It was all too familiar for Sean Johnson in his first four years with New York City FC. The club had massive expectations and were a force during the regular season, which made the early Audi MLS Cup Playoff exits so hard to accept.
It all changed for NYCFC in 2021, a roller-coaster regular season that ended with a first-ever MLS Cup title. And Johnson, who took on added responsibility this year as the club’s captain, was a central figure in the historic run.
That was never more apparent than his heroic effort in a penalty kick shootout Saturday, making consecutive saves on the first two attempts by the Portland Timbers – in front of the Timbers Army no less – to earn MLS Cup MVP presented by Audi honors.
“It feels unbelievable to be able to call ourselves champions,” Johnson said after the match. “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 of the [MLS Cup Final], it means the whole world, but it means so much more to lift a cup for this club.”
NYCFC manager Ronny Deila said the weight of the armband was heavy on Johnson early in the season, but the goalkeeper grew into the role and led, both in his words and actions, down the stretch of the club’s title run.
“For me, 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.”
“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."
Johnson’s teammates weren’t surprised by his exploits in MLS Cup 2021. After all, he also came up huge in a shootout ouster of Supporters’ Shield champions New England in the Eastern Conference Semifinals – the first of three consecutive playoff wins on the road.
“Our whole team just feels so confident going into shootouts,” 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.”
Johnson closed out his post-match press conference by declaring "New York is blue," a nod to their rivalry with New York Red Bulls. The Cityzens got this title during their seventh MLS season, while RBNY are waiting 26 years and counting.
It all prompts a simple summation, too.
"It feels good to be champion,” Johnson said.