Sean Johnson celebrates NYCFC’s MLS Cup championship. (Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
PORTLAND – We already had a pretty good inkling that Sean Johnson was a pretty damn good goalkeeper.
After all, you don’t last 12 seasons and backstop some 320-plus matches unless you are one.
The 32-year-old netminder reminded us how good he was, especially during the shootout at the MLS Cup final on Saturday, during which Johnson earned MVP honors. He made saves on the Portland Timbers’ first two penalty kick attempts, which anchored City’s 4-2 PK win over the hosts (after playing to a 1-1 draw over 120 minutes) and the team’s first league title.
“It feels unbelievable to be able to call ourselves champions,” Johnson said. “What a ride so far, this journey was crazy this year, so many ups, so many downs and we talked amongst ourselves before the game and said it’s a massive opportunity to make it all worth it. This is what we live for, these moments. To be the MVP, it means the whole world, but it means so much more to lift a cup for this club.”
Johnson’s presence and ability to stop penalties helped NYCFC prevail in the tie-breaker at Providence Park. Remember, he denied Adam Buksa in the shootout, a 5-3 win over the New England Revolution, the Supporters Shield winners, in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Nov. 30.
“Our whole team just feels so confident going into shootouts,” midfielder James Sands said. “We have been in that and he’s always going to make the play, he’s always going to a big save. In big moments he’s just clutch. We felt confident going into the penalties. Sean’s a big reason why we made it this far in the season.”
After NYCFC took a 1-0 lead on Taty Castellanos’ conversion in the first round, Johnson performed heroics No. 1, when he dove to his right to deny Felipe Mora on Portland’s first attempt and then swatted away Diego Valeri’s try with his right hand in the second round.
“I was doing my best to make a save for my team,” Johnson said. “I was happy to make two. The guys stepped up in a big way. It feels good to be champion.”
A dozen years into his professional career, Johnson has endured plenty of highs and lows.
During qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in the Concacaf tournament, he hit close to rock bottom in a 3-3 draw with El Salvador in the opening round. Johnson, who replaced the injured Bill Hamid in the 39th minute, allowed the equalizer by Jaime Alas four minutes into second-half stoppage time. The USA needed a win to advance; a tie would not do.
Alas took a 25-yard shot that was not particularly hard past Johnson.
“I noticed on the first shot that the keeper was a little bit nervous,” El Salvador coach Mauricio Alfaro said at the time. “So in the second half I told my players to shoot a little bit more on goal, try to have more shots on him. Even though they scored a goal in the last minute of the game, I felt the goal was a mistake from the goalkeeper, letting the bounce go because the shot really didn’t have that much power.”
Added U.S. Under-23 head coach Caleb Porter: “He feels like he’s let everyone down, his teammates down. I didn’t [think he did]. The kid’s got a great future.”
As it turned out, he did, although it took Johnson 12 years to reach its apogee.
Only seconds away from a regulation MLS Cup triumph, NYCFC and Johnson surrendered Portland’s equalizer deep into injury time. This time, Johnson was given more time to bounce back and he did so in spectacular fashion in the shootout.
What the rest of us might not have seen about the 6-3, 216-lb. Johnson was the leadership role he had assumed with NYCFC this past season. Head coach Ronny Deila saw that on a daily basis, whether it was in training, in the locker room or on the pitch.
“He’s the big, big winner. He wins us this game in the end,” Deila said. “The way he speaks to the team, the way he goes in front every day in training and brings people together and also when the big moments are coming, how he stands out time after time, he’s a winner, a real winner and a leader. He’s a captain the whole club should be really proud of.”
Not unlike his penalty saves, Johnson also had the last word at least in his postgame press conference, realizing that NYCFC owns New York City and the metropolitan area when it comes to professional soccer, especially when the Red Bulls are involved.
“You can really truly say that New York is blue,” Johnson said. “New York is blue.”
You can also say that Sean Johnson is a pretty damn good goalkeeper who can rise to the occasion by diving close to the ground to make some pretty damn good saves – for the MLS Cup champions.