Then Chicago Fire technical director Frank Klopas notified Jon Busch in March of 2010 that he and the Fire were done.
The 2008 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year had been waived, and second-year goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra would take his place. But Busch’s final words to his former boss weren’t laced with spite or anger.
“I told him, ‘Sean Johnson will be your No. 1 in the future, and he’ll be in the national team mix within a few years,’” Busch said. “He kind of just looked at me. And I said, ‘Mark my words.’”
As technical director, Klopas wasn’t around the team every day, and Busch didn’t think the current Fire coach realized that he had acquired a gem in the fourth round of the 2010 MLS SuperDraft.
24 Under 24: Sean Johnson at No. 4
The rookie left an impression on Busch in his first training camp as a professional player. It wasn’t just Johnson’s extraordinary shot-blocking ability and athleticism that stood out to the veteran.
“He was willing to learn, he was willing to listen, and he wants to get better, wants to learn the position,” the current San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper told MLSsoccer.com by phone. “You could see that the basics were there. … There was something there that could lead him along the way, not just to be the starter of the Chicago Fire, but into the national team mix.”
Two-and-a-half years later, Busch’s last words to Klopas seem prophetic.
Johnson unseated Dykstra as the Fire’s starter before the end of that 2010 season, and he made his national team debut about 10 months after Busch’s departure, on Jan. 22, 2011, against Chile.
The Fire goalkeeper’s career has been full of ups and downs. There was an infamous gaffe in March that played a role in keeping the United States out of the Olympics. On the other end of the spectrum, there was the 10-save performance in July against Busch’s Earthquakes.
Along the way, Busch has been there whenever Johnson has needed advice, watching as many Fire games as he can and counseling the 23-year-old by phone almost every week.
With Busch’s help, Johnson has learned the value of keeping a level head through the roller coaster that has been his young career.
“There’s a standard you hold yourself to, there’s a mentality you hold yourself to, you’ve got to maintain that same mindset game in, game out, no matter what happens,” Johnson said. “[Busch and I] talk about it all the time, we go through the motions about mental aspects of the game, physical aspects.”
Johnson’s strong run of play during the summer earned him a national team call-up for the USA's World Cup qualifier against Jamaica on Sept. 7 alongside Tim Howard and Brad Guzan.
“That’s a valuable experience,” Fire goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde said. “It’s all a positive for him, because it’s the next level.”
Hyde has regular conversations with United States and Everton goalkeeper coach Chris Woods, and both coaches agree that Johnson has room to improve on all facets of his game. Although Johnson is aware his shot-stopping athleticism is up there with the best of them, the mental aspect of the game is the next rung in the developmental ladder.
“Physically, I know I can do it,” Johnson said. “Athletically, I know I’m where I need to be at this point. Mentally, I need to make sure I’m focused over 90 minutes, and just being relaxed and learning to deal with most situations is the most important thing.”
Busch has little doubt that Johnson will get there even though Klopas didn't believe him a few years back.
“I think he thought I was full of you-know-what,” Busch said. “I think now he believes me.
“You could see it pretty quickly that he was going to be one of the special ones."
Anthony Zilis covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com