Sometimes, playing a best starting eleven isn't the best way to win. Simply putting the fastest, strongest, most skilled group of guys on the pitch isn't always the recipe for a good team. The best clubs have guys that fit their roles well, and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle with the rest of the crew. So while one player may have had better success over his career, another player may lead to more victories.
This may be the situation that has unfolded between Eddie Johnson and Lamar Neagle. Through 13 starts as a forward, Neagle has matched Johnson's goal production (7) and notched a trio of assists (to Eddie's one).
These numbers are close enough to each other that they can be subject to the random nature of soccer. If a shot gets deflected a certain way, if the ball catches the turf funny, if another player trips and falls in front of the goal, that can mean the difference of a few goals over the course of a season. Right now though, the two players give the Sounders an essentially even level of production at one of the most important positions in the sport.
In almost all professional sporting leagues, and quite notably in MLS, there is another game being played off the field. That would be the salary cap game, the one where you use limited resources more efficiently than your competitors. Sometimes that means paying big money at a few positions, other times the cash gets spread around more evenly. Johnson has been sure to remind all of us recently that he wants to be rewarded for his production. He isn't wrong; he has done some great things at a relatively bargain price for Seattle over the last two years. Problem is, in a league like MLS, giving him his reward is taking away from another position. Simply paying the guys already around more money means that the team as a collective is getting worse.
So the question suddenly becomes this: When two players are producing at the same level, which one do you hold on to? The one that demands a smaller contract, allowing for an upgrade at a position of need? Or the more expensive bigger name, more likely to repeat his performance? The one that visibly works hard on every play, or the one that may have helped facilitate Clint Dempsey's arrival? When journalism folks go to their journalism school, they are usually told not to put questions in their articles. One can expect this writer to fall into a fiery crevasse at any moment for using three in a row.
Is the difference between Eddie Johnson and Lamar Neagle so great that giving Johnson his money should come before a high-level replacement for Mauro Rosales or Djimi Traore? These are not questions that the Manchester Uniteds of the world have to face. Furthermore, Neagle has shown in a short period of time a good rapport with fellow striker Obafemi Martins, clearly demonstrated 15 minutes into the match with the Fire. It is a rapport Martins and Johnson have not shown together, perhaps simply due to lack of familiarity. It is a problem for MLS and a problem that Seattle's front office will have to think hard about, however this season ends.
I like Eddie for what he is. There is something to be said about a player who wears his heart on his sleeve, in good times and bad. He is genuine and honest with himself. But if he really wants to be paid like the GAM he is, his best destination may not be the Emerald City.