CARSON, Calif. – For most American players, the journey to the MLS Combine is pretty linear.
It goes something like this: Grow up playing for an elite club team close to your hometown, rack up the recruiting letters, star for your college and, after four years in school, book an invite to strut your stuff in front of coaches, scouts and execs from all of the MLS teams.
Daniel Johnson’s path the 2017 showcase wasn’t anywhere near as straightforward.
The consensus top player on Day 1 of the Combine, Johnson left his family and friends behind in 2009, when, at the age of 13, he moved from his parent’s home in Atlanta to London to join the academy of English Premier League club West Ham United. Barely a teenager, he lived at his boarding school, the Brentwood Academy, progressing with West Ham until, after three years with the club, he landed a contract offer in February 2012 to join their U-18s.
Johnson, who was then 16, was eager to accept the offer, which would’ve seen him spend two years with the U-18s before moving on to a full professional deal. There was a wrinkle, however. Because he’d moved to England without his parents for the sole purpose of joining West Ham’s academy, Johnson and the club were violating FIFA’s child protection laws. The English FA approved his contract, but FIFA nixed it. When a final appeal in the Court of Arbitration for Sport was denied, Johnson was forced to return to the US.
“I would’ve spent two years with the Under-18 team with opportunities within that to move to the reserves, to move up and the understanding with that was that I’d be moving forward with the reserves and the professional team after two years,” Johnson said on Sunday. “So getting denied, it really was a dagger.”
Not being able to continue with West Ham was devastating, but it didn’t end Johnson’s dream. He returned to Georgia in March 2012, joining a local club team and finishing out his sophomore year of high school. He immediately drew interest from Division I schools, and quickly committed to the University of Maryland, where his father and grandfather both played baseball.
After he committed, Johnson and Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski discovered that he had the credits to skip his junior year of high school. He entered the 2012-13 school year as a senior, graduating and heading to College Park to join the Terps ahead of the fall 2013 college season.
Johnson had high hopes for his time at Maryland, where – given his family ties to the school – he said he “inherently” expected to attend. Unfortunately for him, the fit wasn’t right. After only playing sparingly in his first two years at the school and feeling that his pro dream was on the rocks, he chose to transfer to Louisville.
“I wish I’d done more research on the college game,” he said. “There was never a bad relationship between Sasho and I, but I didn’t feel like it was the right fit for me, both the school and soccer stylistically. So that ended up being a really rough time for me, coming from a high in just being offered a contract a professional contract and being at Maryland and losing a fair amount of confidence.
“After my sophomore fall I said to my parents, ‘This is my dream, this is what I want to do and if I’m going to achieve that it just isn’t here, it’s not the right fit.’”
He revived his career at Louisville under head coach Ken Lolla, recording seven goals and five assists and earning a second-team All-ACC nod in 2015 and a third-team selection in 2016 to nab an invite to the Combine.
He was a fringe first-rounder entering the week, but his phenomenal performance on Sunday moved him up draft boards around the league. The slight winger – Johnson is listed at 5-foot-9, 140 pounds – drew a penalty, dished out two assists and was generally the best player on the field in his 45 minutes of action in Team Control’s 3-1 win over Team Chaos. Several scouts from teams toward the bottom of the first-round who had been eying Johnson prior to Sunday even lamented his strong performance, now worried he’ll no longer be available by the time their picks roll around on Friday.
He certainly wasn’t worried about that after Sunday’s contest.
“It’s sort of full circle and it’s extremely gratifying because I never stopped working,” he said. “I wanted a chance… I just wanted to give myself the best opportunity to be here at the end of my senior year and to be here and take it all in and just have that experience was incredible. So the first game [Sunday], it was really, I wasn’t nervous as much as I was excited to be here and just felt blessed to have the opportunity. It was awesome.”