Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson was named to the United States roster for July’s Gold Cup tournament on Thursday. That was really no surprise, as Johnson has been a regular call-up for national team duty by coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
The call-up was, of course, good news for Johnson, whose future with the national team appears a bright one, but not so good news for the Fire. The Gold Cup is a month-long tournament that concludes with the championship match at Soldier Field on July 28.
Johnson reports to the national team for training on July 1 in San Diego. How long he’ll be gone from the Fire is uncertain.
In July the Fire has five Major League Soccer matches –- at home against San Jose on July 3, Sporting Kansas City on July 7 and D.C. United on July 20 and on the road at Vancouver on July 14 and Houston on July 27. Johnson’s main backup, Italian Paolo Tornaghi, will be put to the test then.
Johnson’s value to the Fire was never more evident than on Wednesday night when he was spectacular in the critical moments of a 5-1 victory over Orlando City FC in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Toyota Park.
Beating a third-division team at home shouldn’t be considered a big deal, but Orlando City had eliminated two MLS clubs before earning a crack at the Fire. The score is misleading, too. This match was no blowout.
It was 1-1 when Orlando’s Rob Valentino squeezed a shot past Johnson in the 51st minute, a result more attributable to sloppy defense in front of Johnson than anything else. The minor leaguers drew inspiration from that goal and fired some hard shots at Johnson who, fortunately, was up to the task until the Fire took the lead for good on a spectacular individual-effort goal by Patrick Nyarko in the 59th minute.
That rattled Orlando City. Two of its players were sent off in the time that remained as goals by Chris Rolfe (his second of the match), Mike Magee (his seventh in as many matches since coming to the Fire in a trade with Los Angeles) and Joel Lindpere established the seemingly one-sided result.
If Johnson hadn’t been so sharp with the momentum shifting, however, the Fire wouldn’t have the luxury of a semifinal match at home against D.C. United on Aug. 7.
"Credit to Orlando. They’re a quality team," said Johnson. "They put the pressure on us from the opening whistle. They were able to create chances and we were able to sustain the attack, go forward and score our goals. It was a good game all around. They’re a quality opponent. You can’t overlook them because they are in a lower league. They gave us a game."
True, but everything’s falling into place for the Fire to win the Cup for the fifth time, but first since 2006. Next foe D.C. United has had a disastrous MLS campaign. United did beat the New England Revolution 3-1 on Wednesday to reach the semis but the Fire will have the important home field advantage in the semis – the ninth time in 16 years the club has reached that stage of the summer-long tournament. The Fire is 21-0-1 in Open Cup matches played in Illinois.
If win No. 22 comes on Aug. 7 the Fire will face either the Portland Timbers or Real Salt Lake, both MLS sides, in the final on a date and site to be determined. Portland defeated FC Dallas 3-2 and RSL blanked the minor league Carolina Railhawks 3-0 in Wednesday’s other quarterfinal matchups.
The Fire has been to the final six times and won four, and Johnson figures to be back for both the semifinals and final (assuming the Fire gets there).
Meanwhile, the Fire is operating on all cylinders, going 5-0-1 across all competitions in June and owning an eight-game unbeaten run. The crowd wasn’t big for Orlando City, but coach Frank Klopas and was players were appreciative of the support after getting through three games in eight nights.
"It’s been a long week for sure, but hats off to the players’ fantastic performance and to the fans who came out. Their support was great. It was a big game, knowing that now we can host the semifinal."