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Originally published February 19, 2012 at 5:42 PM | Page modified February 19, 2012 at 10:25 PM

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To win titles, teams have to gamble during the trading season

Sounders take a gamble on trade for Eddie Johnson

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Steve - I respect the years you have spent in Seattle. However your soccer IQ is not... MORE
I think this is a great dilemma to have... Steve nice work on the article!!! MORE
I'm going to stand up Blaise Nkufo. Yes he did not want to be the physical center... MORE

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In the pursuit of a championship, franchises have to take chances. They have to gamble on kids, who may or may not be ready. They have to guess on the conditioning and the heart of veterans with something left to prove.

Teams, like the Sounders, who might be one move away from something remarkable, have to gamble if they want to take the next step to a title.

The teams that win championships trust their guts. They don't make decisions based on the polls. They aren't timid about trades because they aren't worried about public opinion.

Winning teams have to be bold.

But they also have to be smart.

Late last week, the Sounders were bold. They traded two of their most popular young offensive players, Mike Fucito and Lamar Neagle, to Montreal for a veteran, former U.S. national forward Eddie Johnson.

It was a trade made for today. The kind of trade that says the Sounders want to win an MLS title this year.

But was it a smart trade?

The Sounders are tampering with their chemistry with this deal. They are gambling that Johnson, who has struggled mightily the past few seasons in his attempts to play in England and Mexico and has been criticized for his lack of fitness at various stops, will come to Seattle knowing he has something to prove.

They are saying they're willing to tinker with their chemistry to get another goal-scorer in the lineup. They are saying they believe all Johnson needs to restart his career is the right environment. They believe he will be fit and he will be dangerous.

This could be Johnson's last best chance to find his way back to the U.S. national team, where he scored 12 goals in 41 games.

But this is a dangerous game the Sounders are playing. While they are bringing in another marketable big name with a sweet résumé, they also are taking a chance Johnson and their other go-to guy, Fredy Montero, can exist harmoniously.

In their three seasons here, the Sounders really have had only two players who consistently were willing to make runs for Montero — Fucito and Nate Jaqua. Both are gone.

When they made those runs, Jaqua and Fucito pulled centerbacks away from the goal and created space for Montero to work his magic. With space, Montero is as lethal as any player in the league.

But will Johnson be as willing to run for Montero as Jaqua and Fucito were, or in his quest to impress national coach Jurgen Klinsmann, will he be all about goal scoring? Will he come to Seattle because he wants to win games, or because he wants to win a spot on the national team?

The Sounders were burned the last time they went after a big-name forward. Swiss international Blaise Nkufo and Montero were a terrible combination, all oil and water.

Nkufo never seemed willing to sacrifice himself for Montero; never really got in shape, wasn't a veteran leader in the locker room.

The last thing the Sounders need as they make their challenge to the defending league champion Los Angeles Galaxy is a scene where their two major goal-scorers are in the center of the field and both are screaming for the ball.

Nkufo-Montero, the sequel, would be disastrous.

The Galaxy won with talent, but it also won with chemistry.

Los Angeles found big names who were willing to stitch the team together and nobody was a better team player than uber-hero David Beckham.

Will Johnson be a willing leader in the way Beckham has been?

Last season, the Sounders signed midfielder Mauro Rosales, a hardworking veteran star who sacrificed his body for the team, made his teammates better and made the locker room more tranquil. This season, if he stays healthy, he could be the best player in the league.

Now, with this trade, the question that lingers is, have the Sounders found in Eddie Johnson another selfless star like Rosales, or another Nkufo?

The answer to that question might decide a championship.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

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