The story of the Chicago Fire’s 3-2 victory over the LA Galaxy on Sunday night wasn’t the debut of Freddie Ljungberg. It wasn’t even Chicago’s 3-0 lead after 19 minutes.
No, Sunday night’s win was all about Sean Johnson.
WATCH: Match Highlights
The rookie goalkeeper—who started the Fire’s last two SuperLiga matches—made his first MLS appearance Sunday night and made several key stops to lead the Fire to their first league victory since June 27th.
“Coming off two games in the Superliga, I had confidence coming in," Johnson said after the match. "It’s another game, it’s an important game. To start off with a win in the second half of the season was huge for us."
Johnson’s first test came in just the 2nd minute. Galaxy midfielder Tristan Bowen slipped forward Edson Buddle in behind the Fire back four, releasing the World Cup veteran alone with the Fire’s rookie keeper. MLS’s leading goal scorer looked likely to put the home side ahead, but Johnson came up huge, keeping Buddle’s 12 yard shot out with a diving save.
Two minutes later, the Fire took the lead through a well-worked goal from All-Star midfielder Marco Pappa. And a minute after that, forward Collins John, who made his first league start since May 15th, doubled the Fire's lead after breaking in alone. Mike Banner increased the lead to three in the 19th minute, volleying home a rebound from 8 yards.
All three goals were impressive, but do any of them happen if Johnson doesn’t deny Buddle?
“Johnson had a great performance and that speaks volumes about his abilities and character, because it’s not easy to play here at the Home Depot Center against the best team and be such an important player," head coach Carlos de los Cobos said. "He had two or threes great saves, which allowed us to walk away with three points.”
The Galaxy pulled one back in the 37th when Landon Donovan scored his 100th career goal via a penalty kick, but after the break Johnson really shifted his game into high gear. In the 50th minute he denied Buddle for the second time. Then, after conceding a second penalty to Donovan, Johnson made the save of the night. In the 85th minute, substitute forward Alan Gordon got on the end of a Bowen cross at the top left corner of the six-yard box. The tall striker’s header appeared to be destined for the back of the net until Johnson produced a highlight-reel diving save to preserve the win.
Of course, Johnson couldn’t escape the match without making a rookie mistake. In the 93rd minute, he handled a ball just outside the box, giving the Galaxy a dangerous set piece opportunity. But LA couldn’t capitalize, and the Fire left with three points.
Chicago now head home for a full week of training ahead of next Sunday’s home match against the New York Red Bulls. Both Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg are expected to be available for the match. But equally important will be Johnson to get the start in goal.
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.