BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The big man – and at 6-foot-4, Sean Johnson certainly is a big man – stands in Section 8 and hears the cheer get louder.
Sean-Johnson. Clap-clap, clap-clap-clap. Sean-Johnson. Clap-clap, clap-clap-clap.
Johnson looks happy. And why shouldn’t he? The Fire’s rookie goalie just made seven saves – several of which were highlight-reel caliber – to preserve a 0-0 draw against the star-studded New York Red Bulls.
Still, he couldn’t have been expecting this reception. After all, it’s not often that Section 8 serenades any player – let alone a rookie goalie that just finished his second career MLS game. But that didn’t matter. This sort of thing is better as a surprise anyway.
Not that Johnson is surprised with how he’s been playing. Since taking over the starting job from Andrew Dykstra on July 17, the Fire’s confident 21-year-old has been lights out. He has given up a measly three goals in four competitive matches. Two of those tallies were Landon Donovan penalty kicks – as automatic a goal as there is in MLS.
But Johnson’s emergence didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it almost didn’t even happen at all.
For a while, it looked like Johnson’s soccer career wouldn’t extend beyond high school. The Atlanta-area native – who played forward for school and ‘keeper on club – wasn’t recruited by any colleges until his senior season, when he switched club teams and was spotted by scouts at a tournament.
“I wasn’t too familiar with the college process,” Johnson told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “I didn’t join a good club team until I was a junior and I started getting recruited as a senior during tournaments during my first semester. I eventually committed to the [University of Central Florida] in the second semester of my senior year, which [was] later than everyone else.”
A pair of injuries to UCF’s two other ‘keepers forced Johnson into the starting lineup on Day 1 of his college career. He played all but 45 seconds in goal his freshman year and – for the most part – he did well.
But Johnson really broke out during his sophomore season, when tallied five shutouts en route to being named team MVP. Most impressively, Johnson began to receive call-ups to the US Under-20 National Team, which – at the time – was attempting to qualify for the 2009 U-20 World Cup.
Johnson began to receive so many call-ups to the U-20s that he decided to put his junior season at UCF on hold. He told his coach that he would be taking a semester off to focus on preparing for the U-20 World Cup, which – having successfully qualified for – the US would be taking part in.
“I made a decision to leave because of the 20s,” Johnson said. “I got the opportunity to go to the U-20 World Cup qualifiers, but it took up a lot of time. There are a lot of camps. I didn’t really want to miss school and have my GPA suffer, so I told my coach that I was going to take off a semester.
“Then we qualified for the World Cup and kept rolling and I was like, ‘I’m going to be gone for a good bit during the World Cup, so I’ll just take off another one.’”
When the U-20 World Cup came to a close in October of 2009, Johnson had a decision to make: return to UCF and continue playing college soccer or turn professional. He decided to go pro, training with the PDL’s Atlanta Blackhawks before signing a Generation Adidas contract with MLS in January 2010.
“I just thought it was a good fit,” Johnson said of turning pro. “I felt that I was ready and if I wanted to play on the next level I needed to get myself in that environment as quickly as possible.
“We weren’t that successful in the U-20 World Cup [the US team went 1-2 and failed to make it out of the group stage; Johnson didn’t play], but we had great training while we were there and being in and around a pro environment all year I felt ready to make the move.”
Soon after he signed his Generation Adidas deal, the Fire took Johnson with the 51st overall pick of the MLS SuperDraft. He came into Chicago behind Jon Busch and Dykstra on the depth chart but rose to No. 2 when Busch was unexpectedly released less than a week prior to the start of the MLS season.
But Johnson had to wait his turn to see the field. He got his first crack at starting on May 19, when the Fire took on Paris-Saint Germain in the Chicago Sister Cities Cup.
He didn’t play as well as he would’ve liked and didn’t get another chance to start until June 29, when the Fire took on the Charleston Battery in the US Open Cup. He played well in that game, shutting out the Battery for 120 minutes before the Fire fell to the USL-2 side in penalty kicks.
But the starting job was still Dykstra’s. And it seemed it would remain that way. Then, after Dykstra let in five goals in the SuperLiga opener against Monarcas Morelia, Johnson got another shot.
Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos started the rookie in the Fire’s SuperLiga match against New England. Though Johnson gave up one goal against the Revs, he performed well enough to earn the start in Chicago’s SuperLiga finale against Pumas UNAM three days later.
That match is when Johnson took control. He shutout Pumas en route to a 1-0 victory (his first professional win), making several key saves and playing with a confident swagger previously unseen from the Generation Adidas player.
Then came the Aug. 1 match in Los Angeles. Johnson started the game – his first MLS appearance – and played magnificently, making several big time saves.
None topped his 85th-minute diving stop of forward Alan Gordon’s header. The improbable save – which was voted Save of the Week – preserved Chicago’s 3-2 advantage and handed LA their first MLS home loss of the season.
“It was good,” Johnson said of his performance against the Galaxy. “My job is to try my best to keep the team in it and give them the chance to earn those three points [and I think I did that against LA].”
Johnson followed that stellar performance by stealing the show in the aforementioned match against New York. For the second straight week, Johnson made multiple unbelievable saves. His most impressive stop came in the 91st minute, when he dove to his left to parry Juan Pablo Angel’s header wide of the post.
The save – which won Johnson his second straight Save of the Week award – highlighted the tremendous progress Johnson has made since he first appeared for the Fire against PSG.
“I think the biggest thing is how quick he’s learned from the Paris Saint-Germain game to now,” Fire goalkeeping coach Aron Hyde said Wednesday. “He’s a very quick learner. I think it’s showed in some of the saves that he’s made.
“He seems to carry himself more like a 40-year-old than a 21-year-old,” Hyde said of Johnson. “I give him a lot of credit for that. He doesn’t let anything faze him; he’s been excellent.”
And while he certainly hears all the praise, Johnson knows he has a long way to go. Two good MLS games don’t make a career, and the big ‘keeper understands that his recent emergence won’t count for anything if he doesn’t consistently perform.
“Consistency is probably the most important thing,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s in training, in games, or what you’re doing off the field I think you try to maintain a certain standard and carry that over to the games. Week in and week out you try not to drop your level.”
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.