Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 23 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
Before the MLS summer transfer window closed in early August, I heard that 2014 U.S. World Cup team starter Fabian Johnson was drawing interest from the league.
I asked around at the time, but details were scarce. So when the deadline passed and Johnson, 30, remained with German Bundesliga club Borussia Monchengladbach, it seemed there wasn’t much to it. After all, informal inquiries are made all the time. Many of them never result in an actual agreement, for a variety of reasons.
For the most part I’d forgotten all about it. Then Johnson’s name came up earlier this week for whatever reason — I don’t remember why — during a conversation with a source, and some of the particulars came pouring out. Another source verified that information. The most interesting tidbit? That MLS essentially prevented any deal from happening.
1. The team driving the interest in Johnson was 2019 expansion side FC Cincinnati. FCC wanted to sign the versatile, two-footed Johnson, who started all four games for the U.S. (and was one of its best players) four years ago in Brazil.
2. Cincinnati doesn’t begin play in MLS until next March, but the club intended to lure Johnson this past summer because they believed that, as a current USL team, they would not be subject to the MLS allocation order, a mechanism used to determine which club gets first priority to acquire certain USMNT members, youth national teamers, or ex-MLS players returning to the league.
3. The understanding between MLS and FCC was that the allocation process would apply to Cincinnati only after the summer transfer window closed on Aug. 8. As the lone new team to enter the league in 2019 (Miami and Nashville are scheduled to begin play the following year), they would immediately jump to the top of the queue.
4. Like other midseason arrivals Fanendo Adi (from the Portland Timbers) and Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes), the plan was for Johnson to play the remainder of the current season in the second-tier USL until the Orange and Blue made the jump to the top flight. The defender/midfielder was on board. But when FCC tried to sign Johnson, MLS balked, insisting that the club would have to trade for the top spot so that could be used on the German-American. With that, the deal died.
5. There’s no guarantee that Johnson and MLS would’ve agreed to terms, anyway. I’m told that the money on offer in Cincy was somewhere between $400,000 and $600,000 per, significantly less than the $1.5 million, net, that he takes home from ‘Gladbach. But Johnson wanted to come, and he would’ve been Cincinnati’s biggest signing yet. Maybe they try again this winter. Maybe that ship has sailed. Either way, it’s another example of MLS intervening in a negotiation in a way that feels unnecessary and overbearing. This has been going on since the league’s inception. In the early years, when MLS struggling to survive, it was necessary. Today, in what the league brass likes to refer to as “MLS 3.0”, it’s counterproductive.
6. Staying in Ohio, it dawned on me that this weekend’s game between the Columbus Crew and Montreal Impact might be the last time I ever see the Yellow and Black in person. It’s not a nice thought. However, I’m cautiously optimistic that it won’t be the case.
7. For one, the Crew look like just the sort of team that can make a deep run this fall. They’ve hit a bit of a lull lately, with one win in their last four games. But they can build momentum with winnable games at Orlando City and at home to Minnesota United to finish the regular season, and they won’t face the pressure of more ballyhooed teams like the New York Red Bulls or Atlanta United or even Wayne Rooney’s D.C. United once the playoffs start. Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see DCU and Columbus contest the Eastern Conference final for an MLS Cup berth. With the threat of relocation to Austin, Texas, looming over the Crew all season, that would be some story.
8. The other reason I might get to see the Crew play again is that the longer this will-they-or-won’t-they-move saga drags on, the chances of them staying put figures to increase. That’s the hope, anyway. I’m no expert on the complex and evolving situation — for that and all things Crew, Columbus Dispatch reporter Andrew Erickson is your guy — but two Columbus-based contacts I’ve spoken to recently both agreed, without being asked, that the outcome they see as most likely as time goes on is that the team is sold to local investors, with MLS granting current owner Precourt Sports Ventures an expansion team in Austin. Fingers crossed that they’re right: When the San Jose Earthquakes left for Houston before the 2006 season, the move was announced on Dec. 14, 2005.
9. Jeff Carlisle reported Thursday that Crew assistant coach Josh Wolff will fill the same role with the U.S. men for this month’s games against Colombia and Peru. The selection raised eyebrows because Wolff’s boss, Gregg Berhalter, is widely considered a likely finalist for the U.S. job, but I’m told that this has been planned since August. (The USMNT has been short an assistant since John Hackworth left over the summer; C.J. Brown of the New York Red Bulls filled in for last month’s games.)
10. It’s easy to assume that Wolff would remain as Berhalter’s top lieutenant if Berhalter does get the U.S. job. Don’t count on it. Wolff is highly regarded as a young coach and would probably be in the running to replace Berhalter as the Crew’s head man, especially if the club remains in Columbus.
11. Atlanta United’s Brad Guzan returned to the USMNT this week for the first time in a year. He’ll compete with the Crew’s Zack Steffen for the No. 1 shirt. The pair already have a good working relationship, having been called into U.S. camp together for the first time in May of 2016. They rekindled that relationship over the summer at the MLS All-Star game in Atlanta, where each played a half against Italian titan Juventus.
12. “He’s such a great guy, and a great goalkeeper,” Steffen told me after that match. “It was good to get to know him better. We didn’t really talk about goalkeeping, it was mostly about Atlanta, Columbus, our families.”
