Johnson's contract lets him control his own destiny
Posted: Tuesday July 12, 2005 5:08PM; Updated: Tuesday July 12, 2005 5:08PM
FC Dallas' Eddie Johnson is in charge of his own future with a revolutionary contract.
Grant Wahl will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
It began, as so many things do in sports these days, with the lyrics to a Jay-Z track.
FC Dallas forward Eddie Johnson was in the middle of a training stint with Manchester United one rainy day last December when he picked up the phone and called his agent, Richard Motzkin.
"I was listening to Jay-Z," Johnson told me in May, "and one of the lyrics was: Open your mouth to whatever is said, a closed mouth will never get fed. You know what I mean? Like, if you're having this success and you're not going to talk when you have the power to talk, you're not going to get anything out of it."
Johnson, now 21, had tied for the MLS Golden Boot in 2004 (with 12 goals) and was busy scoring eight goals in his first eight games for the U.S. national team. "I said to Rich, 'If you can get me such-and-such, I don't mind staying in MLS a couple years. I'm the hottest American soccer player right now, and I proved myself last year and I'm proving myself now. It's time for MLS to try stepping up, and I think I deserve it.'"
And so began the negotiations that recently made Johnson the second-highest-salaried player in MLS (behind Landon Donovan) with a guaranteed three-year, $2.6 million deal. The $875,000 Johnson now makes annually is a huge step up from the 110-large he was earning before.
E.J.'s new contract was first reported in The Washington Post last week, but it was actually signed six weeks earlier on May 22 -- the same day, it just so happens, that Johnson suffered a stress-related injury to his right big toe against Chivas USA. He hasn't played since but is expected to resume training in the next week for first-place Dallas.
What's groundbreaking about Johnson's contract is this: For the first time in MLS history, according to a knowledgeable source close to the deal, a player has a provision allowing him to buy out his own contract. Starting in January 2007, Johnson can purchase his free agency for "around $4 million," according to the source. In other words, as long as Johnson continues drawing lots of interest from abroad, he will be able to control his own destiny after one-and-a-half more MLS seasons.
That would prevent any repeats of the situation that transpired earlier this year, when MLS turned down a $4 million transfer offer for Johnson from Portugal's Benfica. Clearly MLS didn't want to lose another young marketable star to Europe, but many observers wondered why the league refused even to negotiate with Benfica; MLS never countered the initial $4 million offer. In hindsight, Johnson said in May, he would have jumped at the chance for a higher salary with one of Europe's storied teams.
"If they were offering that much money, they must have wanted to play me," he said. "I look at it as, what's important for my family and my future? If the MLS said we'll sell you, I would've gone."
For now, Johnson emphasizes that he's happy playing the next two seasons in Dallas for a title contender that opens its new stadium, Pizza Hut Park, on Aug. 6. MLS, of course, is hoping that he'll want to follow Donovan's lead and stick around longer than that. The league has coughed up enough money to keep Johnson here for the short term, but the long term is what most interests MLS commissioner Don Garber.
It's worth repeating a quote from Garber that appeared in my recent Sports Illustrated story on Johnson. "We want kids to dream of playing for FC Dallas and being like Eddie, and the only way that happens is if he's playing in our league," Garber said. "Our future is going to have us looking to these special players as the foundations for the sport, and we need to find ways to provide salaries that are competitive with other parts of the world. More important than that, we need them to believe in the league and their role in building the sport."
In other words, signing Johnson to his big new contract is only the first step of a potentially long process. If E.J. can get healthy and start scoring goals again, he will have a lot of lucrative options in the next two years.
Additional note: While some media outlets reported that Benfica had offered MLS $5 million for Johnson in January, the offer was actually $4 million (as SI.com first reported in March), according to knowledgeable sources at MLS headquarters and close to Johnson. Benfica has not responded to requests for a comment on the offer.