Amid all the analysis and debate of the US men’s national team’s goalkeeping situation – all the fretting over Matt Turner’s impending move to Arsenal, Zack Steffen’s errors at Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals, Ethan Horvath’s ups and downs with Nottingham Forest, and the very real possibility of the program’s top three ‘keepers riding the bench in the English Premier League as the months count down towards the 2022 World Cup – one noteworthy name has rarely been uttered:
Despite being the oldest and most experienced member of the USMNT’s GK corps, despite backstopping New York City FC’s 2021 MLS Cup title run, despite playing for a club with a similar game model to Gregg Berhalter’s, despite getting regular call-ups during their Concacaf Octagonal qualifying campaign, it appears the Georgia native just hasn’t been treated as a serious contender for the starting job by fans, pundits or the coaching staff.
That may have changed on Sunday afternoon in Kansas City.
Handed his first USMNT start in more than two years, “SeanJohn” was the man of the match in the Yanks’ 0-0 friendly draw with an impressive Uruguay side at Children’s Mercy Park, making three saves – the best a jaw-dropping denial of Mathias Olivera at point-blank range – and completing 85% of his passes.
“It’s great to get the opportunity and to take advantage of it. A clean sheet’s always nice,” Johnson told MLSsoccer.com after the match. “But ultimately, against a good opponent that's going to be competing in a World Cup in Uruguay, I couldn't ask for a better opportunity to step out and perform.”
With Turner minding the nets vs. Morocco on Wednesday and Steffen not in the current squad due to family issues, the NYCFC mainstay nosed ahead of Horvath, who arrived in camp late due to Forest's promotion playoff triumph last Sunday, to earn the nod vs. La Celeste. He can feel secure in the knowledge that he seized the chance.
“I’ve been waiting some time for this opportunity,” said Johnson. “But I did the best job I could to prepare every single week at my club and then coming in, the transition was easy. The guys in front of me made the job a lot easier today, so I was happy to contribute to the performance and yeah, we’ll always take a clean sheet.”
While both teams can claim to be disappointed not to win, Uruguay’s attack posed real problems for their hosts, especially in the early going, when the USMNT backline found itself under waves of pressure.
“Sean Johnson in goal, who has been really asking for a difficult opportunity or a challenging game, and he got his game and he responded,” said Berhalter. “I thought he played an excellent game.”
The South Americans probed the US left in particular, testing inexperienced left back Joe Scally and sending several dangerous deliveries into Johnson’s penalty box.
“Yeah, it's a quality opponent. I think they were dynamic in the way they possessed the ball and built up, so we had to adjust on the fly and really look at how we were getting pressure on the ball, also how we were shifting as a team,” explained Johnson.
“We had a few chances, a few good chances, half-chances. So that's how games are against quality opponents; there's not much in them. There's quality on both sides of the pitch. So obviously just doing anything I could to help my team on the day, being there when I was called upon.”
His resourceful shin save on Olivera, one of two Uruguayans left startlingly wide open deep inside the US six-yard box by Walker Zimmerman and Erik Palmer-Brown on a 63rd-minute cross to the far post, will probably linger longest in everyone’s memory.
“I think it was a long action, quality play by them to switch the field a couple of times and to offset us a little bit with a cutback and get the ball behind the backline,” said Johnson of the sequence. “Just getting ahead of it, positioning myself to make a save was what was necessary in that moment. Those are the moments that you train for and prepare for.”
He said his teammates and the coaching staff were otherwise largely satisfied with their work in KC, with this match and Wednesday’s providing an eye-opening glimpse of the caliber of opposition that awaits them in Qatar this fall after two years of a Concacaf-dominant schedule.
“Ultimately, we've got a really good taste of what the level is going to be moving forward, playing Morocco and now Uruguay,” said Johnson. “To manage, on a day where maybe things offensively didn’t work out for us, to keep it together with with a clean sheet defensively, I think we can look to build on these two games moving forward into Nations League.”
Asked during a Tuesday media round table why he hasn’t been a more central part of the USMNT goalkeeping discourse in 2022, Johnson let slip a brief flicker of a smile before responding, “I think it's up to you guys. You guys are the ones that do all the talking, put up all the articles and all that stuff.”
The 13-year veteran is the quiet sort, loathe to do any sort of self-promotion, preferring to fly below the radar in the collective-oriented culture of Berhalter’s national team. He was happy to stick to the same outlook on Sunday, after his 90-plus minutes on the pitch rang out quite loudly on their own.
“That’s not my job to talk about those things,” said Johnson. “Getting opportunities, taking advantage of them and playing consistently and keeping my level where it is with club and country, I think is important. That speaks volumes.”