MLS SuperDraft week is upon us and we wanted to speak with Fire players about their experiences regarding their entry into Major League Soccer. In this piece, Jeff Crandall looks at Sean Johnson’s rise from relative unknown, decision to leave school early, and young success both in MLS and the U.S. Men’s National Team.
Selected 51st overall (fourth round), Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson was the team’s last of five picks in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. At that point there weren’t huge expectations on the 20-year-old netminder.
“I was a newer player on the radar for MLS teams, I started the process a bit later than others,” said Johnson of his later selection.
As far as goalkeepers go, Johnson was in fact newish on the American soccer radar, but after two impressive seasons at the University of Central Florida in 2007-08, the Lilburn, Ga. product was called-up for the U.S. U-20’s CONCACAF qualifying team for the FIFA World Youth Championships in March 2009.
His “new” classification coming from the fact that he joined a goalkeeping corps of better known and established U.S. pool players Brian Perk and Josh Lambo, both of whom had previously taken part in U.S.
Soccer’s U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. Throughout qualifying as well as the World Championships in Egypt, Johnson and the younger Lambo would back up Perk as the U.S. team went out in the group stage in November 2009.
Faced with the decision of returning to UCF or going pro following the tournament, Johnson joined Perk as one of two goalkeepers offered a Generation adidas contract ahead of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
“After Egypt, I weighed the options and decided to sign with the league and enter the draft. It was just a personal decision of what I wanted to do leading up to the tournament.”
With Perk the better known keeper of the two, Johnson attended the 2010 MLS Combine in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. with little fanfare but emerged as the “top goalkeeping prospect” in the 2010 SuperDraft according to veteran American soccer journalist Ives Galarcep.
“I think from playing at the combine to have that week and know how you play, whatever happens after the that is going to determine the rest of your future. It was a positive outlook for me and a lot of the guys I
was there with. You realize that this is your opportunity to do what you love and play the sport you’ve enjoyed since you were a kid.”
With a strong combine and his Generation adidas distinction, Johnson knew he would be selected heading into the draft in Philadelphia, he just didn’t know where or when.
“Once draft day comes, things get a bit nervy,” recalled Johnson. I didn’t have a particular team I wanted to go to, there really isn’t an MLS team near Atlanta and I’d been used to being away from home at that point, going to Central Florida and all the U-20 camps. I was used to being away and it didn’t matter how far away I went, I knew I’d still be comfortable. It was more so just trying to find a good situation for myself, giving me the best opportunity to learn first and foremost. The Fire definitely gave me that chance.”
His future suitors would select another Generation adidas player in Corben Bone (13th overall from Wake Forest), future roommate Kwame Watson-Siriboe (26th overall from UConn), midfielder Drew Yates (29th from Maryland) and defender Steven Kinney (45th overall from Elon).
Four selections after Kinney, the player Johnson backed up in Egypt, Brian Perk, became the first goalkeeper selected in the draft by Philadelphia. Two picks later, Johnson became the second and final keeper selected in the draft, going 51st overall to the Fire.
“Being Generation adidas, I didn’t expect to go so late, but it’s one of those things where I just sat back and knew I was going somewhere. I think it worked out for the best with me ending up in Chicago. It’s nervy the longer you wait to get drafted but that’s natural, it all worked out in the end.”
Once his name was called, there were “a few instances” where it sunk in that he had achieved a childhood dream.
“Getting my name called, going up on stage and having to make that speech, I knew it was all just the beginning. I realized more when I got on the plane to Chicago for preseason, your nerves go up a lot more – you don’t exactly know what to expect with a new environment and new people. You’re flying in and you say to yourself, ‘I’m finally here’ and you get excited again to get in, meet the guys and start preseason.”
After sitting in reserve of Andrew Dykstra through the first half of 2010, Johnson would claim the starting job following a memorable debut performance, making eight saves in a 3-2 victory August 1, 2010 at the LA Galaxy. Having earned his first senior national team cap last January, Johnson is in the mix with both Jurgen Klinsmann’s side as well as the U.S. U-23 team as they head into CONCACAF Olympic qualifying in March. Last month, he spent 10 days training at Everton with fellow U.S. internationals Tim Howard and Marcus Hahnemann.
Having appeared in 41 regular season matches over his first two seasons, Johnson’s been steady while showing a penchant for the spectacular. He’s saved penalties from Landon Donovan, Eric Hassli and Chris Wondolowski. At 22, he helped his team negotiate the 2011 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, becoming the second youngest keeper to appear in a final during the pro era.
Save a short down spell early in 2011, few of the 50 players selected ahead of him in Philadelphia have been as valuable to their teams as Johnson has over the past two seasons. Already considered one of the best late picks in MLS Draft history, Johnson says he doesn’t regret leaving school early, instead crediting the decision to do so as part of his success.
“To be honest I’ve thought about going back to school at some point and its one of those things where when I’m ready to go back, I will. I wanted to focus on the first few years I had as a professional, putting everything into being the best I could and becoming the player I want to be. For now its focusing on what I’m doing as a professional athlete – that’s my job and what I love to do. To be the best at what you want to do, you have to put 100 percent in, that’s what I’m doing now.”
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.