Sean Johnson, as he explored free agency, sat down at Sotto Sotto, an upscale Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto that’s about a four-mile drive from BMO Field.
He was with his girlfriend Marissa and several members of Toronto FC’s brass, hearing their pitch about why the US international goalkeeper should choose the Reds as his next home. Then, as club president Bill Manning recalled, a “special guest” stopped by their table to say hello.
It was none other than Drake, the world-famous rapper who’s from Toronto.
“Pretty cool to meet him,” Johnson said at an introductory press conference Wednesday. “I think it was my second time meeting him, but terrific guy, terrific ambassador of the city. You kind of see from afar in terms of when Toronto's mentioned, his name quite often comes up.”
Drake’s input didn’t quite seal the deal, nor did the Toronto Raptors (NBA) game Johnson attended, but it certainly didn’t hurt. That’s because late last week, TFC announced they landed the 33-year-old on a Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) deal through the 2024 MLS season, ending his six-year stint at New York City FC.
Johnson was, in a word, deliberate when approaching this entire process. He communicated to Toronto and other interested parties he wouldn’t make a decision until after the 2022 FIFA World Cup, where he backed up former New England Revolution star Matt Turner. And throughout, Johnson wanted to complete his homework on what the next chapter could entail – off the field, as much as on it.
Johnson said “there was no question” TFC would be his landing spot. It just took time.
“For me, being patient in my career has given me the ability to make the right decisions,” Johnson explained. “Ultimately, I have full confidence that this is the perfect place for me. Hats off to Bob [Bradley] and Bill, they respected that time I wanted to take to make sure it was right for myself, my family.
“Ultimately there was no hesitation after getting here from myself, my girlfriend and talking to my parents as well,” he continued. “I've been a very family-oriented person as well, so it had to be the right situation for everybody.”
The move reunites Johnson with Bradley, who handed him his first USMNT cap as manager for a January 2011 friendly vs. Chile. Back then, Bradley said he noticed a high-potential goalkeeper who was playing for Chicago Fire FC – an early step on the road to over 350 MLS regular-season games and annually being in Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year conversations.
Plus, as Bradley’s reconstructed Toronto’s roster over the past several windows, he’s repeatedly stressed the desire to acquire players with the right professionalism and standards. Johnson, by all accounts, checks those boxes and then some.
“It's been great to watch over the years, his development as a goalkeeper but also his leadership, his presence in teams,” the head coach and sporting director said. “Everyone that you speak to that has been around him talks about how he brings the level up around him.
“I think we've discussed often in this offseason, the need to just continue to get more guys that set the right tone, are winners, come in every day with the right mentality and the right way about them. That is exactly what Sean's about every day.”
Sentiments and comfort levels aside, Johnson made one thing clear at Wednesday’s introductory press conference: He chose Toronto to win, something he accomplished plenty of with NYCFC as an MLS Cup 2021 champion and MLS Cup MVP award recipient. Becoming teammates with “world-class players” like Italian forwards Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi is a nice bonus, too.
Toronto are confident their offseason moves have them on track to regain winning ways, having won MLS Cup 2017 but missing the postseason in two straight years. Landing veterans like Johnson and center back Matt Hedges – “two of the top free agents on the market,” as Manning said – are crucial steps. Both players hold the all-time appearance record at their past MLS clubs, Johnson with NYCFC and Hedges with FC Dallas.
“Joining the group, I think it's a terrific opportunity to be a part of something special,” he stated.