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.