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Stejskal: Sean Johnson reflects on journey from Chicago to Atlanta to NYC

ORANGEBURG, N.Y. – The end of his time in Chicago didn’t put Sean Johnson in a completely dark place, but his December 2016 departure from the Fire wasn’t exactly a clean break, either. 

Now in his second season with New York City FC, the goalkeeper gave the first seven years of his career to Chicago, often serving as one of the few bright spots on a series of bad Fire teams.

By the end of 2016, however, things had turned sour. First-year coach Veljko Paunovic surprisingly benched Johnson for the first nine matches of the season, only restoring him to the starting XI after Chicago had gotten off to a 1-4-4 start. He played all but three of the club’s matches the rest of the way, but by the time he met with general manager Nelson Rodriguez after the Fire wrapped a miserable last-place campaign, the writing was on the wall: Johnson was likely on his way out. 

“Frustration was high, I would say that,” Johnson told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday after training.

That frustration turned into a new opportunity on the day the MLS trade window opened in December, 2016. The Fire immediately shipped Johnson to his hometown of Atlanta for what a source told MLSsoccer.com last year was $100,000 total in General and Targeted Allocation Money. Johnson was excited to move back home to Georgia, but the Five Stripes had other plans in net.

Sean Johnson | USA Today Sports Images

Atlanta were in the process of acquiring Brad Guzan from then-English Premier League club Middlesbrough, leaving Johnson surplus to requirements. Hours after they acquired him from Chicago, Atlanta flipped Johnson to NYCFC in exchange for a total of $150,000 in GAM and TAM. 

“It was tough, it was tough,” Johnson said of his whirlwind move from Chicago-to-Atlanta-to-New York. “I didn’t say anything [about the Atlanta deal] to my mom, my dad, family, friends, whoever, I just kept it completely to myself until I thought things were done. But I would say the hardest thing in the entire thing was just your family kind of expecting you to be closer and then, once you shift, you just kind of have to get into another mindset to move again and get ready for another preseason with a new team.”

The circumstances around his arrival were tumultuous, but New York has been nothing but good for Johnson. He performed well in his first season with NYCFC, setting or tying career bests in goals-against average and shutouts and finishing the season with a 70.1 save percentage, the second-best mark of his career and good enough for fourth in the league.

He did it all while learning a new system that demanded much more of him with the ball at his feet. Johnson led all MLS goalkeepers with 1,112 passes attempted last year, nearly twice the amount he had in his last full season as a starter in Chicago. 

He’s continued his solid trajectory this year. Among goalkeepers with at least 20 starts, Johnson is fourth in the league with a 72.48 save percentage, tied for second with nine shutouts and sixth in MLS with a 1.25 goals-against average. He already set a new career high in clean sheets and is in contention for personal bests in save percentage, goals-against average and saves. 

“I think for me he was already one of the best goalkeepers in the league when he got here, you have to be honest with that,” NYCFC center back Maxime Chanot told MLSoccer.com. “I’m surprised he hasn’t been called up to the [U.S.] national team, especially this season with what he’s done…. He’s got the quality as a goalkeeper, he’s got the presence on the pitch, he’s talking a lot and as a center back it’s really important to play with a ‘keeper like him.

“I wish him the best for the future because I really think he can keep going to reach something with the national team. I think that would be a good objective for him and as I said, for me, he’s one of the best of the league. I’m very happy to play with him.”

And Johnson is very happy to be with NYCFC. Switching clubs and changing styles after spending so long with the Fire was an adjustment, but as is so often the case with breakups, Johnson came out of Chicago stronger.

“Coming here, it’s been a challenge. It’s been a challenge for me ever since I came in with the style of play completely different than what I played earlier in my career,” Johnson said. “And so a big part of that is a learning curve and it took me probably half a year to really settle into the way we want to play, but for me it’s been good. It’s a good fit, I feel right at home, but it’s also challenging.

“Every day you want to be pushed. I felt at the end of my time in Chicago, I just needed a change of scenery, so it was good how everything kind of happened in the course of that. Leaving Chicago was just a part of the journey and it ended up working in my best interests to come here to NYCFC.”

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