — the notorious low-hanging fruit for the league’s website. So I am racked with guilt assembling those words above.
But here’s the thing …
There might be something to this one. Probably not in the near future. Maybe down the road.
It involves Fabian Johnson, the Bundesliga-based, Champions League-serving, World Cup-playing American who has spent his entire career (and life) in Germany.
I’m told Atlanta United, a 2017 expansion side sitting atop the MLS allocation ranking order, has explored the possibility — as remote as it may seem — of acquiring the U.S. national team outside back-winger.
Per club policy, Atlanta officials said they won’t comment on rumors or speculation. Additionally, one source says there’s probably nothing to it.
For good reason. Johnson is, after all, in the prime of his career, less than two weeks short of his 29th birthday. He is a regular for Moenchengladbach, which finished fourth in the Bundesliga last season and cruised through the Champions League playoff round to earn a berth in group play. He excelled at the 2014 World Cup and remains a key figure in the sputtering, coach-changing U.S. quest for a 2018 slot in Russia.
His club is struggling this season, winless in seven straight league matches in falling to 13th place through 12 rounds. The Champions League campaign is nearing an end, with the Foals stuck in third place heading into the group finale next week at front-running Barcelona.
Johnson is under contract through 2017-18 and, given his contributions for club and country, would command a considerable transfer fee. Toronto FC set the MLS record for a U.S. player acquisition before the 2014 season by getting Michael Bradley from Roma for $10 million. The previous year, Seattle landed Clint Dempsey from Tottenham Hotspur for $9 million.
Would Atlanta, or any other MLS organization, be willing to spend several million on Johnson’s fee, as well as a long-term designated player salary in the millions? The highest-paid Americans in MLS are Bradley ($6.5 million), Toronto teammate Jozy Altidore ($4.8 million) and Dempsey ($4.6 million).
With the backing of an NFL owner (Arthur Blank) and a glamorous new stadium on the way next summer, Atlanta is poised to hit the ground running. It filled the coaching position not with an MLS journeyman or assistant but with Gerardo Martino, a former Barcelona and Argentine national team boss. It inked Kenwyne Jones, a longtime English-based striker for Trinidad and Tobago’s national team.
Argentine midfielder Hector Villalba was acquired from San Lorenzo. Jones is not a designated player; Villalba, 22, is a young DP, which counts $200,000 against the salary cap in 2016 instead of the senior rate of $457,500.
On a larger scale, Atlanta has taken keen interest in PSV Eindhoven’s Andres Guardado, 30, a Mexican national team midfielder based in Europe since the summer of 2007. He would fill one of the two senior DP openings.
The son of an American serviceman and German-American mother, Johnson has never lived in the United States — which could add to the appeal of moving here in the near future. Atlanta’s technical director is Carlos Bocanegra, the former U.S. captain. Johnson and Bocanegra’s international careers overlapped in 2011-12.
The MLS allocation ranking order applies to teams pursuing select U.S. national team players (such as Johnson, Brad Guzan and Aron Johannsson); elite U.S. youth national team players; and those returning to the league after being sold abroad for at least $500,000 (Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream and DeAndre Yedlin, among many others). Tim Howard (Colorado) and Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia) went through the allocation process this year.
Repeating: It does seem improbable that Johnson would move to MLS at this stage of his career, but it shouldn’t be completely ruled out.
It’s a rumor. A good one. But still just a rumor.