Sean Johnson: The Survivor

Sean Johnson: The Survivor
March 18, 2013, 3:45 pm
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Len Ziehm

Sean Johnson may be the most athletic goalkeeper in Major League Soccer.  He also may be the ‘keeper of the future for the U.S. National Team.

At this early stage in his budding career, however, Johnson -- just 23 -- is at least a survivor. And that’s saying a lot, considering his soccer history so far.

In high school he was on one of Georgia’s best prep teams, one loaded with goalkeeping talent.  He had to split time with others, a situation that led to him suffering a serious injury at critical time in his senior season.

In college he played for a school that had trouble winning.  Still, in two years at Central Florida, Johnson was able to get the attention of U.S. national team coaches.

As a professional he was only a fourth-round draft choice, and became the Fire’s backup in his rookie season thanks to perhaps the strangest personnel decision in the club’s 16-year history.

Johnson remained in the U.S. National Team youth program after working his way up to a starting job with the Fire, but he gave up a bad goal in a big game with the U.S. Under-23 -- one that could have reversed the direction of a promising career. To Johnson’s credit, it didn’t do him in.

The bad goal came in qualifying for the Olympic Games prior to last year's MLS season.  After coming on as a substitute when the starting goalkeeper was injured, Johnson bobbled a shot in second half stoppage time that resulted in an El Salvador goal in a match that ended in a 3-3 draw. A win would have advanced the U.S. to the Olympics proper; the draw meant the U.S. hopes of qualifying for the Olympic finals were over.

Fire coach Frank Klopas gave Johnson some time to regroup after that traumatic moment, starting Paolo Tornaghi in goal in the first three matches of last season. Once Johnson was deemed ready, however, he never gave up the starting job with the Fire and U.S. men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann disregarded the Olympic qualifying blunder in determining his subsequent rosters.

It may not have been easy, but Aron Hyde, the Fire goalkeeper coach, said Johnson was able to put the one bad play in Olympic qualifying behind him.

"We never talked about it. What’s the point?’" said Hyde.  "It was a bad mistake in a big game, but there was no sense in bringing it up.  He learned from it.  He’s an honest kid.  At the end of the day, as long as you learn from something like that, you’re better for it."

Johnson had emerged the No. 3 goalkeeper on the U.S. team after Olympic qualifying, and now he may be No. 2.  On Monday he was named to Klinsmann’s 23-man roster for the next two games of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying -- a home match against Costa Rica at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in suburban Denver on Friday and a road match at Mexico on March 26.

In between the qualifiers the Fire has a Sunday home MLS match against Chivas USA. Johnson will miss the Chivas USA match and could see action in the qualifiers because usual U.S. starter Tim Howard is sidelined.  He broke two bones in his back while playing for English Premier League member Everton in an FA Cup match last month.

Klinsmann is expected to start another EPL player, Brad Guzan, in goal in the upcoming qualifiers with Johnson and Nick Rimando, of MLS side Real Salt Lake, the other ‘keepers on the roster.  Guzan, a product of the Chicago youth ranks, plays for English club Aston Villa.

As far as national team play goes, Johnson could have gone a different route.  His parents are from Jamaica, so he was eligible to play for that country’s teams as well as those in the U.S.  Though he was born in Atlanta and raised in Liburn, Ga., Johnson spent some time with Jamaica’s youth teams while attending Brookwood High School in Snellville, Ga.

The son of Everet and Joy Johnson, Sean got started in soccer after watching his father play in some local leagues.  His father signed him up for a recreational league in nearby Stone Mountain, the town where former Fire striker Josh Wolff grew up. Johnson also played for the Atlanta Fire United club team during his youth years.

When Johnson was a freshman at Brookwood his school won a Georgia state championship. Danny Klinect became Brookwood’s head coach when Johnson was a junior, and he had an immediate dilemma.

"We were really, really competitive, and we had two-three dynamic ‘keepers.  I had trouble finding them all playing time," said Klinect.  "Sean would play the first half in goal and the second on the field.  He was no offensive slouch, either. As a striker he was one of our top scorers."

As a junior Johnson had five goals and eight assists as a part-time field player.  That dual role was the plan for his senior season as well, until Johnson went down with a broken fibula.

"He had played goal in the first half and was on the field when he made a cut. No one touched him," recalled Klinect.  "It was my lowest time as a coach, because -- though he was only 17 -- I knew his potential.  I really felt bad."

Back-tracking for a moment, Johnson wasn’t just a soccer player.  He was also a leading scorer and rebounder on the Brookwood basketball team as a power forward.  That wasn’t surprising, either, given that his brother Jarrett played professional basketball in Greece.

The untimely injury fortunately didn’t slow Johnson’s soccer progress much. He had already committed to the University of Central Florida, and he had no trouble winning the starting goalkeeper job under coach Bryan Morrison. Unlike Brookwood, Central Florida was no soccer powerhouse.  Johnson was strictly in goal in his two seasons there, during which UCF went 4-12-2 in his freshman campaign in 2007 and 7-11-1 in his sophomore year in 2008.

That was enough college soccer for Johnson, who was already entrenched in the U.S. Under-20 program.

"I left in pursuit of a professional career," he said.  Having already signed a contract, Johnson was assured of playing for an MLS team when the league conducted its SuperDraft in 2010. But he didn’t get picked by the Fire until the fourth round, 51stover-all.

"It was later than I expected, but not a big deal," said Johnson.  "I knew I had to work hard."

He certainly did, considering the Fire had Jon Bush -- one of the league’s best netminders -- back and fellow rookie Andrew Dykstra was a strong challenger for what appeared to be the backup role.  Then, just days before the season started, the Fire cut Bush -- a shocking move at the time -- and Dykstra was declared the starter by then-coach Carlos de los Cobos.

"I wasn’t thinking anything then," said Johnson.  "The coach had to make a decision.  It’s the nature of the game, and I had to get on with it.  It was an opportunity."

Dykstra was hardly the only reason the Fire struggled the first half of the 2010 season, but by Aug. 1 de los Cobos wanted to make a change.  Johnson got his first MLS start in a road match against the Los Angeles Galaxy, and the Fire scored three quick goals before hanging on for a 3-2 victory.  He’s been the Fire starter pretty much ever since and his national team role has blossomed as well.

He earned his first full cap for the U.S. when he played the second half of a 1-1 draw vs. Chile in a January 22, 2011, friendly in Carson, Calif.  He went the full 90 minutes internationally for the first time in his third U.S. appearance, a 0-0 draw against Canada last Jan. 29.  More appearances in the U.S. jersey could be forthcoming depending how Klinsmann grooms his team for next year’s World Cup finals.

Meanwhile, the Fire has encouraged Johnson’s development by getting him two offseason training opportunities with English Premier League club Everton.  In both stints Johnson was able to train directly with Howard.

"The Premier League is the best league in the world, and the best players go there," said the England-born Hyde, who had playing experience there with Walsall, Millwall and Wycombe Wanders.  "It’s been good for Sean to be around him."

As for the start of this Fire season, Johnson hasn’t gotten any offensive support yet.  The Fire is the only MLS team that hasn’t scored a goal through three matches, the primary season the club is 0-2-1 going into the match with Chivas USA.  Johnson has made some spectacular saves and last Saturday’s 0-0 tie at Sporting Kansas City marked his 16th career shutout as an MLS netminder.

"We haven’t won a game yet," said Hyde, "but individually his performance has been good.  He works hard.  He’s moving in the right direction."