There’s nothing better than throwing a young keeper to the lions in a game that means very little.
Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos did such with Sean
Johnson two weeks ago in a 1-0 loss to Paris
Saint-Germain in the opener of the Chicago Sister Cities International Cup. Eleven days later, Johnson stood at the midfield stripe, relieving Andrew Dykstra in the 59th minute and sharing in the opportunity to face down the likes of Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato in Sunday night’s 1-0 loss to AC Milan.
“It‘s good to make your debut against a team like PSG and then to get time against Milan,” said Johnson. “Playing against players of that caliber and just seeing their technique is a great way to improve your own game. You have some nerves at first but you get over those. Overall I couldn’t ask for a better set of players to go up against in my first two games.”
The Fire have a trend of throwing unseasoned keepers into big match situations. Andrew Dykstra’s substitute performance against Club America last April, one where he saved a Salvador Cabanas penalty kick, greased the wheels for the current starter to become the club’s first understudy behind Jon Busch.
While Dykstra looks to have a firm grip on the number one shirt, Johnson’s time in net has been telling of the promise the Fire technical staff saw in him back in January’s MLS SuperDraft. Selected 51st overall, Johnson is the youngest player on the Fire roster, having just celebrated his 21st birthday on Monday, the AC Milan appearance was an early birthday present from Carlos de los Cobos. Though the greenest of all 24 Fire players, the Lilburn, GA product is not treated any differently as youngest player in the squad.
“Being the youngest is alright. The older guys are good – they take you under their wing and show you the ropes. Being 21, it’s not any different from being 23 or 24, they treat us all the same and they’re good guys to learn from.”
The backup goalkeeping role is maybe one of those most difficult in soccer. As the position goes, only one can play at a time. If a goalkeeper is playing well, there are very few opportunities for the back up to play – training and scrimmages become the only time the backup can make his mark. All the while, he has to be ready to go at the drop of a hat, not missing a beat with his backline when he enters a match. How does one prepare for a game knowing the smart money is on them not playing?
“I prepare as if I’m going to play anyway. I know my role, I know going into every game I probably won’t play but the mentality can’t be like that. If something happens to Andrew I’m going to be the one coach looks to. The only way you be ready for something like that is to prepare as if you’re going to play, not let yourself be idle and to stay focused trough the duration of every game.”
While he’s learned from the likes of PSG and AC Milan, he’s also been brought along by Fire first-year Goalkeeping Coach Aron Hyde.
“I think its tough to come in as a rookie and have a good attitude on a regular basis,” said Hyde following Tuesday’s training session. “I think he’s had an excellent attitude. He was alright in his debut but I think in the first few minutes you could see he was a little nervous. With that experience under his belt, he looked much more composed against Milan.
“We have him here to push Andrew and he does a good job of it. The relationship is good between the two of them – they get on well and work hard together. He knows if Andrew gets hurt or doesn’t perform, he’ll be in. So we always keep him prepared with the mentality that he could enter a match at any minute.”
With the taste of match time just wetting his appetite, Johnson remains eager to get more minutes. While the league games may not be in his grasp immediately, there’s a decent chance the former U.S. youth international could see time when the club enters third round play of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in late June or early July.
“I’m very eager,” said Johnson. “Being young, I’m patience and I know I still have a lot to work on but I come to training everyday with the same attitude of working hard and knowing that my opportunity will come. I want to get that chance and I’m prepared all the time – when it comes I want to take advantage of it.”