When Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson walks out on to The Home Depot Center pitch for Sunday afternoon’s home opener at LA, he’ll be returning to the site where he made his MLS debut in 2010 and his first appearance for the U.S. Men’s National team the following January.
A 20-year-old at the start of his rookie season, Johnson bided his time behind Andrew Dykstra for the first half of the MLS campaign, appearing in friendlies, U.S. Open Cup and SuperLiga matches before making his MLS debut against the league-leading Galaxy side on August 1.
Stepping in would be no easy task. The Fire had meddled going 4-5-5 through the first half of the MLS campaign while the Galaxy were off to one of the fastest starts in league history at 12-2-4, sitting 23 points (or eight wins) ahead of the Fire.
“We were at a point in the season where the coaches had enough confidence in me to step in,” Johnson remembered. “There was obviously a lot of talk around the Galaxy’s success that season and I don’t think many gave us a chance going into that match.
Johnson was called into action immediately, making a diving second minute stop on league-leading scorer Edson Buddle.
After the save the Fire had a few “pinch me” moments as they took all three of the chances given to them and ran out to a 3-0 lead behind goals from Marco Pappa, Collins John and Mike Banner.
Two Landon Donovan penalty kicks later, the score stood at 3-2 and the Galaxy looked destined for a third when Tristan Bowen’s cross from the right found Alan Gordon at the penalty spot.
The Galaxy forward’s snap header looked destined for the lower left corner before Johnson came away with another diving stop which preserved the team’s surprising 3-2 win at the league-leaders and went on to earn Johnson MLS Save of the Week honors.
The performance signaled to head coach Carlos de los Cobos he had made the right choice in starting Johnson.
“Sean had a great performance and that speaks volumes about his abilities and character because it’s not easy to play at The Home Depot Center against the best team and be such an important player,” said the then Fire head coach.
The performance also gave Johnson the self-belief that he was capable of playing at such a high level.
“I think that game just gave me a lot of confidence. You’re young and you’re stepping into the lion’s den a little bit. It proved to me that I was able to do well and help my team at this level and I think helped us push on through a good stretch in the league.”
Though the Fire ultimately missed the postseason that year, Johnson impressed in matches down the stretch.
Just five months after making his MLS debut, the 21-year-old was called by Bob Bradley for U.S. Men’s National Team camp at the HDC in the lead-up to a friendly against Chile. Johnson would earn his first cap in the second half of the 1-1 draw that night, marking a second career milestone that occurred for him at the now historic soccer stadium.
He’s spent parts of every preseason since that camp in Southern California and two years later, the 23-year-old is fully entrenched in the U.S. team’s goalkeeping conversation, appearing to be the current third-choice for Jurgen Klinsmann.
“The Home Depot Center obviously brings a lot of special memories for me. I remember walking out of there in my first game with three points a few years ago.
“It would be great to do it again and I think we have a team capable of it.”