13. I’d never spoken to Steffen before and was curious which keepers the 23-year-old admired as youngster. “Growing up it was Tony Meola, Tim Howard, Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel and Brad [Guzan] of course,” he said. “Nowadays, I like Ederson,” Steffen said of Manchester City’s Brazilian backstop. “His distribution is outstanding. Ederson, [Thibaut] Courtois and [David] De Gea are my top three.”
14. I didn’t mention Meola, the U.S. starter at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups and a backup in 2002, on my list of the best U.S. players of all time. Didn’t include Tab Ramos, either. That’s probably not fair. Both USMNT legends came of age before MLS existed, during an era when European teams generally wouldn’t go near American players. But their national team performances, particularly at USA ’94, allowed the league to market them as stars during MLS’s inaugural season two years later, and it helped open the door for the next generation of U.S. players — such as Keller, Friedel and Claudio Reyna — to get more opportunities abroad.
15. I have to think that Ramos, the longtime U.S. under-20 coach, will be formally interviewed for the senior team job. On the other hand, if the profile created by general manager Earnie Stewart requires experience leading a professional club team, maybe not. From what I understand, Ramos has has made it clear that he wants the position.
16. But what if he doesn’t get it? (I don’t think he will.) Most people who get passed over for a promotion, in any profession, don’t stick with that employer for long. Ramos’ contract with U.S. Soccer runs until 2021. I can’t see him leaving before the 2019 U-20 World Cup in Poland next spring. Qualifying for that tournament begins in next month. He’s too far along. Surely Ramos would be a strong candidate to lead the U.S. U-23s into qualifying for the 2020 Olympics next year. Would that job tempt him enough to stay? We’ll see.
17. Dave Sarachan is another obvious contender for the U-23 job. I think the U.S. interim coach also earned a courtesy interview for the senior team gig, given the way he’s successfully integrated so many young players into the USMNT quad over the last year. But as with Ramos, I’m not sure he gets it.
18. Atlanta’s Tata Martino says he’s still in talks with the club about a new contract. He’s reportedly being courted hard by Mexico. I don’t know what will happen. However, and to be clear, I can’t confirm this, a source in South America who I trust told me that Martino to Colombia “is a done deal.” We’ll see about that one, too.
19. Even before he officially took the GM job, I quizzed two of Stewart’s former teammates about what kind of coach he might pick. Both agreed he’d probably lean toward an American. When he spoke to reporters after being hired, Stewart said he wouldn’t be limited by geography. Apparently he meant it. A source told me Thursday that Stewart has been in contact with international candidates as well as domestic ones.
19. Former New York Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry has been mentioned as a potential dark horse for the USMNT post. “Absurd,” one U.S. Soccer staffer told me. He’s right. The U.S. isn’t going to hire a coach with no head coaching experience. But I could see Henry follow the path taken by his 1998 French World Cup-winning teammate Patrick Vieira, who coached parts of three seasons with New York City FC before leaving for Ligue 1 side Nice in June. Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke, who famously benched Henry when he was the Red Bulls manager in 2014, would love to see it. I asked Petke about the incident with Henry when we spoke recently but ran out of room for his response in that week’s 23 Thoughts. Here it is:
20. “You treat every player with the same respect, but you don’t treat every player the same,” Petke said. “Perhaps as a young coach I extended him a little more time before we got to that point because of who he is and the effect he has on the team. But it was inevitable, and Thierry knew it, too. We’ve talked about it since many times. We look back and laugh about it now. But it had to happen.”
21. With just one win in their last eight games, NYCFC is trending in the wrong direction heading into their final two regular season tilts. A hallmark for NYCFC under Vieira was their ability to successfully play out of the back, even at home on the tiny Yankee Stadium field. It’s something they’ve struggled with under new coach Domenec Torrent, even in a win at shorthanded Toronto FC in early August. “We didn’t have the control in Columbus, in Toronto, even when we played 11 against 10,” Torrent said after a 1-1 draw Sept. 22 in Montreal, where the Impact’s defend-and-counter style provided a welcome reprieve from other foes’ high press. “They decided to defend deep and use the counterattack. We had the control all the time. I prefer to keep the ball and not lose it all the time.”
22. When Denis Hamlett became the Red Bulls sporting director last year, he’d been a coach for almost 20 years, including stints as an assistant with four MLS clubs and as the Chicago Fire’s head man for two seasons. Hamlett posted a record of 24 wins, 18 losses and 21 ties and led the Fire to consecutive conference finals before being fired after the 2009 campaign. He never got another opportunity to lead a team. So I was curious why he didn’t want to take the Red Bulls’ reigns himself when Jesse Marsch left for RB Leipzig in July.
23. “I’d been coaching a long time, so when the opportunity came to sort of oversee everything [with the Red Bulls] it was a big challenge,” Hamlett said in an interview last month. “I felt that was sort of my next thing that I wanted to do. Of course I think I can still coach in the league. But to be the guy who puts this together from top to bottom, that’s important. No regrets. When people ask me if I miss coaching, I say no.” The decision will look even better if Chris Armas, who Hamlett picked to replace Marsch, wins the club’s third Supporters Shield in six seasons before October is out.
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