What a difference a week makes. A week ago I wrote about the young heart of the Sounders and this week, two of those players are now Impactioneers. (Hey, it sounds better than Impacters.) Much has been said in the aftermath of The Trade. But one comment in particular struck a chord for me. Arbeck77 made a strong analogy about grading the trade using poker terminology. Any move in a poker game can be assessed through statistical analysis. But there is another side to professional poker that is equally apropos. In addition to the element of chance, poker is a psychological contest. At the end of the day, all players are subject to the same odds within poker. Yet not all poker players win consistently. Professional players know the odds, but play their opponents. A lowly pair of twos is a winning hand if your opponent has a busted flush and you know it. Reading your opponent is often more important than knowing the odds.
It all comes down to betting on yourself and not just the odds. Making it in the world of professional sports is a long shot. Lamar Neagle wasn't drafted and Mike Fucito was a 4th Round pick out of Harvard. Both men defied the odds and are now solid professional soccer players. Their professional life fulfills a childhood dream. How many of us would have bet our livelihood on their success three years ago reading the odds? These men bet on themselves and worked until their dream became reality. Part of our attachment to them as fans lies in this aspect of their success. I will miss seeing both of them on the pitch wearing Rave Green. But a part of me knows that they have a better chance to grow this year in Montreal. They are apt to get more time on the field playing in the roles that suit them. I hope they flourish.
One year ago Mauro Rosales bet on himself. He signed a contract to play in a league he didn't know and in spite of his pedigree, he agreed to play for the MLS league minimum salary. His performance earned him $42,000 and the MLS Newcomer of the Year award for 2011. It also earned him a DP caliber contract for 2012.
Betting on yourself as a player is easy to understand. Betting on yourself as a coach or sports administrator carries a different level of risk. Creating a tactical system or locating talent both depend on whether the talent actually performs. The MLS salary cap creates a situation akin to the odds in poker. All of the teams are subject to the same basic odds. Statistically this should result in no team building a dynasty. But dynastic aspirations are alive and well in the world of MLS because not all coaching staffs and front offices make intelligent decisions when they bet on themselves.
Sometimes the job is easy. A player like Steve Zakuani or Andrew Wenger is a relatively safe pick as a first round draft choice. Using your spot in the allocation order to bring in Kasey Keller to finish his career in front of his hometown fans constitutes a reasonably sure bet. But administrators who only get the easy decisions right do not succeed overall. They are paid to make the tricky decisions and they must rely on more than just the odds. They are paid to see the gems that everyone else thinks are merely coprolites.
The Sounders' Front Office and Coaching staff have grown to trust each other. They are a team within the team. Just as Mauro Rosales can feather a pass to where Fredy Montero will be without looking; Adrian Hanauer, Sigi Schmid and Chris Henderson have learned to rely upon each other. Chris Henderson, Dave Tenney and Ezra Hendrickson have a personal history with Eddie Johnson. They convinced the rest of the Sounders' management team that betting on Eddie Johnson resurrecting his career in Seattle is a sound investment. They didn't bet on the odds. The odds state that the cost of this trade versus its reward is a long shot at best. They bet on themselves and their skills as a coaching unit. They see something in Eddie Johnson at this unique point in his career that they believe gives them an edge that no one else possesses. They think they have spotted a 'tell'.
Odds are funny thing in sports. It's hard to look inside another person's head and heart. Eddie Johnson went to Europe with high expectations and they didn't pan out. He spent time away from his wife and child. He spent time away from the cultural foundation that he grew up in. Many players thrive within similar scenarios but some flounder. The Sounders Brain Trust thinks that there is a soccer player lurking inside of Eddie Johnson that will benefit their team and that they have the keys that can unlock his potential. They have put up the collateral of their reputation and their livelihoods while betting on their skills.
It's easy to sit in the stands or the comfort of our homes and shake our heads in wonder at the statistics of this trade. But the statistics speak of the past, not the future. Past performance never includes tomorrow. I don't watch sports to wallow in statistics. I watch sports to see the drama of people trying to realize their dreams as a unit.
I don't have a crystal ball that tells me how this will play out. But I do know that I watch the Sounders because I like the confidence and skills that these men possess. If they fail, they will not fail out of timidity. I am not interested in the drama of mediocrity. I want to see men striving to accomplish the things that other men say are impossibly stupid. I want a front office that is willing to tilt at windmills. I am a Sounder and this team of men speaks to my heart.