Why NYCFC 'keeper Sean Johnson’s career finally arced toward upper echelon

Sean Johnson - New York City FC - NYCFC - Pounces on a save

Even though New York City FC weren’t at their best last Saturday, Patrick Vieira’s squad still managed to grind out an important three points in San Jose, largely thanks to the brilliant play from their goalkeeper, Sean Johnson. It’s been a continuing pattern since Johnson joined New York City in December 2016.

While Johnson was in Chicago, we saw glimpses of what he could become (one game vs. San Jose in 2012 stands out) but he never fully lived up to lofty expectations. It wasn’t until Johnson arrived in NYC that we started to see more and more of the performances he seemed capable of delivering.

Johnson’s form and performances haven’t come by chance; they all have to do with some significant changes that have happened in his game and career.

There's a consistent lineup in front of him

Johnson has had long runs of games his whole career but now, for the first time, he has a consistent group in front of him.

When you have new players in your lineup every other week, as Johnson often seemed to in Chicago, it is difficult to create familiar relationships and build continuity on key elements, such as the right time to drop, step, pressure or push outside. That kind of uncertainty extends back to the goalkeeper. Clearly, a bad backline allows more opportunities for the opponent to score. But lack of familiarity can also impact a goalkeeper’s shot stopping.

Take the diving save in the 63rd minute against San Jose, for example. As the shot comes from Vako, Johnson has his near post covered by his defender, Maxime Chanot, signaling to Johnson the shot will likely go to his far post (left side). Chanot’s positioning allows Johnson to get set, see the ball, and push off to make the save. The defender’s positioning makes it easier for Johnson, and it’s only possible to trust your defenders so much when you have repetitions with them — as Chanot and Johnson have had over the past two seasons.

“I think honestly it’s more of a collective thing,” Johnson said of his performance with NYC. “We have guys on the team who push each other every day. The level of training is high, the staff gives us a good tactical understanding, a good approach, and the rest is just down to us going out there and performing on match day. I figure I contribute the success to everyone around me and obviously I work hard personally but that’s just what the job entails. It’s a collective effort here in NYC.”

His concentration and decision making have improved

While in Chicago, we could see Johnson make a highlight-reel save only to let in a soft goal on the following play. This is what separates good from great goalkeepers. A goalkeeper coach once told me, “It’s not the highlight saves that are the most important; it’s saving everything you’re expected to save that make your career.” Throw in a few difficult saves on top of that, and that's how you become the best.

In New York, this has changed and Johnson has eliminated those lapses of concentration that lead to soft goals. And it’s not by coincidence; it comes as a side effect of NYCFC’s playing style. Due to the team's reliance of playing out of the back, Johnson finds himself with the ball at his feet more often and is vital to NYCFC’s buildup. As an example, in NYCFC’s 2-2 draw with New England in Week 4, Johnson had a record-setting day passing the ball.

Having to play out from the back likely keeps Johnson more focused for all 90-plus minutes because he needs to think about both the offensive and defensive parts of the game. One of the most difficult things for a goalkeeper to do is to stay mentally sharp when you aren't physically involved in the game — which hasn't been a problem for Johnson.

Before Johnson’s arrival in NYC not many viewed his ability to play out of the back as one of his strong suits, so why did NYCFC pursue him so aggressively before 2017? Vieira offered some insight:

“I think people questioned [the trade] a bit too early. You have to put him into the situation to see if he could do it or not. He’s doing it really well for us and I’m not surprised at all, because we work a lot, but you know when a 'keeper always has options to play the ball it becomes easy for them.”

Saying players can’t do something just because we haven’t seen them do it before is a common mistake. Johnson is a great example of this. He’s apparently had the tools to play out of the back with his feet, he just hasn’t been part of a system before that allowed him to showcase this ability.

With NYCFC, Vieira and the rest of his coaching staff have made sure to put each offensive player into positions that are easy to pass to for Johnson. Every time he receives the ball at his feet, he already knows he will have three or four players making their way into desirable passing lanes for him to target. This allows him to be calmer and more confident on the ball which has lead to a significantly higher pass completion rate than he had in Chicago (68.8 percent in 2016 vs. 53.3 percent in 2016). 

Johnson is a great example that context matters.

His goalkeeping base is more sound

Johnson has also improved the basic fundamentals of the position. Incredible saves can happen thanks to talent but consistently solid performances come from fundamentals. His positioning, footwork, and set position have improved dramatically. This comes from a combination of experience and also hard work in training.

Without a sound base in these areas, mistakes and goals will happen because they create holes in your game in every other area — shot stopping, cross management, and 1-v-1s. Johnson has always been very athletic and made the big saves but now he’s saving the routine ones at a much higher percentage as well. The save he makes in the 56th minute against Magnus Eriksson’s free kick is a prime example of this. His positioning is sound and he is actively seeking out the ball and the shooter. He trusts his training and doesn’t jump behind the wall anticipating a shot over the wall, which we sometimes see goalkeepers do.

These type of situations are what NYCFC’s goalkeeper coach, Rob Vartughian, has tried to recreate in their training.

“Rob has been extremely important,” he said. “Coming into the situation here, I think it was good to get back into a good training rhythm and he’s done that. We work really well together. Just being really honest with each other and doing as much as we can to prepare for opponents and to better ourselves as a collective. He’s meant the world and it’s definitely a great relationship.”

The more familiar situations you can create in training, the more comfortable you get in the matches at handling them successfully. The base has given him a better chance to eliminate the errors and put in more consistent performances every week that his team can rely on.

“When you go through a difficult period you always expect the keepers to make some important saves and Sean did it [against San Jose],” Vieira said. “You know it’s good to have a goalkeeper who’s really strong and makes some important saves in a really important part of the game.”

The more games that Johnson and his back line play together, the more confident and better his performances will continue to get. That’s a great sign for NYCFC — and a scary thought for the rest of MLS.

MATTHEW PYZDROWSKI is a current professional player, in his 9th season, currently as the No. 1 goalkeeper with Varbergs BoIS in the Swedish Superettan. He has previously spent time with the Portland Timbers, Angelholms FF, and Helsingborgs IF. Prior to turning professional he starred on the men's soccer team for the Marquette Golden Eagles. A current columnist for HOWLER Magazine.