Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
EAST HARTFORD, Conn.– Conventional wisdom wouldn’t have given Sean Johnson the opportunity of a lifetime on Tuesday night. However, U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t one for doing things by the book.
Taking advantage of an unexpected start in place of Nick Rimando, Johnson had a man-of-the-match performance in goal for the United States Men’s National Team in their 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in the Gold Cup.
In particular, Johnson’s 82nd-minute save of a Carlos Johnson header that was pushed onto the crossbar ended up in the opposite goal less than 20 seconds later thanks to a brilliant pass from Landon Donovan and a calm finish by Brek Shea.
“The ball was played back post, and (Carlos Johnson) did a good job to rise,” Johnson said following the match. “He’s a good player in the air, so I wanted to make sure that I got my feet across, got set, and I was able to come away with the save at the end of it.”
As impressive as the save and subsequent clean sheet was, maybe more impressive was that Johnson was starting in the first place. Not only was it the first start in the Gold Cup for the 24-year-old Georgia native, but it was his first start in any kind of official FIFA tournament for the senior national team, officially cap-tying the dual-national (Johnson holds Jamaican citizenship through his parents) to the United States.
Though he doesn’t have the international experience that Rimando has, Klinsmann was confident in playing Johnson in arguably the biggest game of his life, and a game that the U.S. head coach continually called a bench-mark game in the run-up to kickoff. The performance given over the 90 minutes earned praise from all of Johnson’s teammates and the coaching staff.
“He deserved a shot tonight, this is a big game,” U.S. captain DaMarcus Beasley said. “This was not an easy team to play and Jurgen kind of threw him into the wolves and (Johnson) did very well. These are the games where you want your guys to step up and this is the time to shine, and I’m so proud of Sean because he definitely deserved it and he definitely did very well tonight.”
While Johnson may be green in the international experience department, he’s earned his spot on the national team by continuing to be a standout as the Chicago Fire’s starting goalkeeper for each of the last three seasons. Playing and starting in a total of 86 matches in Major League Soccer was likely the reason that Johnson said he wasn’t too nervous ahead of the game.
“The coaches wanted to make sure I was prepared to go into the game,” said Johnson, after finding out he would start the day before. “Once the whistle blows I think everything (with nervousness) is out of the window. You just play your game, try to do the best you can, and keep your team in it.”
Added U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden: “I told him before the game ‘be confident and believe in your ability.’ I really felt like he commanded his box well, he started the attack for us, and it was great for him to get a clean sheet in his appearance tonight.”
It is still far from a safe bet that Johnson will make it to next year’s World Cup in Brazil, but his performance against Costa Rica re-iterated the strength in depth that the USMNT has in it’s goalkeepers, easily the deepest position on the team.
And while Johnson continues to train with the USMNT squad ahead of their next match in Baltimore, his teammates and those around him know he has a bright future, with plenty of more international matches ahead of him.
“It’s always an honor to put that jersey on and represent your country,” Johnson said. “It’s something that you’ll never get tired of so it’s a special moment for me.”