BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Kei Kamara’s frustrated response as time ran out last Friday said it all. The Sporting Kansas City striker lay on the ground, panting after being denied by Sean Johnson over and over again.
Kamara had just watched the Chicago Fire goalkeeper lay out to tip his shot from the corner of the penalty area just wide as stoppage time counted down. Johnson also denied Kamara on a point-blank shot in the 14th minute and on a header that looked bound for the corner of the goal, preserving the Fire’s three points in Kansas City.
“If he’s not on top of his game like that, I think it’s a different game,” Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said after the game.
WATCH: Johnson up for Save of the Week
With a dominating display like that, you almost forget how 2012 started so frustratingly for the 23-year-old. Johnson began the year with a call-up to the US Under-23 national team for Olympic qualifying, which kept him out of preseason and saw him give up a heartbreaking goal to El Salvador that ended the Americans’ chances of a spot in London this summer.
Johnson’s time with the Olympic team, though he played sparingly, put him behind the eight ball with his club, and his future as a star goalkeeper looked increasingly uncertain.
But last Friday’s performance showed the Atlanta native is back in form.
“It’s about playing,” said Fire head coach Frank Klopas. I thought he was put in a difficult situation. You need games, because it’s about timing, it’s about confidence. That’s why I felt that [the Kansas City game] … a big game like this on the road where he stepped up and made key saves, I feel from a mental standpoint, he’s back, everything in the past is behind him.”
After Johnson led the Fire to victory in Kansas City, where Sporting have lost just twice this season, Chicago now head to another tough environment on Tuesday, when they’ll try to become the first team to beat Houston at BBVA Compass Stadium (8:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
Johnson’s reaction saves have been crucial during the Fire’s three-game unbeaten streak, but Klopas thinks there’s something more to Johnson’s improvement.
“His ability to make saves like that has always been there, his athletic ability is incredible,” he said. “I thought other parts of his game are getting better: managing the game in situations, when to play quick and when not to, his presence in the box, coming out. But in the end of the game, he made some world-class saves.”
That propensity for making spectacular saves has been Johnson’s forte throughout his career. But his ability to improve and learn, he said, has improved through his ups and downs.
“I think I’m up there with the best in terms of having the mentality to recover,” Johnson said. “Having the same mentality no matter what the game presents is a huge aspect of goalkeeping I’ve been working on.”