Eddie Johnson got paid. Good for him. A couple years after coming close to being exiled from the game, Johnson got the Designated Player contract for which he had so publicly campaigned a year ago, a pursuit that effectively forced the Seattle Sounders to trade him to D.C. United.
Johnson's abilities are no longer in question, and he's now been as consistent as any American forward over the past couple years, at least from a production standpoint. But consistency from an emotional standpoint? That's another story. There might not be another player in the league who plays with more passion than EJ, and that manifests itself in positive and negative ways.
I t's the kind of emotion you can't help but feel when you're watching him. Whether it's his angry gesturing at teammates when he doesn't get a pass where and when he wants it or celebrating by falling to his hands and knees while honoring the deceased wife of his team's trainer like he did after scoring a goal in the playoffs. It's raw and there for everyone to see and interpret however they want.
Johnson is a bit of a lightning-rod figure, to put it mildly. On one hand, he has unbelievable talent and physical tools. When he puts it all together, he's virtually unstoppable. This side has often been on display with the United States national team, where he was one of the team's best players during World Cup qualification and has all but guaranteed himself a spot in Brazil. He might not be the player you expect to lead the charge, but it would hardly be a shock if he comes home with a couple World Cup goals on his résumé.
Of course, there's another side to Johnson. Call him misunderstood or whatever else, but there's been so much said about him both on and off the record by both colleagues and supervisors that it's almost impossible to simply give him the benefit of the doubt. No matter what you may think of Johnson as a player -- and I love watching him -- you need to also accept that he can sometimes be as tough to play with as he is to play against.
D.C. is banking on Johnson's payday smoothing out some of those rough edges.
Assuming the reports are accurate, Johnson will make somewhere in the neighborhood of $600,000 a season on his two-year deal. It's not crazy money, but it's hopefully enough to quell Johnson's desire to make public pleas for a raise. The relatively short-term nature of the deal suggests United aren't willing to make him entirely comfortable. Maybe that's a good thing -- every team wants their players to stay motivated, and Johnson is someone whose track record suggests he plays better when he's still trying to prove himself.
Still, you have to imagine he's happier now, and a happy Johnson will hopefully mean a productive Johnson. And a productive Johnson will hopefully mean a happy Johnson. It's all a little chicken-and-egg, but Johnson has enough talent that it's worth dealing with some uncertainty.
Having had a front-row seat for most of Johnson's time in Seattle, I can assure you that he's every bit as frustrating to cover as that little equation suggests. One day, he'll hold court for the media, dropping potent quotables like he was auditioning for Jeopardy. The next, with seemingly no change in circumstances, he'll greet virtually every question with disgust and disdain.
It was frustrating, sure, but I also found him fascinating, partially because of this. Johnson is a lot smarter than people seem to want to give him credit for; it's just that his intelligence is often lost in his outbursts of emotion. I can only imagine how hard it must be to ride that roller coaster when you're sharing a locker room with him -- it was often emotionally taxing just to cover him -- but it never lacked for entertainment value.
What will be particularly interesting to see is how this all comes together in DC. All offseason, Johnson has been saying the right things. He's refused to take the bait -- often laid by the Sounders -- and has been very careful with what he says; no hard feelings, the Sounders gave him opportunities to shine, he prefers to look forward and not back.
If it all starts to go sideways in DC, though? Johnson was notoriously harsh on some of his teammates when he wasn't getting the service he so desired. If Mauro Rosales couldn't live up to his expectations, does Nick DeLeon stand any real chance?
But maybe Johnson really has learned. Maybe he's introspective enough to realize that part of the problem in Seattle was him. Maybe, with the help of this contract, he'll finally turn into the USMNT centerpiece so many expected him to become when he first broke onto the scene as a teenager with unlimited upside.
It's probably a bit cliché to call him a double-edged sword, but those blades are sharp on both sides.