It’s easy to look back now and speculate that Eddie Johnson’s tenure with the Sounders really ended the moment he waved off teammate Mauro Rosales after heading home the winning goal against the Columbus Crew.
The infamous “Pay Me” celebration foreshadowed a looming issue that Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer would eventually address with a trade of the striker to DC United less than four months later.
Regardless of one’s feelings about how Johnson expressed his displeasure with his contract situation, it’s hard to argue that MLS clubs are forced to make personnel choices that often have little to do with player performance, in large part due to the league’s salary cap.
This leaves clubs with a bit of a perception problem. With the exception of hardcore supporters, most fans aren’t aware of the intricacies of navigating the salary cap. Or the designated player rule. Or allocation money. Or any of the bizarre, seemingly unknowable roster rules that govern MLS.
In the other American sports, there’s either no salary cap, or a cap that’s at least high or flexible enough to make the majority of player decisions come down to, as @MightyFarley says:
@mikestandish I think they are used to American free agency being about quality of play, personality of player, and desire to play somewhere
— Andrew Farley (@mightyfarley) December 17, 2013
That’s not always the case, but it’s generally true. The Mariners signed Robinson Cano because he’s awesome, and they can pay him whatever it takes to get him to Seattle.
Not so in MLS. Fans don’t think about allocation money or the cap when evaluating roster moves. Here are a few reactions that bear this out:
Sounders are soo stupid… Why did they have to trade you @eddie_johnson7.. I enjoyed your skills here in Seattle!
— Kody Turner (@sweetloveturner) December 18, 2013
@MikeStandish I don't understand a single one of our off-season moves yet. Maybe Gspurning. It's like we're the 2010 Sounders or something.
— J. Walton (@corvidsun) December 17, 2013
Factor in the Sounders’ end-of-season flameout, glaring weaknesses at center back and on the wing, and it was easy to see that an aggressive offseason was inevitable.
And it’s not over.
Context is important. More so than in any other American sport, MLS demands that a team make a cut in order to make an addition. For GMs, this presents a major conundrum. You need a center back? Think about cutting your pricey ‘keeper loose.
This is why it’s tough to be an MLS fan sometimes. Supporters (including this one) get emotionally attached to players. Which isn’t a big deal when you know you’re going to be rooting for a guy for 10 years – it’s OK to get attached. But here we are on December 18, and the list of Sounders departures includes Steve Zakuani, Michael Gspurning, Mauro Rosales – beloved players all. And now Eddie Johnson, as well. (Yes, there were plenty of supporters who liked him.)
This is going to hurt.