Fire's Johnson steals show in DP bonanza

Rookie Chicago GK shines in Castillo, Ljungberg home debuts

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Sunday night’s match between the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls wasn’t supposed to be about Sean Johnson.

It was supposed to be about the unprecedented five Designated Players on the field. It was supposed to be about the MLS debuts of Mexican National Teamers Nery Castillo and Rafa Márquez. It was supposed to be about former Arsenal teammates Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg facing off against each other.

Really, it was supposed to be about anything but a rookie ‘keeper making his second career start. But, for the second straight game, Johnson stole the show. The 6-foot-4-inch netminder played magnificently Sunday night, making seven saves in the Fire’s scoreless draw with the Red Bulls.

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Johnson’s biggest saves came in the game’s final moments. In the 90th minute, a loose corner kick fell to New York defender Tim Ream just inside the area. Running with his back to goal, Ream turned and fired with his first touch, sending a dangerous left footed volley toward net.

Johnson came up huge, extending his tall frame vertically to tip the ball over the crossbar with his right hand.

The Atlanta native was called into action again less than a minute later. New York fullback Chris Albright crossed to the back post from the right wing. Red Bull forward Juan Pablo Angel got on the end of it, hitting his header towards the right side of the net.

It looked like Ángel had snatched a late winner, but Johnson – once again – came up huge. He dove to his left, reaching out with his left hand to keep the ball out.

“I just try to do my best and keep my team in it,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, it’s good to get a shutout for our team.”

Johnson’s performance wasn’t lost on the Toyota Park faithful, who chanted the Generation Adidas player’s name after the match. Henry also took note of the 21-year-old’s solid game.

“We had the chances to win the game but their goalkeeper played a great game,” the Frenchman said.

Unfortunately for the Fire, the rest of the team couldn’t keep up with Johnson. Chicago played well enough in the first half, but the second half was a bit of a nightmare for Carlos de los Cobos’s side. The Fire couldn’t control possession, created zero good chances, defended sloppily and should have conceded on multiple occasions in the second 45.

“I think the first half was very good for us,” de los Cobos said. “In the second half, some players didn’t have the fitness level and were tired and we lost some strength in the middle.”

The debut of DP Castillo was noteworthy, but muted on the field. The Mexican international came on in the 56th minute to a standing ovation (and fireworks) but didn’t figure much into the outcome in his 35 minutes of action.

Ljungberg – Chicago’s other DP – played a good match but squandered the Fire’s best chance. In the 43rd minute, Brian McBride hit the Swedish midfielder in stride with a fantastic low cross at the penalty spot, only for the former Arsenal star to hit the ball wide left.

“It was played well, it got it out to McBride and unfortunately it came with pace and it just bounced straight up into my shin,” Ljungberg said. “It was a pity but that’s how it was.”

Though they certainly could have played better, the Fire were more than happy to take a point away from their match with the talented Red Bulls.

“I thought we had a few chances to score but at the end of the day we’ll take a point,” Johnson said. “We were hoping for three, but coming out with one is good.”

Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at sam.h.stejskal@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.