The Johnson-Conway Dynamic
One of the few bright spots from the 2010 Chicago Fire
season was the emergence of youth in the defensive ranks. Rookie defenders
Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Steven Kinney logged significant minutes while 21-year-old
goalkeeper Sean Johnson emerged as the team’s starter in August, following
impressive performances against the Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls.
Overall the team failed in one of its goals of making the
playoffs for the twelfth time in 13 seasons, but Johnson’s stock spiked,
causing a busy offseason for the Lilburn, GA product. He was part of the
Generation adidas team that went undefeated in three matches in Spain before
taking part in last month’s U.S. Men’s National Team call up, earning his debut
in a 1-1 draw with Chile on January 22.
By far the most worked player on the Fire roster this
offseason, the club’s coaching staff has worked to ensure Johnson’s level is
still high as he enters his second season.
“I’ve tried to find a good balance for myself,” said
Johnson. “Making sure I’m fresh for the start of the season. I’ve talked with
the coaching staff and Aron. We’re doing a good job of making sure I’m not
killing myself. It’s tough to play without a great amount of rest. I think I’ll
find my rest when I need it.”
Perhaps some of the balance Johnson will find is the support
and competition between himself and veteran goalkeeper Jon Conway, who was
acquired from Toronto FC during last month’s MLS SuperDraft. Entering his
twelfth MLS season, Conway is the only player on the current roster that has
won an MLS Cup, garnering two while backing up Pat Onstad with the San Jose
Earthquakes in 2001 and 2003.
The Rutgers University product has done well to adjust to
his new surroundings.
“Shifting from Toronto to Chicago has been a simple
transition,” said Conway “There’s a very welcoming staff and the players have
been great so it’s been easy to walk into.”
The thinking behind Conway’s acquisition last month was to
give Johnson, the club’s bon a fide starter a veteran supporting presence
-- someone to push and keep the
second-year keeper honest every day. It’s a role Conway has played before
backing up another of the league’s best goalkeeping prospects, Stefan Frei,
with Toronto last season.
“Like Stefan, Sean’s obviously a good young goalkeeper,”
said Conway. “I’m here to do my job and at the end of the week, the coach makes
the decision on who plays. I prepare every week as if I’m playing – I think
that instills a good work ethic and it translates over to pushing whoever is
playing, whether is Sean or myself, I think that sets the tone for the group of
goalkeepers that are here in camp.”
When thinking of great goalkeeping battles, the one that
pops up in American soccer circles is certainly the one that Brad Friedel and
Kasey Keller fought from them mid-nineties through the 2002 FIFA World Cup. It
was long rumored that there was no love lost between the two and at one point then
U.S. Men’s National Team coach Bruce Arena referred to the depth chart at the
goalkeeping position as having “goalkeepers 1a and 1b”…
It was a situation that was maybe unpleasant at times, but
left the U.S. side not having to worry too much about goalkeeping. Competition
between the two also likely made both keepers improve, which according to
Johnson is an important aspect of the position.
“That’s how goalkeeping training is supposed to be you push
each other but at the end of the day you’re here to help each other out and
give tips so you can both get better. At the end of the day if we’re bettering
ourselves it can only help the team. Both of us know that no matter who is
playing in what game we’re going to be supportive and try to win matches. As
long as you have that mentality there’s going to be a great atmosphere in
training and it will tie into games as well.
It’s obvious from talking to both keepers that there’s no
comparative animosity between the goalkeeping situation in Chicago and the
Keller-Friedel battles. Both Johnson and Conway feel they’ve already
collaborated well with each other.
“Jon’s been great,” said Johnson. “I think we’ve already
started to develop a good working relationship which is important. We push each
other and help each other out. I think you’re never too old to learn so it’s
great having a guy with Jon’s experience training with you. I’m really looking
forward to working with him this year.”
“We’re bouncing so far,” agreed Conway. “We’ve been trying
to get to know each other and see how one another work. We’ve talked a lot and
have been trying to figure out what each other like to do, how we like to work
together and build a relationship in that way. It’s been positive so far.”
For Conway, he’s entering another new role, that of being
one of the most senior members of a team. The 33-year-old is the eldest player
on the current roster and though he’s not near being old for a goalkeeper, he
credits his work ethic for his ability to hang around for so long in MLS.
“I look around and there’s a lot of young guys around here,”
he said. It’s a different transition for me being the oldest guy in the locker
room, but its something I’m fine with. I come to work everyday and do my job, I
think that’s why I’ve been fortunate enough to have as long a run as I’ve had.
I’m going to continue to do that and hopefully it shows. You can inspire and
have the young guys see and be able to do that as well.”
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the
Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.